Friday, November 27, 2009

These Are Their Stories

I can't remember where I first read about Remember How I Love You: Love Letters From An Extraordinary Marriage by Jerry Orbach and Elaine Orbach - but I suspect I saw it in one of Simon & Schuster's catalogs. I filed it away in the back of my mind, and when I noticed one of my colleagues ordered it for work, I put my name on the waiting list expecting to browse through it. I'm a massive Law & Order fan, and I adore Jerry Orbach (who passed away in 2004), and that was enough for me to give it a whirl.

Imagine my surprise when I was able to plow through the whole book on my lunch break.

This is a slim (182 pages) gift-sized hard cover that was put together by Orbach's widow, Elaine. They met during the original production of Chicago on Broadway. Orbach was cast as Billy Flynn, while Elaine was the understudy for Chita Rivera, who was playing Velma Kelly. Being an understudy was actually a step down for Elaine's career at the time, but she said it was fate, because that's how she and Jerry ultimately met and fell in love.

During the course of their 25 year marriage, Jerry would scribble Elaine poems every morning. Because of his shooting schedule on Law & Order, he was often out the door before she got out of bed. So she'd wake up, to find these poems scribbled on the backs of page-a-day calender sheets. Sometimes heartfelt, often times funny and silly, Elaine kept all these notes in a large soup tureen they had. Interspersed between a selection of a few of those poems is a biography of their life together.

As far as a biography goes, this one is pretty slim. I didn't learn too much here that I hadn't already picked up by watching A&E's Biography. What does shine through is how funny, charming and incredibly likable Orbach was. The one aspect of this story that did surprise me was how long he had actually been sick with prostate cancer. This was not an overnight illness. He lived with it for 10 years. About 5 years longer than the doctors initially gave him. Everybody "at work" knew about his cancer treatments. They all knew about his regiment of treatment(s) and medication(s) and yet? Nobody breathed a word of it. Jerry Orbach lived with cancer for 10 years and outside of his inner circle, nobody was the wiser. No sensationalized stories in the Enquirer. No Internet rumors. Not a single peep.

It was also wonderfully refreshing to read about a couple of actors who were about as far away from the limelight as you can get. Law & Order propelled Orbach into career security, and he was beloved around New York City - but this is a guy who did the laundry when Elaine threw her back out and helped with the vacuuming. They never hired a staff. They rented their apartment. He didn't even have a publicist. He loved to golf and play poker at his club. Just a normal, average Joe who had a pretty awesome day job.

The writing in this book is very straight-forward. Again, it's meant as a love letter to their marriage, so any sort of deep digging into Orbach's life isn't going to be found here. The best parts of the story are when some of Orbach's colleagues make appearances in the book. Benjamin Bratt's recollections are particularly touching, as is the forward by Sam Waterston and afterward by Richard Belzer. But ultimately this book is a heartfelt winner thanks to candid pages where Elaine recounts Jerry's final days. As I said, I read this on my lunch break at work, and I was a weeping, sobbing mess by the end of it all. Ultimately that's what makes this book work. As is Elaine's message behind compiling some of Jerry's poems: to bring the old fashioned love letter back into vogue. As she says herself, once Jerry was gone, those notes brought her a great deal of comfort. E-mail and Twitter just don't have the same sort of punch.

Final Grade = B+


Stacy~ said...

Wow great review Wendy. You got me all teary-eyed. I think I have to read this book. Jerry Orbach sounded like an amazing person. What a lovely story.

Alie said...

I always loved Jerry Orbach from his Dirty Dancing days to his fab portrayl of Lenny on Law & Order. What a sweet book!

Lori said...

How wonderful. I love stories like this. It's so true that emails etc don't pack the same punch. I still have all the love letters that my husband wrote to me over the course of the past 24 years. And it is truly wonderful to look in the closet and see that shoe box overflowing and know that someday, after I'm gone, my children will be able to know the real story of how their parents fell in love.

And I have to say. Since email? Yeah. Not so many. (but he could say the same thing in return)

Janet Webb said...

Now I know what I'm giving my dh for Christmas: he ADORED Jerry Orbach and so did/do I -- 24/7 L&O starring only his shows would be nirvana. Thank you!! What a wonderful story.

Katie Mack said...

What with all the drama normally surrounding actors and Hollywood couples, it's so nice to hear stories like this one. How can anyone not sigh over the fact that he wrote his wife love poems each day?

I loved Orbach in Dirty Dancing, his guest stints on Homicide, and of course, in Law & Order. In fact, I stopped watching the show not too long after he was gone -- it just wasn't the same without him.

Lynn Spencer said...

>>>During the course of their 25 year marriage, Jerry would scribble Elaine poems every morning.

Aww...that is just so sweet. I loved his acting on Law & Order, and this sounds like such a great tribute.

SonomaLass said...

Jerry Orbach was a huge contributor to the American theatre; long before his movie or TV days, he was important in the live theatre. I loved him in 42nd Street and Chicago, especially. His death was very sad; he died of the same cancer that my dad is fighting now. I only hope he gets Jerry's 10 years!

I'm going to have to get this book, and maybe get a copy for my daughter the actress as well.

I have to say, though, that e-mail doesn't have to be impersonal or temporary. My partner and I had an ocean between us for several years, and e-mail was our primary means of communication. He made me an archive of those "letters," and when I realized we were approaching ten years together (this time around), I went back and re-read the whole set. Many laughs, a few tears, wonderful memories.

Wendy said...

Stacy: It was a nice story. Very sweet.

Alie: There's a great moment in the book where Elaine recalls a time they were on vacation and Jerry was recognized from Dirty Dancing!

Lori: Not love letters (obviously!) but I saved all the letters my Mom wrote to me while I was in college. I'd get, at least, 2 a week. Then my parents got e-mail - which was fantastic, but yeah - those weren't exactly "saved."

Janet: This is a good gift book, because that's really what it is. It's short, sweet, and really touching in parts. My favorite L&O years were Lenny w/ Mike Logan :)

Katie: I've kept up watching regular L&O, and yeah - it was really rocky after Orbach left. It's FINALLY getting really good again - thanks to the shake-up in the D.A.'s office. Jack McCoy is the man in charge now, and the Michael Cutter character as ADA has been a fantastic addition.

Lynn: It was really a nice little book. The main things I took away from it? Jerry Orbach was a really nice guy and he loved his wife. That's romance hero material right there.

Wendy said...

SonomaLass: His body of work in the theater was really amazing. The Fantasticks, 42nd Street, Chicago, Carnival!, Promises Promises..... He had a career that most actors would kill for.

I couldn't believe how long he had cancer! Especially given that he lived (and worked) in the media capital of the world and there were never any torrid tabloid stories about how he had "weeks to live!" or was "at death's door!" The fact that the people around him - from friends to casual acquaintances - never uttered a word to the press really speaks volumes about the man.

Tara Marie said...

It sounds like a beautiful tribute to a wonderful couple.

Rosie said...

I loved reading this. While we don't do love notes often, GG and I do cards for no particular occasion. Some of his are so wonderful and I think will surprise my boys someday when they read them. Yes, the tangible and effort of putting pen to paper, there's no replacing it.

Amy said...

*sniff* I miss Baby's dad!

Liza said...

I'll have to look for this one. I always enjoyed wathcing Jerry Orbach in movies and tv shows. Great review Wendy.

JamiSings said...

How come no one ever mentions his reoccurring role on Murder, She Wrote? He was the PI whom was always in trouble and Jessica was always bailing him out.

Wendy said...

Jami: Harry McGraw! That role is actually mentioned in the book. There was a brief spin-off series, The Law & Harry McGraw, that never quite took off - and after it was canceled was when Dick Wolf came calling about joining Law & Order.

Orbach also did a guest spot on The Golden Girls. I caught that one on TV just the other day.

Liza: My library ordered a few copies, which is how I read it. Checked it out, read it that day, then returned it - LOL

Amy: I miss Lenny Briscoe! LOL

Rosie: My Man and I "courted" during the electronic age. We exchanged a few letters over the years, and those have been saved.

TM: Orbach was so recognized (and adored) in New York, that this book also read a bit like a love letter to the City. It's hard to separate the two of them: Orbach and NYC.