Mary Louise Wilson Puts Pen to Paper to Document Her First Hundred Years in Show Business

The Tony-winning actress chats about the memoir she never planned to write.

Tony Award winner Mary Louise Wilson has released her memoir My First Hundred Years in Show Business.
(courtesy of Dramatists Play Service)

"I didn't intend to write this book," says Mary Louise Wilson in the final chapter of her memoir My First Hundred Years in Show Business. She originally wanted to channel her experience building the Drama Desk Award-winning solo show Full Gallop — about the life of fashion editor Diana Vreeland — toward a guide book for other actors planning to write their own solo shows. Full Gallop's slow development eventually turned into the book's through-line as Wilson jumps from scene to scene in her storied career as a self-proclaimed member of the "Character Actors' Club."

Broadway has come to know her as the Tony-winning star of Grey Gardens — or more recently, On the Twentieth Century's mad evangelist Letitia Peabody Primrose — but notoriety did not come to the now-84-year-old actress until after the age of 60. She spent most of her first hundred years in show business as an underestimated comedian, but as she embarks on the next hundred, she feels she's finally hit her stride.

How long did it take you to write this book?
Oh gosh, years. [laughs] I would say roughly four or five years because I kept stopping and starting, and I was working on other things. Actually, my career kind of picked up so it took me a while.

You say the project began as a story about the creation of Full Gallop. When did it transition into an autobiography?
I showed it to friends and they were so strangely noncommittal in their response. I couldn't figure it out, and they said, "Where are you? You're not in it." I didn't think that I would put any of my feelings about anything into it much. Oddly enough, I don't like exposing myself — the real me. I'm an actor. I'd rather be somebody else. It was embarrassing and uncomfortable. I had to look at certain things that I did or didn't do in my career — if you can call it a career. [laughs] I had to look at certain things in myself that I didn't really want to. It was actually a very restorative thing to do because I got rid of a lot of embarrassment I had about my own actions. I think for anybody it really is a great thing to do.

Wilson as Diana Vreeland in her one-woman show Full Gallop.
Wilson as Diana Vreeland in her one-woman show Full Gallop.

Why did you decide to keep the creation of Full Gallop as the through-line for the book?
Well, it was a terrific experience. It was satisfying, it was the best thing I ever did really. It was complete. Every actor should do that — if you can find a good subject, which at my age was really hard because most interesting women die young.

What was your favorite story to write?
I loved writing about The Royal Family because it was such an interesting play and such a wonderful cast. And I had such a weird response to my role as the despised member of the family. [laughs]

You just finished a long Broadway run in On the Twentieth Century. Are you enjoying your break now?
Yeah, that was heavy duty. Wonderful but exhausting. It's a lovely show. I loved all the people in it too. Now I just want to rest. I'm sitting on my porch looking out at my garden. It's my child — my garden.

What do you hope people learn about you when they read My First Hundred Years in Show Business?
I hope people who aren't in the theater just see what really goes on. I hope they enjoy seeing what it's like. People have all kinds of crazy ideas about actors. I've even met people who say, "So what do you do in the daytime?" So I hope that it's a revelation for them. And for people in the theater I hope very much that they identify. Like a lot of actors, I think I learned to act by doing it. I finally feel confident and I'm finally ready to stop. [laughs] I say that and of course, you just go on. The only thing I know how to do is acting. I'm just no good at anything else. I was watching Bea Arthur last night on YouTube, and she was saying, "Actors don't retire!" — It's true.

Click here to read an excerpt from My First Hundred Years in Show Business.