October 09, 1995 12:00 PM

ON NOV. 13, 1987—A FRIDAY—SNOW came unseasonably early to Nyack, N.Y., a town just north of Manhattan on the Hudson River. As Jeff Bishop, 29, an astrophysicist at Columbia University, set out for his morning run, his wife, Ellen Simon, daughter of playwright Neil Simon, warned him to be careful on the slick roads. About 90 minutes later, when Bishop hadn’t returned, Simon drove out looking for him, only to come upon an accident scene. A jogger, she was told, had been hit by a car. Simon rushed to the hospital, where a nurse delivered the terrible news. “She said, ‘Your husband was hit very, very hard. He didn’t make it,’ ” recalls Simon, 38, in her hilltop home near Santa Fe. “All I could say was, ‘Are you sure?’ I must have said it 50 times.”

Disbelief turned into a profound grief. But after several months, Simon—then an unproduced writer for stage and screen—found the strength to move her life forward, in literary work. The result was the recently released Moonlight and Valentino, a film that tells the story of a young woman like Simon, played by Elizabeth Perkins, working through her bereavement with the help of three close friends. Moonlight—costarring Whoopi Goldberg, Kathleen Turner, Gwyneth Paltrow and rocker Jon Bon Jovi—is the first of Simon’s scripts to make it to theaters, though she’s now sold several. It is also the closest to her heart. “Every time I sat down to rewrite, even to change one sentence, I cried,” Simon says, recalling one stage of the process. “I had to re-experience what I went through.”

That included not only the pain of her husband’s death but also her mother’s. Joan Baim Simon, a Martha Graham dancer who married Neil Simon in 1953, died of bone cancer in 1973 at age 41. Ellen was 16 and her sister Nancy just 10. Back then, Ellen held in her tears. “All the adults were so upset,” she says. “I had to be the strong one.” But when Bishop died, she could cry for her mother too. Surrounded by friends, she says, “it didn’t feel dangerous to let go.”

Neil Simon married actress Marsha Mason, then 33, three months after Joan’s death. Though Mason was a loving stepmother and Ellen didn’t resent the marriage, she felt adrift. “I couldn’t concentrate,” she says. “I couldn’t hang in at school.” Simon wanted to be a choreographer, but she muddled through four colleges without settling on a major or getting a degree. In 1977, she took off for India to practice Hinduism. “I was so lost,” she says. “I wanted some explanation of the rules of the universe and life.”

There she met John Leland, then 32, a media consultant being tutored by the same guru. They returned to the U.S. and in 1979 were wed, along with 10 other couples, in a Hindu ceremony in Miami. They had a son, Andrew, now 14 and living with Simon, but grew apart and divorced in 1982.

The next year, now living in Nyack, Simon met Bishop, then a doctoral student, at a mutual friend’s wedding. “Jeff was brilliant, incredibly loving and really sweet,” she says. Simon started a dance troupe and attracted notice from Broadway producers. But after she wed Bishop in 1984, they moved to Toronto, where Bishop had a fellowship. There, labor laws made it difficult for a U.S. citizen to work in the arts. As a creative outlet, Simon tried writing. “When I was young, my father gave me his plays to read,” she says. “I had an innate knowledge of the structure.”

Her first effort, a comedy, drew encouragement from Neil Simon, but found no takers in Hollywood. She kept writing, but three months after she and Bishop moved back to Nyack, he was killed. Mason (who was divorced from Neil Simon in 1982) and Ellen’s sister Nancy—today 32 and a writer in California—came to stay with her. In them and her friend and neighbor, Claudette Melchizedek, Simon says she found people she could both cry and laugh with in her grief. And she found a story. “They saved my life,” she says. “That’s what I wanted to write about.”

Neil Simon says Ellen showed him a draft of Moonlight written for the stage, but asked only once for advice. “Ability is not passed down,” he says. “She just did it.” By the time Moonlight was sold for $500,000 to Working Title Films in 1992, Simon—who moved to Santa Fe in 1990—didn’t have to celebrate alone. That year, she had met Michael Florimbi, a film technician and the brother of Nancy’s then-boyfriend (now her husband) David, a painter. “We really hit it off,” says Simon. “But it took a year of friendship and then a year of dating” to seal the relationship.

Interested in Native American spirituality, the couple were married in Santa Fe in 1992 by a Muskogee-Cree medicine man. In July 1994 they had a daughter, Nicola, and with Simon’s career on the rise—filming begins in January on another of her scripts, One Fine Day, starring Michelle Pfeiffer—Florimbi has been able to pursue a passion for writing poetry. “He just started publishing,” says Simon. “Though it’s a switch for him to go from Hollywood to $50 a poem.”

Simon understands the need to follow one’s muse. “Ellen’s found her voice,” says Mason, 53 and a fellow Santa Fe resident. “Her life is fully her own.” Ellen’s father agrees: “People say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Well, Ellen is her own tree.”

Gregory Cerio

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