In her recent memoir, The Facts of My Life, actress Charlotte Rae, who played the wise Mrs. Garrett on the popular 1980s sitcom The Facts of Life — and who also happens to be my aunt — tells all.
In a narrative that sounds as if she’s speaking directly to you, she talks with candor of the challenges and joys of her son, Andy, born with autism, and of the struggles as a young woman and mother working to get traction with her acting career.
She writes just as openly of her alcoholism and her longtime sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous. And she pulls no punches when she describes her shock when she learns her husband and the father of her two sons is bisexual.
Rae also discusses growing up in a Jewish home in Milwaukee with an overbearing older sister, Beverly, and an adorable little sister, Miriam, and parents born in Russia who gave their three daughters every educational and cultural advantage possible.
Beverly became an opera singer; Charlotte became a singer, comedienne and actress; and Mimi, my mother, is a composer and classically trained pianist.
Growing up in this family led to many productions, with Beverly as head diva, followed closely by Charlotte, and then my mom. The rest of us were in the chorus or had minor roles in the parodies or musicals we did at family simchahs.
No wonder I became a writer. There wasn’t much competition — except for my cousin Larry Strauss, a longtime teacher who co-wrote the memoir, plus many novels and screenplays.
Larry was the impetus for The Facts of My Life (what a perfect title) nearly three years ago. His mom was 87, and it was time for a memoir. He told her they’d work on it together.
After tiring of transcribing recordings his mom would make of her life stories, he turned to asking questions and taking notes. The notes, plus his firsthand knowledge, became a narrative and then a draft.
She treated the draft as a script, Larry told me. She’d read it out loud to him, correcting facts and improvising as she went along. “As an actress, she was creating her character, which was actually her,” he said. “The hard part was the details; what really came through was the emotion, desire and fear.”
Yes, there’s a lot of that, but what also comes through is fierce determination driven by love to find what was best for her autistic son at a time when little care existed — and later courage in facing Andy’s early death by heart attack. A similar bravery is shown in dealing with her own alcoholism.
Kindness and gratitude are continuous themes, and loyalty is evident in the way she remained supportive of her ex-husband, John Strauss, until his death. And her devotion to family and others comes out in her willingness as a pancreatic cancer survivor to publicly raise awareness of the disease that killed her mother and older sister.
These things make her more than a celebrity. They make her a human being.
So, in The Facts of My Life, you will read about Charlotte Rae’s celebrity friends, her early guest appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show; her roles on Broadway, television and movies. But truly you’ll be reading the story of a girl from Milwaukee whose talent, drive and powerful work ethic helped her gain notoriety and have kept her successful career going for more than seven decades.
Even as she turns 90 on Friday (April 22), she’s learning lines for a production of Beckett’s End Game in Los Angeles, where she lives, as does Larry, his wife, Eleanor, and their two children, Carly and Sean. Another grandchild, Nora, and her wife, Katrina, in Boston, recently gave Rae her first great-grandchild, Louisa.
My Aunt Charlotte came into many of your lives as Mrs. Garrett. I loved the show, too. But, for me, she’s my sensitive, loving aunt who sang the wedding song my mother wrote for me and my husband, Don, nearly 30 years ago.
Happy birthday, Auntie Char! I hope there are many more. I love you. *
By Keri Guten Cohen, Story Development Editor
The Facts of My Life (BearManor Media) is available at amazon.com. To see some of Rae’s early work, go to YouTube.com and type in Charlotte Rae.
Broadway: Threepenny Opera, Li’l Abner, The Beauty Part, Pickwick Papers (Tony nomination) and Morning, Noon and Night (Tony nomination).
Television: Car 54, Where Are You?, Hot L Baltimore, Diff’rent Strokes, The Facts of Life, Queen of the Stardust Ballroom and episodes of All in the Family; Murder, She Wrote; The Love Boat; Sesame Street (Molly the Mail Lady); ER.
Film: Hello Down There; Bananas; Hair; You Don’t Mess with the Zohan; and Ricki and the Flash.