Tea with Queens Victoria and Mary

As tributes poured in for actress Betty White, who died on New Year’s Eve 2021, I recalled a long-ago summer afternoon when I ran into her at the Dennis Public Market on Cape Cod. Actually, White ran into me. 

That would have been in 1962, when White and her husband, Allen Ludden, were appearing together in a comedy at the Cape Playhouse. I was ushering at the Playhouse that summer, and after a week of performances I had learned most of White’s lines and many of her perfectly timed pauses.  

I was making some hard decisions at the market’s dairy cooler (chocolate or strawberry ice cream?) when White suddenly was standing beside me. “Would you happen to know where they hide the raspberry jam?” she asked, with a Sue Ann Nivens gleam in her bright blue eyes. I remember feeling like she had invited me to join her in some antic prank. A treasure hunt, perhaps, among the marmalades. 

I steered White down the aisle of condiments and made sure that she could find two or three other items on her shopping list. She thanked me, then flashed a naughty smile. We parted, partners in some crime that I had loved but couldn’t quite explain. 

Over the next 40 years I would have the opportunity to interview dozens of celebrities as a writer for several national publications.  Friends always wanted to know what their favorite stars were really like--offstage, when the tape recorder was no longer running.  Rex Harrison, for example. He must have been a charmer?

Not. As he and I sat down at a table for two in a lounge at the Ritz, I opened by asking Harrison some softball questions about his early days on the stage, intending to put both of us at ease. But he was having none of it. He batted down one friendly query after another, and I began to feel increasingly smaller and more stupid—as if I hadn’t done any preparation for the interview, which I had. 

Years later I was preparing for another interview, with Maya Angelou, who could not have been more gracious. “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, and people will forget what you did,” the poet, author, and civil rights activist had written. “But people will never forget how you made them feel.”  

Helen Hayes, the First Lady of the American Theatre, made my mother feel like a queen. I’d landed an interview with Hayes and was scheduled to talk with her at her Victorian home overlooking the Hudson River in Nyack, NY. I was eight months pregnant at the time, and as the appointment drew closer, I was finding it harder and harder to fit behind the wheel. So my mother offered to help out: she would take the day off from work and drive me from Massachusetts to New York. 

It was raining cats, dogs, and several other species on the day of the interview. I told my mother that she would have to wait in the car, for probably an hour, and she seemed thrilled to be parked in proximity to the Broadway legend who had defined both Queen Victoria and Mary, Queen of Scots.  

No, I don’t remember what we talked about, but, yes, it went well—until Hayes found out that my mother was riding out the November storm in her driveway.

“Oh, no. Oh, no!” Hayes chirped, and sent out two of her staff with umbrellas to retrieve my mother. While she dripped in the foyer, the kitchen team bustled into action and within minutes my mother and I were sitting down to tea and biscuits as Helen Hayes poured. 

My mother basked in the aura of that generous hospitality for years to come, and she loved to regale listeners with details of Hayes’ home, from the view of the Hudson River to the colors of the tea cozies. 

Several weeks after our visit, I received a note in the mail. “Did I ever like your story?” Hayes wrote me. “I loved it! So did your readers to the point of sending me dozens of copies. My mail has been clogged with them. I like that, too!”

I’d never had a thank-you note before. Or since. And Hayes had two follow-up questions: “Has your baby arrived? And what is it?” 

“It” was a boy, Helen. He’s now almost 40, and he still loves to hear the story about the day his grandmother had tea with the queens. 



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