By WILL KERN
Her heart was so big it shunted all the
other organs to different parts of her
torso. She saw an x-ray of it when she
was a kid. It was so big a piece of it came
down past her rib cage. Not exaggeration
here, just fact.
Did I say she was beautiful? Her beauty
was the kind that could melt ice, turn lions
into kittens, and make cruel dictators free
their slaves and dance at their weddings.
My friend, she was a beauty.
But above all, Holly Wantuch could act.
The first time I saw her was in Born
Yesterday at the Steppenwolf Theater in
Chicago. She was an intern then. Didn't
have any lines. Came on and gave the
lead actor, John Mahony, a manicure. The
last time I saw her on stage she was in
John Ford's Tis Pity She's A Whore at A
Red Orchid Theatre, also in Chicago. She
was far and away the best thing in the
show, and I remember commenting to
many of my friends how good she was.
She was the only one who had a grip on
the language. Everyone else in the cast
was doing this Jacobean drama as if it
were written by David Mamet, very
American and modern, but Holly, being
classically trained, annunciated, did the
rhythm of her speech properly and she
was emotionally connected to the
character. It was really something. She
was on stage with some of the finest
actors in the city and she blew them all
I had a revelation about Holly after that.
She was one of those people who was
born to act. She had talent for other
things too, she was creative and good
making things, but the thing she did well,
what she was put on this planet to do, was
Acting is a tough profession. People
often go into it for the wrong reasons.
They do it because they want to be
famous, they see it as a glamorous
lifestyle, they do it because they want
Only the extremely lucky become famous.
Talent has something to do with "making
it," but it is low on the fame-factor scale.
There are a lot of very famous people
who are not really very talented. There
are a lot of truly gifted actors you will
never hear of.
Forget glamour. For an actor who has
not "made it," the life can only be
characterized as being the exact opposite
of glamour. It's a life of poverty, near
misses, dashed hopes.
If it's attention you want, think about this:
Even if you are lucky enough to get work
every now and then, the attention you get
from doing a play or doing a small part in
a film is never enough. An actor who acts
for attention has a craving that will never
be satiated. He is like that underworld
ghost that eats and eats and eats and it's
foodlust can never be quenched, but it
keeps eating and eating and eating and
the more it consumes the more it starves.
Acting is a fool's game, and the majority of
the people that pursue the profession
shouldn't be because they lack acting
talent or they lack the skills to
Acting is about communicating.
That is all it is about. It is not about
anything else. It is about
Holly could communicate. Holly
You would have loved her. She
was strange and weird, and I mean
that in a good way, I mean to say
in the way she was unique. She
was colorful and original and
ever-changing, like a
kaleidoscope. There were so many
facets to her, it would be bad to tell
you three or four. You might think
that could sum her up, and she
can't be summed up in three or
four examples. She was way too
complex for that.
I thought about her because I
got an email from a friend of mine
this morning. He wrote me a letter
about baseball, about his love of
the Chicago Cubs and the New
York Yankees. In the middle of the
letter, he quoted a Cat Stevens
song: Oh, very young, what will
you leave us this time?
Reading those words really
brought me down. That was a
song I heard a lot around the time
Holly died. It was played at her
funeral. It was played at her
Holly had a stroke when she was
33. This was 3 ½ years ago.
All her life, doctors had told her
she would live to her mid-40s, and
after that it was up in the air. It was
that big heart, that enlarged heart.
It had a bad reaction when she
mixed her blood thinners with
some medication her herbologist
had given her. The heart tossed
off blood clots, they went up to her
brain, she had a stroke and a
week later she was dead.
After the stroke, she went into
the hospital. She went into a coma
a couple days later. We were
hopeful she would pull through,
but she never regained
consciousness again. We kept a
vigil by her bedside. Over the
days her skin turned gradually,
from soft pink to a dark shade of
Oh, very young, what will you
leave us this time? You're only
dancing on this earth for a short
Not long after Holly died, I was
in Londonderry, Ireland, in a
restaurant, a real mom and pop
place, very homey. It was the
middle of the afternoon and there
were only about ten people in the
place, including the cashier and
the old woman who bussed the
I was sitting at a booth having a
cup of coffee and the song
American Pie came on, the
original sung by Don McLean.
The chorus came up: Bye-bye,
Miss American Pie, Drove my
Chevy to the levee but the levee
was dry. And good old boys are
drinking whiskey and rye, singing
this'll be the day that I die.
The last line made me think of
Holly, and how much I missed her.
And I looked up, and in this Irish
restaurant, everybody was
singing the song. Under their
breaths, to themselves,
consciously or unconsciously, the
cook and the old couple across
by the window and the teenage
kid reading the paper and the old
woman bussing the tables.
Everyone in the restaurant was
singing the song.
Oh, Holly, why did you have to