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The Valerie Harper Interview (Page 1 of 3)

Gary Barg:  I have to tell you, Valerie, I read the book, I, Rhoda, and couldn’t put it down. Some of my favorite interviews that I’ve done for the magazine were mentioned in your book – Ed Asner, Betty White, Gerald McRaney, and Delta Burke – they were fun.

Valerie Harper:  Oh, my God, what a couple. They’re wonderful. And I had a front row seat for that romance; it was lovely. Mac and I would take Delta up to Vancouver on a Sunday night to shoot the movie. We’d meet on the set the next day and then, Friday night, we’d rush to the plane to get me back to my newly adopted daughter, my brother and my mom, who was dealing with lung cancer. And he was rushing back to see his darling – inamorata, is it? The person you’re engaged to, in Italian [laugh].

Gary Barg:  Like many family caregivers, when your mom took ill with lung cancer in the 80s, you brought her home and you nursed her.

Valerie Harper:  Yes; she was living in San Francisco. She lived there as long as she could in a little apartment and, finally, it came time that she needed to move in with me. I went up and got her and closed her apartment. I brought her down and into the house and she was doing fine. She did not need nursing care at that time. You know, it was great to be around her and let my newly adopted little girl get to know her. So it was more of Grandma coming and moving in to live rather than a care situation. Then it went into that and I had to get the hospital bed and have people come in and so forth. But it was wonderful to have that last time with her.

Gary Barg:  Well, you employed something that I so firmly believe in. It’s called Validation Therapy. When your mom thought she was on a ship, rather than try to disabuse her of the notion, you went with her, where her reality was. I think, as a family, you had a good time together.

Valerie Harper:  We did. She’d say, “Oh, it’s nice that the captain lets the dogs onboard. And you know, my two dogs were sitting in the bedroom. She knew I was there, she knew the dogs’ names, she was not in some strange fantasy world. She just thought she was aboard a ship. She’d say, “Oh, smell that ocean air; isn’t it great?” Those kinds of things. And then, one day she said to me in her deep sleep, “Val, what are the three bells?” And I said, “Oh, you think we’re back on the ship.” She said, “No, I’m in my room at your house. I was just wondering what three bells are.” And I laughed so hard because I had entered her fantasy, but it wasn’t a fantasy at all. It was her asking me what’s the meaning of three bells—a way of telling nautical time.

Gary Barg: Tell me about the fabulous Mrs. Vanderbilt.

Valerie Harper:  Oh, well, she was a fabulous woman. She was a very lovely, elegant lady from Mexico, Feliza Pablos. And she was my neighbor and we knew each other for years. We walked together, we had lunch often. And then, she started to decline. She died at 96. I became her conservator when she started falling and having trouble getting her medication. She had been married to Cornelius Vanderbilt for eight years. He was drinking too much and she – this was in the 30’s or something, Gary – she left him. I mean, this was unheard of. And her Catholic family in Mexico said, “We can’t have a divorce in the family.” She said, “Well, I can’t have this man as my husband.” She bought a little house in Beverly Hills. She was kind of like a Katherine Hepburn spirit and fabulously beautiful; and just dear, and we became family. She was like Christina’s make-believe Grandma and my good friend. I had to get caregivers for her; I hired a company.

But you need to stay vigilant. Now, I was a conservator, but I was more than that. I was a daughter.  I would go in the middle of the night sometimes if I suspected a caregiver of sleeping on the job. There were two – one was to stay up and one was to sleep. And I found people there sleeping. And my doctor would say, “Fire them immediately. You’re paying all this money.” The caregiving organization can’t always be on that. I found that just coming up at unspecified times was very important.  You have to stay on top of who’s there and what they’re doing and if they’re doing their job. Sometimes breeze in with some cookies, you know you can stay on it in a different way. And I think that works really well. Of course, reputable caregiving outfits are key.


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