Actress Blythe Danner On Love And Loss

Actress Blythe Danner on Love and Loss
Love, Self

You haven't spoken publicly about your husband's death before. What made you feel you were ready now?
I just felt it was of the utmost importance to do this. I saw that [the issue of head and neck cancer] had not gotten into the mainstream media, and I know that Bruce would want me to get this message out—that's the kind of guy he was. He was always curious and informing people about so many things. And now that I have grandchildren … I thought I would like to see the number of these cancers come down. Forty thousand people a year contract [head and neck] cancer. And I'm hoping that by the time they're grown it will be diminished quite a bit.

When Bruce's cancer was diagnosed in 1999, had he been having symptoms for a while?
That was the tragedy … We missed the early signs. He'd always had a hoarse voice, but it became increasingly so. I did ask him to go to the doctor, but being strong-willed (and men often balk at that idea), he wouldn't go. When he finally did, it was too late. That's what I could kick myself for—not just making the appointment and getting him there.

You've had a very rich and active career. Did that help you through the mourning period?
It definitely did. I was very fortunate, and I always say I think Bruce was directing it all from above, because all these great things [an Emmy win for her role as Isabelle "Izzy" Huffstoldt on Huff, a role in Meet the Fockers, appearances on Will and Grace, and various theater roles] happened so soon after he died—it really did keep me going.

What's the wisest thing anyone ever said to you about grief?
Joan Didion wrote a wonderful book, The Year of Magical Thinking, talking about the meaninglessness of life. That rang very, very true for me. Life really is meaningless. When you get this news … All of my effort went into putting one foot in front of the other and carrying on. I was married for almost thirty-three years, and he was the center of the whole family's world, really. It wasn't until the grandchildren came along that I felt hopeful again. And Bruce would not want us to wallow in our grief, and I always hear him … His voice is always there saying, "Get on with it." There was a saying that I loved, and that he loved, by Robert Frost: "In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on."

You and your husband worked in the same industry. What part did work play in your marriage?
We shared a love of what we did. He was a wonderful writer-director … and he was incredibly generous. He always said to me, "I'll do the commerce, you do the art." He allowed me to go off and do plays and things, and I think a lot of men wouldn't have been amenable to that.

Do you think your children have seen your relationship with Bruce as a model?
I hope so! My daughter's in a wonderful relationship and now has two children, and we're a very close-knit family. All these family celebrations are now very bittersweet because he's not with us …

Did you weigh in on the names (Apple and Moses) when Gwyneth and Chris were choosing them?
No, I didn't, and I'm glad I didn't, because they're absolute perfection! I get so annoyed with Americans always picking on these names. We're just not with it over here! I mean, there are Plums and Pears and Marigolds and all kinds of wonderful floral and vegetarian names in England, but we're very judgmental in this country.

Where did you come up with the name Gwyneth?
Gwyneth was a friend of mine in first grade and she was English and she had this wonderful accent and I was just fascinated with it. And I have an unusual name too, so we're just perpetuating that tradition.

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