Lee Meriwether: The life of a City College alumna
By Benjamin Taylor
Inside the Diego Rivera Theater, the stage is almost bare. There’s a wooden step ladder, some coiled rope, and several old props laying displaced on dusty wooden planks. The theater is empty too, save for three occupied seats, and two figures up on stage working among the bare bones of a living room set: a couch, a coffee table and a window frame looking out on empty seats.
Lee Meriwether’s voice echoes through the theater as she recites her lines, occasionally calling out to director Susan Jackson for cues. She gazes out wistfully through the window frame into the shadow, which in one week’s time will be the opening night audience for City College’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
“It’s really an amazing piece of literature,” said Meriwether, during a break. “It’s about Eugene O’Neill’s family, and he’s so brutally honest about it. Of course, he wrote it when they were all gone. But for him to face those ghosts was really rather amazing at that time.”
It was 2007 when Meriwether and Jackson discovered their mutual admiration for the playwright Eugene O’Neill.
“Lee and I were talking and I told her that I was on the Eugene O’Neill board. She said ‘Oh, I’ve always wanted to do ‘A Long Day’s Journey Into Night,’ and I said ‘so have I!’”
Director Susan Jackson first met Meriwether in 1985, when they both starred in a City College production of “The Artful Lodgers,” a play written by Meriwether’s husband Marshal Borden, who also acted in the play.
“We’ve been in contact since then,” Jackson said. “To direct her is just a dream come true. I certainly enjoyed acting with her on stage, but directing her has just been wonderful.”
As one of City College’s most distinguished alumni, Meriwether took theater classes here in 1955. She was chosen to represent the school that year in the Miss San Francisco beauty pageant, which she won. That year she was also crowned Miss California, and then Miss America. She has starred in television series spanning from “Barnaby Jones” to “All My Children,” appeared in dozens of movies including the original “Batman” starring Adam West and she has remained a dedicated stage actress. Meriwether is back where her career began, performing a play that will benefit the Kennedy Student Scholarship. At 73 years old, she shows no signs of slowing down, nor has she forgotten her City College roots.
Over the years, Meriwether has returned to City College several times to star in productions including “Our Town” and “Happy End,” with the proceeds always going to charitable causes. She always welcomes the opportunity to give back to her school, and to bring attention to college theater, which she says is still alive and well, “and thank heaven for it.”
In this production, Meriwether plays the role of Mary Tyrone, a morphine addicted wife and mother of the dysfunctional Tyrone family.
“It’s one of the great roles in theatrical history really, and there aren’t that many roles out there for women of age,” Meriwether said. “It’s challenging, the magnitude of it. We catch her later on in life, when she’s recovered from a morphine addiction, and all of a sudden it starts over again.”
She speaks with a slow, wise tone that comes with a lifetime’s experience while choosing her words carefully and making sure to convey the deepest meaning with the simplest terms. When on stage, her movements are graceful, and even from the back row her appearance is immediately striking.
Meriwether said from the time she was in the fourth grade, all she ever wanted to do was act.
“It’s unusual that I got to fulfill that dream,” said Meriwether, who first performed on the stage when she was in grammar school, singing “Have Yourself a Merry Christmas,” in a school production of “Meet Me in St. Louis.”
After attending George Washington High School, where she acted in several plays, Meriwether enrolled in City College to study theater arts and English. She was living on Portola Drive at the time with her parents and primarily chose the school because it was conveniently located.
“The theater, when I went here, was very small. It was in the main building down in the basement,” Meriwether said. “It used to be the old ROTC shooting range, so it was very long and narrow.”
She looks up with a soft smile and a far away look as she thinks back.
“We were performing this play, and our backs were right up against the wall, but we needed to have some space behind us. How we had the gumption back then to do this I don’t know,” she said with a laugh. “But I remember one day that I noticed something sparkling shiny, like metal in the wall behind us.”
When the wall behind them was demolished, they found that a gap between two buildings had been filled with thick steel train tracks to prevent bullets from going through into the classroom next door. “The shining metal that I had seen was a bullet,” said Meriwether. “There were hundreds of flattened bullets stuck into the metal.”
One year of City College was all Meriwether took. That year she was chosen to represent the school in the Miss San Francisco pageant.
“I had such a good time, because we didn’t have this theater, we had our little rifle range, and to make that work, to put on plays that worked in that space was fun,” Meriwether said of her year at City College. “And we did it and they worked out pretty darned good. We had a lot of fun.”
“Then it was Miss California, and then Miss America. From there I went right in to television in New York with the today show.”
Meriwether was The Today Show’s first ever female editor, and according to her biography the position enabled her to use her scholarships from the pageants to study dance, singing and acting with some of the top coaches in New York. As a result, she soon landed her first television role on “The Philco Television Playhouse,” with Mary Astor. From there she went on to star in her first motion picture, “The 4-D Man,” with Robert Lansing, and made her first professional stage appearance in “Hateful of Rain.” However, Meriwether is probably most well-known for her portrayal of “Betty” in the CBS series, “Barnaby Jones,” a role she played for eight years and earned her nominations for the Golden Globe and the Emmy awards.
Though it was brief, Lee looks back on her time at City College fondly, reminiscing of when she acted in productions such as “Kind Lady,” which she counts among her favorite roles.
“It was a role where I played a demented woman and she was just off her rocker. I had about six lines, and they were all ‘Yes Henry, yes Henry, yes Henry,’ that’s all she said. She was a swindler’s gal, but she was demented, so he just used her. It was a wild play.”
Today, Meriwether is based in Los Angeles and flies out to New York periodically for appearances on “All my Children.” She recently co-starred with Ed Harris, playing his drunken, cigarette-smoking mother in a new movie called “Touching Home,” which has yet to be released and last year played the part of a secretary in the movie “The Ultimate Gift,” with James Garner.
According to Susan Jackson, Meriwether returns to City College about every eight or nine years.
“I’m hoping to encourage some other alumni to come back and appear here,” Meriwether said. “Ted Lange and I wanted to do ‘Love Letters,’ and we may well do it within the next two years. I talked to him a while ago and he said ‘Oh yeah, lets do it!’”
Jackson says that she is happy to give students the opportunity to work with someone of Lee’s caliber and experience, and also a chance to showcase O’Neill’s work.
“Lee has come to my classes and talked at my classes. She’s a part of the college community, truly,” Jackson said.
Meriwether says that she is having a great time working on the play.
“I’m loving it,” Meriwether said. “It’s been quite a moving experience.”