I didn’t mean to cook dinner for Rue McClanahan one balmy night last September, but once we got the grill going and realized there were more than enough turkey burgers, we decided to invite her over. It was 9 o’clock on a Sunday. Fresh off a raw vegetable cleanse, the former Golden Girl, who died Thursday morning at the age of 76, appeared in a dressing gown when we rang for her, then took 20 minutes to “put on her face,” and came.
We asked about The Golden Girls, and she told us lurid tales of Bea Arthur’s burning, inexplicable hatred for Betty White.
We were at a friend’s mother’s apartment on 56th Street near Sutton Place, and Rue just happened to live next door. Her sixth husband, Morrow, declined the invitation, but she was a good sport about it. “This is my first impromptu dinner party ever,” she said when she walked in, wearing an oversize blue silk button-front shirt—her hair wild, her makeup perfect—looking very much as if she’d waltzed right off the set. We sat around chatting in metal dining chairs on a spacious stone patio, which, if we’d been somewhere more tropical than the Upper East Side, would easily have qualified as a lanai.
I grew up watching The Golden Girls, finding, like so many others, a strange comfort in the goofy antics of four menopausal women. I watch the show still to this day on DVD, albeit rarely, mostly during blizzards or when I’m sick. It’s cozy in a way TV shows simply aren’t anymore—sweet and bawdy and relentlessly moral, always valuing love over money, friendship above all else. Just hearing the theme song is like getting a hug from the grandmother I never had.
When the show began, in 1985, the three younger characters—Bea Arthur’s Dorothy, Betty White’s Rose and Rue’s Blanche Devereaux, the slutty Southern belle—were roughly the same age as the Sex and the City women are today—and in virtually every other way, their opposites. Where did all those brightly patterned, shoulder-padded silk outfits come from? It was never discussed. The ladies were too busy dashing off to charity events at the local community center, mentoring local schoolchildren, producing plays, and welcoming the first President Bush into their Miami home.
Blanche was always my favorite of the bunch, and when Rue turned up to dinner, live and in the flesh, I was as star-struck as I’ve ever been. She had just returned from a semi-annual trip to a Canyon Ranch-style retreat in Florida, where she tried to mitigate her declining health with ultra-low-calorie diets and massages that moved the lymph around her system. She took my arm and mimicked one of these “lymph massages” at one point, gently rubbing the skin of my wrist. “See how that works?” she asked. I did not, but nodded yes anyway, calmed and transfixed by her kooky warmth. There may be nothing in life more therapeutic than a confusing skin massage from a former Golden Girl.
She was delightfully batty the entire meal, telling my girlfriends and me a long story about her housekeeper’s hands, which recently had grown painfully swollen under the spell of a Haitian curse. Rounds of voodoo and an oil bath cleared up the problem in the end. Rue told this story credulously, and there was no choice but to react with awe. We asked about The Golden Girls, and she told us lurid tales of Bea Arthur’s burning, inexplicable hatred for Betty White. If a script called for Dorothy to tap Rose on the head with a newspaper, for example, in rehearsals, Bea would give her a thundering wallop.
Once, at a lifetime achievement award ceremony a few years ago, after a glass of wine rendered the teetotaling Arthur drunk, Morrow went over to introduce himself as Rue’s new husband. “Oh, I love Rue,” Arthur slurred. “Betty’s a c---!” Rue swore us to secrecy with this story then told the entire thing a week later at a memorial service for Bea, and it was subsequently reported in the New York Post.
At the time of our dinner party, Rue was busy working on a stage adaptation of her memoir My First Five Husbands… And the Ones Who Got Away. She had grown up dirt poor in the rural South, and her whole life trajectory had been a kind of fairy tale. She had worked steadily since 1961, having a full career before and after The Golden Girls. She had major roles in Maude, Mama’s Family and The Love Boat before being cast as Blanche, essentially a cartoon version of herself. More work followed her marathon 180-episode run with Dorothy, Blanche and Sophia—but none of it as popular or enduring. Whether she liked it or not, Rue reached her professional apotheosis on the lanai.
Around 11 p.m. a chill set in, and our dinner party repaired indoors. We drank coffee with vanilla ice cream in the living room and listened to Rue talk about falling in love with Morrow and falling in and out of contact with the other Golden Girls. In the weeks after that party, her health declined precipitously. She had one stroke, then another, and then, finally, the one that took her life.
But for the few hours I knew her, Rue was vibrant, hilarious, and kind. She seemed a little bewildered by the success of The Golden Girls but perfectly happy to bask in its spoils—the adoration of a group of twentysomething women; a lavish apartment on the Upper East Side. At the end of the night, she stood to go, taking the other half of her turkey burger in a little Ziploc container for lunch the next day. We begged a few pictures and a round of hugs. As I embraced the woman who had embraced so many, both in life and on television, I felt the unmatched satisfaction of colliding worlds. A real hug from Blanche herself! For the next week, the Golden Girls theme song played on loop in my head.
Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for the Wall Street Journal, she has also written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.