January 24, 2019 at 4:50 am EDT | by Kathi Wolfe
Saying goodbye to Carol Channing and Mary Oliver
Carol Channing, gay news, Washington Blade
Carol Channing (Photo by Allan Warren via Wikimedia Commons)

I don’t know if there’s an afterlife.  But, if there is, there’s a lot more laughter and poetry in heaven.

Two icons, legendary Broadway star Carol Channing and beloved poet Mary Oliver, have died.

Channing, who won a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance as Dolly Gallagher Levi in “Hello Dolly,” died on Jan. 15 at age 97 at her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

Channing’s warmth, gravel-toned voice, false eyelashes and fabulous talent will be missed by her many fans, hetero and queer — from eight to 80. Some aficionados remember seeing Channing when she became a star in 1949. Then, she appeared as Lorelei Lee in the musical “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” Others loved watching Channing on “The Muppet Show” or hearing her read the audiobook “Peter Rabbit and Other Stories.”  

Though she was not as successful in movies as she was on the stage, Channing was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe for her performance in “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” (Marilyn Monroe was Lorelei Lee in the movie version of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and Barbra Streisand was Dolly in the film of “Hello Dolly.”) 

At 92, the “New York Times” reported, she appeared in Town Hall in New York to celebrate the 50th anniversary of “Hello Dolly,” which opened on Jan. 16, 1964. “Performing is the only excuse for my existence,” Channing said. “What can be better than this?”

She had particular affection for her queer fans. “The gay community is responsible for so much of my success, and I love them,” GLAAD quoted Channing as saying in a Tweet, “It’s a mutual love affair, really. They make the better audiences, too, because they laugh often and loudly.”

“Thank you, Carol Channing for a brilliant career and for being a friend,” GLAAD added.

Channing’s peers in the entertainment world from George Takei to Margaret Cho remembered her on social media. “She rejoins the heavens as a new diamond in the night sky,” Takei said.

“A star…a legend…an inspiration,” Cho said.

Channing was as warm off stage as she was on stage. When I was 11, my mother took me to see “Hello Dolly” for my birthday. I don’t know why. Maybe Channing could see that we were enchanted by her performance. But she came over to us and smiled at me. It was as if the sun had smiled at me.

“My father was a drama critic,” poet Clarinda Harriss told me over the phone, “He loved Channing!”

He and Channing exchanged friendly notes, she said. “One day, my parents had lunch with her at the Owl Bar in Baltimore,” Harriss said. ”Channing was for real, they said – as bubbly as when she performed!”

R.I.P. and thank you, Carol!

Nothing seems more of an oxymoron than the idea of a best-selling poet. Yet, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, who published 20 collections of poetry and five volumes of prose, was just that. Her work was beloved by everyone from Oprah to Hillary Clinton to Laura Bush to Maria Shriver to clergy to psychotherapists to teenagers. My friend’s daughter, who is an artist and a baker, loved Oliver’s poetry. Fans flocked to her readings as if they were going to a rock concert.

Oliver died on Jan. 17 at 83 at her home in Hobe Sound, Fla. The cause of death was lymphoma. Cook, her life partner who was also her literary agent, died in 2005.

“I had a very hard childhood,” she told Maria Shriver in an interview in “O: The Oprah Magazine.” “So I made a world out of words.”  

Oliver lived for several years at the home where Edna St. Vincent Millay had lived.   After she and Cook met there, the couple moved to Provincetown, Mass. After Cook’s death, she moved to Florida. Oliver received a Pulitzer Prize for her collection “American Primitive” and won a National Book Award for her collection “New and Selected Poems.”

In her poetry, Oliver is concerned with the natural world and with spirituality. “What I want to say is/that the past is the past, and the present is what your life is,” she wrote in her poem “Mornings at Blackwater, “and you are capable/of choosing what that will be/So come to the pond/or the river of your imagination, and put your lips to the world.”

Perhaps, because of its conversational style and accessible imagery, her work is dismissed by some critics. Yet, Oliver’s work is admired by others. “She was just adored by people who felt that she had just the right words for them at the most difficult periods of their lives,” author and critic Ruth Franklin said on NPR’s “Here and Now.”  Oliver ranks in the top of contemporary poets, she said.

After my brother’s death, I turned to Oliver’s poetry. “When it’s over…I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened/or full of argument,” Oliver wrote in her poem “When Death Comes.” “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

R.I.P., Mary Oliver, thank you for your poetry!

Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.

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