The theater has so thrown itself into history for the Bicentennial—Harry Truman, Clarence Darrow, Eleanor Roosevelt—that a company of two onstage these nights seems almost like a crowd. The latest, and perhaps unlikeliest, new one-character hit on Broadway celebrates the 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson. The Belle of Amherst, as it is titled, got the sort of killer rap from the New York Times that closes shows the second night. But the rap was bum. The Belle is played by Julie Harris, and there is no actress on earth who can make an evening—or sublimation—so sublime.
“I didn’t think it would be this commercial,” she admits. “I wanted first to tour it in colleges. Everyone says, ‘Oh, poetry,’ but…” But, in short, welcome back, Harris. Julie, now 50, has suffered trouper-style through two back-to-back TV embarrassments. For eight weeks she played the spinster co-owner of a pickle factory in Thicker than Water and then Glenn Ford’s wife briefly last fall in the treacly The Family Holvak. “There are so many people working on those TV things that the original idea gets lost,” observes Julie magnanimously. In any case, the Dickinson role has provided her redemption.
“Seventeen years ago I did a recording of her poetry,” says Julie, “and then I started to read.” In 1970 Harris drove up to Amherst, Mass. to visit the poet’s home, which was privately inhabited and closed to visitors that day. Nonetheless, Julie sneaked in “as a fugitive—no, fugitive isn’t the right word, criminal is better.” She got as far as Emily’s second-story bedroom before being bounced. The Belle property, meanwhile, was put together (and directed) by comedian Charles Nelson Reilly, Julie’s friend since they co-starred in the musical Skyscraper. Harris is perturbed that another play has been written portraying Emily as a lesbian with incestuous feelings for her brother. “In all my readings,” Julie declares, “I could never believe that. Emily was mysterious, and people want to take away the mystery.”
Harris feels sympathy for the brilliant, plain poet. Sent East from her native Grosse Pointe, Mich. to chic boarding schools, Julie has chronically mourned her looks: “I always thought it would be wonderful to wake up in the morning and look like Brigitte Bardot.” Julie once told Actors Studio classmate Cloris Leachman, “If I had your bust, I’d rule the world.” Because she didn’t, Harris became a star at 24 playing a 12-year-old in The Member of the Wedding. Thence followed four Broadway Tony Awards, four TV Emmys, two failed marriages and one son, now 21.
Even today, though owning a home just 22 miles from Times Square, she hasn’t seen it in a year and lodges happily in a hotel: “It’s very pleasant, there is no housework.” As for other matters, “I remain unmarried,” she says, “although I don’t always live alone.” She sleeps late, walks her dog, looks at art and catches an occasional afternoon movie (her current kick: Lina Wertmüller). After a performance, says Julie, “I write letters until 2 in the morning, and I read a lot.” Recent favorites are the autobiographies of Hildegard Knef and Mary Martin and Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian classic, The Well of Loneliness.
But Dickinson has preoccupied Julie Harris since Belle opened in Seattle last February en route to New York. Philadelphia is next, and she will then wend West again—”I have no personal life now but that.”