In Memoriam: Jill Clayburgh (1944-2010)

"Jill was a beautiful person and an extraordinary actress. I loved her and miss her. She was deep, funny, surprising, sexy, a great mother and a great wife. ... What more can I tell you?"

With these words, the great filmmaker Paul Mazursky responded to an email I sent him on Friday, the day Jill Clayburgh’s untimely death at 66 was announced by her husband, playwright David Rabe.

I had asked him what it had been about Jill, a classmate of mine at The Brearley School in Manhattan from 1955-1962, that had appealed to him for the role in the 1978 film for which they had both received Academy Award nominations, An Unmarried Woman.

Mazursky’s description would resonate with her classmates of decades earlier.

From the sixth grade, when I first encountered Jill, she seemed to be a major celebrity in our class, but not because she behaved like one. She just naturally attracted far more interest than anyone else. Her energy -- the quality that when she was older came to be deemed “sexiness” -- was apparent at 11.

I suppose she would have struck Vladimir Nabokov as a nymphet -- a girl child who stood out from the others, who held a mysterious quality that none of us was then in a position to grasp or even to recognize, if only because Lolita was not published here until 1958. We now understand that another of the words with which we sought to capture Jill’s appeal was “charisma.” But this was five years before John F. Kennedy ran for president, so none of us had ever heard of it. No one had. Still, we knew it when we saw it.

There was a fascination with Jill that simply did not attach to anyone else in our class of 50 girls. At weekend parties with boys, Jill was the center of attention. I remember one such party, in 1957, when we were 13. All the girls wore what were called (how quaint this will sound) “party dresses.” These were typically velvet, satin or chiffon, and were usually in some hideously unflattering shade of pink, occasionally deepening into red, each selected in an effort to attract some small degree of attention. As it turned out, we all melted together in one vast rosy blob, while Jill alone stood out.

That November night she wore a stunning black long-sleeved, off-the-shoulder cashmere sweater with a white wool circle skirt. Between the drama of the black and the unexpected winter white, was her enviably small waist, highlighted by a black cinch belt. She looked amazing: chic, gorgeous -- Ava Gardner in The Barefoot Contessa. She looked so different from the rest of us, so mature (in a good way -- this was when we wanted to look mature). She danced the entire evening to the Everly Brothers, Johnny Mathis, and of course Elvis, as boys flocked to have a 30-second whirl across the floor with Jill before someone else cut in.

The actor, composer, and conductor John Rubinstein, who starred opposite Jill on Broadway in Pippin in 1972, expressed how those boys -- and millions of her admirers in the years since then -- felt about her when he emailed me after her death:

It was as easy as pie to fall in love with her anew eight times a week on stage, and to continue to feel affectionate and close to her for the next all-too-brief 38 years.

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.