Stephen Eckelberry’s Eulogy of Karen on her Memorial, September 17th, 2013
I recently found 1996 Chicago Tribune press clipping of an interview Karen did – one of those where you have short answers to questions – favorite childhood memory, my heros, etc. The last question was “three words that best describe me.” Karen’s answer: Light, present, non-derivative. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
On the subject of light, she was essentially, to her core, a happy person. She could work really hard and often did. But she loved having fun. She would put as much energy into having fun as she would into her work. Her parties where legendary – people still come up to me and say what a great birthday party we had in 1989. She loved seeing friends and going on picnics – and playing party games – especially games that involved performing – like one she invented “Are You Pleased?” Of course the answer was always ‘no’. “What would it take to please you?” – “sing me a song that expresses how you feel about flowers” ‘ “Stand on your head” or “do you an improv that you are a barking dog trying to get a steak off the table.”
Let’s talk about present – what she means by that is being present – and to me that was the biggest lesson I learned from Karen – Be there – engage life! There’s an exercise in Scientology where you have to sit in front of another person and do nothing – just be there comfortably without fidgeting. It’s a lot harder than you think. When you first do the exercise you typically do it a couple of hours a day for a few days. Karen loved that exercise so much that when she first did it in the early sixties she did it for a whole year. ‘I think you are done Karen’ “No, I love this!” She was present right until the very end. She was actively engaging life until the very end, which astounded the doctors, they never saw anything like it – most in that stage just nod out on morphine. She was in major pain, and yet took less pain killers than most housewives – she wanted to be there! A few hours before she died she had me doing her leg exercises, she wanted to get strong so that she could walk again.
I learned more about living watching her die than watching anyone else live.
She had been writing her autobiography with Linda Kandel, finished the last interview the night before – but she remembered one sentence she wanted to add. – by this point she could barely breath, and I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but she dictated to me over the course of 15 minutes, a whole paragraph, one word at a time. Here is what she had me transcribe – now mind you, this is not some deep philosophical statement, it was just a sentence that she wanted inserted in to the section about her love life – or rather her unrequited passion as a young woman:
“But these beautiful deep and bright red wooden apples that I gazed upon where the very ones that kept me from going across the slender hallway and into the television room and having sex with Charlie’s brother Tommy, just as I stared at the bannister along the hallway at the room in which classes where held in daylight at Perdue U. which kept me from rolling on the cement walkway with Jim Stevens at midnight.”
That was her last creative act, 2 hours before she died.
Okay, the last one – non-derivative: Karen though about things in her own way, had her own conclusions and ideas about everything. Everything about her was completely original.
She made up her own language, I tried to figure out what it was – seemed like a combination of Celtic and Swedish – it was usually when she was happy and wanted to express her affection and delight about something – so it would come out in various ways:
“Oh Sorsee sordid crinda!” Just nonsense words that I guess had a certain satisfying quality when expressing them.
And she was completely original when it came to acting. It really wasn’t method, though she did that too, it was just a combination of an insane amount of prep and then a complete in-the moment expression. She would prep by researching her role – do a Texan accent – what part of Texas? Pan handle? Southeastern? Dallas? She would call people who knew people and then find someone that was from Southeast Texas – “I don’t have accent anymore really” – then Karen would proceed to write out using her own phonetic notation how each vowel was pronounced. She would memorize like crazy!
When I first went with her she told me her rule: Be able to say your lines flawlessly 10 times. So she would have me run lines with her, and if she made one screw up, she would reset the counter to zero, and do it again, until she had it 10 times perfect. Then, when she was on set, she was free to be completely in the moment and there for the other actor.
Her work was an astounding combination of iron-willed discipline and freedom – complete control and complete lack of control at the same time. It’s a trick that few people are capable of doing.
Last thing I want to talk about is help. Karen helped a lot of people – in her own way. She never though she really helped anyone, she felt guilty that she was too hedonistic to go out and feed the homeless or raise money for earthquake victims – and yet she helped everyone she met. She had an ability to become best friends with everyone she met, usually in less than five minutes. She saw them for who they were deep inside and validated them for what they did. She gave you – you. She certainly did it for me. I was introverted when I first met her, reading books voraciously, but not going into the world – she made it okay to engage life, and led by example, which was a kind of joyous charge at existence.
Many wonderful thoughts and kind words and thoughts have made their way to us since Karen’s passing. I’ll leave you with one, from my friend Noel Sterrett:
“Several years ago I was in the middle of writing a script, and I asked Karen to let me know what she thought of the story. In it, the female lead inadvertently saves the life of a rock star she is stalking. As a result, her dream comes true and he falls for her, and…
Karen stopped me right there: ‘NO NO NO, that’s backwards. You don’t love who saves you, you love who you save’.”
Well, on that note, Karen must have loved a lot of people, because she helped everyone that had the fortune to cross her path.