Blessed with an operatic singing voice and a flair for drama, Nola Larkin was performing at the famed Hollywood Bowl by age seventeen. A descendant of noteworthy Mormon pioneers and the aunt of actor Matthew Modine, the ninety-two-year-old Greenwich resident’s supporting role in Hollywood’s Golden Age —and her fast track to Broadway—was an improbable but determined one.
Her devoted mother, Zella, took in laundry during the Great Depression to pay for her daughter’s voice and dance lessons (she studied in the same company as Shirley Temple) and uprooted her family to take Nola to Hollywood when she was still in high school. In a career that spanned two eventful decades the actress, who performed under the stage name Nola Fairbanks, played opposite Bette Davis in The Corn Is Green, toured as a singing soloist with the popular Sonja Henie Ice Show, joined the chorus of Cole Porter’s Out of This World and won over critics when she took on the late Florence Henderson’s role in Broadway’s Fanny.
Despite the accolades, Nola’s star turn was too short. When she was thirty-one, a producer sent her a blunt letter proclaiming her too old to play the ingénue. “You used to be a pretty girl, but now you’re a pretty woman,” he wrote, urging her to accept her career’s twilight. Then a newlywed, Nola took the cruel missive as a sign it was time to start a family. “He was so mean,” says Nola, who had four children she raised in Westchester County and Greenwich. “But I always wanted to have a family and that was wonderful too.”
Today, Nola is treated like a celebrity at the Nathaniel Witherell Home in Greenwich, where she moved two years ago after a stroke made it challenging to live independently. “What’s been nice about her living here is that she has lived—and continues to live—a remarkable life that’s appreciated and acknowledged,” says Nola’s daughter Jenny Larkin, who notes that her mother was a bit lonely before moving into the skilled nursing facility operated by the town of Greenwich. “Here she has companionship and she’s also celebrated for who she is, which I find is true with all the residents.”
Greeting a visitor sporting khakis tucked into knee high boots and a leather blazer, the great grandmother of twelve remains remarkably spry. Despite lingering speech limitations from her stroke, Nola communicates with broad hand gestures, lots of laughter and short sentences. “I’m still dramatic,” she says with a sweep of her arms.
At Nathaniel Witherell Nola regularly takes in performances of the Bob Button Orchestra (which rehearses on the premises weekly), diligently keeps up with politics via CNN and has enjoyed a bit of the limelight. Fellow residents have had a chance to listen to a rare recording of her melodic soprano on a cast recording of A Night in Venice, which she performed in Mike Todd’s first musical production at the Jones Beach Theater. “Oh, he was a big flirt,” Nola recalls of Elizabeth Taylor’s late husband’s romantic overtures toward her. “But I wasn’t interested.”
FRIENDSHIP BLOSSOMS AT NATHANIEL WITHERELL
Nathaniel Witherell’s Friendship Garden is a new wheelchair accessible formal garden that features a central fountain, plants chosen for their ability to morph with the seasons and soft lighting so residents can navigate its pathways day and night. The garden formally opened last October, but on May 20 the skilled nursing facility will welcome the public to enjoy its spring blooms at an Open House from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m.
The Friendship Garden is not just a physical improvement to the Nathaniel Witherell campus. Studies show such gardens have clinical benefits for seniors experiencing depression and can stimulate the senses and emotions of patients living with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
SAVE THE DATE
Nathaniel Witherell will host its annual spring luncheon on Wednesday, May 24 at Greenwich Country Club. nathanielwitherell.org