Actress Celeste Holm will be remembered for the convention-defying characters she inhabited so artfully – from flirtatious Ado Annie in the Broadway production of Oklahoma! in 1943, to “forthright, pert and frustrated” fashion editor Anne Dettrey in the 1947 film classic, Gentleman’s Agreement.In The Encyclopedia of Hollywood Film Actors, she’s described as “a warm and clever actress, as comfortable in drama as she was in comedy . . . one of the darlings of the postwar film era.”
But Holm, who passed away yesterday at age 95 in New York City, had a life that was tempestuous as any role that she played on stage or screen. By age 30, she’d been married three times and had two sons by different husbands before settling down with a fourth husband, stage actor Wesley Addy, to whom she stayed married for three decades until his death in 1996. Three years later she met Frank Basile, an opera singer 46 years her junior, and was so smitten that she began asking him to dinner and movies. As she blithely deadpanned in a 2011 New York Times article, “I never realized there was an age difference.”
After the two moved in together and married in 2004, however, tensions erupted between the couple and Holm’s two sons over control of the actress’s fortune and her sprawling Manhattan co-op apartment on Central Park West. Holm and her fifth husband sued to overturn the irrevocable trust set up by one of her sons, Daniel Dunning. Though the setup ostensibly was to protect her savings from taxes, Holm told the Times that her son “took my control” away. Ultimately, however, the lawsuit only burned up the money in the trust to pay for both sides’ legal fees. The ailing Holm, who struggled with memory loss, and Basile were left struggling to pay the co-op’s monthly $6,000 maintenance fee.
But that sad turn of events doesn’t diminish the memory of Holm as one of the wittiest, most irreverent stars of Hollywood’s postwar golden age. In a 1997 interview, she recalled, to her amusement, how the actor Leslie Howard, of Gone With the Wind fame, once walked up to her backstage at a play and suddenly, unexpectedly, “took me in his arms and kissed me as beautifully as I had ever been kissed before or since.”
A shocked Holm, who barely knew Howard, rushed off to her dressing room. Another actress explained to her mirthfully that Howard was extremely nearsighted and had mistaken her for a woman with whom he was having an affair, who the previous evening had been wearing a scarlet dress the same color as Holm’s. “It does make one realize how interchangeable we all are,” Holm laughed.
Photo: Everett Collection