Portia Nelson

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Portia Nelson
BornBetty Mae Nelson
(1920-05-27)May 27, 1920
Brigham City, Utah, USA
DiedMarch 6, 2001(2001-03-06) (aged 80)
New York, USA
Occupationsinger, songwriter, actress, author
Years active1945–2001
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Portia Nelson
BornBetty Mae Nelson
(1920-05-27)May 27, 1920
Brigham City, Utah, USA
DiedMarch 6, 2001(2001-03-06) (aged 80)
New York, USA
Occupationsinger, songwriter, actress, author
Years active1945–2001

Portia Nelson (May 27, 1920 – March 6, 2001) was an American popular singer, songwriter, actress, and author. She was best known for her appearances in the most prestigious 1950s cabarets, where she sang an elegant repertoire in a soprano noted for its silvery tone, perfect diction, intimacy, and meticulous attention to words. In 1965 she portrayed the cantankerous Sister Berthe in the film version of The Sound of Music; she also had a minor role as Sarah in the flop musical Doctor Dolittle; on TV’s All My Children Nelson played the long-running role of nanny Mrs. Gurney. Her book of poetic musings, There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self-Discovery, became a mainstay of twelve-step programs.[1]


Early life[edit]

The youngest of nine children, Nelson was born Betty Mae Nelson in Brigham City, Utah. (The Danish family name of Nielsen had been anglicized before her birth.) Her Mormon family owned a farm; her father was also a railroad worker. At a young age, Nelson taught herself to play piano; after two years at Weber College in Ogden, Utah she quit school and moved to Los Angeles.

Professional start[edit]

While attending an LDS Church service in L.A. in 1945, Nelson met the King Sisters, the popular swing-era vocal quartet, also from Utah. The sisters were employed by bandleader Alvino Rey; and since Nelson needed a job, they hired her to come on the road as their secretary. In the months that followed, she took one of her first steps as a musician by writing a few vocal arrangements for the group.

Back home in Los Angeles in early 1946, Nelson worked briefly as secretary to film director André de Toth; she held another secretarial job in the publicity department of United Artists Pictures. Around that time she adopted the name Portia, a nickname that friends gave her based on her love of the popular radio soap opera Portia Faces Life. Portia was known for occasionally sitting at pianos on the lot and demonstrating songs, and word of her vocal talents spread. Actress Jane Russell was then on the lot making a film, Young Widow; one day they talked about songs they both liked, and Nelson performed one at the piano. “What the hell are you doing pounding a typewriter?” said Russell. “You should be singing.”[2] Nelson would later work for Russell as a vocal coach. Said the actress after Nelson’s death: “She had a high, clear voice, with such intonation and shading! Her lyrics were sung with such understanding that you felt you’d heard a poem sung.”[3] (Russell would later sing a song co-written by Nelson, “The Gilded Lily,” in the 1952 film Montana Belle.)

Through the actress Ida Lupino, Nelson met Nick Arden, a lyricist who was planning to open a small nightclub in Sherman Oaks, California. She and Arden teamed to write a song, “It’s as Simple as That.” Nelson recorded the demo, which reached the hands of singer Jo Stafford; on October 18, 1946, Stafford recorded the ballad for Capitol as the B-side of “September Song.” The disc didn’t chart, but once his nightclub had opened Arden hired Nelson to make her debut there as a singer. Her accompanist was Walter Gross, a former staff pianist at CBS radio and the composer of a standard written that year, “Tenderly.”

Early cabaret work[edit]

After leaving Nick Arden’s, Nelson continued to work day jobs, while singing sporadically. In 1949 she performed at the Café Gala, a cabaret on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip; singer-pianist Bobby Short entertained. Recalled Short in his 1995 autobiography Bobby Short: The Life and Times of a Saloon Singer: “Portia walked onto the floor of the Gala, tall, poised, goddesslike in floating chiffon – and singing in a way that was all her own. She was a smash.”[4]

It was at the Café Gala that Nelson was heard by Herbert Jacoby, the owner (with Max Gordon) of Manhattan’s preeminent cabaret, the Blue Angel. Jacoby invited her to sing there. In January 1950, Nelson moved to New York; soon after she was performing on one of the Blue Angel’s four-act bills. She would sing there on and off until 1959, sharing rosters with Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, Imogene Coca, Orson Bean, Wally Cox, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Mathis, and other budding stars. Nelson sometimes performed in the front lounge, where her accompanist was William Roy, a young pianist and composer who was just beginning a fifty-year career as a musical director for many of cabaret’s greatest performers.

In 1951 Nelson would also appear at the New York lounge Celeste, accompanied by songwriter and pianist Bart Howard, who soon became the emcee at the Blue Angel. At Celeste, Nelson performed many of the songs (including “In Other Words,” later retitled “Fly Me to the Moon”) that she would gather on her album Let Me Love You: Portia Nelson Sings the Songs of Bart Howard. She championed Howard for the rest of her career. The singer had made an auspicious recorded debut with the album Love Songs for a Late Evening, released in 1953 by Columbia’s Masterworks division, normally reserved for classical artists. The New Yorker reviewer Rogers Whitaker wrote in his liner notes: “One has only to hear the delicate phrasing and effortless command of melody to understand why she could immediately create such a stir."

Theater and other recordings[edit]

Nelson was also a frequent participant in a series of recorded re-creations of classic musicals, produced by Columbia president and producer Goddard Lieberson. The singer was heard on Roberta, The Boys from Syracuse, On Your Toes, and Oklahoma. A recording of Noël Coward’s Bitter Sweet, which featured Nelson and singer Robert Rounseville, remains unissued; according to Nelson, its release was nixed by Coward, who disapproved of it.[5] Nelson’s other early recorded work includes the 1956 album Autumn Leaves (on the Dolphin label); she also wrote arrangements for the album Stritch by singer-actress Elaine Stritch, released on Dolphin in 1956.

In 1954, the singer had originated the role of Miss Minerva Oliver in The Golden Apple, John Latouche’s musical adaptation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The Golden Apple opened off-Broadway at the Phoenix Theatre, then moved to Broadway’s Alvin Theatre, where it ran from April through August. The next year she contributed material to the Broadway review Almost Crazy, which lasted just sixteen performances. Nelson continued to sing at the Blue Angel and other cabarets, including New York’s Bon Soir and Downstairs at the Upstairs, the Colony in London, and Bricktop’s in Rome. In 1959, Nelson hosted her own musical radio show, Sunday in New York, produced by Allen Ludden; it was named after a song of hers that was recorded by one of her great influences, the venerated cabaret singer Mabel Mercer. Tracks from the series would later comprise Nelson’s 1994 CD, Sunday in New York, released on the Lockett-Palmer label.

Move to Los Angeles[edit]

Her cabaret career, like the scene itself, was starting to wane, and in 1960 Nelson moved to Los Angeles. There she maintained a dual career as a writer of special musical material (for Carol Burnett, Debbie Reynolds, Marlene Dietrich, Julie Andrews, and others) and as vocal coach to such actors as Rod Steiger.[6] She also became an actress who specialized, inadvertently, in roles of nuns. In The Sound of Music (1965), Nelson played Sister Berthe, who saved the von Trapp family in pre-World War II Austria by sabotaging a Nazi car. Nelson uttered the memorable line, “Reverend Mother, I have sinned.” The next year she appeared as Sister Elizabeth in the film comedy The Trouble with Angels. On an episode of TV’s The Big Valley, Nelson portrayed Sister Benedict. She appeared in the movie Doctor Dolittle and worked as consulting producer and writer for the 1969 TV special, Debbie Reynolds and the Sound of Children. During her L.A. years, Nelson studied painting with celebrity portraitist and art teacher Richard McKenzie, who was Fred Astaire’s son-in-law and who owned an art gallery in Beverly Hills. In honor of Nelson’s repeated castings as a nun, the gallery hosted an exhibition of nun paintings by Nelson and other artists.

When her friend Rock Hudson was preparing to record his first and only album, Rock, Gently: Rock Hudson Sings the Songs of Rod McKuen (on the Stanyan label) in 1970, Nelson coached the actor vocally.[7] Another friend, the actor, screenwriter, and novelist Tom Tryon, cast her as the busybody Mrs. Rowe in the 1972 film version of his thriller novel, The Other.

Return to New York[edit]

In the 1960s Nelson had sung little; her only album of that decade, Picadilly Pickle: Lady Nelson and the Lords, was a rock-and-roll spoof on which Nelson played Vox organ and didn’t sing. Around 1971, she returned to New York and made a rare cabaret appearance at the short-lived club Mary Mary, owned by singer-actress Mary McCarty. In 1976, with a cabaret renaissance underway in New York and other cities, Nelson made her official singing comeback with an engagement at the Manhattan club Brothers & Sisters; thereafter she sang at other New York clubs (The Ballroom, Ted Hook’s OnStage, Freddy’s Supper Club) and at the Mocambo in San Francisco. Reviewing her appearance at The Ballroom, Rex Reed wrote: “With silver hair rising to a peak atop sleek chiffon and mile-long pearls, Miss Nelson is as graceful and refined to observe as she is to listen to.”[8]

Acting work, 1970s-1980s[edit]

From May through November 1976, Nelson played the small role of Therese, a spinster, in the touring company of The Baker's Wife, a musical by Stephen Schwartz and Joseph Stein. The show was Broadway-bound, but closed in Washington, D.C. before its New York opening. Nelson continued to act, taking on roles in the soap operas The Doctors and All My Children (in which she played the recurring role of nanny Rachel Gurney) and appearing on numerous TV commercials. She was also seen on an episode of the sitcom Chico and the Man and in the movie Can't Stop the Music (1980), which starred the Village People.


Nelson was a cancer survivor, having conquered breast cancer after a mastectomy in 1973.[9] Four years later, Popular Library published Nelson’s milestone book, There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self-Discovery. (Beyond Words Publishing reissued it in 1993.) Its cover appears on a poster displayed in the office of Sean McGuire, the fictional psychologist portrayed by Robin Williams in the film Good Will Hunting (1997). Nelson turned the book into an off-Broadway musical, presented at the York Theatre in Manhattan. One of her poems, “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters”, went on to become a highly popular self-help and recovery text:[10]

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost ... I am helpless.
It isn't my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don't see it.
I fall in again.
I can't believe I am in the same place.
But it isn't my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in ... it's a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

I walk down another street.

The poem (which was often uncredited to Nelson) was adopted by motivational speakers and reprinted in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche,[11] as well as in the foreword of TV actress Roseanne Barr’s autobiography, My Lives.[12] Jazz singer Dianne Reeves set the poem to music and recorded it as “The First Five Chapters” on her live CD In the Moment (2000).

Final years[edit]

In the early ‘90s, a bout with throat and tongue cancer – which Nelson, who never smoked, blamed on her years of singing in smoky nightclubs[13] – robbed her of her soprano voice.[14] Within a couple of years she had resumed singing in a low, husky speech-song style, while devoting more attention to her songwriting. By the end of her career Nelson had written hundreds of songs, as well as scores for various book musicals and animated films. All went unproduced, but Nelson was lavished with accolades for her accomplishments. In October 1992, the Mabel Mercer Foundation honored her with its Premier Cabaret Classic Award. On January 20, 1993, at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, the mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, a close friend of hers, sang the song that would become Nelson’s trademark, “Make a Rainbow.” Nelson had written it in the ‘60s and dedicated it to Horne’s bi-racial daughter Angela.[15] In 1996, Nelson’s “As I Remember Him” was voted Song of the Year by the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MAC). That year, Backstage magazine honored her for lifetime achievement at its annual Bistro Awards. Also in 1996, DRG Records issued This Life, a CD of her original songs as sung by cabaret artists Margaret Whiting, Jaymie Meyer, Amanda McBroom, Ann Hampton Callaway, Deborah Tranelli, Nancy LaMott, and Nelson herself. DRG also reissued Nelson’s three solo albums of the 1950s. In early 2001, she was honored at a MAC/ASCAP Songwriters’ Showcase in New York; around that time she made her last appearance at a performance of a revue of her songs, This Life, at the New York cabaret Don’t Tell Mama. By now her cancer had recurred, and the singer died in her apartment on March 6, 2001. At her request, Nelson’s ashes were spread by friends and family at the Kolob Canyons in Utah's Zion National Park, one of her favorite childhood recreational spots.[16] Also per her wishes, the singer's writings, photographs, recordings, press clippings, and personal memorabilia were donated to the New York Public Library to establish the Portia Nelson Archive at the Library for the Performing Arts in New York City.[17]


Solo albums
Guest appearances
TV work (partial list)


  1. ^ Obituary, “Portia Nelson, 80, Songwriter and Club Performer,” Stephen Holden, New York Times, Mar. 10, 2001
  2. ^ Portia Nelson, interview for James Gavin's book Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret (New York: BackStage Books, 2006), June 27, 1985
  3. ^ Tom Vallance, The Independent (U.K.), Mar, 14, 2001
  4. ^ New York: Potter, 1995, p.116
  5. ^ Portia Nelson, interview for James Gavin's book Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret (New York: BackStage Books, 2006), June 27, 1985
  6. ^ Interview with friend Lars Jahns, October 20, 2010
  7. ^ Obituary, “Portia Nelson, 80, Songwriter and Club Performer,” Stephen Holden, New York Times, Mar. 10, 2001
  8. ^ New York Daily News, Nov. 10, 1978
  9. ^ Marian Zailian, “The Bittersweet Lady of the Supper Clubs Is Back,” San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 9, 1977
  10. ^ Obituary, “Portia Nelson, 80, Songwriter and Club Performer,” Stephen Holden, New York Times, Mar. 10, 2001
  11. ^ New York: HarperOne, 1994
  12. ^ New York: Ballantine Books, 1994
  13. ^ Interview with friend Lars Jahns, October 20, 2010
  14. ^ Patricia O’Haire, “Her ‘Rainbow’ Song Shines for Bill,” New York Daily News, Jan. 21, 1993
  15. ^ Patricia O’Haire, “Her ‘Rainbow’ Song Shines for Bill,” New York Daily News, Jan. 21, 1993
  16. ^ Interview with friend Lars Jahns, October 20, 2010
  17. ^ Interview with friend Lars Jahns, October 20, 2010

External links[edit]