Polly Bergen, an incandescent talent of stage, screen and television, has died. Reports say she was 84 and had been living at her home in Southbury, Connecticut. Natural causes were cited.
While she began as a popular singer, became a studio contract player, worked alongside Martin and Lewis in a few films, and had considerable success on Broadway over a few decades -- including "Love Letters," "Cabaret," Sondheim's "Follies," "Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks" -- she discovered TV in the mid-Fifties (or TV discovered her) and the association continued for 50-plus years.
Fans of "Desperate Housewives" will certainly recall her multi-season run, as Stella Wingfield, Lynette's mom who, to put it delicately, was not dedicated to the idea of going quietly into dignified old age. (Check out her defiant rendition of "I'm Still Here," below.)
But as far as TV is concerned -- and there many TV movies throughout the 70s, which the obits indicate were ways to keep her bank account healthy while she pursued her many other activities, including a line of cosmetics -- she is best known for "Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance."
Both were hugely popular miniseries for ABC, and if not quite the stature of "Roots" in terms ratings or cultural impact, the series on Herman Wouk's sprawling novel on World War II were nonetheless among the biggest successes of the entire 80s. As Rhoda Henry, Bergen played the wife of Pug Henry (Robert Mitchum) the clan patriarch whom she eventually divorced even as the character's drinking problem got worse.
Bergen said she was ambivalent about the role. She spoke to Patricia Brennan of The Washington Post in 1988 about this TV role of a lifetime. Here's an outtake from Brennan's profile:
After an acting career that dated back to 1950, she had put her craft aside for several years to run her cosmetics business -- she sold it in 1976 -- and her fashion accessories firm, which she still heads. Then came the role of Capt. Pug Henry's wife, Rhoda, in "The Winds of War," ABC's 1983 miniseries based on Herman Wouk's novel, and its sequel, which she termed "a masterpiece. "I am astonished and dismayed by the ratings because I feel that what that did was ruin any chance of doing something really extraordinary in the future. Had that paid off, then the networks would have been forced to do it."
She was particularly concerned that young viewers had not watched, and hoped that they might look for cassettes of the miniseries due to be available this week. "Acting is foremost in my life now, but it has not been in the past 15 years," she acknowledged.
"I have primarily been running companies. It's my money invested in these companies, which adds up to millions of dollars. Ultimately the product must reflect me and my tastes ... It's a matter of dedication, being involved in the day-to-day running of the companies. Now I direct my energies to the creative aspects -- my sense of where fashion is going, what the color trends are. I choose textures and materials, and everybody else does the day to day legwork I used to do and the trips.
"I really want to be an accessory company. Ready-to-wear is something that I don't have any feelings about. What I prefer to do is to change accessories. I am also very affronted by the concept that women have to buy a complete new wardrobe every season. That has nothing to do with what our lives are about. Shoes, handbags, belts, jewelry, shawls, umbrellas -- that's always been more exciting to me than designing clothing."
Bergen as actress and fashion arbiter, author and businesswoman, has come a long way from the bluegrass country of Tennessee. "Most people think I was born in a rich Long Island family," she said. But her father, William Burgin, was a construction worker who couldn't read; her mother, Lucy, never went beyond third grade.
"We were a Southern Baptist family, very poor, from time to time on welfare. My father spent a lot of time flat on his back with a broken back. But my father always believed that you worked for a living, so I worked from the time that I was a kid. I took care of the house and I did all the cooking and washing and cleaning. Both my mom and dad were very musical -- my father was quite a guitar player." In later years, he was a regular guest on "The Polly Bergen Show."