By Robert Heide
“I like Albee when he gets into death,” she said. “Death is big enough to get into, or out of, a few times in the theater.” —Myra Carter
I first met Myra Carter through Edward Albee when she appeared Off Broadway in 1994 as the dying mother in his autobiographical play Three Tall Women which also featured the actresses Marian Seldes and Jordan Baker. The play resurrected Albee’s then lagging reputation and won accolades for the 65-year-old Myra Carter including the Lucille Lortel Award, the Outer Critics Circle, the Drama Desk, and a Village Voice Obie. I was present at the Obie Award celebration when she came on-stage to accept her prize. Previous Obie winners that year included a young Lesbian theater group and an avante-garde Asian troupe of emerging actors as well. Speaking loudly into the mike Myra exclaimed, “Well! It’s about time! We old actors need help too!” The three tall women in the play are named A, B, and C and are all meant to represent one woman with Myra playing the eldest. A 4th character meant to be Edward Albee himself as a young man was portrayed by Michael Rhodes. It was previously produced in Vienna in 1991 and directed by Albee with Myra premiering. It was then that she told him it would win him a Pulitzer if it ever opened in America and that’s exactly what happened when it arrived at the Vineyard Theater in New York in 1994—Edward Albee’s third Pulitzer Prize. Ben Brantley in his review declared Carter to be ‘magnificent.’
Myra was a spunky Villager who lived for decades in an 1803 building (one of the oldest in the neighborhood) above a deli (now a dress accessory shop) on the northeast corner of Bleecker and Christopher Streets and was often seen even in her advanced years doing one of her famous solitary fast-paced walks up and down the winding streets. She usually dressed in slacks, and her outfits were always well thought out in a becoming and fashionable style. She often wore a Scotch-plaid beanie for a hat with a scarf to match. One of Myra’s close friends was the great actress Rosemary Harris who was always there for her right to the end when the pain she had to endure often made her cranky.
Myra Carter’s first Broadway appearance was in 1956 in Shaw’s Major Barbara. She also starred in the Broadway premiere of Albee’s All Over and in revivals of his plays A Delicate Balance and The Lady From Dubuque. Also on Broadway she made quite an impression in Tennessee Williams’s Garden District. She won a theater award Off Broadway as Lady Constance in Shakespeare’s King John. She also acted in plays at the Seattle Repertory, the McCarter Theater Center in Princeton and many other regional theaters across the country. Invited by her good friend Uta Hagen to teach acting at H. B. Studios on Bank Street, she was admired by students for her direct, no-nonsense teaching style. Her last performances were under Albee’s direction at the Cherry Lane Theater in The American Dream and The Sandbox as a grandmother character.
Survived only by nieces and nephews and great nieces and nephews including Aeriel Wilner and Andre Brothers, all of Missouri, Myra will be remembered by many. She was born in Chicago in 1929 to a Scottish mother, Mary Stillie, who left her English husband Alfred Carter to move to the Highlands of Scotland with young Myra and her sister in tow. “Yes, my stage name is my real name” she would tell friends. She was never an easy friend to have, but once she accepted you into her orbit—that was it. That was the case with me as well as with my partner John Gilman who often received late night calls asking for help during her ongoing health crisis later in life. I should add here that Myra very much encouraged me in the articles I wrote for WestView News calling them ‘the best.’ She always avidly read the paper and was glad to see it arrive on her Bleecker Street doorstep each month. “It is important to have a West Village paper” she would say and would comment on everything.
In her New York Times obit I learned that her first professional performances were in Glasgow at age 18, that she joined the Women’s Royal Air Force right after World War II and thereafter acted in a repertory theater in London before returning to the U. S. at age 25. She didn’t mind being referred to as one of the last of the Village Bohemians but would add only that she would like mainly to be remembered as a working professional actress. Another good friend, Countess Olivera Sajkovic said, “When I first was introduced to Myra I knew—here is an original.” Whether in theater or in life she always had a strong impact.