My dear friend Philippa Salisbury passed away yesterday. We didn't see each other much -- she was from Connecticut, though she did live briefly in Los Angeles for a couple of years -- but she was one of those force of nature, joyous, nurturing, unique people, so we stayed in touch regularly, mostly by email though occasionally over the phone.
We'd met a little over 30 years ago when I was working in PR at the time for Universal Studios, and one of my jobs was to deal with college press. Philippa was at the University of Miami and wrote a letter with a request that was so offbeat goofy (which turned out to be a perfect description of her) that, even though she wasn't with the school paper, I followed up on. And we stayed in touch since.
I always referred to her as 'Mary Poppins,' because she had a way about her that was sort of wafting magical, crossing paths with people -- famous and absolutely total strangers on the street -- and becoming their friend. She was the kind of person who, in grade school, would find the kid who everyone else ignored and then befriend them. I don't mean that metaphorically, but in actuality. All through her life.
Her tales of growing up with her three (now-accomplished) sisters Adrienne, Anne and Gay were always a hoot, sort of a free-spirited fairy tale world of being taken to theater in New York, and ballet and museums and all manner of culture and adventures by their mother Nancy. At one point, on a trip to New York I took a detour to Connecticut to visit the Salisbury clan, and it was a wonderful group, headed by their father John. A treasured memory.
Over the years, Philippa wrote a lot of screenplays, and they had much in common -- the plotting generally was a touch fanciful, wildly inventive, with characters running through life and doors, laughing, indeed often squealing with delight, even in the face of adversity, and trying to be kind and helpful and needed in some way, and the story structure wasn't their strong point ("I don't quite believe that things would happen that way," tended to be my recurring comment...), but the dialogue was always vibrant, flying off the page, and often hilarious, and the characters tended to be richly memorable.
We collaborated on one feature script -- the structure was all over the place, and she asked if I could help -- and it was an odd experience, but fun. It was called, Flora Dora Doomcheck, which was a nickname from her childhood of an imaginary friend. The script was originally intended for one of Phillipa's magical contacts, the actress Hayley Mills. Years later, it got resurrected for another of her magical contacts, Susannah York. And even at one time still another of her magical contacts, Liza Minnelli. The end result with the script wasn't half-bad, and it touched the edges of production interest, though never got sold. Nor did a TV sitcom pilot which we worked on in pretty much the same way -- that was for British television through yet another of the magical contacts she'd made, Judi Dench's agent. For that one, I thought the end result was actually quite wonderful. The problem was that while it was a great pilot, the development of the show couldn't be nearly as good as her initial set-up, because one of its dramatic plot points changed the direction of the story once the pilot ends. Also, it was an uphill battle for us from the start with British television.
And so, it didn't sell either. Neither did any of her scripts, but she kept pounding at them with enthusiasm. At another point, through yet another of Philippa's magical contacts -- this time with the actress Sarah Miles (if you're noticing a pattern, yes, Philippa absolutely loved England and had an abundance of friends and business dealings there) -- we worked on another project that Philippa hoped to produce. It was an idea Sarah had for making a sequel of the classic movie she'd starred in, Ryan's Daughter. The story was quite interesting, but the biggest hurdle was the rights, and one of the holders was interested in moving forward with the project, but another wasn't, and so it went away.
One of Philippa's great goals, ever since I gave her a copy of the brilliant Harrow Alley screenplay by Walter Brown Newman to read (which I wrote about here), was to get it produced. Alas, that too was a monumental uphill battle, given that there had been numerous attempts in Hollywood to get it made for almost half a century. But that was okay, Philippa loved uphill battles -- in large part because she didn't see them or most anything in life as "uphill." :Everything was an adventure and relished, and uphill just seemed to be more adventure. She actually made impressive progress with the project, but it remains the greatest screenplay never made, by anyone.
But Philippa always remained her joyous, upbeat, voraciously inquisitive, nurturing, friend-to-the-world self. Whether things were good or tough, she stayed as warm-hearted a good spirit as I've met.
Who else would bring along a stray to her family’s house for the big, already-crowded Thanksgiving dinner, because she didn’t want the person to be alone on the holiday, and have it turn out to be Deborah Harry? (“Excuse me, Blondie, but could you please pass the cranberries.")
Later in her life, things did get more tough, as Philippa unfortunately developed some health problems. It was hard to pin down exactly what they were -- she wasn't sure herself, though she acknowledged them, although not entirely. She just plowed on. It made some dealings with her difficult, but her good-hearted nature and her insistence to be profoundly loyal to any friend she'd ever met and her unquenchable decency were enough to make me always willing to stick around, however hard things sometimes got.
Then about a year-and-a-half ago, she had a much more serious complication, and it was clear that things weren't good for her. Though for all the challenging problems, it sort of kicked something into place, and her joyful spirit which had become a touch pummeled in recent years (though always there) returned in full, even if she didn't think so. But it did, and she was a total joy the past year-and-a-half, and it was a treat to have her, even while knowing how tough things were. Her spirit just exploded through, even against the most difficult circumstance. How could it not, that's who she was. She was curious in everything, sharp, funny, warm, loyal, adventurous, and glorious. When most people wouldn't have even tried. "What are you chasing today?" was what she began asking all the time, in her own unique way. It fit her to a T.
In the end, the downward spin of her health weakened too much, and it gave out. Though I suspect it was more a case that she just ran laughing through another door that most people don't even see. And disappeared. Whatever it was, it was far too early, which is the only cliché in her life, only in her early 50s. But some spirits are just too massive that they're always there, and all the people they touched are better for it. And the world is better for that.
That was Philippa.
Her own childhood nickname was Foofa. It just fit. Always.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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