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It's just a poster. It hangs in Ann-Margret's dressing room in the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel and just looking at it is enough to make you want to laugh and cry at the same time.
The poster shows an anxious and funny looking cat who appears to be chinning himself on a pole from which he's hanging by his front paws. It reads, "Hang In There."
There are few entertainers for whom those words could have more meaning than Ann-Margret. With a gift for understatement the star said, "It's been a rather eventful six months."
First, there was the accident at the Sahara Tahoe Hotel in Nevada, last September, where she plunged from a twenty-two-foot platform. She crashed to the stage with an impact that fractured her face in five places, broke her jaw, her left arm and gave her a brain concussion.
In November she shared a tragedy in the life of her fifteen-yearold stepdaughter Tracy whose boyfriend was killed in a car crash. And in February another part of I her life came crashing around her with the death from cancer of her father whom she loved deeply.
Through it all she'd just "Hang In There," and to everyone's amazement, returned to her nightclub act just ten weeks after her brush with death.
Ann-Margret drew her stockinged feet up under her on her dressing-room couch and spoke about this period of upheaval in her life. Just moments before she was wlldly dancing before a packed audience and even clambering off the stage to chat and sing to them tableside.
She was a dazzling figure in her glittering yellow gown, wealth of strawberry blonde hair with its tousled playgirl look and flirty babydoll voice. At one point, she told the audience, "I feel great," and a man's voice called out, "You look great."
Ann says that sort of thing really turns her on, good vibrations from an audience. After the show there were comments like, "What stamina she must have." "Did you see her perspiring." "I think I saw her scars here and here," a woman said, indicating her own face.
Backstage, the star was relaxing and indulging herself in a hot-fudge sundae with the delight of a little girl whose mother ordinarily "no no's" that sort of thing.
"Usually I have to watch my weight," she confided. "But after having to live on a liquid diet for a while when I was recuperating from the fall, I'm down to 112 pounds. I can indulge myself with things like this once in awhile.
"You should have seen me when I went up to 134 pounds a while back. At five feet four and one-half inches I looked like a blimp."
Now she wore a slinky black lace jumpsuit that hugged her trim figure. Her face was pale and a bit drawn but aside from that she was every bit the old Ann-Margret with no trace of scars showing.
She talked about yet another change in her life, but this one is planned with her husband and manager, Roger Smith. "With all that's happened recently, I have to get away for a while," she said. "I want some time to think, to be alone with my thoughts. I'm going to take off for six months. Roger and I plan to travel. I want to get some sun, some new energy. Roger and I never had a real honeymoon. And I can't remember ever getting away from my career for such an extended time."
It's not that she's running away from her career. "I love my life," she was quick to point out. "I don't cook, I don't sew. l don't have children of my own. I sing and dance and act and it makes me happy. If I can bring the audience happiness when I'm on stage I feel I'm really accomplishing something."
Whether cruising shipboard, jetting through the clouds on her way to some exotic part of the world, or just basking in the sun poolside, Ann's thoughts are sure to drift to what the past six months have meant in her life.
She'll recall waking up following surgery as a result of the accident and finding Roger at her bedside. "They didn't show me a mirror for quite a while after the accident," she said. "I asked Roger to tell me the truth. 'Am I going to be okay?' He told me surgery had gone completely well. I believed him implicitly."
Then there were the countless cards, letters, telegrams and calls from well wishers'. "It made me so aware of how great people are, both old and new-found friends:' She even gives her nightclub audience a laugh over the letter she received from comedian Don Rickles which read, " . . . I didn't know you did a high wire act. Next time use a net, dummy!"
"I owe a lot to the gentleman upstairs," she continued. "I was saved for some reason. I don't know what it is. But whatever love I have to give I'm giving it to my audiences." There was a lot of critical talk about Ann-Margret's managers, her husband Roger Smith and Allan Carr, pushing her to get back on stage sooner than she should have for her own well being.
One well-known Hollywood columnist wrote, "Someone should form a society for the prevention of cruelty to stars. Especially Ann-Margret... Managers are hungry people. Nine weeks is too long for a $50,OOO-a-week star to be out of work. Especially when she is the meal ticket..."
Ann said she couldn't reveal the real reason behind her getting back on stage so fast until after her father died. "Roger was against my getting back into my act so soon, but I had to go against his wishes. Daddy was dying of cancer. He was so worried after the accident I had to get back on the stage to prove to him that I was all right."
"I realized people were worried I wouldn't make it, but I knew I would because I had to."
Ann's father, Gustav Olsson, died after a two-year battle with cancer. The star was very close to him and still is to her mother Anna; The family came to America from Stockholm, Sweden, when Ann, an only child, was five years old.
"I always needed a man to lean on and my father was always there. I was always very dependent on my father. Now I'm very dependent on Roger. That's probably because of the atmosphere in which I was raised. My mother completely depended on my father." Ann admits she's not what you'd call a liberated woman in this respect, but she likes it that way. "I like Roger to make many of the decisions, especially when it comes to the business end of my career. But, I'm Taurus, the bull, when it comes to something I don't want to do. I won't.
"Those months when I knew what a struggle dad was facing with cancer were very hard on me. There were times I could hardly eat or sleep. I'd lie in bed at night thinking of my father and I'd just start shaking till I couldn't stand it. I'd have to wake up Roger. He'd put his arms around me and we'd sit up and talk and talk until the sun came up."
In her candid manner, Ann doesn't hesitate to admit that Roger is a father figure to her. "I knew that when I met him. I really appreciated his kindness and understanding," she said. "I lean very heavily on Roger."
The couple was married on May 8,1967. They live on the seven-acre estate in Beverly Hills once owned by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
"I get nervous when Roger and I have to be apart," Ann said. "I remember the night of the accident was the first time in a long time he'd had to be away from me."
She suddenly seemed a small, vulnerable figure on the dressing room couch as she admitted, "I am very shaky even now because he's not here. He's in Los Angeles for a short while. There's a certain something missing when he's not with me," she continued, her arms sweeping outward to show the stillness and emptiness of the dressing room where just moments before fellow performers'" had flitted in to say hi and then out again.
"It's very sad when my someone isn't around," she said, unselfconscious about the unabashed sentimentality in her words.
These emotions are a far cry from the sexy bombshell image with which Ann-Margret bursts on stage. It's like mild mannered Clark Kent popping into a phone booth and emerging Superman. Ann-Margret enters her dressing room the kind of girl who "get[s] all clammy at the thought of meeting strangers or going to a party," and emerges Super Showgirl and sex kitten.
It was this sexy image that made her such a big hit during two tours of South Viet Nam in 1966, and 1968, to entertain the troops. Because of this, the U .S. pullout from the war has a very special meaning to her. "Oh, I cried such tears of joy over our boys coming back," she said.
"When I was over there it was terrible seeing the soldiers' faces one day and then hearing a few days later that they were gone." She sat with her arms crossed against her stomach and chest as though cushioning the emotions that rose at these recollections.
"I forced myself not to cry when I'd see things like a seventeenyear-old lying in bed with no legs. I was very proud to be a pinup girl for them, a sex symbol."
The late President Johnson presented her with a special citation for her outstanding performance throughout her tours of South Viet Nam and the Far East.
But the sex image has caused her heartache as well. "Roger is a very possessive man, and this sometimes worries me. Because of my image as an entertainer, some men think that's the way I am offstage too, They think I'm like the people I portray. A guy will see me in a nightclub when I'm out with Roger and say to himself. 'l know what she's like. I'll go after that.'
"It gets rough at times like that when some man comes over and becomes very aggressive. I dread thought of Roger getting into a fight over me.
"A few years back he slipped and fell and suffered a concussion and a subdural hematoma (blood clot). It resulted in some paralysis for a while. Because of this, when he's very tired he still stutters sometimes. Also, as a result, another blow on the head could be very dangerous."
Ann is not only very concerned with Roger's physical well being, she's super careful not to put the slightest dent in his male ego. As a star who is considered one of the country's most exciting women she was asked who she considers some of the country's most exciting men. She countered with, "I'm a married woman. That's a little too personal."
The sexy image has followed just about every phase of the career of the woman who says, "As a teenager I was scared of my own shadow. " She went on to become one of the most sought-after and wrltten-about actresses; in Hollywood. Life Magazine chose her for a cover story and she has been featured in Time, Look, Newsweek, Vogue, Playboy, Coronet and Show. Harper's Bazaar recently chose her as one of the ten most exciting women in America. She has been in twenty-two movies and four television specials.
She established new attendance records at the Fountainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, and took a mini version of her night-club revue to Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, Manila, and Seoul, where she played to standing-room-only audiences.
Her three appearances at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1971, totalled a record-breaking fourteen weeks.
Yet, with all this, there is a gap in the star's life that she longs to fill. Ask her if she'd like to have children and she flits over the question in an almost too casual manner. "I would like to have children, Lord willing." The question seems to arise in just about every interview with the entertainer. And she has been reported to talk "wistfully" about having a child. Any woman who has longed for a child can understand Ann's desire not to dwell on the subject.
Though she hasn't had children of her own yet, the entertainer is experiencing the joy and pain of motherhood. She and Roger recently won custody over all three of his children from his first marriage to Australian-born actress Victoria Shaw.
"They're really put together kids," she said proudly of her stepdaughter Tracy, fifteen, and stepsons Jordan, fourteen, and Dallas, eleven. "It's terrific having them with us. They're very bright and warm, and there's no tension between us.
"The kids were very shy when I first met them. Roger and I had been going out together for a year before he introduced us. I think it was a good idea to wait that way. He'd talk about me to them so they'd kind of get to know me before we met."
Ann treasures the thought of her stepdaughter's understanding and kindness when the star lost her father. "Tracy wrote me one of the most beautifully written and sensitive letters when Dad died. She told me she could understand what I was going through because she also suffered such a great loss when her boyfriend died in an auto accident just a few months before. With her words she tried to comfort me."
All five of the Smiths used to enjoy motorcycle riding on the Mojave desert, but now Ann says, "I've been grounded for a year. The doctors put me back together once. But if there were there were another accident... ". She just shrugged. Now the family enjoys goIng to movies together and the actress said, "The whole troop is interested in footbaII, especially me."
Ann is now expenencIng the motherly desire to act as a buffer between herself and the children she is helping to rear. "If you love someone you want to be a buffer. You want to shield your kids from hurt. Are you a mother?" she asked. "Then you know what I mean. But, of course, you cannot shield someone from every hurt. You can only hope for the best.
"I'd hate to see these kids go into show business. As much as I I' love my career, I'd like to shield them from the hurts of being in the limelight." Ann said she'd need a lawyer at her side before explaining what kind of hurts she was referring to because they were often in the business end of a career.
The star recently filed a $5-million suit in Santa Monica Superior Court for damages she suffered in her twenty-two-foot fall last September. The principal defendant in the action is the Sahara- Tahoe Corp. The corporation owns the hotel where she was appearing at the time of the accident. In her petition she charged that the platform, on which she was to descend to the stage in her act, was negligently allowed to tilt and thus cause the fall.
With a touch of irony Ann is considering playing the part of Marilyn Monroe in the film version of Arthur Miller's After the Fall.
She hesitates at the thought of portraying another tragic figure as she did in the movie Carnal Knowledge. It was a rough period in her life while she was working on the film. "I couldn't turn on the tears for the part and then just turn them off," she said. "I was the character all day and I couldn't get out of it at night. The three months I was in that movie was the first time I took sleeping pills. I was terribly depressed. I was impossible to live with. I'd go home, eat dinner, take the sleeping pills and fall into bed. Early the next morning I was back on the set. When I go into a project like that I don't go in half way. I become the person I portray."
Ann was nominated for an Academy Award for her part in that picture and won wide acclaim from the critics. It was quite a turnabout from the way she was panned so many times for her movie roles. Of the great reviews she got for "Carnal Knowledge" she says a little awed, "It was like they were talking about a different person."
She's out of the limelight for a while these days. She's taking time out in the hopes of revitalizing herself. But, warmer than the sunny days that spread before her on this getting-away-from-it-all-type vacation, are the thoughts she cherishes of being "overwhelmed by peoples' kindness" in her time of need these past months. The past few years have brought Ann-Margret more upheaval, some good, some tragic, than most people face ina lifetime. But she's back again as good as new-and even better!
By Rena Dictor LeBlanc