By Joan Larsen
Another world, another time… a time when we were young, eager to grab for the stars along the way, and then – then – an opportunity to go to London. LONDON! Well, London was like being given the world. Two weeks in London was to be a glimpse of heaven and we planned to see it all. Days were for touring. Evenings? London theatre, of course – theatre every evening.
As two childhood best friends in the big city of Chicago, we were often found standing in line to see plays coming in with the original Broadway casts. Who wasn’t “starstruck” in those years? We often went backstage after the play to glimpse the stars up close. If luck would have it, we would have a word with the most famous. Or better still, a quick photo with the likes of Yul Brynner, Elizabeth Taylor, so many more – preserved in my attic for posterity.
In London that year, we hit the jackpot. Ingrid Bergman, more than anyone else from the golden age of cinema, had the face, the inner glow that had brought her more acting Oscars than anyone. All of us still have to agree that she stood apart. And, in what turned out to be her last stage performance, she was starring in Waters of the Moon at the storied old Haymarket Theatre in the West End – a theatre so small, so intimate, that we felt as one with the actors. At long last, there was Ingrid Bergman captivating us in another gripping performance. Even then she had the cancer that was to end her life very soon. Applause rippled through the theater, seemingly forever, as she made many curtain calls.
There was no doubt that – late as it was – we were going to go backstage.
As we walked down the alley to the lighted sign that said “Stage Door”, we wondered that no patrons of the theatre had joined us. We entered and the stage manager seemed pleased. It seemed easy for me to say that we would like to meet Miss Bergman. We witnessed more delight on his part as he uttered the words I will never forget: “Ladies, come back to the dressing room. Miss Bergman would be glad to meet you”. She was going to be actually happy to meet us?
But Ingrid Bergman was gracious enough to pretend she was, offering us a place to sit down. Her daughter, probably in her 20s, was introduced: “I’d like you to meet my daughter, Isabella Rossellini”.!! It was now that the two of us were doing the best acting job of our lives, pretending such an occasion was not at all out of the ordinary.
Ingrid was open in her talk. The world knew about her cancer, but what they might not know was that acting is the best medicine in the world. When you are on stage, she said, the pain goes away because you are busy thinking about something that isn’t yourself. If a person doesn’t accept her fate, it will only destroy what little time she may have next.
There was more. Those were only some of the words I jotted down later.
Ingrid was noticeably tired. When we rose to go, my last memories were of the four of us – Ingrid Bergman, Isabella Rossellini, my friend and I walking down that dark alley, lit only by that stage door sign, toward the street. Parting at the curb, we echoed the familiar greetings of people going off in their own directions.
After that time, Ingrid Bergman was rarely seen, dying only a few years later.
An afterword: Only much later did we find out at that time in London, gathering at the stage door was not an English tradition as it was in America. We did not know… and thank goodness, we did not know. In reflection, our interlude with Ingrid Bergman had magically turned into one of our greatest memories – a single moment in time to be forever treasured. Thirty years later, Bergman’s legacy persists.
Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth. But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again. She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”