America's Mom

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Jane Wyatt

It was in Nov. 1987 at a swank dinner for eight or ten people in the Hollywood Hills, and Jane Wyatt, who died last week at 96, was among the guests. She was happy to speak about her career to two longtime fans (Mary C. and me) who had grown up watching her as the wise and indulgent matriarch of Father Knows Best. I didnít want her to be my mother (I had, and have, a fabulous one, thank you), but I recognized in Jane an emissary from a vanished age of better manners, cleaner diction, gentleness and gentility. She was a lady, when that word could be the ultimate compliment for a woman. This was so long ago, children.

Jane sat next to me during the meal, with the chat swaying from movies to domestic matters to politics. She asked me about a movie I had just seen, Cry Freedom!, the story of the South African nationalist Steven Biko (Denzel Washington) and his white friend (Kevin Kline), an editor who wants to publish a book on Biko. Halfway through, Biko is dead, and Cry Freedom becomes the editorís publish-or-perish saga. I told Jane that, as much as I agreed with the filmís sentiments, it was one more example of Hollywood thinking it canít make a movie about a black man without making it really about a white man.

Pow! Jane landed a powerful jab to my right triceps that Sugar Ray Robinson would have been proud of. To her, any criticism by liberals about liberals amounted to conversational treason. Jane was firm and fervent in her beliefs, and she had paid for expressing them. A non-Communist liberal, she had denounced the House Committee on Un-American Activities and been gray-listed from Hollywood acting jobs in the early '50s. Robert Young reinstated her into the American family when he engaged her to play Margaret Anderson on the TV version of FKB, which heíd done on radio since 1949.

That sock in the arm soldered our friendship. In the next few years Mary and I met her twice more, both times under the aegis of society doyenne Phyllis Jenkins (who deserved, and got, her own memorial tribute on this site). On each visit, Jane remained the decorous charmer she so often played on stage, in the movies and on TV.

In case youíre wondering, Jane is not the Hollywood actress who married and divorced Ronald Reagan and won an Oscar for playing a deaf-mute. That was Jane Wyman. Our Jane was married to the same man, businessman Edgar Ward, until his death in 2000, one day short of their 65th wedding anniversary. Her career spanned just about that length, from Broadway in the early '30s to a last TV movie role in 1996. The year before our first dinner, she had played Mr. Spockís human mother in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home; and she had a recurring role on St. Elsewhere. But by then acting was a sideline. Her full-time employment was living graciously and making others feel better about themselves and the world because of her continuing and committed presence in it.

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