Constance Van Conover started out life doing everything she was supposed to do. After graduating from college, she married her boyfriend, very quickly had two children, and was expected to accept a life in small-town Louisiana in the 1940s.
But that wasn’t enough for Van Conover, who had long dreamed of acting on the world’s stages. When her husband took over his father’s business in Lake Charles, La., she made the scandalous decision to leave him and head for New York City with their two young daughters.
Van Conover saw her dream through to the stages of the Big Apple, where she mingled with the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra, her family said. She dazzled in off-Broadway performances, studied with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse and with Robert Lewis, founder of the famed Actors Studio, and was a longtime member of the Robert Lewis Theatre Workshop. She went on to have roles in television, on shows in including “Hit Parade,” “Kraft Mystery Theater” and the Emmy award-winning CBS series “Studio One.” She even found herself on the cover of Parade magazine in 1955.
She would eventually remarry, have two more children, live abroad, divorce, and wind up finishing her days in Chapel Hill, where she contributed not only to local theater but also to local charities.
Van Conover, known as Connie, died this month at 85. Her children say she taught them – by example – that life is too short not to do what you love.
When Van Conover was no longer getting the roles or modeling jobs she had in her youth, she and her second husband, a real estate executive, decided to strike out on their own in Grenada.
She embraced that pioneer mentality, her family said, and the couple built a resort, still in operation, called Twelve Degrees North. It was there she raised her two sons from her second marriage.
At this time Van Conover’s second child, daughter Lillian Wilson, returned to Louisiana as a teen to finish out high school.
“Everybody remembered my mother,” she said. “And I gradually came to see she had created a huge stir.”
Van Conover was largely able to head to New York on her own thanks to an inheritance she received at 18 when her father died. Without that money, the single mother trying to make it as an actress would not have been able to afford the help that was needed to take acting classes, attend auditions, and mix and mingle with the important players of the day.
“It wasn’t vanity,” Lillian Wilson said. “It wasn’t ‘I want to be a star.’ It was ‘I love theater. This is my life. This is what I want to do.’ Twenty years later she would have been considered just a liberated woman.”
Still, it was a difficult decision for many to understand.
For her oldest child, Leslie Wilson, it was a lesson – she waited until she was in her 30s before having her own children. She wanted to be sure she was ready to embrace that role.
Van Conover remained in Grenada for more than 20 years, entertaining vacationing artists and writers (she only advertised the resort in The New Yorker), and volunteering in the community.
“Mom did a lot of charity work, mostly related to women’s and children’s issues,” her son Chris Gaylord said. In New York she volunteered with the March of Dimes, and in Grenada she became a part-time caregiver at the Kennedy Home, a small local charity for orphans and children with disabilities.
“This included organizing and going on trips to the beach, the countryside, reading and other activities,” Chris Gaylord said.
She left the island in 1980, having already endured years of political turmoil including the New Jewel Movement and its bloodless coup. Her husband stayed and is still running the resort.
“She didn’t feel it made good business sense to stay there anymore,” her son Andy Gaylord said.
She yearned for more culture. “She wanted to be able to go to the movies,” Andy Gaylord said. “She just kind of got tired of that frontier mentality.”
Van Conover moved to Chapel Hill in the early 1980s, falling in love with the intellectual energy of the college town while her son Andy toured the campus as a prospective student. It also appealed to her Southern roots.
“She just loved the look of Chapel Hill – that youthful energy of the campus,” Andy Gaylord said. “Most of her friends were around half her age.”
After a 20-plus-year hiatus from the stage, she returned to her original love of theater and earned a master of fine arts degree from UNC’s professional actor training program, where she also taught undergraduates. She was easily 30 years older than all nine of her classmates, but no less energetic.
“We all knew that Connie had met with meaningful success as a young actor, but she wore that former success as a loose garment and stories of her former life had to be pried from her,” recalled Joseph Haj, producing artistic director at PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill and a former classmate. “She was fun and funny, adored by all of us, and was radiant and kind.” Van Conover also once again sought out acting roles, playing small parts in films and network television as well as larger roles in local theater, her family said.
As bold as Van Conover had been in her life choices, she was reserved in nature. She was also Southern enough to always insist on eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s morning.
“She taught me a lot about what being a well-mannered person was,” daughter Leslie Wilson said. “She was always elegant and thoughtful.”
Van Conover frequented local theater, ballet and films, often with her friend Liz Thorpe, a board member at Deep Dish Theater Company in Chapel Hill.
“A positive comment about a film or play from Connie was an endorsement worth paying attention to,” Thorpe said.
Her volunteer work continued in Chapel Hill. She answered phones at a suicide hotline, and she worked with victims of sexual and domestic violence, her family said.
“Mom always said to me, ‘Do you what you want to do because life goes by so fast,’ ” Chris Gaylord said.
All of her children have pursued dreams of their own, including ballet, journalism, chemistry, architecture and the culinary arts.
“She had always told me you could get good at something by working hard, being judicious and cautious, but to be great at something you had to risk falling on your face,” Lillian Wilson said. “She took lots of risks.”