Meryl Streep is, of course, one of the world’s most celebrated actresses. The star has set records when it comes to Golden Globe nominations, for one – and that’s not even mentioning all the special recognition and lifetime achievement accolades she has garnered. Naturally, though, Streep has a personal life, too, and she has long been married to the sculptor Don Gummer, with whom she has four children. But before all that, she suffered a heartbreaking tragedy – one that she’s carried with her all her life.
Streep’s career is the stuff of legend. Since first appearing on the big screen in 1977, she has featured in a great many films that have achieved commercial and critical success. These include – among others – The Deer Hunter, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Devil Wears Prada and The Post.
Yet while growing up, Streep had ambitions to be a singer. The future star took opera singing classes from the famous soprano Estelle Liebling – even if she didn’t enjoy them. She performed in school plays, too, although it wasn’t until college and a role in the play Miss Julie that she really caught the acting bug.
After graduating from college, Streep studied at the Yale School of Drama. However, she found it difficult. In order to pay for school, she had to take extra jobs, and it tired her out. In fact, she even considered giving up acting entirely, as at the time she still wasn’t completely sure what she wanted to do with her life.
“I didn’t always want to be an actor. I thought I wanted to be a translator at the U.N. and help people understand each other,” Streep told The Guardian in 2017. “Some young people come into acting because they see it as glossy and heightened and more sort of divine than their existence; but what interests me is getting deep into someone else’s life.”
It seems, then, that Streep was less interested in the celebrity lifestyle that often comes with being an actress. “That other stuff, I’ve never liked,” she explained to The Guardian. “My mother used to say, ‘People would give their right arm to walk down that red carpet. Enjoy it!’ You just can’t change who you are.”
At any rate, in 1975 Streep took her first on-stage bow in Trelawny of the Wells – and yet she was ambivalent about appearing in films. It seems that the industry wasn’t always kind to her, either. For instance, she auditioned for the female lead in the 1976 remake of King Kong but heard director Dino De Laurentiis disparaging her looks in Italian. She, too, spoke the language, though, and apparently soon let him know about it.
But despite such difficulties, Streep stuck at it. She had also, meanwhile, been fascinated by the work of Robert De Niro since seeing him in 1976’s Taxi Driver, and it was he who got the fledgling actress her first major role – in The Deer Hunter. What’s more, the film ended up claiming five Oscars and gained Streep her first Oscar nomination after its release two years later.
Now, Streep has so many Oscar nominations that she can’t actually remember them all. In January 2018 she appeared on Jimmy Kimmel and was challenged to do just that. She could only manage five, though – for her roles in Out of Africa, Kramer vs. Kramer, Sophie’s Choice, Silkwood and The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
It’s a problem that many people would give their right arm to have. But Streep always had the difficult task of balancing her personal and professional lives, especially once she had children. “I always think about my family life in relation to my career – it has mitigated how I chose scripts,” she told the Independent in 2009. “I turned down things that would take me too far away for a long time.”
And no matter how many Oscars she wins, Streep always sings the praises of her husband, Don Gummer – the father of her children. In 2012 she picked up yet another Oscar, this one for playing British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady – and she began her acceptance speech by thanking Gummer.
“First I’m going to thank [him], because when you thank your husband at the end of the speech they play him out with the music,” the actress said. “And I want him to know that everything I value most in our lives, you’ve given me.”
Gummer was also apparently very supportive of Streep when it came to raising their children. In a 2017 interview with Lufthansa Magazine, the Oscar winner was asked about how she has balanced family and career. “Teamwork is everything,” she said. “My husband, Don Gummer, was and still is very involved.”
“We’re kind of the perfect odd couple,” Streep told The Indian Express in 2015. “Don is a man of few words. I’m the one who keeps up a constant stream of chatter in the house. He listens very patiently and then goes back to his work. He also loves me as I am – eager and overactive, even at this age.”
But the story of how Streep and Gummer met is actually a rather sad one. It started before Streep had won all her Oscars and become the megastar that she is today. Back in 1976, you see, she began dating The Godfather actor John Cazale after he was cast as her co-star in a production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.
Streep and Cazale’s romance developed quickly. The latter was noted for being careful and meticulous in his acting performances, but his relationship with Streep moved at a rapid pace. So it was that the two were soon shacked up together in Cazale’s loft in Tribeca, NYC.
Cazale and Streep were very contented together, too, and yet something terrible was on the horizon. You see, in May 1977 the actor went to a doctor after a period of illness and was dealt some devastating news. He had terminal lung cancer – and Streep was at his side when he was given the diagnosis.
Streep’s biographer, Michael Schulman, talked about the details surrounding this event in his 2016 book Her Again. Cazale and the actress had both been dumbstruck by the news, Schulman said; but as the author explained, “[Streep] was never one to give up – and certainly not one to succumb to despair.” So she quickly asked Cazale where he would like to go for dinner.
Streep subsequently remained by Cazale’s side as his condition worsened. She even delivered her much-praised performance in The Deer Hunter purely, we’re told, so that she could act alongside him. Yes, in the acclaimed movie she played Linda – a part that she admitted she didn’t actually like.
On set, meanwhile, Streep frantically looked after her partner. And the cast and crew pitched in, too, trying to make things easier for the couple. The film’s makers, including director Michael Cimino, pushed to cast Cazale for the part. And according to Streep, Robert De Niro, the movie’s star, paid for her boyfriend’s insurance costs.
“Meryl stayed by his side every single moment,” Cimino reminisced to People magazine in 1995. “By her devotion to [him], I knew she had great courage.” Indeed, according to the New York Post, while Streep was starring in the musical Happy End immediately following Cazale’s diagnosis, fellow cast members reported that she had showed no signs of her grief. And even when Cazale had turned up at the theater smoking, she’d reportedly refrained from criticizing him.
Meanwhile, the bills for Cazale’s treatment were piling up, and Streep decided to take a role in a miniseries in order to help pay them. That show was Holocaust, and although its subject matter would have been grim for anyone, it was especially so for Streep. After all, she had to film scenes at a real concentration camp while knowing that her boyfriend was nearing death.
At the same time, Cazale’s cancer had spread to his bones and made him even weaker. Streep wrote to Bobby Lewis, her one-time drama teacher at Yale, and confided in him about how bad things were getting. “My beau is terribly ill… in the hospital,” she said in a letter that was reproduced in the biography Her Again.
“He has very wonderful care, and I try not to stand around wringing my hands, but I am worried all the time and pretending to be cheery all the time, which is more exhausting mentally, physically, emotionally than any work I’ve ever done,” read Streep’s letter. “I have not worked, thank God, since October, or I don’t know how I would have survived.”
Eventually, Cazale was sent to the Memorial Sloan Kettering hospital, and Streep went with him. And despite her lover’s grave circumstances, she tried to keep both of them happy by putting her comedic talents to work. As Cazale lay dying in bed, it seems that she jokingly read the sports pages, imitating the voice of the broadcaster Warner Wolf.
Then, in the early hours of March 12, 1978, Cazale passed away. Devastated, Streep sobbed in front of the doctor and hit Cazale’s body with her fists in grief. And according to the biographer Michael Schulman, something incredible happened next.
Despite the doctor’s words, it’s reported that Cazale wasn’t completely gone – and that the pounding on his chest briefly brought him back into consciousness. Apparently, he then said his final words to Streep – “It’s all right, Meryl, it’s all right” – and subsequently died. It sounds like a scene from one of the star’s movies, but according to Schulman, it really did take place.
In any case, tributes poured in after news of Cazale’s death broke. For example, his good friend and collaborator Israel Horovitz published a eulogy in the Village Voice. “John Cazale happens once in a lifetime. He was an invention, a small perfection,” it read. “He will make fast friends in his new place – he is easy to love.”
Streep, meanwhile, returned to work. And after the success of The Deer Hunter and Holocaust, she was much in demand. In 1979 she starred in Kramer vs. Kramer alongside Dustin Hoffman. And yet although the role would establish her as one of the best actresses of her era, making the film was far from an easy ride.
It’s claimed that, while still grieving, Streep had to negotiate her co-star’s sometimes volatile behavior on set. Indeed, at one point, during the filming of an argument between the two lead characters, Hoffman allegedly slapped Streep without her consent.
Then later, method actor Hoffman reportedly did something even crueler. It’s alleged that, in an attempt to incite Streep to act at her most angry, he began using Cazale’s death as a way of getting to her. “He was… provoking her, using stuff that he knew about her personal life and about [Cazale] to get the response that he thought she should be giving in the performance,” producer Richard Fischoff told Vanity Fair in 2016.
Nevertheless, it seems that Streep pulled through the alleged unpleasant experience. And outside of her professional life, a new person had come into the frame. After Cazale’s death, Streep had gone back to their apartment in order to pack up her things. Her brother had come to help her, too, and with him he brought one of his friends: the sculptor Don Gummer.
With Cazale now gone, Streep was unable to remain in the New York apartment that she had called home. But Gummer offered her a bed at his own place instead. Streep then moved in with the artist and apparently remained there throughout the shooting of Kramer vs. Kramer. And the pair soon fell in love.
What’s more, it all happened so fast that Streep’s friends and family were actually alarmed. A mere six months after Cazale had drawn his last breath, Streep exchanged vows with Gummer in the backyard of her parents’ house. The actress’ friends reckoned that she was just rebounding, and her mother was so disapproving that her and Streep’s relationship reportedly became difficult for a time.
And yet Streep’s marriage to Gummer turned out to be far from the reckless decision of a grieving young woman. It was a choice that changed the rest of her life. The pair’s relationship has stayed strong for over four decades now, and they have four children, now all adults: Henry, Mamie, Grace and Louisa.
Mamie and Grace Gummer are both actresses as well. Indeed, the former had a role in season three of True Detective. “I am proud that my daughters want to do this,” Streep told website The Talks in 2011. “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.”
“But I would never say don’t do it, because I think it is a glorious profession, and I am so thankful for everything it has let me express,” Streep went on. And in the same interview, she also spoke about Gummer, describing him as “a great husband [whom] I found many years ago, and I am lucky in that way.”
But although Streep has gone on to have a long and happy life, she’s nevertheless carried the grief over her lost partner. In December 1979, not long after her marriage to Gummer, the star spoke about her feelings to People. “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,” she said.
The story of how Streep helped Cazale in his last days is one that even some big fans of the actress might not know – but her closest peers were certainly acutely aware. For instance, Al Pacino, Cazale’s co-star in The Godfather, spoke to Entertainment Weekly in February 2003 about what he’d witnessed between the pair.
“I’ve hardly ever seen a person so devoted to someone who is falling away like John was. To see her in that act of love for this man was overwhelming,” he said. And Streep’s determination in continuing with her career and finding love again following such a tragedy is also truly inspirational.