TARPON SPRINGS — Cliffie Sarandon had been a nanny to the stars.
She cared for the children of Natalie Wood and musician Herb Alpert, and looked after a declining Rita Hayworth.
Ms. Sarandon herself came from humble roots and grew up learning not to judge people. She collected hundreds of friends as a result.
She even forgave the husband who left her penniless after 30 years of marriage. The crisis led to a career in Beverly Hills, one of several reinventions she undertook over a long life.
"That is probably the greatest life lesson I learned from my mother, how to accept that life is less than ideal in a dignified and graceful manner," said her son, Chris Sarandon, the actor known for his roles in Dog Day Afternoon, The Princess Bride and Fright Night.
Ms. Sarandon died Monday at a rehabilitation center in Tarpon Springs. She was 96.
She was born Maria Cardullias in 1916 in Norfolk, Va., the daughter of Greek immigrants. The family soon moved to Tarpon Springs, where her father sold sponges. Ms. Sarandon spoke no English until elementary school.
At 17, a family friend arranged for her to meet a dashing older man at a picnic. Chris Sarandon, then 35, slipped his Masonic ring on her finger and asked, "Do you think you could learn to love me?"
Before that, she had never even been on a date.
Soon Ms. Sarandon was a married woman living in Beckley, W.Va., where her husband owned a restaurant.
He improved her skill at cooking Greek food. They raised two sons. But security came with a cost.
The elder Chris Sarandon "had some jealousy issues," said Chris Sarandon, 70. He forbade her from dancing with anyone else or even wearing bright colors or scarves.
One day she came home to a note on the television.
Her husband had decided he was through with life in the United States and with the marriage. He had cleaned out the bank account and moved to Greece.
"It completely blindsided her," her son said.
Still, she was not without resources. Ms. Sarandon babysat for friends, then began working as a nanny for wealthier coal-mining families.
She also began wearing scarves again that swayed when she danced, and the color red. "She had this kind of vivaciousness that had been held in check for so long," said Chris Sarandon, who was once married to actress Susan Sarandon.
Around 1969, she moved to California, where another son ran a domestic service.
Her first job: helping to raise Natasha Gregson Wagner, the daughter of Natalie Wood. Ms. Sarandon lived with Wood and her husband, Robert Wagner, for a year or so. She worked for Alpert, who had an infant child, and for the heirs of the Alexander Graham Bell fortune.
She was fond of bromides about catching more flies with honey or not judging books by their covers. "She really loved those little word pills that people pop in their mouths and make them feel better," her son said.
In the 1980s, Ms. Sarandon served as a companion to Rita Hayworth, who was two years her junior but suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
In 1989 she returned to Tarpon Springs. A couple of years later she met Joseph "Buster" Fulford, a retired grocery store manager.
They dined out, frequented TJ's Pour House and watched the sunset at Fred Howard Park — the same place where an older man had once swept her off her feet. In October 2004, they celebrated her 88th and his 90th birthday together.
Fulford died in 2006, but Ms. Sarandon had found love again for more than a dozen years.
"They spent a lot of time together and looked out for each other," said Susan Fulford, Fulford's daughter-in-law. "They were a wonderful pair."
Earlier this week, Chris Sarandon sorted through his mother's belongings at Peninsula Care and Rehabilitation Center, where she had spent the last five years.
He found an address book filled with hundreds of names, stacks of greeting cards she had received and numerous brightly colored scarves.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.