By Anna Wyckoff | December 8, 2011
For Theadora with Love
The passing of Costume Designer Theadora Van Runkle prompted an avalanche of tributes recognizing her significant contributions to the fields of costume and fashion design, the good fortune which catapulted her career onto the world stage, and the talent that kept her there.
With a background in commercial fashion illustration, Theadora moved easily into sketching for Costume Designer Dorothy Jeakins, among others. It was Jeakins who famously passed a “little western” onto Theadora which turned out to be “Bonnie and Clyde.” It was the first of her three Oscar nominations, and the signature look she created for Faye Dunaway launched a thousand lookalikes. Theadora also received Oscar nods for “The Godfather: Part II” and “Peggy Sue Got Married,” but her varied filmography included such films as “Bullitt,” “Mame,” and “New York, New York.” She collected an Emmy for the television series “Wizards and Warriors,” and was recognized by our Guild with a Career Achievement Award in 2002. But a filmography only hints at the person, and I would like to recognize the woman behind the acclaim, the heart behind those hands.
I met Theadora more than a decade ago, when I was invited by a mutual friend to attend her drawing club. Each Sunday morning thereafter for years, I made the journey to her Laurel Canyon home to draw and paint from a live model in either the studio or the garden, depending upon the weather and the whim of the hostess. I didn’t know until later that “The Club,” as Theadora called it, was not just a chance to keep the hand limber and commune with other artists, it was a graduate degree in joie de vivre.
Theadora’s house was a vivid extension of her personality. The small white 1920s cottage adrift on a patch of hillside has been featured in books, magazines and garden tours. What they could never capture was that the intimate space was in constant flux. From week to week, one observed with amusement the twin Empire sofas recovered; paintings hung, rehung, and put away; a new favorite seashell or plate quickly replaced by another. The background was a lick of fresh white paint—which almost no surface escaped—from the floor, to the sills, to the rafters, to the Duncan Phyfe dining set, or the antique wicker garden chairs. I think it began with the crewel curtains, or perhaps the immense saffron yellow cabinet which unexpectedly appeared across from the fireplace. But one day, the color that was slowly seeping in had suddenly taken over, and the white house was ablaze in Chinese red rugs and jade green touches. While some avoid change, Theadora reveled in it, yet managed to remain completely true to herself.
The garden was not immune to her whimsy. Pebbles were strewn with crystals; another day found the trees festooned with a half dozen working chandeliers; two stone sphinxes materialized, and the next week were whitewashed. We took our lunch grazing on cheese, fresh fruits, and potent coffee from a glass table under the dappled light of the trees, never quite knowing what to expect. Theadora was as likely to quote Van Gogh as she was to stun with a naughty remark. She took delight in implementing every detail, from sewing the slipcovers to pruning her begonias. But the wonderment of this fantasy was that her effort was never visible and nothing was ever in progress; the shifts were always a fait accompli.
Theadora was a Costume Designer—intuitive and self-taught, but she was first and foremost an artist. Working diligently daily on her drawing and painting, she encouraged everyone in her wake to do the same. Her phone messages often inquired, “Did you do your drawing today, darling?” She derided her own formidable skill with a humble self-effacement. But it was shocking to watch her work. A pool of liquid color would be teased into a shape, a complimentary hue added with a flick of the wrist, drips were embraced, and suddenly a robust thigh or a marvelous hand would emerge.
After the club ceased, we continued to paint together. I would never have ventured into oils except for her relentless encouragement, and she sat several months for a portrait to make her point. She was generous, and not just to her friends—her largesse extended to shopgirls, grocers, antique dealers, and booksellers, all of whom greeted her warmly, often by name, charmed by her enthusiasm and warmth.
My visits were always met by an open garden gate, which led to her fantastical domain. Preceded by a whiff of Fracas with her flaxen bob, alizarine lips, and sparkling eyes, she was both childlike and sage. Theadora would often greet me with a burst of song when I was halfway across the yard. One ditty, I sing every day to my boy.
Another, “Enjoy Yourself,” was a favorite:
Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think,
Enjoy yourself, while you’re still in the pink,
The years go by, as quickly as a wink,
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.
Theadora certainly did.
‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,’
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