Mary Tyler Moore Son’s Death, “During the first year of The Dick Van Dyke Show, as thrilled and bursting with excitement over my work as I was, I was equally without emotion at home,” writes Mary Tyler Moore of the end of her six-year marriage to Dick Meeker in 1961. Her indifference toward the couple’s breakup was not shared by her 5-year-old son, Richie, who soon began having troubles in school and spending more time with his maternal grandmother than with the woman who was swept up in her role as pert Laura Petrie, perfect TV wife. Moore writes of that period with regret: “There is no question about it. By the time Richie was 5,I had already let him down. When he needed me the most, I was busier and even more self-concerned than I had been when he was an impressionable infant.”
The following excerpt from Moore’s autobiography After All, to be published next week, begins in 1961 when Grant Tinker, then an executive with Benton & Bowles, the ad agency that represented The Dick Van Dyke Show’s sponsor, came courting.
I WISH I HAD GONE BEYOND THE LONELINESS I SOMETIMES FELT and taken a look at myself before grasping the very good-looking hand that Grant A. Tinker extended. He was handsome, witty and educated. He was in a power seat too. What could have been more irresistible to an insecure, career-obsessed daddy-seeker?
We fell in love and committed ourselves to each other.” He had just been offered a job in programming at NBC, and he was thrilled. I said to him at the time, “I bet we’re going to be television’s golden couple.” What I didn’t see then was how empty the relationship would become.
Grant was happy to have Richie in his life, and Richie was open as best he could be. Grant had the same expectations of children that he had for himself, leaving little room for failure. Richie was almost always falling short. Still, he loved Grant and saw him as a fair and kind person who loved him back.
The couple married in 1962, and in 1969, three years after The Dick Van Dyke Show’s final season, Moore was offered a half-hour sitcom spot on CBS. Tinker, who was then programming VP at Twentieth Century Fox’s television division, quit to launch MTM Enterprises, Inc. The company created the hugely successful Mary Tyler Moore Show and eventually expanded into a multimillion-dollar empire, producing hits like Lou Grant (1977-82) and St. Elsewhere (1982-88). Yet as sweet as her professional life appeared, Moore’s marriage was beginning to sour.
The Golden Couple didn’t have very much of a life. We both hated parties and attended them only if they were work-related. Most weekends found us at the pool or at our beach house in Malibu lying in the sun, Grant surrounded by stacks of scripts.
Grant and I were two people so much alike, we could have come from the same litter. The most unrestrained display of anger I ever witnessed from him came during an argument at the dinner table. Reaching for a banana from the centerpiece with a “Well, what do you think of this?” he peeled it and made a Zorro-like slash across a five-by-five-foot abstract oil painting that we were both very fond of. Did I throw something at him? No. Grant got up from the table, went upstairs, got into bed and read. And a few minutes later I followed, got into bed and read. We never discussed it again.
One night in 1973, after dinner and an argument, he said he thought we should separate, that we had “poisoned the marriage.” Perhaps 11½ years was all we had in us, he concluded. My face flushed, and my mouth went dry. I headed to my bathroom, dropped to my knees and began crying-loud childlike sobs-and screaming “No” over and over. After a while I became aware that I was pounding on the carpeted floor with my fists. It was the tantrum I was never allowed as a child.
After reassuring the dogs, who’d come rushing to my rescue, I got up and joined Grant for a Grand Marnier at the bar. I said, “I’d like you to have your things out of here in two days.” As we got into bed that night, I asked him if he would put his arms around me for a while. He did. The next morning, except for having had separate breakfasts, we left for the studio as always.
After a six-week separation, Moore missed Tinker terribly, she writes, and when he called for a truce, she happily moved into his leased home in Beverly Hills. The silences persisted, as did the couple’s growing dependence on alcohol. Moore’s relationship with her teenage son, who seemed rudderless, was also strained. “I’d always found it difficult to foster in Richie a sense of responsibility,” she writes. “I know there are answers to the question of how to motivate a kid who has everything, but Grant and I surely didn’t know what they were.”
In 1971, Richie’s father, who had remarried and moved to Fresno, Calif., asked his son to join him. There, Richie thrived and talked of plans for college, until his father was transferred out of town. Richie persuaded his parents to let him remain in Fresno on his own to complete his senior year, but soon afterward he fell prey to drugs.
It wasn’t until a frantic, sobbing Richie called home in February 1973, begging sanctuary from a cocaine dealer who had threatened to kill him over some unpaid debts, that I realized the extent of the tangle that was now my son’s life. We were fortunate to find a doctor who specialized in young people. It was on the condition that he see this doctor that my emaciated, frightened prodigal came home. During the next two years he got himself straight and finished high school. I wasn’t able to attend the graduation ceremony that was such a triumph for him. I was taping my show.
In 1979, Grant and I had begun hesitantly to talk about the great silence that had fallen on us. We always made these feeble attempts at self-counseling during the so-called happy hour, the only time we had courage enough to broach the subject. In case there’s any doubt about the acute state of my alcoholism, and the insanity it produced, I can recall with sickening clarity that on more than one occasion I played Russian roulette with my car. What’s more, some unwary, innocent people played with me.
Upon hitting the wall with Grant in a besotted argument, I’d vent my furious frustration by storming into my car, slamming it into reverse and out onto the street. I’d hit the accelerator and run each stop sign in Brentwood ’til I reached Santa Monica Boulevard. It was the certainty of a collision at that juncture that would finally bring me to a halt, and the tears would reduce the force of my anger.
We went to a therapist once, but the thought of entering into a process of truth-telling in front of a complete stranger was more than Grant could allow. It was during this time that I had my first affair.
I met him on the set of Ordinary People after the shooting had begun. [Moore will not identify the man.] When he touched me that first time with such intense passion and curiosity, I thought I’d die from pleasure. In our lucid moments, we reminded ourselves that this was the heartfelt yet temporary phenomenon of location shooting. He had a longtime commitment and wasn’t interested in changing that life.
As for me, there was no question that my marriage was over. I was loving a man who desired me and who awakened an appetite I’d never experienced, and the world was not coming to an end because of it. The Catholic in me was convinced that I was committing a mortal sin. On the other side of the ledger was the undeniable affirmation that I was an appealing woman. I had forgotten. When I returned to Los Angeles for Christmas, I found out there was someone else in Grant’s life now. We’d moved on in mute concert.
Tinker and Moore separated in 1980, just before her triumphant star turn on Broadway as a paralyzed sculptor in Whose Life Is It Anyway? After she left the show, Moore chose to remain in Manhattan and build a new life.
I had never experienced any of the situations around which The Mary Tyler Moore Show had been based-an independent woman carving out a career, finding her way in a strange city, making new friends, doing exactly what I wanted. ALONE! So what if I was now 43 years old. I rented a house on East 64th Street, where I could experiment with my impression of that hard-to-beat gal Mary Richards. But first I decided to get a new face, or at least a much younger version of the one I already had.
The operation went well, but the morning I was to leave the hospital, my face resembled a bruised tomato. My eyes were slits, and my entire head was swathed in bandages. I’d been told what to expect, but I wasn’t prepared for the apparition that squinted back at me from the mirror. I was a gargoyle.
A friend had dutifully brought along the disguise I’d planned-dark glasses, a long chiffon scarf and a wide-brimmed floppy hat, which, it turned out, didn’t come close to fitting over my bandage helmet. I thought it important to take a cab rather than one of the chauffeur-driven limos I used, for fear I’d have a driver who knew me. When the driver dropped me off, he turned around and said, “I hope you feel better, Miss Moore. You don’t look so good.”
Despite my resolve to be fiercely independent, there were times I thought it would all be so much nicer if I had a man. When I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I saw myself alone in a corner of a Renoir or wished that I were in that park Seurat painted, with a lover of my own. Everything seemed to focus on my being painfully single.
Not surprisingly, during that summer the distillation of my growing alcoholism took place. Even though I was accomplishing things by myself, it was all so uncomfortable that I anesthetized myself at the end of the day. Nothing was so tough I couldn’t get through it until 5:30 or 6. Then the effects of vodka on the rocks made it all go away.
In the spirit of the grand adventure in Manhattan, I took to making margaritas in the blender. My recipe was a quarter of a blender of bottled mix, one quarter of ice, one half of tequila and shake it up, baby! It had the consistency of a milk shake and the effect of morphine.
I loved to take it to my bed. The phone rested on a large table, as did the TV Everything I needed was within reach. My life from 6 ’til 8 p.m. was spent looking at pictures of people in magazines doing the things I thought would be fun-boating, skiing, dancing with the new man who would allow me to soar, as I did now from the drinks.
On Oct. 15, 1980, at 5 a.m., the phone awakened me. It was Grant. “If you’re standing, you should sit down.”
“I am sitting,” I said.
“It’s Richie. He’s dead.”
I shouted into the phone, “What do you mean?” My body and mind were struggling to comprehend what he was saying. Richie’s housemate told Grant that my son had been sitting on his bed watching TV with a gun in his hand. Then the gunshot.
It could not be true. Could he be here for 24 years and then irreversibly cease to exist? My sobs were those of panic. I called a friend to help get me on a plane to Los Angeles. Maybe when the plane landed it would all be different-a mistake. I called Grant back for the details: Richie had been holding a gun. The wound, where? Face. Did he live for any time? Death en route to a hospital.
A formal investigation by the Los Angeles Coroner’s Office later confirmed that his death was accidental. Richie collected guns and kept some on his bedroom wall. He had been toying with one of them, a gun called a Snake Charmer, when it went off. It was eventually taken off the market because of its “hair-trigger” instability.
We held the service outdoors, the coffin resting under a vast oak tree. The next day a funeral director brought Richie’s ashes to me. His father, Dick, Grant and I, holding the remains of my son close to my belly, boarded a private plane that took us north to Mammoth Airport, where a rental car was waiting. Dick drove us to a place near the Owens River. We walked to a small bridge where father and son had spent some very happy times. Grant and Dick stood together on the bank as I made my way to the bridge.
It was a sunny day. The water was clear and high as I knelt over it. I opened the container and emptied it into the rushing water. What was meant to be a prayer became an outraged demand. “You take care of him,” I screamed at the sky.