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Martin: Hi everyone, this is Martin Willis of Antiques Auction Forum episode 120. I’m excited about today’s guest; it’s the award-winning legendary actress, and singer as well as author, Polly Bergen http://www.facebook.com/pages/Polly-Bergen/150067449164. Because of that I have her music as an intro and outro. Hope you enjoy that. A couple of announcements: You can follow us on twitter and you can like us on facebook; those icons are right on our website. This pod cast is sponsored by Worthpoint: Find Out What Your Antiques are Worth at Worthpoint.com http://www.worthpoint.com. Thank you for listening, and I hope you enjoy today’s show.
Martin: I am in Connecticut with Polly Bergen. How are you doing Polly?
Polly: I’m very well. Thank you, Martin.
Martin: It’s such a pleasure to work with you first of all, you are really gracious with me to record about antiques.
Polly: Oh it’s my pleasure. I’m old enough to be able to talk about old things!
Martin: (laughing) Now, you were collecting all the way back into the 1950’s but before we get into that, first of all, for the younger people – we have a lot of younger people around world who listen – can you kind of go into…
Polly: Oh they have absolutely no idea who I am. Well I basically started as a singer when I was very, very, young. I lied about my age, and I started in Las Vegas when the gangsters actually owned and ran Las Vegas; it was very exciting in those days. My mother used to travel with me, and she would pretend to be my sister because if she was my mother then people would say “why is she traveling with her mother if she’s 22?” – when in fact was 16. So that was kind of the way it began, and I really accidentally got into acting; I never really meant to be an actress, I never would really particularly care about acting until much later on in my life. But I ended up doing a television show about a very famous torch singer, from even before my time. She was from the 20s and 30s, and because I was in love with torch songs I sang a lot of the material that she had been famous for singing. So I started studying her – her name was Helen Morgan – and I included a number of her songs in my act, and kind of became very well known for doing her material, and ultimately ended up selling her life story to a very big television show at that time, called Playhouse 90. It was an hour and a half dramatic show, live; in the days when television was live …
Martin: that’s a little tricky
Polly: Yes, and I won an Emmy for best actress in the year that I did it, and that kind of started my career off. And it was strange because, as I said, I was basically a singer but I ended up winning as a dramatic actress because her life was such a drama, and I was signed to a major studio to act, and my career kind of took off. The odd thing was of course was that the first three movies I was in were Martin-Lewis films, in which I played comedy. So, I played Dean Martin’s girlfriend in all the films, which I loved because I adored Dean – I’m not too crazy about Jerry, but I adored Dean –
Polly: and I started that way. And then from there I had my own television show, and I went into more movies, more television, I started doing a lot of theater, I really kind of ended up working in just about every different area of show business; on the stage, on records, and television, radio, motion pictures… and then oddly enough, I got married, had three children, and really decided that I wanted to devote my life to being a married lady and having my children. And I kind of gave up show business more or less. But it just didn’t give me up. They just started coming after me, and then I accidentally went into business – really just by a fluke – I had had a product, made for me by a chemist, that I particularly loved and I started having it made, and loaning out to my friends. The next thing I knew, I was in this tiny little business called “Oil of the Turtle” – because it was based on turtle oil. And the next thing I knew it was the biggest, hottest product on the market and I ended up running this multimillion dollar cosmetic company. So then I was the first show business personality that owned and ran a multimillion dollar company.
Martin: like so many people do now
Martin: Jennifer Lopez, you can just name a whole bunch of people.
Polly: Yes, so I really ended up being known, depending on when you first met me, and depending on your age: to one group I was known as a singer, to another group I was known as an actress, and to another group I was known as a businesswoman; and all of them didn’t necessarily know that I did anything else. So that was kind of fun in my life.
Martin: And you actually, in one of your roles, you played the first lady president.
Polly: I did. In 1961, I played the first female president of the United States in a film called Kisses for My President.
Martin: Actually if you were running right now I’d vote for you.
Polly: Thank you very much. The film actually co-starred Fred McMurray, who was a major star in those days, and the story really basically was about him being first lady.
Martin: (laughing) I can see him fit that part.
Polly: and he was quite wonderful in the part.
Martin: What was your favorite movie you did? Was Cape Fear right there?
Polly: Oh, I wasn’t really nuts about any of the movies I made. I think that the work that I enjoyed more than anything else I ever did was a gigantic miniseries called Winds of War.
Martin: Oh yes.
Polly: and it was followed by another miniseries called War and Remembrance, and they were two gigantic books by Herman Wouk. They are incredible books; still are being bought and read by millions of people. I played this incredible character opposite Robert Mitchum whom I had become very friendly with because we had done Cape fear together. I played his wife in the miniseries and that was probably the most thrilling work I’ve done as an actress in my lifetime.
Martin: Now, you are still active, you are in desperate housewives
Polly: Oh yes, well I did desperate housewives now and then. I played Felicity Huffman’s mother.
Martin: with Larry Hagman as, um…
Polly: I know it, and one joke, Larry Hagman was on and I married him and then of course he dies of a heart attack – because I’m overwhelming, you know.
Polly: We had great fun. It was before he went back to Dallas; he talked about the fact that Dallas was coming back on the air, and he’d had a rough time because he had been taking care of his wife for quite a long time, who had Alzheimer’s; very difficult for him. He’s quite a wonderful man; I’m very, very, fond of him.
Martin: That’s great; it’s so great that you’re staying active.
Polly: I love it. I particularly enjoy doing stage work but I don’t know whether or not I have the stamina to do eight shows a week now, which is what you have to do when you’re doing Broadway shows. That would probably be a little bit more than I’d be willing to do physically. But I do love working in the theater, and I love working on stage; there’s something quite wonderful about working in front of a live audience.
Martin: Now, you’ve had some beautiful songs that you sang.
Polly: Oh well yes, as I said, I really started out singing all these very famous old torch songs that are from a lot of wonderful Broadway shows like Showboat, and shows like that.
Martin: You started collecting – now this show is basically about antiques – you started collecting some beautiful things early on, and I just want to talk about that because I like to interview collectors; they’re just interesting people. What started your interest in antiques?
Polly: I really think … history was my favorite subject in school,
Martin: mine too, actually.
Polly: so the idea of furniture and objet d’art that has history was always fascinating to me, and I couldn’t wait to hear the history of this piece, and the history of that piece, so I started really collecting things that had a story to tell. That was great fun for me. The very first thing that I ever collected was – I don’t even know what you call it – was a model of Lincolns hand; just a hand, and it was kind of a fist.
Martin: Now was this like a life-casting?
Polly: Yes it was a life casting of Lincoln’s hand. That began my collection of hands. I still have them; they’re sitting on the coffee table in the living room, and the only and I don’t have (anymore) is Lincoln’s hand; somehow or other, over the years it, was lost in one of the moves, or someone stole it. But I have all sorts of hands in there. That was my first collection. Then I started collecting… newels?
Martin: Newell post caps; beautiful crystal balls …
Polly: Right, right. I thought they were fascinating that they came from very famous homes, and
Martin: Are they European?
Polly: Some are European, some are American. They come primarily of course from gigantic mansions, which are wonderful to see and think something that beautiful actually was something you grab at the base of a staircase.
Martin: And sometimes they fell off, like in It’s a Wonderful Life; remember when he ran down the stairs and grabbed it and it fell off? We had one like that where I grew up; it always came off.
One of the things about collecting that people don’t understand today is, back in the days well before the Internet – you know things today can be found so easily on the Internet just search and click and it’s there – but you have quite a collection; how did you find those?
Polly: To a large degree I found them by accident. I would be going through an old store and see one, and I’d ask about it, and if it had a real history, I would grab it. And I would sometimes ask if anyone knew of any shops that had any newel posts, because I was always on the lookout for them. But they weren’t things that you saw around; they just weren’t.
Martin: Well I’ll put it this way: I’ve been around this job for 40 some odd years – it’s really hard for me to say that, but it’s true – and I’ve only seen a few here and there that I can remember.
Polly: Yeah, they’re not just hanging around.
Martin: And what else did you start collecting?
Polly: Well let’s see, I collected Buccellati pieces,
Martin: Yes, beautiful Italian silver.
Polly: Mainly fruits and vegetables.
Martin: And you’d find one here and there?
Polly: Yes, I’d find one here and there. I bought my first one in London, and then I bought a couple in Rome, and one in Paris, and in Vienna, and then several here in United States. And again I just kept running across a piece, and I have something like 13 of them now.
Martin: You know, when I first met you and first started talking to you about antiques the one thing you said right away that intrigued me, and I really liked it, is that you said you never cared what something was worth; you only wanted it because you enjoyed it.
Polly: Right, it was just something that I loved. Listen I wish I’d been more conscious of the worth of things because I would’ve collected things that I thought would be worth something someday, but I never did that.
Martin: But you actually did collect some things I think.
Polly: I guess…
Martin: Yes I mean you were buying some things in the 50s, a few pieces that I’m handling for you, that are just tremendous; wonderful. So your taste has worked well for you, I believe.
Polly: Well I hope so.
Martin: And it’s awfully hard to say in this market, in today’s world, but you spent some money in the 50’s that, well, let me put it this way: we had a discussion about a piece I’m handling; people were buying houses for what you spent on that piece.
Polly: Oh yes I know because my father and mother bought a house for what I spent on that piece!
Martin: (Laughing) You know, we can announce what it is, it’s a most amazing European clock.
Polly: It’s a clock. I saw it on the floor of an antique shop. It’s an enormous piece; what is it about 4′ x 5′? Something like that.
Martin: Exactly; right on the money.
Polly: All hand-carved, and its Mother and Father Time; one is holding a scythe, and the other is holding an hourglass.
Martin: Beautifully carved.
Polly: It’s an incredible piece, and I saw it… and you know, how many people buy something that’s 4 feet by 5 feet that you put on all wall? I don’t know what I was thinking!
Martin: And you think was around 1955?
Polly: I would say was around 1955, 1956.
Martin: And you spent, can we say what you spent?
Polly: I spent $5000 for it, which was a lot of money in those days.
Martin: Yes my parents bought a house in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1956 for $6500. So you were investing big-time.
Polly: You know it was just one of those things that was so amazing looking to me, and then of course I found out that it actually worked! (joking tone) Never in my mind did I think it really kept time, but then I discovered it actually was a clock that worked, that chimed. Over the years, the problem I’ve had with that is that it is has forced me to buy and or rent homes with a certain sized living room or library that would allow me to hang that piece. For just one short period of time in my life was that piece not with me. At that time I gave it to my daughter to hold onto; she had it in her garage for year or so. It was really hard not having it with me but I was renting this little apartment in New York, and there was no place to hang it.
Martin: Yes and that particular piece is very, very, heavy. We had three of us to get it down, so you need a real strong brace to even hang something like that.
Polly: Oh yes you can’t really hang it in any of the new buildings; the walls are just not strong enough to hold it.
Martin: Yes, and plus the painting that you had was 300 inches by 175 inches high (laughing)?
Polly: Yes it was a diptych, and each piece was 75” x 75” so that meant was a 75” by 150”.
Martin: It was actually larger than that…
Polly: was it larger than that?
Polly: oh that’s right you said you measured it.
Martin: Yes it was 75 x 150” each.
Polly: Yes I was taken by a friend of mine to visit a friend of hers, who lived in an old police horse academy in New York City. He had bought it and turned it into his home. On each landing there would be a room and it’s where the police horses were kept, and then on the ground floor he had put in a swimming pool; if you can imagine in New York City. This was down in the 20’s in Manhattan. Hanging above the swimming pool was this painting. I took one look at that painting and I said “Is that for sale?” and it was crazy, it was crazy, because it was gigantic – just gigantic – I didn’t have any place to hang it. He said “Well, I guess” and I said “How much?” and he told me, and I said (laughing) “Oh. Could I pay it over time?”; it was so much money I couldn’t pay it in a lump sum. And he said “Sure you could pay me so much a month or whatever; its fine” and so I bought it. But again, from then on I was trapped buying or renting a place that had a wall big enough to hold that piece.
Martin: Now, we’re going to take a little skip here, I want to talk about your beautiful home. This is an early home that you restored. Can you tell the whole story about this?
Polly: Well, this was originally built – we discovered it at Townhall – this was originally built in 1760. The last owners lived here almost their entire lives; he was one of the major doctors in this area. It was interesting because it was originally an old millhouse.
Martin: Yes I can see the millstream out front here that you’ve done beautiful stonework with.
Polly: Yes it has the millstream, and there was originally the little millhouse down there which we kind of restored and turned into a guesthouse. Two waterfalls, and a swimming pond in between the two waterfalls.
Martin: Really. Do you actually swim in there?
Polly: No we haven’t because well, personally I don’t swim, but it’s not been used in like 50 years so; it’s all filled up with silt. I think it would be very expensive to keep up because it’s a running stream, so it’s constantly carrying debris from wherever the stream comes from.
But we came up here to look for a house in the country. We wanted to get something near a very dear friend of mine, Rex Reed, who is a very well known writer. And the very first house that they brought us to see was this house, and we pulled into the driveway and to the left was these two waterfalls, and straight ahead was a bridge going over the stream, and then up on this knoll was this wonderful little farmhouse. And before I ever really saw the inside of the house I turned and said I’ll take it.
Martin: Yep. I understand.
Polly: I fell so in love with the whole look of the land. There was just something very special about it. And then of course I came in the house. You had the three fireplaces, all original. I took the original kitchen and knocked it down and put in a big kitchen and breakfast room, and a couple years later I built on a whole master bedroom suite. Before that, I lived in the bedroom upstairs but you know as I got older, I thought, it’s silly; I’d be better off building a bedroom downstairs. And that’s what I did; that’s what we have now.
Martin: Oh it’s a beautiful bedroom too. Now I want to just take a second here, because this stonework you have here; I’ve never seen such beautiful stonework.
Polly: I know. It’s incredible work.
Martin: And I’m just going to announce this guy’s name because I just spoke with him earlier and I said “You’re an artist with your beautiful stonework”. He’s a stonemason but he’s a stonemason artist.
Polly: He really is; he’s a sculptor. His name is Remi.
Martin: His name is Remi, and I don’t know how to pronounce his last name: LLeshi. His website for anyone who’s interested, is expressmasonry.com. He said he will travel anywhere for work, and his work is the most incredible stonework I’ve ever seen.
Polly: We have people who actually leave notes in our mailbox saying “Who did your front wall?” And of course that’s just the beginning, because he did all the walls around the house, and in the back, and the gigantic fireplace; he is truly an artist.
Martin: Absolutely. The way he makes the stones curve and everything…
Polly: and every shape. There is nothing usual about it. There are all these odd shaped rocks that he puts together, and some he carves himself and puts in. He’s phenomenal.
Martin: So, I am looking at your Windows – we are in your dining room right now – and these windows look Victorian.
Polly: Yes they are original, several of the panes are in fact original.
Martin: Do you think these are period windows?
Polly: Oh yes, absolutely.
Martin: So that’s wonderful you kept them instead of doing the standard replacement.
Polly: Oh yes, the sad thing is that several of the panes obviously over the years were broken, and they were not replaced with old panes. You can see the period ones, and the new ones.
Martin: Yep. Just wonderful, mullioned windows. Very, very, nice. So how many years did it take you to restore this home?
Polly: Oh, about two years.
Martin: That’s all?
Polly: We had to completely redo all the wiring; all the electrical work had to be redone. We also sunk it all underground. Before, there were wires just going everywhere and coming into this gigantic box right next to the front door (laughing) which was pretty unattractive, so we buried all the wiring. And that took quite a while; it took over year just to redo all the wiring. But the house itself – what you see is pretty much what was there, except, as I said, except for the add-ons, we kept as it was; we didn’t change anything.
Martin: I think you did a wonderful job.
Polly: Thank you.
Martin: So getting back to collecting, you have everything. You have paintings, you have… you name it, you have it. When did you stop collecting?
Polly: Oh, I don’t know if you ever stop collecting.
Martin: (laughing) I love to hear that.
Polly: But I guess a couple years ago I finally said, because I have so much stuff, and I started living smaller. You know, when you live in 15,000 square feet, you’ve got a lot of room for a lot of stuff. And then when you move into 2,000 square feet, you’ve got 13,000 square feet less (laughing) and no place to put the stuff. So I started slowly ridding myself of a lot of the large – I had a lot of oversized things, so I rarely was in a living room that wasn’t at least 20 x 25. I just couldn’t put the things I owned in a room smaller than that.
So I got stuck living much bigger than I wanted to live when I got older.
Martin: Now, when you collected, did you also stop at estate sales? Or was it strictly shops?
Polly: Pretty much shops. I really didn’t go to estate sales, I didn’t go to tag sales. In my day, you mainly found things in shops.
Martin: Boy if you could go back in time; I see pictures of old shops and what they had then. It’s really amazing. And Europe as well?
Polly: Yes, but less in Europe. That really became a matter of shipping, and it was too cumbersome. And usually when I went to Europe, I really went on a vacation; I didn’t go to buy anything. I was one of the few people that would go to Europe and not buy anything!
Martin: I even do it that way. Last time I went to Europe I went strictly on vacation and stayed out of the shops; it was hard to do. But anyway, this has been absolutely wonderful, Polly.
Polly: I’ve enjoyed it so much Martin, it’s been fun talking to you.
Martin: And it’s been wonderful working with you; thank you so much.
Polly: Thank you.
Martin: So this is Martin Willis with Polly Bergen, and we’re signing off.