Role of a Lifetime

Sondra Gorney (photo by Frieda Klotz)

By Frieda Klotz

Sondra Gorney’s two agents frequently line her up for old-woman roles, and the glamorous 93-year-old arrives to find the room filled with “gray-haired, crinkly old ladies.”

“They look at me and say, ‘What are you doing here?’” Gorney says, fluttering her lashes. “’You’re too young.’ And I’m probably older than every woman there.”

Gorney is a participant in a study of aging performing artists, results of which were presented in New York last week. With the title, “Still Kicking,” it was conducted by Joan Jeffri, who directs the Research Center for Arts and Culture at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Martin Iguchi, chair of the department of community-health sciences at UCLA’s School of Public Health. They explored the lives of men and women between the ages of 62 and 94 living in New York and Los Angeles.

Befitting the study’s subjects, the findings were released at Lincoln Center to the strains of live jazz from the pianist Dan Nimmer (28) and the saxophonist Joe Temperly (who said he was 30, putting the lie to sources that would have him in his early 80s). Guests displayed elaborate hats and walking sticks, and one spry 74-year-old actress, Norma Fire, enacted the study’s title by hoofing her her foot above her head. Jeffri welcomed the audience, saying she was glad they could make it, and a woman piped up, “Still alive!”

The study, which complements a similar 2007 study of aging visual artists, found that 86 percent of older performing artists in New York say they are in good health, compared with 74 percent of over-65-year-olds in the general population. Eighty-nine percent said that if they could live their lives again, they would do exactly the same thing. But they face the same challenges of any older group—not just ageism in their careers, but the pitfalls of isolation as their social circle narrows.

The Academy Award-winning actress, Olympia Dukakis, 80, summed up the issues aging performers face. “I don’t think it’s a secret to anyone in this room that the business is aimed at young people, in their 20s, and especially men,” she said. The performing arts always require some hustle, and that gets tough as actors mature. “When you get older, you’ve done a certain amount of work and you want it to be acknowledged, and for work to come to you,” she continued. The risk is that people grow bitter, but Dukakis has other ideas. “I teach young people, and I say the same thing to them: ‘Don’t wait for the telephone, don’t sit around, take all your life with both your hands.’”

For Jeffri, an inbuilt resilience is what makes older artists a model for the rest of society. After the presentation, she spoke about the participants’ high self-esteem, and the expressive mode in which they live. “They very often have a creative outlet for the kinds of emotions we all experience as we get older—whether it has to do with challenges, or illness, or emotional difficulty or financial difficulty,” she said. “Artists are used to making lemonade.”

“The thing is to think about the artists as a metaphor for the rest of society,” Iguchi told me. “You think about how much they still have to give—this is true for so many people. In many ways it’s lost productivity, it’s lost opportunity. All of these individuals continue to be and want to be a productive part of society, and in this case you have the richness of their talents. All they want is to share it.”

Jeffri hopes that this project will have practical results: She wants a meeting place for actors and other performers in New York, and to give older artists opportunities to mentor younger people in their field.

Then again, some veteran players might not have the time for all that. Gorney’s calendar is full enough to faze any 25-year-old. Sporting a stylish red suit, pearl earrings, a pearl necklace, a gold bracelet, and nails painted red, she tells me about her career, which included touring the country as an actress in Roosevelt’s Federal Theater Project of the 1930s, meeting her husband in Hollywood in 1942 when she was associate editor of Pic magazine, and a long stint in the more lucrative field of PR after the birth of her daughter. She now attends regular acting classes, is a member of the League of Professional Theatre Women, and sits on the board of the New York Coalition of Professional Women in Arts & Media. On top of that, she is working on her second book, a memoir recognizing people who influenced her over the course of her life (her first book was a biography of her late husband, the composer Jay Gorney).

“I see this book as telling how, along the route, you are not alone in this world,” Gorney says. “There was a dancing teacher who I adored; I couldn’t afford to pay for the dancing lessons, and she let me play piano for the classes so that I could pay for my dancing lessons. She was a wonderful gal.

“I’ve had all these people in my life who have had so much impact on my whole thinking and my personality and my training,” Gorney said. “This book is sort of a tribute to everybody,” she says. “I hope it works out.”

Frieda Klotz is an Irish-born critic and journalist in New York City. She taught Greek literature and philosophy at King’s College London and is co-writing a book on the ancient philosopher Plutarch for Oxford University Press.

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