A Tribute to Charlotte Rae, Comedian & Actress
Most of you knew her as the wise, lovable Mrs. Garrett, housemother from the long-running 1980s sitcom Facts of Life. To me, she was Aunt Charlotte, my mother’s sister.
Charlotte Rae was the middle of three talented daughters born to Meyer and Esther Lubotsky in Milwaukee. She turned 92 this April 22, and she died Aug. 5, 2018, peacefully in her condo in Los Angeles surrounded by love.
You can read her obituary in the New York Times, People, Entertainment Weekly, etc. They talk of her roles on Broadway, her Emmy and Tony nominations, her early comedy acts and cabaret singing, her work in films and TV, her alcoholism and longtime sobriety, her pacemaker, pancreatic cancer, bone cancer and much more.
I want to share her as I remember her.
She almost always wore a scarf, usually red, around her neck, and often a comfy running suit. She was short and getting shorter. She loved asparagus. She talked to my mom twice a day, sometimes more.
Though best known for her comedic roles, she wasn’t always funny nor was she always “on.” She needed her naps and her down time — and made sure she got them — but she was up for fun, too. Her zest for life was contagious.
She was a feminist, a fierce Democrat and an ardent Zionist, who tried to engage me in talking about Israeli politics. I’d enlist my more knowledgeable husband for that role. Her famous
quivery voice would get strident and those talks provided fuel for my husband’s friendly imitations of her.
While she pursued her career ambitiously, she was a devoted mother to her sons, Andy and Larry. And she was very connected to her sisters, the late Beverly Levin, a trained opera singer, and my mom, Miriam Guten, a composer and pianist in Dallas. Together, they made a formidable trio.
Once she and I tagged along on a trip my parents took to Western Canada. We didn’t work out as roommates because of my snoring, but we bonded over our mutual love of nature. This trip was during the heyday of Facts of Life, and she was approached constantly by fans. I loved how she handled each respectfully, then quietly said she was with her family and returned to us.
Family was supremely important to her. She devised a plan to spend Thanksgivings together. The first year we had a wonderful family meal at her Brentwood home, where she loved her lemon trees. That year, she was the Grand Marshal in the Rose Bowl Parade and we all got to hang out in the Green Room with the other celebs beforehand. Brushes with fame were fun.
For years, every family simchah included a performance of parodies roasting and toasting the honoree — with sisters Charlotte and Beverly vying for starring roles and all of us making up the chorus. Mom directed and accompanied us on the piano.
Aunt Charlotte loved to sing and had incredible phrasing that came from the heart. When she sang “Make Someone Happy” at the rehearsal dinner for my wedding, she had everyone in tears.
As she faced her heart problems and cancers, I admired her bravery. She loved life and filled it with friends, family, work and more adventures.
I talked to her fairly often, but last saw her in June when we all came to L.A. for her granddaughter’s wedding. She was weak and thin and sleepy, but that special spark was still there. She ended our last conversation with her usual, “I love you.” Memories of her will surely be a blessing.
Donations may be made to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.
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