Writing from the Heart: RIP, Alan Arkin

Disappointment and understanding are the main characters in the memory.


Was this the summer you did the stupidest thing ever?

No? Well, it was for me. I wrote a two-page letter to Alan Arkin. That wasn’t the stupid part. Before you start imagining, he did not write back.

So here’s the story.

In 1968, one year after I got married, my new husband and I went to an ACLU auction. One of the items up for bid was a tennis game and lunch with Alan Arkin at his home. He wasn’t famous yet, but I had seen him in “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” and I loved him! Plus, most importantly, he had been a member of the cast in Second City, a comedy review in Chicago.

So there I was, not really a tennis player, but with a fantasy of meeting Alan. The fantasy had nothing to do with tennis and everything to do with my desperate dream of becoming a part of a comedy duo, à la Nichols and May, Mike Nichols of directing fame, and Elaine May, writer and director.

My little theater piece, in my mind, went something like this: Alan and I would be on the same side, and one of us would start with a funny bit, and the other would add to it, and before anyone could lob a ball into our court, we would be doubled over in laughter at our own electric brilliance. By the end of the game, we would both be on such a roll we almost couldn’t continue . By the end of the set, Alan would say, “YOU! Are. Really. A. Riot. Have you thought about going on the road with a partner?”

“Thought?” I would have said. “Thought? Are you kidding me? That’s all I have done since the first time I saw Imogene Coca and SId Caesar on ‘Your Show of Shows,’ and then Nichols and May when they did that piece about the astronaut and the Jewish mother. This is all I have ever wanted to do.”

And Alan, who was the co-star in my little one-act, was going to say, “I’ve been wanting to go on the road too, but I needed to find the right partner. Let’s go in and have some lunch and figure out some details. It’s too hot to play anyway.”

So from the minute I set down my $75 and made arrangements with his lawyer, who was taking the money, I went on a diet. I’m not sure why I thought you had to be thin to be in a comedy act, but in those days I thought you had to be thin to be in anything. (And I wasn’t fat, but that didn’t seem to enter into the equation.)

The reality went more like this: When we met the lawyer in Westport (40 minutes from Croton-on-Hudson), so he could take us to Alan’s house, he said, “Alan likes to win.” In my innocence, I said, “Right, doesn’t everybody?” He said, “No, Alan needs to win.” And I said, “I get it.” But, of course, I had no clue.

It was August in New England and the hottest, muggiest, disgustingest day ever.

I played the first set with Alan against the lawyer and Joel. We lost 6-0. No laughter there. Then Joel and Alan played the lawyer and me, and we won 6-3. Extreme no laughs. Then the lawyer and Alan played against the married couple, the non-tennis-players, the guests, and for the first time ever, we won 6-2. The whole event was a disaster. We followed Alan into lunch, where his wife had prepared sandwiches, placed them with a bit of an attitude on the granite counter and promptly left. We ate in an awkward silence. And then, still hoping against hope that something could be salvaged, I told one of my father’s jokes. It fell onto the parquet floor, and died a terrible death there.

After the lawyer dropped us off at our car, I burst into tears and cried all the way back to Hartford. “I am a nonperson,” I sobbed. “I am a loser,” I wailed. “I should never be allowed to go out of the house,” I sniveled. “I am a fat wannabe comic who isn’t even funny,” I wept. “No, Nance,” my beautiful husband said. “He was the loser. He was the not-funny guy. He was rude and insecure, and you were adorable. There’s something wrong with that guy. We should have known it the minute the lawyer said, ‘Alan needs to win.’ What the f___ was that about?”

And that was the end of that. Until it wasn’t. About three years later, I was perusing the shelves of my local bookstore, and a book jumped out at me. It was called “Halfway through the Door,” by Alan Arkin. Of course I bought it, read it, devoured it and immediately went into forgiveness mode. The book was basically a memoir about how unhappy Alan had been his whole life, how he’d mistreated every relationship, how insecure he had been until he found a spiritual teacher. The book was his journey from shut down and terrified to open and loving. I bought a bunch of copies and sent them to the friends I had told about my horrible experience.

Fast-forward to this summer. Here comes the embarrassing part.

I wasn’t finished grieving for the loss of my sister, and I had a few weeks of darkness. I felt lost, and was unable to connect with my heart.

For some odd reason, “Halfway through the Door” fell into my hands, and I reread it. I found that I was envious of Alan that he had found a teacher. My own teacher, Ram Dass, had also died, and I must have been grieving. The book served as a reminder that it was up to me to reconnect to the larger spirit world. And somehow it worked. That’s when I wrote to Alan Arkin about our whole history. It was meant to be a thank-you but I wrote TMI, wayyyy too much. I read it to Joel, and he didn’t say, “You can’t mail that.” And then I read it to my best friends Lorie and Rich, who were shocked and then rocked with laughter. They said, “You didn’t really mail that to him, did you?”

I said, “Yeah, I did.” We cracked up together, even though I was blushing.

Yesterday, while walking in the woods, my phone dinged and the message from Richard read “Alan Arkin Dies at 89.”

I wrote back, O NO, We never made closure. I’m calling my therapist.

And then I thought, What if they publish his papers? And my letter is in there?

That’s why I’m writing this pre-emptively.

At least now it’s not the stupidest thing I’ve done this summer.



  1. May Alan Arkin rest in peace, and respectfully, I am truly sad that we have lost another huge talent and legend, but Nancy Aronie had me laughing out loud as I was reading this wonderful piece. The way she fed us the results of each tennis game…well, I just completely lost it with each score. I haven’t had such a good laugh in a long time, and I really needed it tonight. Thank you, Nancy, for another brilliant article, and thank you MV Times for bringing her writing to us.

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