Q&A: Peggy Helmerich

Peggy Helmerich at her home.

Question: If Peggy Helmerich were a beverage, which would she be?

a. Champagne

b. cup of tea

c. mint julep

d. bottle of beer

Answer: All of the above and more. She sparkles with humor, she is Southern lady-polite and she’s got an earthy kick. At our interview, she wore a chic black Les Copains suit and va-voom black spike heels. At her sunny, sky-high condo she offered tea, water or wine and answered my lists and lists of questions with candor and wit.

In addition to my own snoopy queries, parts of the interview were inspired by James Lipton’s "Inside the Actors Studio" and the famous Proust Questionnaire on the last page of "Vanity Fair." 

We discussed her movie-star career as Peggy Dow, her 60-year marriage to the late Walter H. Helmerich III, and raising their five sons Rik, Zak, Matt, Hans and Jono

We touched on one of her favorite nonprofits, the Tulsa City-County Library Commission, where she served two terms as chairwoman. We’d have been there for days if we talked about all of her philanthropies, which include Tulsa Ballet, Tulsa Garden Club, Tulsa Opera, Northwestern University and its women’s and speech advisory groups, Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa Garden Center, Gilcrease Museum, Junior League of Tulsa and the Tulsa Library Trust. 

We also dished about more personal subjects, from modern movies to her beauty regime. She was so charming; I wish I’d had more questions.

Getting acquainted

What is your idea of happiness? In a perfect world, it would be to have my husband here. Having my boys and their families around me, all of them healthy and happy. Seeing Tulsa prosper and bloom, garden-wise and otherwise. Doing things to enrich the city and making it an enticement for young, industrious, happy people.

What is your favorite word? Others. From a quote by William Booth, founder of The Salvation Army. It is a word about awareness.

What is your favorite swear word? Dadgummit. And Boo. I say that a lot at bridge, to keep from saying other things.

When you arrive at heaven’s gate, what do you want to hear God say? Come in.

Finish this sentence: "I never leave home without my …" Eyeliner.

What is your most treasured possession? A small group of sticky notes from Walt. He used to leave them for me all over the house — even on the

cereal box. Some of them were kind of embarrassing. I wish I had kept more of them.

Marriage and family

What did you love and admire about Walt? So many things. Here are a few: 1. Sometimes he would listen to me. I loved that. 2. He always made sure the boys were attentive and cordial to me. 3. And I loved his persistence. He proposed to me, but I gave back his engagement ring due to professional commitments. I kept saying, "I am going to be an actress. I am not coming to Oklahoma."

When did you finally keep it? After the movie "Bright Victory" I was sent to Washington, D.C., by Universal Studios to represent the movie and to receive an award from President Harry Truman. I knew there would be several dinner parties involved. Who would be the best escort? Immediately I thought: "Walt Helmerich. He can converse with everyone." He was in South Dakota watching a well when I called to ask him. He said, "I would love to. If you will marry me."  Always a catch. 

What was your household like raising five sons? Breakfast included two dozen eggs, great stacks of pancakes and 2 pounds of bacon. We had a 5-gallon restaurant milk dispenser, which we had filled twice a week. I have squeezed 9,273 million oranges. Dinner often included 36 pork or lamb chops. If I ever write a book, the title will be "Five of a Kind is a Full House."  The first chapter will be, "If You Want Mummy, She’s in the Men’s Room."

What legacy did your husband want to leave? He wanted to teach young men to shake hands properly and to look people in the eye. He said, "You only have one chance to make a good first impression. You have command of that moment." And, he was proud of the stoplight at 21st Street and Yorktown. He worked for years to get that.

How did you get through his death? I only got through it because of the boys and their support. And my faith pulled me through. (Observation: A book on her desk is titled "Psalms for Everyday Praying.") Sometimes I would park in the garage and sit in the car listening to an old CD that we liked. The hardest thing is being by myself. We did everything together. We were never out of each other’s reach. 

Why do people always refer to him as Mr. Helmerich and to you as Peggy? (Laughs)

Because he was a little scary. He was stern, and he frightened people. Except he was never stern to girls or waitresses. He loved waitresses.

Personal stuff

What is your personal health regime? I exercise three times a week, and I have a trainer. I like showers, but I’m a great believer in Epsom salt baths. I don’t have a special diet, but when you live alone, you don’t cook much. So I eat a lot of fruit, especially blueberries and bananas. I love avocados.

What about your beauty regime? I try to avoid soap on my face. Lots of moisturizer. Sunscreen is a must. I don’t use much makeup, just powder and eyeliner. You have to use eyeliner when you’re very blond.

What’s your favorite flower? Daffodil.

What is your favorite music? Vic Damone.

What talent would you like to have? So many. To sketch people, like a cartoonist. And to have

interior-decorating talent.

Life and career

You are from the South, aren’t you? I was born in Mississippi and grew up in Louisiana and Tennessee. My mother sent my sister Ann and me to a girls’ school — then moved. (Laughs) We found her, though.

What’s one of the most important things you learned at Northwestern University when you were getting your degree in speech? To have a career in the theater, they taught us to get rid of our regional accents. And they taught us how to learn other accents — New Orleans, Brooklyn, Italian, French, for example, by learning the musical quality of each language. 

You seem to still have a slight Southern accent. (Sighs) Yes. My professors at Northwestern told me they could never get the soft "R" out of my speech.

How did your Southern background influence your life? My parents were so proper. I adored my father and never wanted to disappoint him. My mother always wanted me to get the role of the good girl in movies. My family set standards of behavior that my sister and I were expected to maintain. I’ll never forget, at one big family dinner, Walt mentioned that I had stopped smoking and every eye turned to me; every fork clattered to the plate. Peggy smoked? They were shocked.  It was a breach of family behavior.

Name six of your favorite people. Winston Churchill, Sam Levene (actor), Samuel Goldwyn, Elisabeth Elliot (missionary), Mother Teresa, John le Carré.

What do you think about contemporary movies? To tell you the truth, I am so greatly disappointed. Movies have taken such a downturn. It’s such a disappointment; it breaks my heart. I didn’t work in the Golden Age of movies, but it was golden enough to be superior. Some of the movies I see today make me feel like a Peeping Tom; I want to go home and take a shower.

Clever directors are the most important people in movies. We the audience have an important part in movies. The great movies let the audience use imagination.

What’s on your mind these days, besides Iron Gate’s Cooking for a Cause gala? The upcoming (Peggy V. Helmerich) Distinguished Author Award event for the Library Trust with author Ann Patchett (Dec. 5, 2014). Since it’s named for me, I want it to be successful. I hope it will be intellectual, fun and not too long.

Connie Cronley is the author of four books, commentator for public radio 89.5 FM and a columnist for TulsaPeople.

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