Two auspicious dynamics launched a popular coed onto the stage at Bowling Green State University in her sophomore year: a dare and her loveliness.
Eva Marie Saint, who won an Oscar 11 years after her college debut, returns next weekend to act on that very stage, a place she now calls “my theater.”
The 1946 BGSU graduate and her husband, Jeffrey Hayden, perform Love Letters in the 500-seat Eva Marie Saint Theatre Saturday. It's the story of a woman and a man told through their correspondence, beginning with notes passed to each other in elementary school and continuing into their golden years. During the show, they sit next to each other and don't exchange a glance until the end.
“I love doing it with Jeff,” said Saint in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. The event is a fund-raiser for the BGSU scholarship she established in 1986.
Saint and Hayden will also be at next Sunday's 25th anniversary celebration for the 168-seat Gish Film Theater, at which The Trip to Bountiful, a 1953 made-for-television movie starring Saint and Lillian Gish, will be screened at 3 p.m. Saint and James Frasher, who managed the late Ms. Gish's career, will introduce the film.
Life has been good to Saint, who skyrocketed to fame with her first film, On the Waterfront (1954), co-starring Marlon Brando. He was a hoodlum, she was the girl who helped him find salvation.
Saint and Hayden, who have been married for 50 years, have developed a satisfying rhythm of life. They are inveterate walkers, doing a brisk 40 minutes at 7 a.m. and a repeat at 5:30 p.m. “It's wonderful for your mind,” she said.
Weekends, they ride 90 minutes up the coast to their beloved townhouse overlooking the beach in Montecito near Santa Barbara, Calif. It is here they gather with friends and family. They have three grandchildren. Their daughter, Laurette, is an independent film producer in Los Angeles. Their son, Darrell, is a graphic designer living near San Francisco.
Retirement, Saint said, is not part of their lexicon. She and Hayden, a director and producer, work on scripts for stories they like but which don't have big-screen potential - about relationships, for example - and stories lacking nudity and violence. She hates violent movies; even watching the trailers makes her sick, she said.
“It gets harder and harder because the things we'd like to do are not commercial,” she said.
The couple has recently performed Love Letters and On the Divide, which Hayden wrote based on the works of Nebraska writer Willa Cather.
Last weekend, they were invited to Port Townsend, a quaint seaside village outside Seattle where she was the featured guest at a film festival. Sitting on bales of hay under the moonlight, people watched North by Northwest, the 1959 Alfred Hitchcock film she and Cary Grant starred in. A few weekends earlier, they were in Santa Fe doing On the Divide.
Theirs has been a life too steady for tabloid grist. Family was their first priority when they decided whether to take on major projects. A wonderful housekeeper kept the household humming smoothly for 25 years. And above all, she and Hayden were lucky to have found each other, she said.
“I think being married to the right guy has been a huge part of it,” she said. It has helped that he is in the business, but not an actor. “My husband was so supportive. He always encouraged me.”
They met at Elia Kazan's Actors Studio in New York City, where Saint headed after graduating from BGSU. Shortly after marrying, she was working on On the Waterfront during the day, taking the subway home to make dinner at 6 p.m., and then rushing off for Broadway where she was appearing with Gish in Trip to Bountiful at night.
Hayden directed the Andy Griffith and Donna Reed shows and has directed live theater at the Kennedy Center in Washington and in New York.
Among his labors of love are a 1996 documentary about the differences between Ohio's rich and poor public schools, Children in America's Schools with Bill Moyers. It helped convince Ohio's Supreme Court to declare the state's method of funding schools as unconstitutional. The project was inspired by Hayden's children trying to find suitable public schools for their own kids, along with Jonathan Kozol's book, Savage Inequities.
Hayden also wrote and produced the life story of Sister Mary Corita, a gifted artist and Catholic nun whose serigraphs he collected. Her art of the 1960s and 1970s expressed social change, and she also designed the 25-cent “LOVE” postage stamp. Saint narrated the hour-long show, which aired on public television.
Likewise, Saint has blended jobs in film, television, and stage. In 1956, she made That Certain Feeling with Bob Hope. In 1959, she and Cary Grant dangled from Mt. Rushmore in North by Northwest. The following year, she co-starred with Paul Newman in Exodus. From the 1970s on, the bulk of her work has been on stage and in television dramas and series, including playing Cybill Shepherd's mother in Moonlighting.
Last year, she portrayed Kim Basinger's mother in I Dreamed of Africa, shot in South Africa. (“Read the book,” she advises. The film was so heavily edited, the final product was “jumpy,” she said.)
Saint grew up outside of Albany, N.Y. Her mother taught school before her two daughters were born. Her father was a credit manager for a tire manufacturer.
Balderdash, she says. “I was too shy to try out.”
Her older sister, Adelaide, enrolled at BGSU, which was far more affordable than Eastern colleges, Saint said.
Her first impression of Northwest Ohio? “I cried when I saw how flat Toledo was.”
Adelaide studied chemistry and went on to be a researcher. Outgoing, she introduced her little sister to a boy to whom Eva Marie became engaged to but didn't marry.
BGSU yearbooks have numerous photos of Saint during that period dominated by World War II. There's a special quality about her pictures. With shoulder-length honey-blonde hair, she appears demure and sweetly pensive. Writers have described her appeal as a concoction of fragile sensitivity, cool elegance, wan beauty, warm candor, and wholesome likability. On campus, she was voted one of the 10 most beautiful girls, Dream Girl, Queen of the Sweater Swing, and May Queen.
Her plan was to be a third-grade teacher, but after her first play, she was starstruck. She wrote of her indecision to Elden Smith, chairman of BGSU's speech department. His three-page response spelled out the pros and cons of teaching, but he thought she could handle the rejection implicit in show biz.
“I felt at the end of the letter that I could do it. And I told my folks, and bless their respective hearts they said, ‘Do what will make you happy.'” Last year, performing Love Letters in Sarasota, Fla., she introduced Dr. Smith, who was in the audience.
She also maintained a friendship with Lillian Gish, who was, she says, a consummate professional.
“She was the first at the theater and the last to leave. She was so strong but so vulnerable at the same time. And she was very sweet and very kind and very giving,” she said. “She used darling stationery with little robins and little chickens.”
Ralph Wolfe, curator of the Gish Film Theater and Gallery and retired BGSU professor, said Gish, who appeared in more than 100 films throughout the 20th century, was said to lack vanity.
“And there's nothing vain about Eva Marie. She doesn't feel the world revolves around her and she has to be treated like a star,” Dr. Wolfe said.
Saint continues reading scripts, looking for meaty parts. She likes what Cary Grant said about getting on the show business bus: You might start out in the front row, eventually move to the middle, and then the back. And you might end up standing and holding on to a strap. “But the point is, you're staying on the bus,” she said.
Tickets for “Love Letters” are $15-$150. Tickets for Oct. 14th's 3 p.m. screening of “The Trip to Bountiful” are $10 and reservations are required. Call 419-372-2424.