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LI's Tovah Feldshuh's memoir is a love letter to her mom

Tovah Feldshuh and her mom, Lily, at Lily's

Tovah Feldshuh and her mom, Lily, at Lily's 103rd birthday at the Metropolitan Club in 2014. Credit: Anita and Steve Shevett

Tovah Feldshuh never intended to write her memoir. When the veteran actress was approached by a literary agent, she knew she didn't just want to just travel down the well-trodden road of celebrity sagas of touting career triumphs and detailing past romances.

"Why would you read my celebrity autobiography if you have Matthew McConaughey’s celebrity autobiography right next to me at Barnes & Noble?," she said.

Then it hit her: The only way to truly capture her story was to center it around the often complicated relationship she had with her mother, Lily, who died at 103 in 2014. And since so much of Feldshuh's life has been on a stage, her agent suggested framing it like a theater piece breaking down her life into three acts with scenes instead of chapters.

As a bonus, readers get two leading ladies instead of one: Feldshuh and her blunt and frequently hilarious mom, who often steals the show in "Lilyville: Mother, Daughter, and Other Roles I've Played" (Hachette, $29).

Feldshuh, who divides her time between Manhattan and Quogue, is all set to join columnist Mark Chiusano for a Newsday Live! chat about the book on May 6 at 7:30 p.m. She recently spoke by phone about her mom, life on the East End and what's next.

HER MOST CHALLENGING ROLE

Feldshuh has portrayed everyone from Golda Meir on Broadway to a survivor of the zombie apocalypse on TV's "The Walking Dead," but playing Lily's daughter is by far her most complex role.

Growing up in white-bread Scarsdale during the 1950s and '60s, Feldshuh, who longed to express herself creatively, never quite felt like she belonged. As such, she was always seeking her mother's approval. She didn't get it, especially when Feldshuh told Lily she wanted to be an actress.

"I never forget asking if I could go to Juilliard," Feldshuh said. "I would have been with Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone. I never got to apply because my mother said "You’re not going to a trade school."

Even after Feldshuh achieved success on the stage, earning four Tony Award nominations, it was only after she married Andrew Harris Levy, a lawyer, that she finally got Lily's approval. "I think she figured at that point, I wasn't going to totally ruin my life by being an actress," Feldshuh said.

Their relationship really blossomed after the death of Felshuh's beloved father, Sidney, in 1996. In the latter part of the book, Act III, Feldshuh writes lovingly of Lily, sharing her philosophy for a happy life ("Chocolate and laughter on a daily basis") and recalling the vaudeville act her mother at her 103rd birthday party.

"She lived so long that we solved everything because I evolved, too," Feldshuh. "There's a quote from the Persians that says a branch, in order to bear fruit, must learn to bend. Well that was my journey with my mother We were two branches I think on two different trees."

MOUNTAINS TO CLIMB

Since her mother's death, Feldshuh has faced many challenges. In 2015, at 62, Feldshuh, accompanied by her son, Brandon, decided to hike Mount Kilimanjaro.

She's also looking forward to heading to California this month to begin work on the play "Becoming Dr. Ruth" about sex therapist Ruth Westheimer. After that, she has plans to play the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the play "Sisters in Law." And she's shopping around a proposed TV series based on "Lilyville."

That zest for life is especially important since battling coronavirus in March 2020. As soon as she could recover, she headed from the city to her home in Quogue, where she tended to her herb garden and haunted the local farmers markets and "got into the best shape of my life," she said.

Feldshuh also spent last summer polishing up "Lilyville" into something that might win her mother's approval. Well, some of it, anyway.

"I think part of her would be furious and said the book was unfair. That she was never like that and loved me and how could I not understand that. I think she’d be quite annoyed with me for the first part of the book," Feldshuh said, "and she would have loved Act III."

Newsday Live! chat with Tovah Feldshuh hosted by Mark Chiusano

WHEN 7:30 p.m. May 6

INFO Registration is free; for more information, go to newsdaylive.com

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