By Alan Fern, National Portrait Gallery Director Emeritus
As I read the obituaries for Julie Harris in the New York Times and the Washington Post, I was reminded of the relationship that the Portrait Gallery enjoyed with her during my last few years as the museum’s director.
Each year, the National Portrait Gallery tries to provide a special event for the enjoyment of its docents. In 1993 the National Theatre presented Lettice and Lovage, the play about a docent in a British historic house, and I proposed a theater party as that year’s event. It turned out, however, that most of the docents already had seen the play or had purchased tickets. I suggested instead that we try to bring the noted actress who played the docent, Julie Harris, to be the speaker at lunch.
I wrote to Ms. Harris and soon got her reply, saying that she would enjoy doing this. I went to the theater after a performance, greeted her, and confirmed that she would come on a Monday when there were no shows. She did, and was a notable success—speaking, to our surprise, about her interest in museums and particularly in portraits.
After her talk I asked whether she would consider becoming one of the Portrait Gallery’s commissioners, as her knowledge of the theater and movies would be very helpful in our evaluation of potential acquisitions in the performing arts. She was enthusiastic, but explained that while she was not as busy as in years past, she still might not be able to attend meetings regularly. We agreed that she could participate by letter or phone, and I put her name forward at our next commission meeting, receiving an enthusiastic vote of approval.
While she never was able to attend a meeting, she was faithful in responding to our mailings—and offered her views on many subjects in addition to the performing artists proposed for acquisition.
However, on one occasion she did return to NPG as a commissioner—and to make a special contribution. We planned a special dinner to honor all the recipients of the Copley Medal, the Portrait Gallery’s award to significant donors, and to make a final presentation of the medals to more recent benefactors. The commissioners were to be special guests. Without telling anyone except those involved in planning the event, I asked Ms. Harris whether she would be willing to do a scene from her notable play, The Belle of Amherst, in which she evokes the life of Emily Dickinson, as a special—and unannounced—treat for those in attendance. She agreed.
In person, Julie Harris was unassuming, and she went unrecognized that night. To most of the guests she was just a nicely dressed, gracious lady, enjoying the evening as they were. Dinner was served, the new Copley medalists received their awards, and the previous recipients were duly applauded. At that point, I asked the guests to welcome our distinguished commissioner for a special presentation. Julie Harris came to the platform and instantly transformed herself into Emily Dickinson, giving a perfect rendition of one of the spellbinding scenes from the play. A moment of stunned silence was followed by an ovation. This was an astonishing close to one of the more notable donor events ever held during my tenure at the National Portrait Gallery. I was proud to have enlisted Ms. Harris to join us, and honored that she was willing to be such a terrific supporter of our work.
Her last years have not been untroubled. Not long after my retirement in 2000, I attended an interview program she did for the Smithsonian Associates, and realized that she had suffered a stroke. She handled herself well, though her speech was somewhat halting and she was clearly physically frail. I went back afterwards, and was delighted to find that her mind was intact. She remembered me and my wife, Lois, asked after the Portrait Gallery, and said she was determined to get over this setback. That was my last encounter with this great lady of the theater—my friend and colleague, for whom I have such lovely memories and warm thoughts.
Ethel Waters, Carson Smith McCullers, Julie Harris / Opening Night Party of "The Member of the Wedding" / By Ruth Orkin / Gelatin silver print, 1950 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution