The Academy Award-winning actress and singer Celeste Holm is known for many roles over the course of her seven-decade stage and screen career. But the one which first shot her to fame, helping to transform the American musical and launching the careers of one of the greatest song-writing duos in American history, she undertook while living in a modest ground floor apartment in a building with an incredibly rich and distinguished past in Greenwich Village. A decade later she starred in a groundbreaking TV show about a 30-something journalism professor who comes to New York to tackle the role of daily newspaper reporter, befriending ex-cons and dating her boss’ son along the way — pretty racy fare for 1950s TV! — while living in Greenwich Village (the show was also an early effort by two soon-to-be-titans of American television). Beyond these career tent poles, Holm made a name for herself in multiple media, leaving a legacy that owes more than a little to the neighborhood she called home on the small screen and in real life.
Holm was born April 29, 1917 in Manhattan. After moving around the country and the world with her parents growing up, she came back to New York to launch her career as a performer. Holm had made her Broadway debut at the age of 21 in Ferdinand Bruckner’s Gloriana (1938), and in the next few years performed in William Saroyan’s Time of Your Life (1939-1940), Patterson Greene’s Papa Is All (1942), and John Van Druten and Lloyd Morris’s The Damask Cheek (1942).
You could be forgiven if none of these ring any bells. But her next play not only transformed the trajectory of her career, but of the American musical form. Holm played the ever-willing soubrette Aldo Annie in the groundbreaking Rogers and Hammerstein Broadway musical Oklahoma!. Her memorable performance of “Cain’t Say No” is one of the highlights of the show, which opened on March 31, 1943, and became a box-office smash, running for an unprecedented 2,212 performances, later enjoying award-winning revivals, national tours, foreign productions, an Oscar-winning 1955 film adaptation, and a more recent revisionist version currently playing at the Circle in the Square on Broadway. It was the first work by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, who won a special Pulitzer Prize for Oklahoma! in 1944. Oklahoma! is generally credited with transforming the stage musical into what it became, where songs and dances are fully integrated into a story with serious dramatic goals and themes and recurring musical motifs throughout the production. Rodgers and Hammerstein went on to produce some of the greatest Broadway plays of the 20th century, and are considered to have ushered in the “golden age” of musical theater.
Holm undertook this career-changing role while living in a ground floor apartment at 14-16 Fifth Avenue (8th/9th Streets), a former pair of 1848 townhouses that were combined into a single apartment building in 1936, not long before Holm moved in in 1942. The buildings have a remarkable history connected to some of the biggest names in the early development of New York, and were the homes of great writers, inventors, jurists, philanthropists, railroad tycoons, and civil wars generals, among others (read details here and here). Located within the Greenwich Village Historic District, they are also currently the subject of a proposal to demolish them and replace them with a 244 ft. tall tower, which Village Preservation vociferously opposes (more info here).
Holm’s star turn in Oklahoma! led to Hollywood calling, where she appeared in some of the classics of the era. She earned an Academy Award for best supporting actress for her role as Anne Dettrey in Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), a gripping study of anti-Semitism in which she appeared with Gregory Peck and John Garfield, and was again nominated in that category for her performances in Come to the Stable (1949) and All About Eve (1950). She subsequently co-starred in two hit MGM musicals starring Frank Sinatra, The Tender Trap (1955) and High Society (1956).
But in 1954, Holm returned to Greenwich Village — at least in her roles. She starred in her own television series, Honestly, Celeste!, as Celeste Anders, a 37-year-old college journalism professor from Minnesota who accepts a reporter’s position on the staff of the fictitious New York Express newspaper. In the series, she arrives at Grand Central Station where she meets a bevy of outsider characters, as well as the staff members of the New York Express, and eventually settles in an apartment in Greenwich Village. She’s chauffeured around by an ex-con cabbie she befriends and eventually sparks up a romantic relationship with her boss’ son. Interestingly, a young Norman Lear, later a major television producer, and Larry Gelbart, who subsequently developed M*A*S*H, were key writers on the staff of Honestly, Celeste!
Enjoying a seven-decade career, Holm accumulated a variety of honors and accolades. She continued to charm theater-goers late in her career, especially as the chain-smoking agent in the comedy I Hate Hamlet (1991).
Holm died in 2012 at the age of 95. At the time, she was living not far from the Village, on the Upper West Side.