Meryl Streep is a screen icon who has dazzled audiences for her whole career with her committed, versatile performances. In her personal life, she has been married to Don Gummer since 1978, and – on the face of it – their union appears to be a strong one. Yet its origins lie in the ashes of one of Streep’s previous relationships and a tragedy that altered the course of her life forever.
Undoubtedly an actress destined to be regarded as one of the all-time greats, Streep has been a permanent fixture of the big screen for over four decades. Over the course of her amazing career, she has been nominated an unprecedented 21 times for acting Academy Awards. This is streets ahead of the closest challengers, Jack Nicholson and Katharine Hepburn, who have earned 12 nominations each.
Streep and Gummer have four children: Grace, Louisa, Mamie and Henry Wolfe. Despite her hectic acting career and his thriving work as an artist, the couple are still very devoted to family life. In fact, Gummer once told Town Vibe magazine how he wanted to be remembered. “As a good father and husband. As having set the kids on the track of their own careers. That matters most,” he said.
When it comes to her own career, her marriage and her family, Streep has always proved that it is possible to have it all. In 2008 she told Good Housekeeping magazine, “Motherhood, marriage, it’s a balancing act. Especially when you have a job that you consider rewarding. It’s a challenge, but the best kind of challenge.”
Beginning her career in the 1960s, Streep first rose to prominence treading the boards on the New York theater scene. She honed her craft on Broadway productions such as The Cherry Orchard before making the transition to the screen in the late ’70s. Right from the outset she was clearly something special; her first notable movie roles left an indelible mark on audiences in 1978 and 1979.
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In The Deer Hunter, Streep starred opposite Christopher Walken and Robert De Niro and landed a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Then, the following year, she won Best Supporting Actress for Kramer vs. Kramer. Between these films, she also won an Emmy Award for her role in the limited series Holocaust.
Memorable movies would continue to be synonymous with Streep over the next few decades. She took on challenging roles in films including Sophie’s Choice, Out of Africa and The Bridges of Madison County. Then, in the 2000s, she began pursuing more comedic and romantic projects such as The Devil Wears Prada, Mamma Mia! and It’s Complicated.
By the time Streep received her 17th Oscar nomination, and third win, in 2012 for playing British politician Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, she amusingly addressed her ubiquity in her acceptance speech. She joked, “When they called my name, I had this feeling that I could hear half of America going, ‘Oh no! Oh, come on, why her? Again!’”
Streep’s passion for acting, for the Academy Awards and for the recognition of her peers has never dimmed, though. She said, “I was a kid when I won this, like, 30 years ago. Two of the nominees were not even conceived.” She later added, “I thought I was so old and jaded, but they call your name and you just go into a sort of white light.”
By contrast, Streep’s husband has mostly eschewed the limelight over the course of his career. Gummer is a professional sculptor, who studied his trade at several prestigious institutions. Originally hailing from Indianapolis, he told Town Vibe, “I went to the Herron Art Institute there, then to the Boston Museum School, where I majored in sculpture and got my BFA.”
“Next came a fellowship that allowed me to travel through Europe and Africa and finish up with graduate work at Yale,” Gummer continued. “I emerged with an MFA and the urge to start doing my own thing in New York.” Fittingly, the first solo exhibition of his work took place in the city in 1973, the very year he graduated.
According to the website Art Daily, Gummer’s early work “concentrated on tabletop and wall-mounted sculpture.” But he switched his focus in the middle of the 1980s, beginning to concentrate more on bigger free-standing works, predominantly bronzes. The following decade saw him branch out further using a variety of other materials, including aluminium and stainless steel as well as stained glass. Art Daily also noted, “His interest in large outdoor works also led to an interest in public art.”
All in all, according to the official biography on his website, Gummer has enjoyed 22 solo exhibitions across the United States. His work has been featured in dozens of art collections and he has been commissioned by cities such as Youngstown, Ohio to make large outdoor sculptures. Southern Circle, a 25-foot-tall glass and stainless steel sculpture in Indianapolis, was created by Gummer.
But how did the future Oscar-winner and acclaimed sculptor meet? To answer that question, it is necessary to travel back to 1976 and to Streep’s whirlwind romance with actor John Cazale. They became infatuated with each other after meeting during an audition for New York’s Shakespeare in the Park theater program.
Cazale was an incredible character actor who had already played Fredo Corleone in The Godfather and its sequel. He also had a supporting role in The Conversation. He then portrayed Sal, a bank robber helping his friend Sonny steal money to pay for his trans partner’s medical procedures, in 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon. Incredibly, all four films were nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
Tragically, however, Streep would lose Cazale to cancer within two years of their love affair beginning. According to the biography Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep, when he died in his hospital bed, she pounded on his chest and cried for him to wake up. He opened his eyes one last time and told her she would be okay, then he passed on.
Streep escaped from her pain by staying with a friend in Canada for a period. A year after Cazale’s passing, she told People magazine, “The death is still very much with me. It has forced me to confront my own mortality, and once you do that, you look at things differently.” When she finally came back to New York, she was evicted from the loft she had lived in with Cazale.
In emotional turmoil and now facing an unexpected move, Streep’s brother Harry came to town to help his sister. His friend Gummer arrived with him and took on an important job in Streep’s new pad. As he told Town Vibe, “It was in 1978, through her brother – who was a good friend of mine – I got this little job of soundproofing the loft Meryl had.”
Biographer Michael Schulman asserted that, though Streep and Gummer’s relationship didn’t constitute love at first sight, it didn’t take long for romance to develop. They kept in contact while Gummer went travelling by writing letters to each other. Streep realized that her brother’s friend wanted much more than a simple friendship with her.
When Gummer came home, Streep moved into his apartment and their relationship blossomed. She lived there while she filmed Kramer vs. Kramer, which co-starred Dustin Hoffman and Jane Alexander. With her professional life going from strength to strength, her relationship with Gummer was also about to move to the next level.
In September 1978 Streep married Gummer in the back garden of her parents’ house. The wedding came a mere six months after Cazale’s death, and some people close to the couple questioned whether Streep was rushing into marriage with a rebound relationship. According to Schulman, Streep’s mother said, “What is she thinking about?”
Any worries about the validity of their relationship have been put to bed over the course of the marriage, though, as it is still going strong today. This means that, unlike many Hollywood contemporaries, Streep has remained married to the same person over the course of her career. As previously mentioned they have four children together, all of whom are now grown-up.
In a 2019 interview with magazine The New Australian Women’s Weekly Streep said that Gummer was the linchpin of her life. She added, “Our marriage and our children, and their wellbeing, inform all the decisions we make.” In fact, her real-life role as a parent informed Streep’s part in HBO’s hit TV series Big Little Lies.
“I’m playing someone who is dealing with whatever the deficits of her parenting were and the mysteries in that,” explained Streep, “and how you can’t go back in time and fix something. All those issues, that was interesting to me. And it felt real, honest, honestly investigated. I felt like I had something to give to this piece.”
Interestingly, all four of Streep and Gummer’s children work in the arts. Their oldest, Henry Wolfe, is a singer-songwriter. Daughters Mamie and Grace both followed their mother’s path by becoming actresses. Mamie can be seen as the title character in Emily Owens, M.D., while Grace had supporting roles in Mr. Robot and Extant. Youngest daughter Louisa is a model.
Henry spoke to the Daily News about trying to make it on your own when you have a famous parent. He said, “It’s not what I would necessarily choose but it is something I have to accept. There are a certain amount of assumptions that go along with that, which tend to not be fair, like the recognition somehow helps me.”
Henry believes the reality is quite the opposite. He said, “But it also hurts because people start to think that I don’t work hard, and they don’t take me seriously.” From Streep’s perspective, she expressed a level of nervousness about her daughters following her into acting when she spoke to The Talks website in 2011.
Streep said, “I am proud that my daughters want to do this. But I am also frightened for them too. Because when criticism comes your way as an actor, they are not criticizing your writing or your painting or your piece, they are criticizing you! It is hard to put that away in a place where you are not hurt by it and that is my fear for them.”
In 2016 Mamie was interviewed by British newspaper The Independent and gave some insight into growing up with a famous mother and an artist father. Aside from one occasion in which Mamie, as a baby, appeared in Streep’s 1986 film Heartburn, the children were kept out of the public eye. Until they hit college, any acting pursued by Mamie and Grace was at an amateur level.
Streep told Good Housekeeping that she heeded advice from Robert Redford, her Out Of Africa co-star, regarding her children’s place in the public eye. He taught her that her children were not her props to be paraded before the cameras. She added, “I really admired the way he protected his family. It’s something I consciously emulated.”
Streep went to great pains to keep her celebrity from affecting the children’s home lives as well. Mamie revealed, “Here priority was being our mother, not being a celebrity, and it certainly wasn’t like we had Warren Beatty to the house every Thursday. One of the smartest things my parents did was to move to the country when we were small.”
“The country” was the town of Salisbury, Connecticut, which is a two-and-a-half-hour drive away from New York. Mamie explained that her parents, who had lived in Los Angeles with the children for five years prior to moving to Connecticut, had grown frustrated with the city. It was too close to the movie industry and Streep didn’t want her family playing the fame game anymore.
“The film industry’s influence can be overpowering,” explained Mamie, “and Mom wanted us to know that being famous isn’t the most important thing in life. I’m grateful that we grew up before things got so out of hand with the paparazzi and the selfie-taking and the obsession with celebrities and images.” Mamie tried L.A. again as an adult, but admitted, “Living as an actress in West Hollywood is not great for the soul.”
When asked if her father ever gets upset that none of his children chose to follow his lead and go into sculpting, she laughed, “No, he doesn’t. I wouldn’t feel bad for him.” Interestingly, she did draw a parallel between her father and brother, though. She said, “My brother is more like my dad, though. More solitary. He’ll go into his studio and write music all day.”
This solitary nature is perhaps why Gummer is rarely interviewed and Streep also rarely talks about their marriage. In a 2002 Vogue magazine interview, she admitted, “He hates to be written about in my movie stuff.” Then, when asked about her secret to such a long, successful marriage, Streep replied, “Goodwill and willingness to bend – and to shut up every once in a while.”
Despite any perceived aversion to the limelight, however, Gummer has been at Streep’s side for many notable Hollywood events over the course of their 40-year marriage. He accompanied her to the Academy Awards in 1979, 1983, 1989, 2007 and 2018. He also attended the premieres of Kramer vs. Kramer, The Bridges of Madison County, The Hours and Mamma Mia!.
In 2012 when Streep was on stage at the Oscars accepting her Best Actress statue for Julie & Julia, she began her speech with a heartfelt tribute to Gummer. She said, “First, I’m going to thank Don because when you thank your husband at the end of the speech, they play him out with the music. And I want him to know that everything I value most in our lives, you’ve given me.”
Attending the Oscars, with all the glitz and glamour associated with it, would surely be an exciting proposition. Although, by this point, one could forgive Gummer for being less-than-enthused about it, as he has been to so many of them over the years. Keep in mind, the experience can be exhausting for attendees as the red carpet and afterparty events can make it something of a marathon.
Newspaper The New York Daily News asked Gummer about this very subject, wondering if he had ever become sick of her achievements and accompanying her to events. He replied, “Not sick, I just don’t get excited. She just always hates asking people or having people asked to come support her. She gets tired of it. After a while, what can they say?”
This willingness to always be there for Streep is one example of just how dedicated Gummer is to his wife and her career. But, he did tell the Daily News that he never marvels at being married to an icon like Streep. As he said, they’re a regular couple who still debate over which one of them will “wash the dishes or put them in the dishwasher.”