Jill Clayburgh's life so closely paralleled mine, I feel as though a part of me lived a little through her and died a little with her.
She was an eager pup of an actress in 1972 when she snagged the part of the prostitute in a TV movie of my book, Hustling. Jill woke me at 7 a.m. in the Beverly Hills Hotel to insist we have breakfast so I could teach her all about the world of streetwalkers on Manhattan's Upper East Side. (For the record, I only knew as a journalist.)
Jill was a dog with a bone. She walked 42nd Street day after day, practicing her skills at catching tricks. She couldn't wait to show off her Oscar-worthy performance. I watched her stop a tall black dude with a brimmed hat and chains. When their dialogue stalled, I strolled over to catch the drift. The dude was smiling.
"WAassa matter with you, sugah, Ah'm a pimp!"
Jill wanted to double down on her research. I arranged for her to ride the pros van. She sat in the cage with the girls listening to their stories. She integrated their neuroses with her own. The performance she turned in was as raw and painful as the blistered heels of the girls I had tried to befriend.
Then, of course, she found her voice in 1976 as the dumped wife in An Unmarried Woman, which spoke to the throttled pain of a generation of early feminists who lost our subservient first marriages but emerged more whole.
Last summer I had another chance to work with Jill. She read a little play of mine, Chasing the Tiger, and to my delight, offered to help me shape it. This time, I was the amateur, sitting at the feet of the master.
We were in her kitchen in Lakeville, Connecticut. David Rabe, her playwright-novelist husband, hovered nearby, not at all certain that this was a commitment she should undertake.
Jill had agreed to play me in a love story -- pro bono -- to benefit a local charity. It was about a couple who lived for almost 20 years, victoriously, with cancer. It was my story, with my husband, Clay Felker, for whom I was the caregiver.
It was Jill's story, too. Unbeknownst to me, Jill had been battling cancer for 20 years. But in her case, it was the husband who was cast in the selfless role of caregiver. Her daughter, the lovely Lily Rabe, was lighting up Central Park with her portrayal of Portia in Merchant of Venice. Her husband was launching a hit novel.
Jill threw herself full tilt into the rushed rehearsals. She mostly memorized long monologues that carried the play. We worked in an airless church during scorching hot days. She lured the brilliant Ed Herrmann into playing Clay. They danced, they romanced, they fought a tug of war, and they left the audience in raptures and tears when death did them part.
Jill didn't expect her socially-averse husband to turn up for the show. But he was there, and he was proud. At the after party, he whispered to her, "I didn't think you should do it. I'm damn glad you did."
We'd just had an offer to take the play across country. She beamed up at her tall, handsome husband: "We're going to California!" That was the last live performance she ever gave.
Brava, Jill. You were generous of heart and luminous of performance.
Bravo, David. She was touched by your praise.
Follow Gail Sheehy on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Gail_Sheehy