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August 12, 2005

Death of a "Cat"

Roy Meachum

You probably knew her from "Dallas." After dealing with various vicissitudes that come with any committed life, including the lingering death of her husband, Barbara Bel Geddes hit her public stride as Miss Ellie, the rambunctious matriarch of the Ewing clan.

Ms. Bel Geddes died of lung cancer, the same disease that killed ABC anchor Peter Jennings and threatens the life of wife of the late Christopher Reeve. In her forties, Dana Reeve was not a smoker. "Miss Ellie" certainly was. Her co-stars on the long running TV hit all tried to get her to quit - to little avail.

In her generation cigarettes were the ultimate in sophistication to America' s young, on a par with demonstrating a talent for holding booze. The trick was to "drink everybody else under the table" and flick ashes on their sodden bodies.

As somebody said at her death this week, Ms. Bel Geddes was "up there." At 82, she epitomized the generation that came of age just in time to confront World War II. As the daughter of Norman Bel Geddes, a designer who helped establish modern style in American life, she scarcely suffered privations during the Great Depression but she was there.

Her decision to become an actress may have been simply a case of going with the flow; she was on Broadway at 18 and a full-fledged star by 23. Through her daddy she knew all sorts of people including producers, directors and actors. She had the blonde good looks that lingered on - with help - through her life, according to pictures.

When youth and blood were warmer, l saw her the one and only time. She was in her mid-thirties, the very first Maggie in Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Her costars were a very young Rip Torn, still hung up on the illusion that talent was what really mattered, and Burl Ives.

At a time following World War I that America was attempting to demonstrate its sophistication, its alliance with the finer things of European life, Mr. Ives provided the antidote. No singer of our culture has had as much impact as provided on his CBS broadcasts of our folk songs, mostly from the hills.

In person he was a mighty presence, all shoulders and gut, someone not to be trifled with. In other words, the very personification of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof's" Big Daddy, a man accustomed to defining, and defying, the world around him.

In conventional theatre, the male lead would have gone to Rip Torn's Brick, an incapacitated former athletic star who discovered in booze and his disability that he might not prefer women over males. The character's indecisiveness on that count made the "Tin Roof" hot and motivated the plot.

But when Ms. Bel Geddes appeared on stage, in her shimmering slip, all bets were off. She projected that magical combination of availability and reluctance that may be the heart of all sexual attraction. She was, in a word, "Cat," moving around a Mississippi plantation house looking for a male connection to suit her female state.

Anyone blinded by Thomas Lanier "Tennessee" Williams blank poetry - and their numbers are not few - must disregard his penchant for downright sensuality. I will spare you the academic discussions that have focused on how "Streetcar Named Desire's" Blanche Dubois was the writer himself.

It was quite enough for me that Mr. Williams' women were believable and sympathetic, especially Maggie the Cat, especially as portrayed on stage that night long ago. I found the cinema's Elizabeth Taylor little more than a suitable substitute. It should have been the original up there on the screen. Losing the part must have broken Ms. Bel Geddes heart. She loved the movies so.

Previous readers will easily believe I never saw her as the Ewing matriarch: "Dallas" was not my cup of television "tea." Barbara Bel Geddes will always be - for me - the fascinating blonde in the white slip drifting around a New York stage.

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