I am two weeks old in the photograph. My mother is holding me on the dock of my grandfather’s house on the Belvedere Lagoon. The Tiburon hills behind us are bare, with just a few oak trees growing in the ravines. There are no houses on those golden hills. In 1955, Belvedere-Tiburon was still a railroad town. Still wild and unfretted.
I have spent 65 years coming and going from that dock. It is the foundation of my Belvedere life: an ideal childhood outside. Swimming in the brackish water. Sailing on the Flying Fish. Playing “king of the raft.” And daydreaming.
At Redwood High School I was a musical theater kid, always in the chorus. I spent summers performing in shows at Dominican College, again in the chorus. I was skinny, flat chested and plain, not particularly ambitious or talented — an observer. And yet I believed something wonderful would happen to me one day. It would come to me, I wouldn’t have to push.
It happened. In my twenties, I worked with Vivian Vance, who was Ethel in “I Love Lucy.” Over the years we went on the road several times.
Then Viv was diagnosed with a second bout of breast cancer and we stayed home. She died in 1979 in her bedroom in the Farr Cottage next to The San Francisco Yacht Club.
John Dodds, her devoted husband, wanted to start over, and he returned to the gay life that ended when he married Viv twenty-five years earlier. His first boyfriend in Belvedere was Barry Clinton, a young artist from San Francisco. Barry had never painted a woman. In 1980, I spent most of the year in a fourth-floor walkup apartment in San Francisco sitting for him; that led to “Moods of a Woman,” a one man/one woman show at Gump’s.
In 1981, Barry died of AIDS. Years later, Tom Hoving, director of the Metropolitan Museum, saw several of Barry’s paintings in my apartment and said if he had lived he would have been the John Singer Sargent of his generation.
In the early 1980s, John Dodds and I moved to a loft in New York City. I was represented by the William Morris Agency and was a working actress. John had his own publishing imprint. Our lives were filled with intellectuals, writers, musicians and artists. Black tie events. Dinners at Elaine’s. Weekends in Sag Harbor. It was the stuff of novels.
I met my husband through John. When we told him we were getting married, he said it was one of his proudest moments.
My husband was gentle, kind and supportive. We had two perfect babies. A beautiful life. Then it was different.
I spent my 40s battling Cowden Syndrome. It was a miserable time: a burst ovary, a brain tumor, cancer, and copious other tumors requiring multiple surgeries at multiple New York hospitals. Through it all I worked with Christopher Cerf. We wrote and I illustrated a children’s book, “Blackie: The Horse Who Stood Still.”
My children grew into remarkable adults. In 2009, my daughter and I spent time at Pritikin, a health center in Florida. There I met the industrialist Jon M. Huntsman. Our shared medical lives bonded us. Jon mentored me, and I spent a decade traveling in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as Executive Vice President of his Huntsman Cancer Foundation. I am so grateful for the adventure that Jon brought to my life.
Barry Clinton had always urged me to get on the other side of the canvas. In New York, I did that; my son’s empty bedroom became a painting studio. And now I also paint in my outdoor garden studio in Belvedere.
It is said that you can’t go home again. When you’re from Belvedere, you never really leave.
Get a copy of “Growing Up Belvedere-Tiburon” at your local Book Passage or online here.
Photo by Jessica J. Miller. 2020