Louise Lague
October 01, 1984 12:00 PM

The news struck with the stunning impact of a hurtful and unanticipated blow. Could it be that Mary Tyler Moore, permanently perky, perennially composed, had entered the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif. for treatment of alcohol-related problems? More openly fragile personalities—Liz Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Tony Curtis, Johnny Cash—had been there before her, but this was our Mary. Nearly 25 years in the public eye, she had made a professional virtue of a brave and cheerful self-reliance; Mary was always cutting it, despite the vagaries of a careless, imperfect world. And now at 46 years of age she was asking for help. Of course checking in at Betty Ford is not a sign of weakness. “It’s all the rage,” quips Mary’s friend Cloris Leachman. More than that, it’s a positive and courageous act. It is exactly what our Mary would do.

Mary’s condition is severely complicated by the fact that she is a Type I (insulin-dependent) diabetic. Almost 20 years ago, for unknown reasons, her pancreas ceased producing insulin, thus preventing the appropriate regulation of her blood sugar. By giving herself three to four insulin shots daily and following rigid dietary and exercise regimens, Mary has thus far escaped such complications as blindness, heart disease and kidney failure, which make diabetes one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. Yet the delicate chemical and metabolic balance on which her life depends has been tipped by Mary’s alcohol consumption. “She is not what you would call an alcoholic,” explains her husband of 10 months, Dr. Robert Levine, 31, a New York cardiologist. “But it was my feeling, shared by Mary’s doctors, that drinking was dangerous to her—the type of drinking that Mary does, which is basically social drinking.”

The reason she checked in at Betty Ford, he said, is that lately she had been having more frequent hypoglycemic episodes—waves of weakness, blurred vision, slurred speech, caused by a low blood-sugar level—which are common to severe diabetics and could lead to coma and, in extreme cases if untreated, to death.

The problem intensified during a period of hard work when Mary made two movies back-to-back, Heartsounds in Toronto and Finnegan, Begin Again in Richmond, Va. this past summer. “Mary had complained there were periods [during the day] when she just felt lousy,” recalls Levine. “It was I who said, ‘Hey, maybe the drinking is affecting your diabetes.'” When Mary returned to the couple’s luxurious apartment high above New York’s Central Park, Levine made a two-week study of the wide fluctuations in his wife’s blood chemistry, collecting blood specimens throughout the day, even waking her at night. Levine suggested that Mary cut out her after-dinner brandy and all other alcohol consumption for a trial period. Her blood chart steadied somewhat. His conclusion: Alcohol was affecting her body chemistry. It was not that she was drinking more—the problem was, says Levine, “the disease is progressive and becomes more difficult to treat.”

Levine said that social drinking is “expected behavior in her social and professional circles,” a pattern, imbibing for relaxation from the glare and pressures of show business, that she had been unable to break on her own. “She’s at Betty Ford because her doctor and I thought she needed a supportive environment for abstinence,” says Levine. “Her goal is to gain some strength and understanding that it’s okay to say no to alcohol.”

Social drinking for Mary meant a cocktail after work, an after-dinner drink or one or two at a party, according to her husband. “Mary drinks socially, like 80 million people in the U.S., and it’s just too much for her.” Longtime friend actress Beverly Sanders describes Mary as a social drinker “with no trappings of alcoholism.” Still, Sanders had recently noted signs that Mary’s taste for forbidden sweet foods, drinking and a heavy smoking habit were catching up with her. “She has less tolerance and she gets tired faster,” says Sanders. “Diabetics may look fine but feel disgruntled and unhappy because their blood sugar is low.” Despite Mary’s newly revealed vulnerability, she is still featured in TV advertising as chairperson for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation International. “We’re 100 percent behind her and proud to have her as a spokesperson,” said communications director Karen Schneider.

Whatever the dimensions of her drinking problem, it’s apparently not multiplied by a drug problem, as one report has claimed. “It’s fabricated. They made it up,” says Levine. Adds an ABC executive who saw Mary often on the set of Heartsounds, “There was no temperament, no tardiness, no difference from one day to another. There was none of this in Mary.”

People who know Mary Tyler Moore see in her, beneath the cheery small talk and constant kindness, “an iron control,” as a friend put it. “Everybody who knows her knows about the hermetic side of her, the reserve you can’t burn through with an acetylene torch.”

Moore has rebounded from setbacks and tragedies sufficient to sorely test a saint. Despite a divorce from first husband TV executive Richard Meeker, a miscarriage following her second marriage to TV producer Grant Tinker and the discovery of her diabetes, Mary was successful and apparently happy. She had five good years as the chirpy, wise and witty Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show and seven better years as the indomitable Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In true Mary style, she dissolved that show in 1977 while it was still on top, and the Mary Richards character went into history as a role model to single women everywhere.

The next year her sister Elizabeth, 21, died of a drug overdose. In 1980 her only son, Richie Meeker, 24, with whom she was becoming closer, killed himself in a gun accident. Ironically, Richie died just as Ordinary People was released. In that movie, Mary played Beth, a wealthy housewife who loses one son to drowning and the other son and her husband to alienation caused by her inability to reach out of her imprisoning composure.

Robert Redford, who directed Ordinary People, said that playing Beth “took incredible courage. Beth is Mary—the small, frightened person inside the big, daring person. The person who clutches for control, who won’t play the game unless she can make the rules. In playing Beth, Mary faced that side of herself and lived it out—brilliantly. I am really in awe of her.”

Shortly before Richie’s death, Mary’s 17-year marriage to Tinker broke up, and she gamely moved to New York to start over, and to find out if she could—Mary Richards-style—make it after all. But with the rigid demands of diabetes, and without a husband and steady job to sustain her, the going was rough. Her own cool head was not enough.

“She knows that her reserve is a terrible burden,” says a friend. “Maintaining it drains off a lot of energy. She hates it, she longs to let down, be free and easy in her feelings. And alcohol helps her loosen up. I think she decided long ago that she needs it. Even so, she’s cautious. I’ve never seen her sloshed, just a little high.”

It was after another rocky stretch in the road that Mary met Levine (who is an occasional drinker). In 1982 her mother had suffered a stroke and her father an abdominal aneurysm, and Mary promised them a trip to Europe “as a carrot, if they’d both recover,” she said. Mary’s mother, Marge, came home from Europe with severe bronchitis, and Mary called her doctor. He was unavailable and Dr. Levine was on call.

“After I’d seen her mom the second time,” says Levine, “I said to Mary, ‘If there’s an emergency just get in touch with me.’ And Mary said, ‘Does acute loneliness count?’ And I said, ‘Yes.'” A few days later they made a dinner date.

“She fell really in love,” says a friend. “It’s been a real rebirth.” Emanuel Azenberg, the producer of Whose Life Is It Anyway? in which Mary starred on Broadway in 1980, calls Levine “one of those doctors they wrote movies about 30 years ago. He’s genuinely caring. There’s no question they’re in love. They both have too much integrity to stay with the relationship if they weren’t.” Levine joined Mary in Toronto every weekend during the filming of Heartsounds, in which she plays the wife of a dying doctor, and every weekend while she was making Finnegan, Begin Again, an HBO movie. He also plans to be with her every weekend during her four-to six-week stay in the Ford clinic.

The Betty Ford Center takes up four modest white buildings of the Eisenhower Medical Center in moneyed Rancho Mirage, 10 miles outside Palm Springs. Established two years ago by three recovering alcoholics—Mrs. Ford, tire magnate Leonard Firestone, and Dr. Joseph Cruse—the center has treated about 1,000 patients with an estimated 75 percent success rate.

The patients have all demonstrated chemical dependence. Ninety-nine percent of them are not famous, a majority are white, upper-middle-class professionals, and about half are women. Most are polydrug dependents—they use a combination of pills and booze.

On checking in, a patient gives a medical history and user profile, then signs a list of rights and responsibilities—to keep appointments, avoid making unreasonable demands, take an active part in daily therapy sessions and, of course, “to abstain from the use of alcohol and other chemicals.” During the first week the patient is kept out of touch with family and friends, to force dependence on the staff and fellow patients for support. Chores in the dorm are doled out not for punishment but to give patients a sense of accomplishment. When they leave, patients are awarded a medallion as a token of the turnaround in their lives. They earn it by enduring a “tough love” program, which includes brutally candid counseling sessions. Occasionally a recalcitrant patient is required to wear a blindfold for 24 hours as a means of developing trust in others.

Although the Betty Ford Center may seem exclusive, it is not expensive. The rate is $155 a day for in-patients, plus about $500 for admitting, testing and medical fees. The celebrity patients “wowed us at first,” says center director John Schwarzlose. “We’re human. Their first instinct is to expect special treatment because they’re used to it. But that wouldn’t be fair to the staff, the other patients and most of all to that person.” Adds medical director Dr. James West, “I treat celebrities with the same respect I treat any patient.” Indeed, the center is so protective that some well-known personalities have checked in and out without publicity. “We’ve treated as many famous people nobody knows about,” says Schwarzlose, “as those whose names everybody knows.”

The hardest lump for celebrities to swallow, says Dr. Joseph Pursch, who oversaw the treatment of Betty Ford and Billy Carter at the Long Beach Naval Hospital, is realizing that they have a problem. “VIPs are often the last to know because those around them don’t want to suffer their wrath, and in some cases they enable that person to keep functioning because it is to their economic benefit.”

Mary is one of the lucky ones. When she emerges from the Betty Ford Center in early October, she will have the support of an obviously attentive husband, many good, close friends and the good wishes of her millions of fans. As Levine puts it, “Everyone on the street thinks of Mary as being theirs.” But she will still need every ounce of her celebrated strength. “I think alcohol really helped her loosen up, to break the habit of control,” says a friend, “and in that way I think it was good for her. But as far as the diabetes was concerned, it was probably bad for her. My heart goes out to her. She’s a very valiant and wonderful lady, and she’s caught in the middle.”

Written by LOUISE LAGUE, reported by CARL ARRINGTON, JANE HALL and bureau correspondents

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