Polly Bergen 1997 (AP)
After a hiatus of 35 years, Polly Bergen opened before a standing room only audience, at a nightclub in New York, September 2000.
"It suddenly struck me," she recalls. "I'm 70 years old. I wonder if I could possibly end my life the way I started it: doing the most joyful thing I ever did, which is to sing."
After Bergen found out that she could sing, so did Broadway. Following her club act, Bergen landed a plum role in the current revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies." She received rave reviews and was nominated for a Tony Award for her performances in 2001.
"If someone had said to me that I was gonna be in 'Follies,' and I was gonna be nominated for a Drama Desk and a Tony Award, I would have said they were out of their mind," she comments.
During her nightclub act, Polly Bergen would sometimes say to her audience:
"I know what youíre thinking... you thought I was dead, right?"
In "Follies," Bergen gave it all she had, with her version of "I'm Still Here," an anthem to surviving whatever life brings, good and bad. She says, "I donít think there was anybody in that audience who didn't believe I was actually singing the story of my life. A great deal of what I sang about, almost everything that I sang about, I either have lived, or knew someone who had lived through all of those moments. And I was also telling them the truth about myself in another way, and that was that in 70 years all of us -- not just me, but all of us -- who have been in show business have gone through a lot of things. And we all go through a lot of ups and downs."
She recalls, "I started having a lot of problems with my voice in my mid-30s. And I was a very heavy smoker. I mean, a very heavy smoker, since I was a child. It was a way to look older and sophisticated. I got very badly addicted to it and didnít want to quit really. And, I remember a really stupid quote of mine that people come back at me all the time with - And that is: 'I had a choice of quitting smoking or singing another chorus of "Night and Day," and I chose to continue smoking. And I quit singing.' And it was a decision that I regretted from that day forward."
She says, "Every time I saw another singer on stage, Iíd sit there and Iíd want it to be me. But I just couldnít do it because I couldnít give up smoking." Eventually, Bergen developed serious health problems and had surgeries to correct severe circulation problems in her legs. She began to develop emphysema. Finally, enough was enough. Two years ago, she quit smoking and went to expert vocal coach Trish McCaffrey to see if she could make a comeback.
Says McCaffrey, "It took five or six lessons for her to start hearing herself the way she used to sound, and then I could tell that she started getting excitedÖ She wants to give it all all the time, so we had to find a way to bring all this energy inÖlearning to work with that energy to make it appropriate for that voice. Once her emotions got back in contact with her voice, then it really took off." For her club act, Bergen carefully chose her material. She looked for songs that showcased her vocal and acting talents.
Bergen became a very successful businesswoman in the cosmetics industry. She made a fortune and lost one. "I went from being an extremely wealthy womanóliving in a 4,000-square-foot apartment on Park Avenue, and suddenly found myself at one point with $35 in the bank," she says.
The 1980s were not good years for Bergen. Her troubled marriage with Freddie Fields ended in divorce. The stock market crash of 1987 hit her hard. She was not aware of how badly her money was being handled.
"The interesting thing about me," she observes, "is that I was born poor and Iíve lived rich and Iíve lived poor, and I know how to do both. People think rich is better. I don't know."
"You look at the road you could have taken, you know, I just think thatís interesting. Iíve been on a lot of roads and I had to hitchhike on a couple of 'em. I have to be very honest: Thereís not an awful lot of regret in my life. I think that, you know, you learn from everything," adding with a laugh, "and then, sometimes, you donít. You know, I mean, sometimes, you donít.
The "Follies" closed on July 14, 2001, Polly's 71st birthday - but she's still going strong. Polly Bergen's story is, in many ways, like the song she sang in "Follies," a song audiences will find hard to forget. "Maybe a lot of the people sitting in the audience were going through the same thing that the people in 'Follies' were going through," Bergen muses. "'Maybe I took the wrong road, and is it too late for me to change roads?' Well, I am here as living proof that at 72 you can change roads all you want."
Sources: CBS News, Charles Osgood; Post Gazette.Com, Babara Cloud;
Meredy's Place, Classic Movie/TV/Celebreties, Echoes in the Mist