Barbara Harris

My old neighbor Barbara died a couple years ago.

During the 1990s while I was in my twenties, I lived with my boyfriend in the Uptown neighborhood in Chicago  – before its gentrification and massive redevelopment – when I could still swing rent as a graduate student while working weekends as a cocktail waiter in a gay bar. The red-brick building where we lived had a courtyard and each apartment had a small, ramshackle deck off the back kitchen, meaning you could poke your head out and do some Rear Window-like investigating of the other residents, even without a telescope.

Barbara Harris was prime viewing.

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The apartment building in Uptown on the north side of Chicago, where Barbara Harris and I lived in the 1990s.

At first I didn’t know that Barbara was Barbara, but I was most certainly aware of the very peculiar older woman who often floated through that courtyard in what seemed to be layer upon layer of white and earth-toned gossamer, a bizarre and extreme melange of Stevie Nicks with swirling diaphanous shawls; Isadora Duncan with fluttering scarves; sometimes a touch of Gloria Swanson from Sunset Boulevard in a loosely wound turban, or more often, an ill-defined headwrap, somewhat appropriately, à la Little Edie of Grey Gardens; all this, plus some multi-strand necklaces and a collection of slightly ostentatious brooches pinned to a billowy caftan-like garment.

Barbara made an instant impression in person, owing to that peculiar clothing, but also to the unique cadence of her voice, her keen, questioning visage, and perhaps most of all in her movement, flowing through the low-rent apartment courtyard with an odd gracefulness, all that outlandish attire drifting lazily in her wake.

I don’t remember exactly how I came to learn that this Barbara was the same Barbara who’d worked with Robert Altman and Alfred Hitchcock, who’d starred on Broadway and won a Tony, and who’d played Jodie Foster’s mother in one of my favorite films from childhood, Freaky Friday. But at some point it became the irrefutable truth:  I was living alongside a movie star, at least in my eyes.

Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster

Jodie Foster and Barbara Harris in Freaky Friday.

Maybe that’s where the story should end, with my starstruck admiration from across the courtyard, a quiet excitement living in the neighborly aura of a grand actress.

The story doesn’t finish there, though. I don’t even recall how my boyfriend and I actually came to know Barbara on a personal level. Maybe crossing paths while hauling leaky garbage bags out to the dumpster? Not the most refined means of encountering a film star, but we weren’t living the glamorous life, none of us.

I do recall feeling doubtful when someone mentioned that she had once been a famous actress. Why would a movie star and former Tony winner be living in the very untony neighborhood of Uptown? One of my friends told me that he didn’t believe it was really her – until he watched the scene in Nashville when she clambers over a highway barrier, and it all clicked. “I didn’t believe it until I saw her moving,” he confessed. As I said before, there was something very distinct about Barbara in motion.

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