Connie Schultz: Gene Wilder loved Karen, too
Actor and writer Gene Wilder’s 2010 memoirs, “Kiss Me Like a Stranger,” begin with this author’s dedication:
“To Karen, without whom I would be floating like a cork in the ocean.”
If you’ve been reading some of the many obituaries this week about Wilder, who died at 83, you might be tempted to ask: Who is Karen?
Consider this two-line reference to her in the lengthy New York Times obituary for Wilder: “In 1991 Mr. Wilder married Karen Boyer, a hearing specialist who had coached him in the filming of ‘See No Evil, Hear No Evil,’ in which his character was deaf and (Richard) Pryor’s was blind. She survives him…”
Or this single-line description of her in The Atlantic, after the author details the death of Wilder’s previous wife, comedian Gilda Radner, from ovarian cancer in 1989:
“Wilder was, by his own admission, so devastated that he largely withdrew from acting, spending his later years painting watercolors and pursuing charitable efforts largely geared toward ovarian-cancer awareness. In 1991, Wilder married Karen Webb, a clinical supervisor in lip reading who consulted with him on the film ‘See No Evil, Hear No Evil,’ and the two were together until his death.”
Countless other obituaries and tributes have similarly depicted Karen Webb Boyer, his wife of 25 years, as a footnote in Gene Wilder’s life. A common sentiment on social media in the wake of his death is that finally, Gene and Gilda are together again.
I understand why this happened. Many of us of a certain age adored Radner from her “Saturday Night Live” days. We shared a collective cheer when she married the funny, neurotic guy who charmed us in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” and made us howl in “Young Frankenstein” and “Stir Crazy.” They were Gilda and Gene, those two funny, funny people we’d never met but knew so well. We want to freeze them in time, if for no other reason than it keeps us younger, too.
But it is neither accurate nor decent to diminish Karen Webb Boyer’s loss during what is surely one of the saddest times of her life. It also, quite simply, isn’t a fair accounting of Gene Wilder. In the wake of unspeakable grief, he found hope among the ruins and the courage to love again. That, too, is who he was — and who doesn’t need to hear that story?
In his memoirs, Wilder describes sharing with his therapist his angst over falling in love with Karen:
“If the tabloids start printing stories like, COULDN’T WAIT; GENE’S HOT NEW LOVE AFFAIR! — and they will — I’ll feel terrible,” he told her. “I don’t want to soil Gilda’s name, and I don’t want to soil Karen’s name with that garbage. It’s been almost a year since Gilda died, but everyone — on the street, in supermarkets, in cabs — still asks me about Gilda and my life with her. They keep saying, ‘Poor Gene — we love you both.’ I’m not poor Gene; I’m lucky Gene — to have found someone at this stage in my life.”
Fortunately, Wilder’s heart was bigger than his fear. He married Karen on Sept. 8, 1991.
They wrote and recited this at their wedding:
“We both believe in music and painting and the truth that we can see all around us in nature. We also believe that something, some fate, brought us together at this exact point in both of our lives. With appreciation for these exquisite insights, and with the love and respect we both feel for each other, we think we have the foundation for a happy life … so long as we keep laughing.”
They took tennis and tap-dancing lessons, and she was with him throughout his cancer treatment, kissing him through surgical masks. She was by his side during his final illness, too, when Alzheimer’s clawed him away from her.
For as long as his mind was able, he seemed never to cease marveling over the love he had found with Karen.
“As I was nearing the end of this book,” he writes on the final page, “recalling the tortures that Gilda had gone through and how she screamed and pounded on the bed, scaring the daylights out of (her dog) Sparkle and me, I remembered how I had begged her to treat me at least with the kindness that she showed to every stranger she met.
With Karen, because of some accidental beneficence, which I still don’t understand, loving her each day feels almost the way it did when she and I first met.”
That right there.
That’s a love story.