Six months after her 1965 marriage to Christopher Jones, an actor then starring as TV’s Jesse James, Susan Strasberg gave birth to a 7 lb. 11 oz. daughter, Jennifer. The child was soon discovered to have serious birth defects-a cleft palate and four holes in her heart. Were the LSD and mescaline that Strasberg and Jones had experimented with responsible for their daughter’s condition? “It’s hell not knowing,” Strasberg writes in Bittersweet, her autobiography. The Strasberg-Jones marriage was a stormy one. After 16 months, she moved out, and they were divorced in 1968. In this final excerpt Susan Strasberg writes about raising her invalid daughter alone—and the drastic surgery the child finally faced.
Before I saw her, I heard a cry. A high, sweet, piercing sound. Then they told me, “It’s a girl.” She had this cap of strawberry-blond hair, and she was all milky white.
“She’s so beautiful,” I said. “Isn’t she beautiful?” As I looked at her I felt a wave of tenderness. Her skin was glowing almost phosphorescently under the burning overhead lights. Her tiny hands were knotted together like a boxer’s.
They took me to a flower-filled hospital room. “I’d like to hold my baby now,” I told the nurse, but she left without saying anything. When the doctor came, he was blandly reassuring. “Susan, now it’s nothing to get upset about, we just want to examine her more thoroughly. She has a slight problem. She has a partial cleft palate. That’s the soft part of the throat where the uvula hangs down.”
“What does that mean?”
“Eventually she’ll be operated on. For the moment, she’s probably going to have difficulty feeding. It’s pointless to try to nurse her. With that piece missing, she’ll never be able to get enough suction to draw milk from your breast.”
I wanted to hold my baby, immediately. I knew that the touch of her would assuage my fears.
“She’s in a special-care ward, Susan,” he said. “She’s going to need constant watching. She has to be on her stomach for the next few days. If she were to roll on her back, she might choke on her own saliva. But she really is the prettiest baby in the nursery.”
Christopher came in a few hours later. When he kissed me I could smell the alcohol on his breath. “I had to stay and have a drink with the TV crew,” he said. “You look terrific.” We both knew he was lying. I could feel the swelling in my eyelids, the tears puffing up my face. The phone rang.
“Mother…yes…yes, everything’s fine…no, I’m fine…I don’t know…Katherine or Elizabeth, maybe Jennifer. Then she’d be the real Jennifer Jones.”
What I needed, Mother could not give me. I needed for Christopher and me to love each other. I needed for my baby to be in my arms, healthy and whole.
Then they brought in Jenny, and I saw that she was truly beautiful. Her huge eyes looked at me briefly before she closed them and fell asleep in my arms.
“I’d like to try to nurse her,” I said, pulling open my gown.
“But the doctor explained that it was impossible.”
“I want to at least try.”
I held my baby close to my breast, trying to place the nipple in her tiny rosebud mouth. The nurse sharply flicked her fingers against the baby’s bare feet.
“What are you doing?” I asked. “You’re hurting her.”
“Well, she can’t nurse if she’s asleep, can she?”
For a few moments I tried to pump the milk into her now half-open mouth.
“Really,” the nurse said, “you’ll feel much better if you’ll just let me give you some pills to dry up your breasts.”
I saw Jennifer Robin, as we decided to name her—Robin was after Christopher’s mother—five times a day, right on hospital schedule. She was always slightly drowsy, and just as we began to make contact it seemed it was time for her to be taken back to her crib.
Soon after I got home I called Franca Moore, an astrologer, to have Jennifer’s chart drawn up. Franca knew nothing of the baby’s throat condition, only the time and date of Jennifer’s birth. But when the chart was ready, she announced, “This child was born under a square, it is a learning pattern for mother and child. There is some affliction in the throat and chest areas, which will affect the extremities, causing deficiencies, shortage of oxygen, breathing problems. This condition will lift completely when the child is 6 years old.”
She was correct about the throat area, but the doctors had not indicated problems as serious as Franca described, and Jenny’s throat would be repaired, I hoped, when she was between 2 and 4 years of age. Six years was way off. No one was right 100 percent of the time, so I thanked Franca and put it out of my mind.
I learned a few weeks later that my mother was dying in New York. I had smelled my mother’s breast cancer for years, although I was unaware of the severity of her illness. Whenever she embraced me, I had to stop myself from pulling away from that odor. I couldn’t know that it was death. She smelled it also, and took to bathing and perfume several times a day.
I made reservations on the evening flight for Jenny and myself. I wanted my mother to see her only grandchild. That afternoon Jenny and I went to her new pediatrician. Jenny was just 6 weeks old. He was down-to-earth and fatherly. He examined her silently, then looked at me. “I know you plan to fly with this child,” he said, “but it’s not advisable. Didn’t her doctor say anything about her condition when she was born?”
“Of course,” I replied. “They told me about her cleft palate.”
Another silence. “It’s her heart,” he said. “She has quite a severe murmur. Airplane cabins are pressurized to altitudes as high as 5,000 feet. Her heart may not be able to bear that much stress.”
So I took Polaroid snapshots to my mother. She died before seeing the photos of my beautiful red-haired daughter with such a fine translucent complexion that all her veins showed through. I had thought it was so lovely, not knowing it came from a shortage of oxygen created by her heart condition.
At 8 months Jenny was tested at UCLA. Her doctor, Forrest Adams, was the head of pediatric cardiology there. The testing went on all day—terrifying for a baby too young to know what all the strange contraptions and wires were. Dr. Adams asked if he could have samples of Christopher’s and my blood. He explained that the hospital was doing research to try to determine what caused birth defects. “We really don’t know,” he continued. “Drugs during pregnancy definitely have an effect, alcohol can make a baby alcoholic. I’ve seen babies born addicted. Smoking can affect a fetus, genetic irregularities…”
“I didn’t take any drugs while I was pregnant, but could it have been the drugs taken before she was conceived?” I asked.
“We can’t say for sure,” he said.
Christopher refused to take a blood test: “You know I hate needles, Susie. They’re not going to stick any in my arm.”
“Wouldn’t it be better to know or to help someone else than to just imagine?” I asked. “If it’s genetic, it’s not your fault, for God’s sake.”
“No one of those mothers is going to suck my blood,” he said.
Dr. Adams called. My tests revealed nothing abnormal that could have affected Jennifer, for which I thanked God, but still in the corner of my mind there was that shadow of doubt. Finally I realized I could do nothing about the past, but I could help in Jenny’s future. I could give her as much love as I had in me, day by day, one step at a time.
By the time she was 1½, it was obvious Jenny was limited in her activities. She was not able to run and play with the other children. She could not keep up. She walked slowly, stopping to rest every few feet. The other children played with Jennifer until they tired of her sedentary activities or pace and ran off.
In addition to this problem, Jenny had a speech impediment, which would be partially corrected by surgery. Her voice was very nasal, and there were certain sounds that she was unable to make or that were barely understandable. At 3½, she underwent successful dental surgery.
Her heart doctor said to me, “There are advantages and disadvantages to waiting longer for her heart surgery. When she is 5 or 6 she should be stronger, more able to tolerate it. But there’s a danger in waiting too long because she might become psychologically crippled. I have seen that happen to children who, after they are operated on, still think of themselves as being handicapped. For now, as long as she’s not passing out or falling on her hands and knees, we can wait. Those are the danger signs for a child with her condition.”
The next years passed too quickly and too slowly. With Jenny’s illness, a different sense of time colored my days. I had a heightened awareness—how quickly now became the past. I was grateful to wake up in the morning, hear Jenny breathing, see her crawl into bed with me.
I partially lost sight of my own life as a woman and an actress during those years as I centered on Jennifer, but I was rewarded by the pleasure of watching her blossom despite her handicaps, seeing her courage.
Jennifer started school. On her first day she had to go into the classroom on her own. The other children ran down the stairs, passing her by. I saw her shoulders shrink and then I watched her straighten her back and move purposefully, one step at a time, down the stairs, clinging to the railing. Whether I liked it or not, I was going to have to let Jenny go. She had to stand on her own two feet.
Shortly after that, an actress and her daughter moved in across the street, and the divorced father moved in five houses down. I was pleased because the little girl was just Jenny’s age. “Hi,” she said when she came to introduce herself. She was a pretty, vivacious, extraverted girl. “I’m Jennifer Grant. My mother’s a movie star, Dyan Cannon; my father’s a movie star, too, Cary Grant, but he doesn’t work anymore. He just sells perfume [Cary was associated with Fabergé]. What do you do?” she asked.
I looked at her and cleared my throat. “Well, I act too.”
Cary was lovely with Jennifer. She was not seeing much of her own father and she was longing for male company and attention. I went to pick her up at Cary’s home one evening when his daughter was spending the night. They were all three lying on his king-size bed watching television, Cary in the middle, in his pajamas, his arms around the two girls.
He kissed and hugged my child, tossing her in the air as if she were his own. “You’re a lovely girl, Jennifer,” he said. She blushed with pleasure. She had never seen him in a film, but it was obvious he rated star billing in her book.
My girlfriend Patty McLaine, an intense, good-natured redhead, was a psychic. We had met when I was pregnant; she had been reading cards for me for four years. Approximately 80 percent of her predictions had come true. One day she spread her tarot cards out on the red Spanish shawl I was using as a bedspread.
“Cut the deck three ways with your right hand, toward you,” she said, “and make your wish.” She pulled out three cards and reversed them. “Keep your wish focused in your mind, concentrate on it.” Her voice became deeper.
I sneezed. “I wonder,” I said, “why I always get a cold when you read for me. Nerves. Maybe what I don’t know won’t hurt me.”
“Well,” Patty said, ignoring my comment, “first of all, you get your wish, whatever it is, and I’d say by early next year.”
“That’s nice,” I said. “Next year is only seven months away.”
“You’ve also got the fulfillment card here, and the cards show that you’re very, very anxious.”
“I’m always anxious these days.” I laughed.
“Your worries are passing within six months.”
“It’s June now. That means December or January.”
“Susan, you’re going to be taking a trip by plane. Someone else is paying, so you’re probably going for work somewhere in this country. The South…Yes, I’m sure it’s for work. I see you reading a script, and you’re traveling alone.”
“It’s not very likely I’d leave Jenny to go and do a film,” I said.
“This is a short trip. Not months, maybe a week.”
Patty moved the cards around. They made a pretty pattern against the florid peacocks and roses of the spread.
“You’re going to meet someone on this trip. A man.”
“Well,” I said, “is that good or bad?”
“This man is going to be very, very important to you. I’d say he’s a Scorpio, young, thirties, maybe forty. Lightish hair, blue eyes and a very successful businessman, head of his own business. He has children too. Maybe…I think he’s divorced. He’s going to be very important to your wish card. He’ll lead you to your wish, whatever it is. Oh, Susan,” she said, “this is…Gee, I’m getting goose bumps.”
“What is it? What do you see?” I leaned forward. The pictures meant nothing to me.
“Jenny is dancing on the beach. She’s twirling around, dancing. It’s sometime next year, early in the year, and, Susan, there’s no question—she’s 100 percent better.”
“If she is, then it will be a miracle,” I said, “because she’s not going to have her open-heart surgery for at least a year. I’ve just discussed it with her heart doctor. We’re going to do some preliminary tests in six months, but that’s not going to make her 100 percent better.” Wistfully I stated, “I believe in miracles.”
“Well,” Patty shrugged, “whatever. You’re going to be very happy. I see blessings all around you.”
“God willing,” I said, and knocked on wood.
Five months passed. Jenny, then 5, was scheduled to go to UCLA Hospital for a catheterization to see exactly where the blood was impeded and what might be missing. It required an anesthetic and, as a preparation for her open-heart surgery, it was necessary.
Just before her tests, I was committed to appearing in a film a friend of mine, Barney Rosenzweig, was producing. It was a cameo part, little money involved, not a great role, but I said I would do it. It required only a week’s shooting, but it meant being in Little Rock, Ark. When they sent a tourist ticket instead of the first-class one my union required, I said, “Look, it’s not worth it. Let’s forget it.”
“Insist on first class,” Patty said when I called her.
But by then I had decided I didn’t want to do the film. It required too much energy and time.
That night I dreamed that Faye Dunaway was pulling my hair. She seemed to be asking for something, but I couldn’t figure out what. When I woke the next morning, I thought it was strange but put it out of my mind until my friend Steffi Sidney called.
“Don’t ask,” I said. “I’ve got to call Barney and tell him I can’t do his film. Do you think he’s going to be upset?”
“Don’t worry,” she replied. “I talked to him yesterday, and the actor who’s playing opposite you in your scene is living with Faye Dunaway, and she told Barney if you didn’t, she’d like to do the part.”
“Well,” I said, “if it’s good enough for Faye Dunaway, it’s good enough for me.”
The day I left for Little Rock, a friend, Barry Parnell, drove me to the airport. He handed me a huge hardcover book, The Seth Material, by Jane Roberts, saying, “This is for your trip.”
“But it’s enormous. There won’t be time to read it, and it’s too heavy. I only carry paperbacks when I travel. Listen, with my makeup kit and my camera and tape recorder, if I take this book I’ll need a donkey.”
“Take it. I feel it’s important to you.”
On the plane there was no one seated next to me, so I settled down to study my lines and read a bit of the book. It dealt with metaphysical concepts of the world and one’s place in it. After a while I got up to go to the bathroom, placing the book on the seat next to me. When I came back, the man across the aisle came over to me. He was young, just under 40, and had blue eyes.
“Mah name is Louis Dorfman an’ ah hope y’all ‘scuse me,” he said in a Texas drawl, “but ah happened to see the title of the book you’re reading and ah had a strange experience ah’d like to tell you about.”
Oh, no, I thought. I had hoped to have time to myself on this trip, but impulsively I said, “Please sit down.”
He was on his way home to Dallas after some business in Los Angeles. The plane stopped there on the way to Little Rock. We ordered drinks, and he proceeded to tell me about an astral-projection experience that he had had.
I was fascinated, and we continued to chat. He was a lawyer and businessman, divorced and had two sons. Suddenly, in the midst of this casual conversation, I had an overwhelming urge to tell him about Jenny and her heart operation.
I plunged into her birth defects, her throat operation, her impending tests to be followed eventually by open-heart surgery. When I finished, he looked at me.
“It’s funny,” he said, “one of my good friends in Houston is Denton Cooley. As a matter of fact, I’m going to a party at his house this week. Do you know who Dr. Cooley is?”
“Yes, I know.”
Dr. Denton Cooley was the man I always wanted to do Jennifer’s surgery. I had read about his phenomenal success doing open-heart surgery on children. “May I tell Denton about your little girl?” my new friend asked.
“I would be thrilled. Here, let me write the name of her condition down for you. And this is my phone number. I’ll be in Arkansas and New York until the end of the week. After that, I’m home.”
Dr. Cooley agreed to take a look at Jenny, so I canceled her appointment at UCLA. We headed for Houston. Louis Dorfman took us for a glorious meal with his sons, and the next morning before we checked in at the hospital Jenny ate a breakfast fit for four Marines. She remembered the food she had had on her previous hospital visits.
Most of the day was spent running from one floor to another, doing various tests, EKGs, blood tests. First thing the next morning they sedated her. By the time she left the room she was lying half asleep on the hospital cart. “Mommy, come with me.” Her voice was thick with the medication and her speech defect. “It’s all right,” the nurse said. “You can go with her all the way to the O.R.”
Dr. Cooley came to see me later that day. “We’ve evaluated the tests. The way it looks to us, you couldn’t have come at a better time. I’d like to operate on her.”
“When?” I asked.
“The day after tomorrow.”
“But I hadn’t planned on doing it this soon. Not for at least eight more months. After she’s 6.” My heart was pounding. “It’s just so sudden.”
“Susan”—he looked at me—”my hands will do the best they can. After that, she’s in God’s hands.”
“May I let you know in the morning?” I asked.
He nodded. “But you have to decide so we can make preparations.”
I went into the room. Jenny was still sleeping off her sedation. I talked with a friend about the pros and cons. “We could come back in six months.”
Jennifer sat bolt upright in her bed. “Mommy,” she said firmly, “I want to get it over with now. I don’t want to have to come back.” I decided to go ahead.
The morning of the operation they began sedating her at 5:45. Cooley usually operated on the youngest patients first unless there was an emergency. He was reputed to do between eight and 12 operations a day, moving from operating room to operating room. The patients were lined up, already cut open, ready for him.
Shortly after 11:30 Dr. Cooley’s assistant came into the waiting room in his green hospital gown. He said to me, “They’re just sewing your daughter up. It was a beautiful job. You’re lucky. Cooley would never tell you this, but I don’t think any other surgeon could have done what he did. There was more damage inside her than had been indicated in the tests.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you for coming to tell me.” Tears of joy streamed down my face.
When they finally let me see Jenny, I was prepared for the tubes coming out of her mouth, the needle in her arm, the tubes in her nose, the wide bandage across the center of her chest. What caught me off guard were her fingernails and toenails. For the first time since her birth, they were glowing pink like rosy seashells.
“How long do you think it will be before she comes back to her room?” I asked the nurse.
“If her fever goes down and her lungs are fairly clear, she could be back late tonight, but more likely by morning.”
They wheeled her in early, with the sun, the next morning.
The day we left for home, they handed me a slip of paper reading:
11/10/71. Total correction. Dacron patch to VSD. Resection of infundibulum. Excision of pulmonary valve pericardial patch to pulmonary outflow tract. Direct closure of ASD.
I comprehended little of that, but then it read:
Condition on discharge:
Not treated. Diagnose only.
“Recovered” was circled in blue ink. It was such an ordinary word.
Nearly a decade after her surgery, Jennifer Jones, 14, is a healthy seventh-grader. She will never be a great athlete, her mother says, mostly because “she’s a dreamer.” Lately, Jennifer has developed an interest in horseback riding at her co-ed boarding school on Long Island. She wants to be a writer.
Jennifer’s father, Christopher Jones, appeared in Three in the Attic, Wild in the Streets and The Looking Glass War before landing the memorable role of Major Dorian in the 1970 classic Ryan’s Daughter. Since then, he has devoted himself to painting. He lives in Los Angeles with an artisan and their 2-year-old son, Christopher Jr.
After years in California, Strasberg is now re-acquainting herself with Manhattan. She lives alone in a West Side apartment and sees Jennifer on weekends. Louis Dorfman, the Texas businessman who recommended Dr. Cooley, is still a friend.
The actress appeared recently in the NBC miniseries Beggarman, Thief and has been featured in such movies as In Praise of Older Women and Roller-coaster. But writing, not acting, is Strasberg’s passion nowadays. She is working on her first novel, Loveknots, which is the saga of a Southern family. “A great performance like Lady Macbeth may be forgotten,” Susan Strasberg says. “Writing endures.”