Located in L.A.’s stately Hancock Park, the large colonial house is shaded by magnolia and ash trees. In the living room a pair of kittens loll on a sofa, and a white German shepherd nuzzles the arm of Carrie Snodgress, 37, who is playing Pac-Man with her blue-eyed, towheaded son, Zeke, 11. The scene might have been captured in warm colors by Norman Rockwell.
But suddenly, Zeke rolls over on his back and fires a pillow across the room. Seconds later he’s wildly jumping up and down, and Snodgress attempts to discipline him. Stern one minute, she showers him with kisses the next—for Zeke has cerebral palsy and can go from placid to out of control in a moment. Carrie understands this. Indeed, she’s understood her role since 1971 when, after winning an Oscar nomination for Diary of a Mad Housewife, she walked away from a blossoming career to live with singer Neil Young and then to tend their afflicted child. What she can’t understand is why Young, a millionaire, should have virtually shut Zeke out of his life. “When Zeke was 2,” Carrie recalls, “Neil brought him onstage at a concert, and 100,000 people sang happy birthday to him.” Now, she says, the singer rarely sees the boy.
Three weeks ago the L.A. Superior Court approved an agreement between Young and Snodgress, who parted in 1975: Young must make monthly support payments of $10,000 and spend up to $300,000 on a house for the mother and child. Snodgress’ lawyer argued that his client sacrificed a fortune in earnings and that she could no longer cover living expenses because Young was erratic in making the support payments he’d informally agreed to. Says Snodgress, “I needed a little more money to care for Zeke and a smaller house, because the upkeep on this one is so much. I didn’t want to go to court, but it was of the utmost importance to survive.” Young had no comment on the settlement.
Twelve years ago the Young-Snodgress romance, staged against the lush backdrop of the folk-rocker’s 15,000-acre estate in northern California, merged one of Hollywood’s hottest properties and a record-industry giant. Neil had seen Carrie in Housewife and, like thousands of other American males, was smitten. “One day,” remembers Carrie, who was acting in local theater at the time, “there was a note on my dressing room table that said, ‘Call Neil Young.’ ” She didn’t know who Neil Young was, but called him anyway. Within weeks she had fallen in love with “a wonderful artist [who] needed me.” As for her career: “I decided that I was going to be in love, and I was going to give it everything I had.”
When Carrie became pregnant, the couple was ecstatic. “Neil was so damn happy,” Carrie recalls. Zeke was born on Sept. 8, 1972 with brain damage that left him partially paralyzed. “Neil took it hard,” Carrie recalls. “But he tucked it all away inside.” Snodgress, meanwhile, took heart from the doctors who told her she could make Zeke better. She took physical therapy courses at Stanford University. At age 2, when most children are bubbling with talk, Zeke could only garble a few words. But Carrie made up her mind that language was going to flow from Zeke’s mouth. “You want to talk about hours and days of crying and tantrums,” she says. “Boy, did we go through it.” Nowadays, Zeke speaks fluently, but still has some disability in his right arm and leg.
By early 1975 Neil had had enough. “Quite frankly,” says Snodgress, who never married the singer, “I think it was time for him to move on. He started hanging out with the guys, going to L.A. alone. Then one day he came back and said he thought it was time for me to leave.” After she moved out of his estate, Carrie claims Young shuttled her and their child among rental houses in L.A. until she complained.
Finally, Neil’s office called and said, “Go to your new house”—the house he owns in Hancock Park. At first, Neil was generous with his money. “I could shop at health stores and eat steak,” Carrie recalls. “I could also afford a live-in couple for Zeke, which allowed me to work and go on location.”
Her problem, however, was that she could not simply waltz back into pictures. In 1971, thanks to her performance in Housewife, the movie industry had embraced Snodgress as a star ascendant. Her husky voice, blond hair and coltish manner caused critics to hail her as the next Margaret Sullavan or Carole Lombard. But five years had passed, and Hollywood’s feeling for her had cooled. “When I came back, the industry didn’t trust me,” she recalled. “Rock ‘n’ roll carries a heavy stigma. They didn’t want to fool around with a dropout on a drug-induced back-to-nature trip.” It scarcely mattered, she says, that she never took any drug stronger than aspirin. She was up for good parts in several pictures, including Sly Stallone’s 1977 Rocky, which could have made her inordinately rich and famous had she not asked for too much money up front. She managed to land only a 1978 supporting role in Brian De Palma’s The Fury. Her latest credit is co-starring in Heaven with Lesley Ann Warren and Christopher Atkins, due out next month.
In 1977 Neil married and had another child. After that, according to Carrie, his interest in Zeke and his unofficial family diminished, as did his financial support. Snodgress had been unable to pay her bills. Broken windows had gone unrepaired, and the phone had been turned off. Even the car had been repossessed, preventing her from driving Zeke to his special school 40 miles away. “We were down to $500 a month,” she says. “We have two chickens out back and, let me tell you, I was thinking about chicken tacos.”
To say the least, Carrie has been unlucky in love. In the late 1970s she dated composer Jack Nitzsche, 46, who this year won an Academy Award for best original song from An Officer and a Gentleman. Apparently, though, he is less than genteel himself. One night in 1979, Carrie says, Nitzsche showed up at her house in a drunken rage and beat her so severely that her thumb had to be sutured to keep it on her hand. Nitzsche was convicted of assault and placed on probation. Carrie has also filed a civil lawsuit against him seeking $5 million in damages, and the case goes to court later this month. Currently, Snodgress is separated from painter Robert Jones, whom she married in 1981. She calls the relationship “strong and healthy.” But, she sighs, “it’s hard for a man to live with a boy like Zeke.”
Snodgress still looks back wistfully to her life with the enigmatic Neil Young. “It was like heaven on that ranch,” she says with a smile. “I don’t know why we broke up. We never fought.” She pauses to watch Zeke race along the driveway on a bicycle, then takes another drag from her cigarette. “It’s all day to day,” she says, “and rather nebulous. Right now, it’s me and my boy.”