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Charmed Life

Open House

Michelle Gienow

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 3/6/2002

On Jan. 1, my wife and I, children in tow, trooped to Muriel Heineman's final New Year's Day gathering in Bolton Hill. She was going to be moving, after spending 40 of her 76 years in the same Bolton Street rowhouse.

I thought there might be some teary speeches on the occasion, but there was nothing of the kind. It was pretty much the same leisurely party that it had been for the previous 20 or so New Years: an eclectic-verging-on-eccentric collection of Baltimoreans of all ages, complexions, and persuasions, snacking and sipping, coming and going, throughout the afternoon. A handful of Muriel's former theater students sat at a round brass tabletop from India, scooping hummus and getting reacquainted. A neighbor gent in plaid pants sampled sherry. The latest generation of offspring romped upstairs in dress-up clothes. Old colleagues from Villa Julie College, where Muriel taught drama for nearly three decades, stopped by to pay their respects. There were spouses and ex-spouses and old boyfriends and girlfriends and grown children of former students and neighbors, etc., etc.--a sprawling network of acquaintances, including some people whose connections with Muriel had long outlasted their relationships with the parties who introduced them to Muriel in the first place. It's a mélange that could fill half a dozen Anne Tyler novels.

Amid this amiable crowd, Muriel herself shuttled from the parlor in the front to the kitchen in the back, warmly sharing her anxieties about the pending move and listening earnestly to whatever her guests had to say. She is confoundingly youthful for someone of three-score and 16 years, tall and thin with arched eyebrows, fine cheekbones, and an aquiline nose. The house, what you could call a vertical rambler, fits her frame: three high-ceilinged stories tall, four long rooms deep, and just one room wide. It has always seemed to me that the house even looks like Muriel, and that she looks like it.

"That's funny," Muriel sniffs when I mention this notion to her, "because when we moved here I hated the place." She had come to Baltimore with her husband, an architect, who had a vision for restoring the old manse. After the marriage ended in 1978, she remade the place in her own image, renting out out the third floor to help make ends meet. At times, she invited needy but trustworthy students to live with her and her two sons, to help with the household. Without particularly intending to do so--just by listening well, and taking an interest--she became mentor to a dozen, maybe dozens, of students and hangers-on over the years.

Her house was a retreat, sometimes a refuge. Twenty years ago, while Muriel made her annual trip to her hometown in western Massachusetts, my wife--then a student at Villa Julie--house-sat for her. I, the brand-new boyfriend, visited as often as I could, and got well acquainted with the house before I met the owner. As a romantic hideaway, the old place served admirably.

Other visitors exploited Muriel's hospitality less benignly; I remember, too well, a disarmingly witty young man who asked a lot of questions about several of Muriel's heirlooms--among them a string of Babylonian cylinder seals, perhaps 3,000 years old--and then stole the stuff. Such memories irk Muriel, but they haven't shaken her basic trust in people.

Her openness is consistent with the way she teaches acting. (Although she officially retired in 2000 after 29 years at Villa Julie, she still leads a seminar there in dramatic literature.) "In theater, you can never judge people. I don't judge people--I'm interested in what makes people tick," she says. "I believe that you have to do theater in love, because you have to love your characters in order to play them. . . . You have to observe people and see what's going on underneath. I feel that everybody should take one course of theater in college because you really learn, practically, how people communicate--or how they don't communicate."

At the New Year's event, I followed my usual pattern, ducking in and out of small talk while admiring Muriel's collection of Asian, Near Eastern, and Baltimorean art. When we spoke later, she told me that appraisers haven't assigned much value to her "Orientalia"--carpets, brass work, and sculpture handed down by three generations of her missionary ancestors, plus a few pieces she picked up, haphazardly, in her youth. (If the latest chapters of her life were Anne Tyler, the earlier ones were Lawrence Durrell or some such exotic: childhood in Beirut and Mexico, youthful sojourns in Paris and the French Pyrenees.) At one end of her old front parlor, Muriel had a small ecumenical shrine, composed of a wrought-iron cross from Mexico, silk paintings from China, a Muslim sculpture of the Hand of Fatima, Hebrew characters in brass, and a scarred, blackened Christian icon from Turkey.

"I read somewhere that every house should have an altar to Hestia, the goddess of the hearth," she tells me, "so this is mine." It's not so much a statement of faith as one of inclusiveness.

This month, Muriel starts a new chapter, further uptown, in a condo. It is hard for me to imagine her inhabiting a different setting, but there she is, still trying to squeeze her treasures in. Not much room for boarders, but she assures me that there's space for the shrine.

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