A Note on Del Close

[Alumni of the Research Center for Mental Health and its LSD project: Here is an item about our most colorful and amusing subject, who went on (unlike most of the others) to have a distinguished theatrical career. This little piece from the front pages of The New Yorker of October 9, 2006, has been sitting on Bob Holt's desk for many months, while he wondered how to share it with others who worked on that big cooperative project.]


For former staff members at the Research Center for Mental Health a half-century ago, when we did our LSD study. Anyone who tested or interviewed Del Close will remember his wonderful gift for making people laugh, and should be interested in his last gig. - Bob Holt


In 1999, as Del Close lay in a Chicago hospital with terminal emphysema, he was still troubleshooting his plan to outwit death. Close, the improv-comedy guru whose students included Bill Murray and Mike Meyers, had made provisions in his will for his skull to go to the city's Goodman Theater, so that he could play Yorick in Hamlet. Now he took the hand of Charna Halpern, his longtime creative partner and executor, and said, "Promise me you'll make that skull thing happen, no matter what." She promised. After Close died, Halpern presented the Goodman with his cranium, and the former Merry Prankster's second act - the skull has appeared onstage in Arcadia, Pericles, and I Am My Own Wife - soon became a Chicago legend.

In July, however, the Chicago Tribune published an article suggesting that the skull at the Goodman belonged to someone else. The article pointed out that the screws holding the skull together are rusty with age; that the skull has a hole at the top, indicating prior service as part of a teaching skeleton, and an incision where the brain was removed for autopsy (which Close's wasn't); and that it has eleven teeth (Close wore dentures). Nonetheless, Halpern insisted to the paper that the skull was Close's.

She now pleads guilty - with an explanation. "After Del died, I asked the hospital people if they would help me by taking off the head, and they just laughed," she said recently. "They suggested I call the Illinois Society of Pathologists. I told the pathologists, 'I will give you Del's body, and it's a great body, because you can study the effects of smoking, alcohol, cocaine, and heroine on the brain. All I need is the skull.' They thought about it, and then said, 'There's a fine line between research and art, and we're concerned about our funding.' I called labs, researchers, anatomy shops, and it was 'No, no, no.'"

After two days, the hospital insisted that Halpern remove Close's body from the morgue, and she reluctantly had it cremated, skull and all. A few days later, she went in search of a stand-in skull. Accompanied by her older sister, Bonnie Malow (the two always shop together), she drove to the Anatomical Chart Company, in Skokie, where they strolled among the skull-stocked shelves. "We were trying to match Del's big brain cavity and nice, high cheekbones, Halpern said. "We finally found one that you could buy as Del, if it were covered with skin." Malow confirmed: "It was a manly, manly skull."

At Malow's house, the sisters took turn plucking out the skull's canines and incisors. "We left the ones in the back, because it turns out that pulling teeth is like pulling teeth," Halpern said. "Plus, who's going to look back there?"

After stashing the skull in her pantry for four months - "I had heard that maggots have to eat the flesh off a skull to prepare it, so I waited a while" - Halpern gave it to the Goodman in an elaborate ceremony. "Then I got a call from a guy at the cremation society saying the press had been asking, 'Did the body arrive without a head?' and I thought, Oh shit, I am such a bad criminal! But he'd covered for me."

Since the Tribune took a closer look at the skull, Halpern has been confronted by a number of Close's friends and fans. She tells them that the substitution was never intended as a hoax: "Del and I were improvisers, and improvisers always say yes to each other's ideas onstage, make them work." After the Tribune story ran, Halpern said: "My impulse was to find another skull, one without a hole in it, and then call and say, 'Yes, that's a fake skull - but I have the real one.' Try to keep it all going."

The Goodman's artistic director, Robert Falls, believes that Halpern kept her promise. "I imagine it's very difficult to cut somebody's head off and get it cleaned up," he said. The skull remains on Falls's office bookshelf, and he continues to tell visitors the romantic, un-fact-checked version of its provenance. "The skull has no bookings at the moment, but it will," he said. "Del always told me, 'As a working actor, I'll accept any role - even if you just toss me into a desert scene with other vulture-picked bones, that would be great.'"

[The New Yorker, October 9, 2006]

Robert R. Holt, Ph.D.
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