Passing through the L-shaped kitchen of her San Fernando Valley home, Rue McClanahan can’t resist a laugh. “I’ve always been lucky enough to marry good cooks,” she says. “One cooked Greek. One cooked Tex-Mex—chili and stuff. True, one needed a recipe to make a peanut butter sandwich….”
Before McClanahan, 51, can rattle off the culinary skills of all five of her ex-husbands, she has moved into the den and is introducing her current housemates: Fosdick, a tortoiseshell feline found last year at the U-Haul dealership in Burbank; Celestine, a black-and-white calico who has been part of the actress’ life since 1975; Sandy, a 17-year-old beagle-and-collie combo she got at the pound; Misty, a white malamute mixed with she doesn’t know what else picked up during her years on Maude; Harrod, a black Scottie (“the only aristocrat in the family”), and Buster, a striped neighborhood stray. The point is indirect but clear: Rue’s pets (she admits it) have hung around longer than her spouses.
On Golden Girls, NBC’s highest-rated new program last season, Rue’s character, Blanche Devereaux, has no trouble getting a date; in fact her roommates (Bea Arthur and Betty White) wish they had half her luck with men. But in her first public discussion of her real-life romances, Rue paints a decidedly unpretty picture. Her first two marriages, both to struggling actors, lasted a total of four years. Her third marriage, also to an actor, was more of a battle than a union. Her fourth husband split after just two years, then sued Rue for half of what she earned during their time together (a six-figure settlement). Her fifth marriage, to a high school boyfriend, ended after just one year, in 1985.
She is nothing like the oversexed Southern belle she plays on Golden Girls. “I was brought up to believe that living with people was sinful and getting married was the thing to do,” she says. Finally she has learned her lesson. “The last one cured me. I used to be a romantic, but no more.” As to reports that she plans to remarry first husband Tom Bish, she says, “I don’t have any plans to marry Tom, or anyone, again. If the tabloids want a story, I could make up one a lot better.”
The truth is enough to inspire several potboilers. Born in Healdton, Okla., Rue lived in six towns by the time she was 8. (Her father was a road builder who moved from one project to another.) She found solace in acting (“the only thing I ever wanted to do”) and after four years at the University of Tulsa moved to New York, where she worked as a part-time file clerk while trying to find jobs in the theater. She met Bish during a stint at the Erie Playhouse in Pennsylvania. Ten months after they married in 1958, Rue gave birth to Mark, now 28 and a guitarist with several L.A. rock bands. Her divorce from Bish after 17 months, says Rue, “was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. It was so disillusioning.” Rue won a scholarship to the Pasadena Playhouse and while there met Norman Hartweg, a former college friend; in an effort to give Mark a home, she married him. “Norman and I separated almost immediately,” she says. “But we are still good friends. We’ve just written a musical called Oedipus, Schmedipus, As Long As You Love Your Mother” (which they hope to produce within a year).
After three years in L.A., Rue realized her career was at a standstill. She returned to New York, where she appeared in an off-Broadway production of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Her son was living with Rue’s parents in Oklahoma. “He was turning 6 that October. Talk about pain! The one thing I wanted more than anything else was to get him with me.” So when one of her Walter Mitty co-stars, Peter DeMaio, asked her to marry him, she did. “To tell you the truth I was afraid of him,” she says. “He was Italian and very hot tempered. I had never known anyone like that.” Rue persuaded Peter to see a counselor, and the counselor said, “I’ve only advised this once in my career, but I advise you not to stay together.” Still, Rue hung on.
She changed her mind when she saw that she hadn’t done Mark any favors. “He was scared and getting more and more withdrawn; that’s when I got out. Mark [then 13] had told me in no uncertain terms that he was going to Oklahoma to live unless I got a divorce.” Mark remembers these as “traumatic times,” but does not blame his mother for being tossed about by her marriage-go-round. “I feel lucky to have her as a mom,” says Mark, who lives only a mile away from Rue. “Maybe she was looking for someone who would be a dad to me, when she should have been looking for a mate for herself.”
In 1976 Rue got married again, to a Greek-American Realtor named Gus Fisher. After a year or so, “we were talking about getting a divorce, but there were a couple of buildings that Gus wanted me to invest in…I better not talk about it, because I get real bitter over that one.”
On the subject of why on earth she got married yet again, Rue says: “I thought that the experience with Gus was a fluke. I didn’t think everybody was greedy. So when my high school sweetheart showed up, I thought marrying him was safe.”
The sweetheart was Tom Keel, an Oklahoman who was visiting L.A. “We hadn’t seen each other since our school days,” she says. “I was looking for someone to trust, and we’d been close. We got married in a couple of months. It was a very rash thing.” By now you’d think she’d have looked into premarital agreements, but no. “Tom offered to give me one,” she recalls, “but I didn’t think it was the way to go into a marriage.” After what Rue calls “a very educational year together,” Keel left California with a hefty financial settlement.
One man in Rue’s life has been faithful. In 1969, Norman Lear saw her in an off-Broadway production of Tonight in Living Color. Three years later, when he needed someone to do a supporting role on All in the Family, he summoned her to L.A. Later that week he cast her in Maude, and five years after that Lear starred Rue in her own short-lived series, Apple Pie.
Now with Golden Girls, McClanahan is enjoying her biggest career success. Save your pity, she says, if you think she’s pining because there is no husband to share that accomplishment with her. “If something is missing in her life she is probably too busy to let it get to her,” says Mark. Her menagerie occupies most of her free time. “No sooner had my little red-and-white-striped cat, Vivian, died,” says Rue, “than Buster showed up at the front door.” For Rue, the problem is limiting her weakness for strays to the animal kingdom.