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Lily Tomlin reflects on her childhood

Published Oct. 2, 2005

(ran GB edition)

Lily Tomlin's childhood is never very far away from her.

It may be onstage, as when she performs as Edith Ann, the precocious 6{-year-old with the nasal voice and the oversize chair.

Or it may be offstage, as it was recently after her appearance in Boston at the "Lunch With Lily" benefit for Rosie's Place, the support center for homeless women.

Tomlin mused in an interview that when she was Edith Ann's age, her home was a basement apartment in a blue-collar neighborhood of Detroit. And it just happened to be a few miles from the very wealthy suburb of Grosse Pointe.

Tomlin compared her home life with that of her neighbor, automobile heiress Charlotte Ford, who lived in a Grosse Pointe mansion. Contemporaries separated geographically by a distance of about 2 miles, they were worlds apart.

Ironically, Tomlin's mother's maiden name was Ford too, and when Lily was a teenager, Charlotte was about to come out as a debutante. With a touch of envy, and a lot of curiosity, Lily's mother decided she wanted to watch the preparations for Charlotte's debut.

They didn't have a car, so Tomlin borrowed a 1952 Plymouth and drove her mother to the mansion, where they spied on the Fords through an opening in the hedge and watched the lights being strung up for the party.

"Flash-forward a few years," Tomlin smiled, "and I'm back in Detroit, visiting one of my girlfriends and a fellow cheerleader from Cass Technical High School, who by this time happened to be" the third wife of a Ford _ living in the mansion behind the hedge.


With great glee, Lily and her friend telephoned Lily's mother from the Ford mansion, and announced her fantasy was realized: "Now she could come in the front door of the Ford house."

Tomlin can make a comedy routine of most of her childhood, when prompted _ or even when she's not. She recalled the time as an adult when she went back to see the apartment where she lived as a little girl. This was after the riots in Detroit, and the building was boarded up and in ruins.

"The boards were broken, so I pushed my way inside," she remembered, "and even though the apartment was all charred, I looked for my room and found my wallpaper still there underneath the black smoke." It was so moving to find those fragments of her childhood that she called her brother to express her joy. Her brother let her down fast. "He told me that I'd gone into the wrong apartment," she said with a laugh.

Asked whether she did a lot of fund-raising such as she does each year for the Rosie's Place luncheon, she replied: "No, because I'm one of the worst people on the telephone for fund-raising. If they say no, I say, "Well, okay, then, don't bother to send money.' . . . In reality, I'm a little bit timid."

Would Ernestine be able to fund-raise over the phone, a bystander in the interview room asked. Instantly assuming the familiar persona of the telephone operator, Tomlin shot back: "You betcha, bub. Give me that line. Give me that phone number; I'll yank those dollars out of that sucker!"

During the luncheon, Tomlin, who co-stars in the sitcom Murphy Brown, presented a hilarious skit about her favorite grade school teacher, Miss Sweeny. "Yes, there really was a Miss Sweeny back in Detroit," Tomlin smiled sadly, "but when someone told her about the bit I did on her, she said she didn't remember me."