In her song lyrics Dolly Parton has always had a flair for the melodramatic, but few she’s written could equal the scene in Indianapolis late last month. She was gamely trouping her way through an open-air concert at the State Fairgrounds, performing in the teeth of a driving rainstorm. In a bedazzling spangled gown that competed with the lightning, she played a rollicking banjo and sang such evocative crowd pleasers as Coat of Many Colors and Jolene. Her fans cheered and applauded and, oblivious to the fact that they were being soaked to the skin, begged her to sing more. “I wouldn’t sit outside and get wet to listen to anybody,” declared Dolly, grinning. But she sang some more and finished with a teary-eyed encore, I Will Always Love You.
Within hours a shaken Parton, 36, was hurriedly flying to New York to consult with doctors over her alarming medical condition. Weakened by hemorrhaging that had begun a week earlier, she had been warned by doctors to stop her eight-week tour and seek attention for gynecological problems that have plagued her for about three years. But Parton had insisted on performing in Indianapolis despite her discomfort—only to conclude afterward that she could no longer continue. This time she agreed to cancel the remaining 30 dates of her 35-stop tour of the U.S. and Canada. Then she left for New York to undergo tests as an outpatient at a New York hospital to determine if a hysterectomy might be necessary.
While anxiously awaiting the results, Dolly rested in the soundproofed, lilac-wallpapered bedroom in the Fifth Avenue apartment she shares, quite platonically, with her manager, Sandy Gallin, 42. Though sedated and drowsy most of the time, Parton appeared to be in good spirits and was able to walk around the airy flat overlooking Central Park. At one point Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, the former owners of Studio 54, hosted a Southern-style supper (fried chicken and sweet potato soufflé) for Dolly and guests who included designer Calvin Klein. Parton proved she hadn’t lost her hearty appetite or her graciousness; she phoned Rubell four times the next day to thank him. Otherwise, Parton was reclusive, seeing only Gallin, close friend and secretary Judy Ogle and husband Carl Dean. Though Dean, 39, rarely leaves the couple’s 80-acre Tennessee estate, he has been at Dolly’s bedside off and on during the last two weeks.
In the past Parton has suffered from irregular menstrual cycles and severe cramps and headaches. But that hasn’t stopped her from maintaining one of the heaviest schedules in showbiz. (In her C&W heyday Dolly spent upwards of 200 days a year on the road.)
Only last February Parton underwent minor gynecological surgery, after wrapping The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and returning from a hectic trip to Australia. Though her doctors had discussed a hysterectomy, Parton confided earlier this summer, “I didn’t want to have the complete job done. I hoped that a lot of it was just overwork. I was out of balance and under a lot of stress.” The heavy work schedules and tension on the set of Whorehouse had been “a nightmare” and kept her from properly treating the condition. But Whorehouse co-star Charles Durning confirms Parton’s stoicism: “I saw only the jocular side of her during filming. When we went out socially, she did admit to being a little tired and mentioned that she planned to have an operation.” Following that surgery, Dolly spent most of the spring and early summer recuperating with Carl at Tara. “Thank God, I never wanted children really, really bad,” Parton recently admitted.
Now her tour, planned to coincide with the release of her Heartbreak Express LP as well as Whorehouse, is on hold. Yet she still hopes to go to South Africa in the fall, not to mention take on a TV special, a Broadway play and a soap opera. If experience is any guide, though, she won’t be disappointed. “When I get down,” she once said, “I don’t waller around for long.”