Writing the biography of Dark Shadows lead actress Grayson Hall was a fun challenge. Grayson for four years tread DS’ eccentric edge of seriousness bordering on hysteria. At times, she wore a haughty weariness born out of the unique predicaments brought about by her association with one Barnabas Collins; her irritation at Barnabas’ imperious manner was often displayed by an arched left nostril (an arch you clearly see even in her very first photo taken when she was about 6 months of age).
Records, at the onset, were sparse, I had only a collection of NY Times clippings of her theatrical appearances, a few items about her 1965 Oscar® nomination and some Dark Shadows interviews.
For 18 months, I tracked her down by spending hours amidst card catalogues, clipping files and microfilm at archives in New Jersey, New York, California and Pennsylvania. I found that Grayson had a varied and long career on stage, TV, radio and film. She traversed the gamut of stage productions from her 1942 summer as a student actress on Long Island, her official 1953 New York City debut in G. B. Shaw’s Man and Superman (ostensibly the only time she played an ingénue) to the avant-garde Off-Broadway appearances in several Jean Genet plays including The Balcony and The Screens and several bows on Broadway. Moreover, lest we forget, she was the only DS actor who came to the show with an Oscar nomination for 1964’s Night of the Iguana directed by John Huston and starring Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr (and no, Elizabeth Taylor was not in the film, just hanging around the Mexican set drinking boilermakers).
Once I felt I had the basics, I began interviewing colleagues going beyond Dark Shadows including close friends-actresses Sylvia Miles and Gaby Rodgers (wife of famed rock ’n’ roll song writer Jerry Leiber), writer/actor Frederic Kimball, even the last person to costume Grayson for her final role in The Madwoman of Chaillot, costume designer, Gail Cooper-Hecht. It was only then that I approached her family, widower Sam Hall and their son Matthew. Both were generous with their time and candid in response to my many questions. I heard some familiar anecdotes, particularly about DS, and then many not-so-familiar stories. I learned of Grayson’s troubled childhood with sycophantic parents, her first husband, Ted Brooks, of whom she only said “he was very good looking” and how he wanted to sue her for alimony in the late 1940s after she left him and aborted a pregnancy while in bad health. She met Sam around 1945, right after the War on a disastrous double date, forgot him, and then went on a second date with him years later. She incredulously protested even remembering their first date. “It did happen!” Sam laughed when telling the tale. But at the second meeting, she not only liked Sam but spent the night with him at the famed Algonquin Hotel thus beginning their thirty-five years together.
The resulting book title, Grayson Hall: A Hard Act to Follow is meant to indicate many things–Grayson was hard to find—not just physically (where was she between 1942-1949?) but spiritually and intellectually. Matthew Hall says I know more about his mother than he does, but since 2006, when the book was published, on occasion, in a momentary thought about her and the project, it becomes startling clear to me, I know nothing about her. How presumptuous of me?
Oh there are the facts that I uncovered, her extensive theatrical credits, her real age (she is cursing at me for that one), the truth about her academic career (probably a frown here, too), but did I find anything that really matters when trying to assess someone’s character and inner being? I think I did answer some of the questions many asked aloud, what was her real name? Shirley H. Grossman (no one remembers what the “H” is for, though). What else did she do? A lot. Was she like Dr. Hoffman? No. So what was she like? Complicated—tough, fun, weary but also vulnerable, maternal, thin-skinned. I think late DS Associate Producer George DiCenzo said it best, “she was a fabulous, gutsy, broad”.
To read more about Grayson, order Grayson Hall: A Hard Act to Follow, visit graysonhall.net
Also, see the new updated/revised Barnabas & Company by Craig Hamrick and R. J. Jamison, visit barnabasandcompany.com
And to read more about Dark Shadows and the Burton-Depp film, look for the May issue of Screem magazine with a cover story by R.J. Jamison. http://www.screemag.com/