Goodbye to a Grande Dame of Daytime

My mother was not a soap watcher. Even though she was a stay-at-home-mom before it was called such a thing, the TV just wasn’t turned on during the day except in the case of a significant world event. My sister, however, loved the soaps and through her, I pretty much knew the characters of shows whether or not I watched them. My mother didn’t stop us from turning on the TV when we were old enough, and she often knew many of the actors’ histories as more of them began showing up on daytime dramas. She could also nail which young actors would turn out to be stars–whether on their soaps or by moving on to other entertainment venues.

At one time or another, I think I watched all of the soaps that aired during my childhood and adolescence. Summers were great for getting to know the characters and the plots. After nine months of school, things generally wouldn’t have advanced so much that we couldn’t pick it right back up. Soaps not only moved at a glacial pace, but the writing has always been designed to give new viewers little history lessons (“I know that you and your sister Marie fell in love when you had amnesia and plastic surgery because of your war injuries, and after your family realized who you were, she joined a convent. Would you like another cup of coffee?” “Your sister Meredith is coming for dinner. Don’t tell her about her husband’s malpractice suit. She has to avoid stress because of her complicated pregnancy.” “Just because you’re the CEO of XYZ Corporation doesn’t give you the right to break the law, and even though you’re my illegitimate half-brother, I have to arrest you.”)

There was one soap that had its debut on my birthday–March 26–and though I didn’t see its first year, my sister quickly brought me up to speed on who was who and what was what, and one summer my friend Tanya and I became addicted to it, in no small part because of the relationship between the young and vulnerable Jill Foster and her employer and nemesis, the rich and lonely alcoholic Katherine Chancellor. In all the decades that followed, even when they recast Brenda Dickson’s Jill with Jess Walton, I managed to keep up with The Young and the Restless because I loved watching the relationship between these two characters. I watched Y&R during summers or asked anyone who did watch it what was going on (pre-VCR days). When I was in college, I spent that hour of the day in the student union building with other students watching first the Brooks, Foster, Chancellor, and Prentiss families, later the Abbott, Fenmore, Newman, Williams, and Winters families. Though I would at times watch Days of Our Lives, General Hospital, One Life to Live, and All My Children, and even visit The Edge of Night, Capitol, Search for Tomorrow, The Bold and the Beautiful, Another World, The Guiding Light, and As the World Turns, it was Y&R that kept my attention and heart.

One time I was driving back to Tuscaloosa from Florida on a day when a Major Event was happening (Lauren Fenmore Williams was being tormented by her stalker/manager/kidnapper), and I was able to find CBS on the radio, though Lauren’s cries for help didn’t exactly make sense until I could see the next episode and realize she was being BURIED ALIVE. As soon as I acquired my first VCR, I began taping the show while I was at work. By then Tom and I were married and he endured watching Y&R and Days with me every night. I didn’t give up on Days for years; I never gave up on Y&R. When Tim moved here from NYC, he, too, became a Y&R viewer. Even Lynne’s late husband Craig, who’d scoff whenever I turned on Y&R at their house during the day, ended up offering plenty of great comments about the crazy goings-on of the people in Genoa City.

For a long time one of my coworkers would tape the shows and write a recap of them at night. She’d then type it up at work with hilarious commentary and email it to those of us who wanted it–and some who didn’t, including one day by accident our boss. Fortunately she didn’t get into too much trouble. Although it’s been years since we worked together, from time to time she and I still exchange emails when we’re provoked by the implausible plots or a sudden U-turn in a character’s behavior because of new writers.

I keep my fingers crossed that Y&R will somehow survive the great purge that cost other networks almost all of their soaps. I think we’re down to only four daytime dramas now: two on CBS, one on NBC, and one on ABC.

Jeanne Cooper
1928 – 2013

And today, something I’ve dreaded for years finally happened. Jeanne Cooper, who transformed the character of Katherine Chancellor from the bitter, lonely woman who tormented Jill to a brilliant business executive, devoted mother and grandmother, mentor to young people, best friend to everyone from powerful moguls to miserable wives and daughters to her loyal maid Esther, has died.

By all accounts many of the qualities that made Katherine so endearing–her high spirits, no-nonsense approach to life, and indomitable ability to take on aging and alcoholism–came from Jeanne Cooper. Today the Y&R family that includes a legion of actors, writers, and crew, as well as millions of viewers, has lost one of our best. Condolences to her children Corbin Bernsen, Collin Bernsen, Caren Bernsen, and her grandchildren and other family members. Thank you for sharing your wonderful mother and grandmother with us all these years.


6 thoughts on “Goodbye to a Grande Dame of Daytime”

  1. Our Y&R watching histories are very similar. I’ll never forget the day I found out Kay was Jill’s mother. “What the holy heck?” was what I said, sort of, except “heck” was actually another four-letter-word, one that ended in “ck” and started with “f”. The show almost never surprised me because plot twists are usually telegraphed way ahead of time, but that one? Yep. Caught me flat-footed. I don’t watch the show any more — haven’t for years, actually — but I have no doubt I’d pick up the pieces of the storyline fairly quickly, should that viewing habit ever resurface.

    By the way, this post is why you’re the published writer and I’m not. Because everything you wrote is what I thought, but couldn’t manage to express with anything near the eloquence…which is why the blog post I’m currently writing is about yarn projects rather than the passing of Ms. Cooper. Truly, she was a “grande dame” in every sense of the word. And your tribute does her proud.

    1. And as it turned out, Jill wasn’t Katherine’s daughter. But they forged a relationship that, out of long habit, was snarky and snappy and often a bit physical–then fell into each other’s arms each time one of them was in pain and needed support. Katherine truly regarded her as a daughter, and Jill’s children as her grandchildren. The show just won’t be the same without her.

      And thank you for your kind words about my writing. However, your “yarn projects” are works of art!

  2. Our sophomore year at ‘Bama, I remember you coming to Steve’s and my apartment just about every week day to watch some soap. I can’t remember which one it was. Though I never liked the day time soaps, I still looked forward to you dropping in. Company was always a good thing for me back then.

    1. This was the one. I don’t think Debbie and I even had a TV; good thing y’all did! And I always enjoyed your company and our long talks. You know, back when I thought I knew everything and didn’t.

  3. I’ve never seen any of those shows, but perhaps you should write for one of them? Corbin Bernsen as in LA Law?

    1. One time Tim said that to our editor–that we wanted to write for the soaps–and he said, “Be careful what you wish for.” It’s a tough job, apparently.

      Yes, that Corbin Bernsen. All three of her children are actors, and in fact, Corbin did some cameos on The Young and the Restless, though he didn’t play her son. He played a priest who was the brother of another legacy character.

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