Interview by Leonard Lopate
Leonard Lopate interviewed Carol Burnett on August 19, 2003 for his long-running talk show on WNYC. Hear the full interview from the Leonard Lopate Show.
The Animated Transcript
My grandmother, she was a hypochondriacal Christian scientist. So …
Which is a complicated situation.
Yes. If Mary Baker Eddy didn’t work, she’d pop a phenobarbital. (Laughs) They were in the medicine cabinet. And there was uh … so many of them that when you opened the medicine cabinet, they’d fall into the sink. (Laughs)
You say she wore a copy of the Christian Science Monitor tied around her waist. So her insides wouldn’t fall out.
That’s what she would say. She would roll it up like it was a newspaper. Stick it against her stomach and then tie a string around her stomach very hard. And I’d say, “Why are doing that, Nanny?” Then she said, “So my insides won’t fall out.”
It frightened me when she had her spells. She was always feeling her pulse and having her heart skip beats, she would say. And if anything had happened to her, I think I would have died myself. I used to pray if she was sick, “God, take me first.”
Why did… was your Nanny and not your parents your primary caretaker?
My first memory is being in Texas and, um … because that’s where I was born. And my mother and my dad decided that Hollywood would be the place to make their fortune. And so they came out to California and left me with Nanny, who is my mother’s mother. And they hit the skids and divorced. And so then, mama was trying to get work. But she was a freelancing. So there was no money really coming in. But my grandmother insisted that we join her in Hollywood.
Then we moved into this one room in the building that mama lived in. And mama lived down the hall and Nanny and I put down our roots. And I was seven and I lived in that one room until I was 21.
Did you see much of your father while you were growing up?
I saw him irregularly. See daddy drank. But he was kind. He was a drunk Jimmy Stewart. It’s the way I’ve always described daddy.
But when I was about 10, he went on the wagon. His mother, my paternal grandmother was ill. And she made him promise not to drink and he was living with her. So he didn’t. And he would come and pick me up every weekend and we would get on the street car then transfer to the bus and go to the beach. They lived out in Santa Monica. And I had a dad. And when I looked in his eyes, he was there. He was home. And I was enamored of him. And she died. And uh, the day of the funeral, he showed up at the little room where Nanny and I lived and he was weaving.
That’s the most angry and the most disappointed I think I have ever been in my life.
When I really started to do well and started to get kind of a name for myself, Nanny, she had a mild heart attack. I was in New York doing the Garry Moore Show. She was doing fine, ah, recuperating. My aunt went to visit her in the hospital a day or two before she was going to be released. And my aunt sees a line of people lined up to my grandmother’s door in the hospital in various costumes.
There was a man standing there playing a harmonica and going [instruments sounds] and a little girl, his daughter in a tutu doing a toe tap and twirling a baton and ended up in splits. And my grandmother said, “Thank you very much. I’ll tell Carol all about you. Send in the next one.” (Laughing)
So she was being a talent scout.
And my aunt said, “Mother, what are you doing?” And my grandmother said, “Well, I was bored.”
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