When Eleanor Met Jack… 50 Years Later

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Yesterday would have been my Grandma Eleanor’s 111th birthday. In her memory, I’m sharing some wonderful letters from 1983, when she was 75 and I was 20. After visiting with her and my Grandpa Mac in Florida, I was inspired to write a letter to someone who I had heard Eleanor mention often since I was a boy: Jack Gilford.

Knowing my interest in comedy and musical theater, my grandmother loved to share that she went to elementary school with him — back when Jack Gilford went by Jacob Gellman. I recognized his stage name from Broadway cast albums, such as “Cabaret” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” the popular Cracker Jack’s commercials he starred in, and his portrayal of Winnie the Pooh, on one of my favorite LPs.

In my letter to Jack Gilford (see below), I explained why I was writing, and shared a photocopy of his inscription to Eleanor in her autograph book, when they were both students at P.S. 18 in Brooklyn. I made sure to include a current photo of her, to help jog his memory. I also shared a story the Eleanor told me often of how, when they were kids, Jack was constantly clowning around, and once jumped on my great grandmother’s new couch to get laughs from the other kids.

Two months later, I got a wonderful handwritten response from Jack (also featured below). He began it saying:

What a delightful surprise! What a wonderful flashback! Of course, I’m Jacob Gellman, and of course I remember Eleanor Feiman. I think her folks had a store on Grand Street and she and Ethel Krim were friends. We all graduated from P.S. 18 as you know.

I immediately shared this good news with Eleanor, and read her the letter over the phone. She especially loved his comment, “She was a pretty young girl and she certainly looks great now.” I think she also loved that this comment brought out some playful jealousy from my grandfather.

Eleanor took Jack up on his offer to call. They had a long phone conversation, chatting about their childhoods, revealing they both had incredible memories for detail. Jack mentioned he was in Florida performing in a dinner theater production of “Heaven Can Wait” (playing the part of… Mr. Jordan!) Eleanor – always an enthusiastic letter-writer – wrote me the day after she spoke with Jack and gave me the “tea” (as the kids say today) on their chat (see below)

While Eleanor was not able to see him in this production, another reunion opportunity popped up soon after. Jack was cast in the Ron Howard movie “Cocoon,” a sci-fi movie about a group of elderly people who get new vitality from space aliens. It was being filmed in St. Petersburg, which was close to my grandmother’s home in Sarasota.  Also in the cast were famous veteran actors, such as Hume Cronyn, Don Ameche, Jessica Tandy, Gwen Verdon and Maureen Stapleton. Jack had called Eleanor to invite her to the set to have lunch. Eleanor explained that she’d love to come but my mother happened to be visiting at the time. Jack invited her and my grandfather as well.

According to my mother, Eleanor was super excited but super nervous about seeing Jack after all these years. She changed outfits many times, hoping to find the “perfect” one. My mom said the reunion was delightful and charming. At one point, my Grandpa Mac, who always prided himself on my mother looking more like him than my grandmother, went over to Jack and asked, “Tell me, Jack, who does Eileen (my mom) look more like — Eleanor or me?” In a flash, Jack smiled and said, “I think she looks like me!”

I am a deep believer in the idea that someone is immortal as long as people have fond memories of them and tell stories from their lives. Looking at Eleanor’s handwritten letter to me from 1983 brought a rush of marvelous memories from all the terrific times we spent together.

And if you want to see a little of Jack Gilford’s unique talent, watch this clip of him using just his face to do an impression of pea soup bubbling over (JUMP to 5 minutes in).

Here’s to the bygone days of letter-writing! In this era of email, text, and tweets, it’s unlikely I would have had this kind of experience helping my grandmother connect with an old friend who she hadn’t seen in more than 50 years.

Enjoy this delightful correspondence from 36 years ago! (click on each page to see it enlarged)




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