At a time when women were wrestling with what it means to be truly independent, Elizabeth Hailey’s (Betsy’s) 1978 best-selling novel, A WOMAN OF INDEPENDENT MEANS was inspired by the life of her grandmother, embodied by the fictional character Bess (Elizabeth) Steed Garner. The story, which moves from the 1900s to the 1960s, is told through her letters to the important people in her life. With Betsy’s playwright husband Oliver’s counsel, she decided to try to turn her novel into a one-hander, and fortuitously took it to their friend, Barbara Rush, who jumped at the property as a perfect vehicle for herself.
In 1983 when they were ready to workshop the play, they brought it to us and we entered a co-production agreement with Barbara. The Back Alley provided the theatre, running crew and marketing, and Barbara pulled together all the production elements. We kept the ticket sales but waived financial participation or credit in future productions. Norman Cohen directed, with costume designer Garland Riddle and sound designer Jon Gottlieb.
The plan was not to open the workshop production to reviewers, but from the moment we announced the limited run we were mobbed with requests for tickets. You couldn’t get in for love or…well…money did work. We maximized the opportunity by only making tickets available to donors. By the time we finally allowed the critics in, Dan Sullivan wrote in the LA Times, “Rush picks up every trick, and leaves you a blubbering fool at the end. Unfortunately, enough people have already seen the show to send all their friends to it, and there are almost no tickets to be had.
“Elizabeth, of course, would manage it. She would sit down at her graceful writing desk and compose one of her unrefusable letters. ‘Dear Back Alley Theatre: How wonderful to learn that the Los Angeles theatre renaissance continues, with yet another delightful and original—play! Unfortunately, my husband and I will be visiting your city from Dallas for only a few days. Dare we hope…?’ Enclosed, the Back Alley would probably find a $250 ‘donation.’”
The Back Alley’s donor rolls swelled exponentially and the impossibility of getting tickets made it the hottest one in town. It ran for five months. Among the many celebs who attended was Henry Mancini, who was inspired to write incidental music for the production.
A WOMAN OF INDEPENDENT MEANS did land on Broadway the following year, but Frank Rich panned it in the NY Times, following what was by then a long trail of LA hits that crashed and burned in NY. At the LA Drama Critics Circle Awards for that year the LA Times said, “The loudest audience acclaim greeted Barbara Rush, who won an award for her outstanding performance.” In LA, Variety called her “mesmerizing…her best performance ever in a play that is cleverly written and deftly directed.” The NY critics called it “the real thing, a genuine four-star fiasco…a nominee for this year’s Moose Murders.” Go figure.
The show did decently on the touring circuit, and Betsy told me that she and Barbara enjoyed many cruises together doing a concert version. In 1995 Sally Field starred in a six-hour NBC mini-series produced and directed by Robert Greenwald and was nominated for an Emmy.
Now, in 2022, Barbara is 95, living in an assisted living facility, still as handsome as ever I hear from Betsy, who has lunch with her almost every week. The book is still in print, which Betsy says is the best review you can ever get.