In Memoriam: Jill Clayburgh (1944-2010)

Other girls in other schools all over the world have stood out from their classmates and fascinated them as Jill fascinated us. But there was something else, something more enduring about Jill that set her apart: her immense talent. That, combined with her powerful discipline.

Two gifts in particular impressed her classmates from the start. One was that she could sing more beautifully than anyone in the school’s choral group. At 11, Jill sounded like a professional soprano when the rest of us could barely remember the words, or for that matter, the music. She had perfect pitch. She would take a deep breath and a dazzling sound would fill the air. Even though there were dozens of other girls singing, all you could hear -- fortunately for the rest of us -- was Jill’s voice suffusing the auditorium.

As remarkable as was her voice, and with it her exquisite vocal control, Jill’s greatest love was acting. And act she did, years before the world saw her on Broadway or in the movies. She played the lead in every class play. While the majority of her classmates were in the chorus, Jill memorized vast swathes of Euripides, Shakespeare, and Gilbert & Sullivan. If most of us forgot our lines, who would have noticed? But Jill, from an early age, carried the plays entirely from memory. Of all her starring roles at school, the most memorable to me was the tragic heroine Hecuba in The Trojan Women of Euripides. This was when she was 11 years old. The character she played was a mother and a grandmother, as well as a queen. Her stage make-up made her appear to be in her sixties -- about as old as any of us could ever imagine being. She uttered the lines first spoken in Athens in 415 B.C.:

Hecuba: Alas! Alas! Alas! Ilium is ablaze; the fire consumes the citadel, the roofs of our city, the tops of the walls!

Chorus: Like smoke blown to heaven on the wings of the wind, our country, our conquered country, perishes. Its palaces are overrun by the fierce flames and the murderous spear.

Hecuba: O land that reared my children!

It was a performance -- a tour de force -- that more than half a century later is still vivid. At age 11, she had reached her full height of 5 feet 7 inches. Far more importantly, she had a profound emotional understanding of the magnitude of the tragedies that had befallen Hecuba: her dethronement, her exile from her beloved Troy (Ilium), the deaths of her children and grandchildren. Her powerful, poignant voice rang out through the 600-seat auditorium unaided by a microphone.

Jill Clayburgh went on to give many extraordinary performances in her long -- but not long enough -- career. One hundred years from now, people will still be moved when they see her in An Unmarried Woman.

But for me the most memorable role is the one that foreshadowed her future: her portrayal of a regal woman in her 60s, all but overwhelmed by the cruel fate ordained by the capricious gods, conveyed with unforgettable emotional depth by an 11-year-old actress.