Tales of the Tomlin

From drawers full of dimes to superstardom, Lily Tomlin shares the richness of her journey

Lily Tomlin

Lily Tomlin

(Photo by B Patterson)

MW: Have you written many of these memories?

TOMLIN: No, no, I haven’t.

MW: Aren’t you tempted?

TOMLIN: Sometimes. My partner Jane and I, we sometimes use our backgrounds a little bit in pieces, but really not identifiably. I might reference my neighborhood or something. But, yes, since you said that, you encourage me to do it. I would think, well, everybody’s got these stories. They’re just time and place, and the players change a little bit.

MW: It’s true that everyone has these stories, but so few seem to remember them so expertly.

TOMLIN: I remember this stuff, but not my address. And Mrs. Rupert was such a big part of my life. I’d go by every night and walk her Chihuahuas and I’d get a dime. We would read The New York Times and I had to write down words I didn’t understand and look them up.

MW: She was your Auntie Mame.

TOMLIN: Yeah, she was like my Auntie Mame, in a sense. After that, we’d have a little tea and petits fours. [Laughs.]

She was very conservative. She hated Adlai Stevenson. Hated him. She was so pixilated. She told me she had helped capture and indict Alger Hiss when she’d been a phone operator, before she became a botanist.

Every Saturday she would take me downtown to Hudson’s, which was the big department store in Detroit, which has been torn down, sadly. She was trying to educate me to marry well and run a big house. To be extremely well off and have a staff. She taught me how to buy linens and tone your wardrobe with your stockings. I thought it was all hilarious. I’d have to wear gloves and a hat and carry a purse. I had to be able to open the purse and retrieve anything I wanted without looking. A lady is capable of this.

So, in the winter, your nose starts to run when you go from the cold outside into a warm tearoom. Hudson’s had everything — a post office, a tearoom…. So, if we were going to stop in for me to get a hot chocolate, we’d duck up a side street and go into a doorway and blow our noses. Mrs. Rupert thought she was very elite. [Laughs.] Blowing our noses. And here we are, both of us in hats, and we’d go into a tearoom. Sure enough, you’d see some poor woman who had not blown her nose. Her nose is running and she’s trying to get napkins out of the napkin holder. And Mrs. Rupert would, like, give me the elbow and nod toward that woman. [Laughs.]

MW: Mrs. Rupert is reminding me of a character I just saw you play in a short, The Procession.

TOMLIN: Really? But she’s so, you know, bourgeois. Mrs. Rupert thought she was quite superior to everybody else in the building. She wore a hat and fox furs to the garbage can.

Finally what happened, when I was about 12 — I’d had a long history with Mrs. Rupert by now — I was doing my shows. I never told her anything about it. One day she tells me that Mr. Rupert is going to be off the next evening and he’d be home. I said, “I’ll come over tomorrow and do my magic show for you.” And she hit the ceiling. “Don’t tell me you’ve been wasting your money on magic tricks!” I was so insulted. I was really pleased with my act. She said, “Don’t you know that’s illusion? If you’re not careful, you’re going to end up in show business.” [Laughs.] I was just furious. I stopped going to see her.

Then she tried to entice me and my brother — he was about 8 — over to her apartment one evening. She opens the window onto the backyard and invites me over. She says she wants to show us something very special. So my brother and I are thinking we’re going to see a dead baby or something. [Laughs.] We go in and she gets [whispering] very quiet. She makes sure all the blinds are down and she brings out a big box — a wooden, ornate box — and puts it on the table. She opens that box, and there’s another box inside. She takes that box out and opens yet another box. There are three boxes. Then she pulls out this long thing wrapped in a chamois. She unwraps it and says, “This is the knife that killed Mussolini.”

MW: What?

TOMLIN: That’s what she told us! [Laughs.] And we didn’t really know who Mussolini was or whether he’d been killed with a knife or not. We were so disappointed.

MW: That memory must’ve been going through your head while you were shooting Tea with Mussolini.

TOMLIN: [Laughs.] Yes! Mrs. Rupert might’ve liked that because Maggie Smith was in it.

MW: The richness of your childhood seems not to have been wasted at all.

TOMLIN: Growing up the way I did, I saw so many different kinds of people. It never occurred to me that I wasn’t like all of them, whether I thought they were great or not. I saw everybody as awful, as cruel, as wonderful, as kind, loving, depressed — all over the map. Different groups of people, different ethnicities, everything. They weren’t so different. They seemed different, but they weren’t so different. It was really important. It really did make me have an affection and empathy, really, for most all people.

MW: Beyond people, you’ve also got an affection for elephants?

TOMLIN: I’ve been advocating for elephants in captivity for a while. And lots of other things. It just happened that that I became kind of focused on that here in L.A. because we had elephants at the L.A. Zoo that were in meager circumstances. Then I began to read about elephants, and people began to tap me for other cities like Seattle and Dallas. I’ve gone there and I’ve advocated.

I was friendly with Sheila Nevins at HBO, so I pitched the idea about doing some kind of documentary about elephants in captivity. We managed to do that last year. But there were many people involved. The young woman, Amy Schatz, who was the HBO director/producer, she won a [Directors Guild of America Award] for directing [An Apology to Elephants], and I won an Emmy for narration.

MW: What other efforts have gotten your attention?

TOMLIN: I’ve always been active in women’s rights, the women’s movement, gay rights, fundraisers for female politicians.

MW: I think I spotted a Hillary Clinton tweet from you not long ago. Are you part of the Clinton 2016 push?

TOMLIN: Not officially or anything. I so much don’t want a right-wing person to be in the presidency. I’m so afraid everything’s going to go on this next election, that there’s going to be more seats lost. If the conservatives control the Senate and the House, I dread to think what will happen. It won’t matter who’s the president. It’s bad enough with the obstructionist stuff that’s going on all these years with Obama. I think many advances could even be repealed overnight.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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