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 editor’s publish-or-perish saga. I told Jane that, as much as I agreed with the film’s sentiments, it was one more example of Hollywood thinking it can’t 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 he’d 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 you’re 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. Spock’s 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.