The internet will be full of Gene Wilder memories over the next couple of days. Rightly so. He starred in three of the funniest comedies ever in Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and The Producers, and millions of childhoods were defined (and traumatized) by Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. But most of us weren’t lucky enough to know Wilder personally. So let’s hear a story from someone who did: his wife Gilda Radner, the SNL great and one-woman-tour-de-force who sadly died in 1989 from ovarian cancer.
In her memoir, It’s Always Something, Radner writes a lot about Wilder (they starred in 1982’s Hanky Panky, where they first met, and 1986’s Haunted Honeymoon together). She mentions a book she read a few years before being diagnosed with cancer called Disturbances in the Field, a novel about a highly educated woman who meets a wonderful man; they quickly get married and have four children together. The couple is living a perfect life, until their two youngest kids are involved in a fatal bus accident. One day everything’s fine; the next day, it’s not. That’s the “disturbances in the field.”
While mourning, the woman recalls that her parents had a beach house in Long Island that they visited when she was a little girl. She and her sister would “go down there to the beach and there were always lots of people there, and everybody had umbrellas that looked alike,” Radner writes. They had trouble relocating their parents, so “her father began to tie a pair of tennis shoes on one of the spokes of their umbrella so when the two little girls looked over, they could see right away where their parents were.”
The memoir switches back to Radner’s perspective.
“I remember riding in the backseat of my father’s car and thinking I was really safe… If my parents were home, I was safe, and things didn’t happen — cancer, bus accidents, plane crashes or wars. As long as my parents were home, everything was all right… In the hospital, I remembered that book, thinking inside, Please, someone protect me from this cancer. Make me feel safe again. The night before my first chemotherapy, I was lying in bed and Gene walked in the doorway of my hospital room. He was carrying a little pink umbrella with shoes tied to it.”
No, you’re crying. (You should really read It’s Always Something.)