Memories of Molly Picon

On The Go

By Masha Leon

Published August 19, 2009, issue of August 28, 2009.
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The July 31 kick-off party for the 2009 Alzheimer’s Association Rita Hayworth “So Near & Yet So Far” October gala was hosted by her daughter Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, Anne Hearst McInerney and Jay McInerney at the McInerney’s Water Mill home. Gala chair Alexandra Lebenthal’s moving description of her mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s underscored the event. “Nine years ago when she turned 70, she looked at the garden she had planted [in the Hamptons] and, looking at what she had done, said to me: ‘I am going to live ‘til 100.’” Lebenthal continued: “I think deep down she knew that there were already changes going on: forgetting to turn the stove off…ordering the same things several times from catalogues, getting lost coming to a child’s birthday party…. Nine years later she is still with us but incapacitated. My sister Claudia and I walk by the flowers she planted and say: ‘Hi, Mommy.’ I think she will live ‘til 100 because she is in those flowers.” Among the guests present were: former NYC Police commissioner William Bratton (forsaking Los Angeles to return to the Big Apple), gala honorees John and Margo Catsimatidis and Muffie Potter Aston.


Molly Picon: Performs in “Shmendrik” in 1924.
Forward Association
Molly Picon: Performs in “Shmendrik” in 1924.

Alzheimer’s — an equal opportunity disease — also felled the beloved “darling of the Yiddish theater” Molly Picon. The American Jewish Historical Society’s exhibit “Pages from a Performing Life: The Scrapbooks of Molly Picon” currently at the Center for Jewish History, helps keep the memory alive of a theatrical force that thrilled generations of Jewish and non-Jewish fans around the world. I still find it hard to believe that the 5-foot tall, 100-pound Picon, who walked three miles a day, did 20 push ups and skipped rope daily, succumbed to Alzheimer’s. Though I had known her for years, it was our February1982 interview, when she was 84 that gave me an entree to lesser-known Picon “memory-bilia.”

“I just did concerts in Israel and the people who came to see me are the people who saw me all over in Europe who finally escaped to Israel,” she said. “People threw bouquets at me after each song. ‘Molly! Gedenkst Varshe?Molly! Gedenkst Vienna? Kishinev*,’ Molly do you remember Warsaw, Vienna, Kishinev?” she replied: “I did. I never forgot.”

Harking back to her and husband Jacob ”Yankel” Kalish’s 1922 trip to Europe, she reminisced: “We did a concert at Baden-Baden. [Chaim] Weizmann was there. It was a convention at which he spoke and [poet Chaim] Bialyk was there to hear Weizmann. Then he came to hear me because it was a Yiddish concert and he did not know what material we did nor who we were. Well, it was not on Bialyk’s level. Ours was the popular shund [lowbrow] musical theater. Anyway, he came backstage and said to Yankel in Yiddish: zi makht fun a podeshve, aingemakhts (she transforms the sole of a shoe into marmalade). Then Bialyk invited us to Israel…Palestine, for a Seder. We went and we met not Golda Meir, the other one, [Hadassah Women’s Organization founder] Henrietta Szold.” Swinging her arm dramatically in an arc over her head, as though highlighting the paintings and mementos on her walls, she exclaimed: “Oh, God, I haven’t thought of this for years.”

“After that we went to Israel every few years and began adopting children. So first we adopted a girl, then a few years later, a boy. We sent them all through college and now I have four adopted children and five eyniklakh, grandchildren,” said Picon. I ventured, “They call you the ‘Yiddish Helen Hayes.’” She smiled. “We’ve been friends for many, many years. Helen came backstage when I was doing ‘Milk and Honey’ [on Broadway] and I told her, ‘I’m thankful you liked me because I am often called ‘di yidishe Helen Hayes.’ She said to me, ‘Molly, from now on I’ll be very proud to be the ‘Shiksa Molly Picon.’”

Her favorite play, she told me, was “‘Yankele’ “because I played it thousands of times all over the world. And they remember, and the minute they see me, its ‘Oy, Molly! Yankele!’ It’s not so much that they remember the play, but they remember themselves when they saw it, when the family was together…I think that what I am to them is part of their lives.”

When I next saw Picon a few years later accompanied by her sister not far from the Lincoln Center apartment they shared, Alzheimer’s had already begun to erase these memories. She did not recognize me. Now all have until December to remember, re-experience or be introduced to Molly Picon at the exhibit at the Center for Jewish History, 15 W. 16th Street in New York.

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