June 03, 1985 12:00 PM

She was the Witch: Gnarled, stooped, terrifying in her gleeful maliciousness, and when Dorothy threw the water on her and she began to melt, even the most charitable cheered her horrible end. In fact, she was simply Margaret Hamilton, born in Cleveland and a kindergarten teacher for years before becoming a fine actress. Her passing at 82 on May 16 brought only sadness. Here reporter Lee Powell, once an actress herself, recalls the woman she worked for briefly and with whom she remained a friend for life.

She appeared in about 75 movies, 100 plays and more radio and television shows than she could remember, but for most of her career, she was remembered best as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. That is no longer how I remember her.

In the summer of 1973 Margaret Hamilton, recovering from an operation, was in need of help. She had fallen far behind in the correspondence she faithfully kept with her fans, and mutual friends suggested I might like to help her catch up. So I found myself, one soft, sunny day, approaching her towered castle of an apartment house on Manhattan’s Gramercy Park, awed both by her success and the remembered terror of childhood when I had first seen her screech and melt. Our start seemed inauspicious: My shorthand was rusty and her dictation frenetic, interspersed with wild descriptions of those to whom she wrote, so I was left to choose which threads to weave into the letters she would sign the next day. But she liked the results. I was soon calling her “Maggie” and we had a gentle, pleasant summer. She was as excellent a listener as she was a talker, in spite of her firm views, and a magically thoughtful woman who combined the gifts of fantasy and self-discipline. I loved her in no time.

It turned out, as I might have known, that the Wicked Witch was a very mixed blessing. It was not only that Maggie was remembered for just one role; from time to time she learned of children in delicate mental states who had been upset by the grotesqueries of Oz—especially her own scariness. She felt an enormous responsibility. If it was feasible she invited them to meet her, befriended them, kept track of them, sent them presents any time she happened to find a suitable gift. In 1972 she had begun to portray Cora on the Maxwell House coffee commercials, and she was grateful to have found a new persona, a warm character to vie with the Witch. Her days became so hectic, however, that she groaned at the sight of each mail delivery. She was congenitally unable to leave any letter unanswered.

One day she began dictating a note to the husband of her dead sister. She chattered along as usual, then suddenly stopped and sat quietly, watching something far away. Then she looked at me and asked, matter-of-factly, “Where do they go?” I did not understand. “Where do you suppose they go?” she repeated. It was not a religious or philosophical question. She meant, literally, “Where did my sister go? What is going to happen to me?”

Only once did I make her angry. She had decided she would take me out to her favorite restaurant for lunch, and when I arrived she had put on a white-patterned shirtdress, done her hair and put on lipstick. Her brown eyes were sparkling with anticipation. “Oh, you look beautiful, Maggie!” I said. Her face froze and her eyes spit fire. After a very long moment she said quietly, “Please don’t ever tell me that again.” And then she rushed into a conversation about her dress.

When my daughter returned from camp that summer, Maggie invited her to dinner. Kristi was almost paralyzed with excitement, but Maggie simply engulfed her—shook her hand, hugged her, drew her into a corner where they sat looking at Maggie’s photo album—”introducing you to my family,” she said. She gave Kristi a corn-silk doll and then hurried us off to her bakery, where the shop owner said, “Oh, here’s Miss Powell to select her dessert.” That my daughter, carrying spaghetti-filled plates to the apartment table, later tripped over a chair leg and sprayed red sauce and pasta all over the matching aqua walls and carpet ruffled Maggie not in the least. We scrubbed for a while and as we ate she said, “Well, Kristi, I’ve never known how much spaghetti to cook for three people. So if I just cook that much again and you’ll come and spill one plate, we’ll get it right every time.”

I went to work full-time and Maggie went back to acting. Occasionally I would send over some strawberries; she called and wrote when she was on tour. Twice I found myself in hospital beds and each time she phoned me. “I just happened to hear about you, dear,” she would say. The second time I discovered she was calling from her own hospital bed across town.

She was, says her agent, Michael Thomas, his favorite. He recalls a party where Arlene Francis, watching Maggie surrounded by people who adored her, said, “That has to be the most beloved person in the American theater.”

“I hope, when I die, someone has the presence of mind to say, ‘Ding Dong, the Witch is really dead,’ ” Maggie loved to say. The Witch, of course, has outlived her creator, as Oz has now outlived all its great stars except for Ray Bolger. I still do not know where they have gone, but I was right about one thing: Maggie, wherever you are, you were beautiful.

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