March 6, 2003
Hollywood's "Most Alluring Woman," Dies at 103
Back in Hollywood's Golden Age, a radio host asked director Mark Sandrich who, in his opinion, was the most alluring woman in Hollywood. "That's easy," said Sandrich, who directed such stars as Ginger Rogers and Claudette Colbert. "My wife, Freda."
Freda Sandrich died Feb. 25 at the age of 103, and to the end, she was easily one of the most alluring women those who knew her would ever meet.
Early in her long life, Freda, born Freda Wirtschafter in 1899 in Trenton, N.J., was wife to her famous husband, Mark, and mother to her sons, Mark Jr. and Jay. The son of a rabbi, Mark Sandrich drew on his background in engineering to become a pioneering director of movie musicals, including "Top Hat," "Holiday Inn" and "Shall We Dance?" The Sandrich home in Beverly Hills was a haimish gathering place for Hollywood royalty: the Bennys, the Gershwins, the Astaires and Irving Berlin, to whom Freda remained close throughout his life.
Mark died suddenly of a heart attack in 1945, at the age of 45, and Freda's world shattered. She would never remarry, and would always refer to Mark as "my husband," as if carrying on a long-distance relationship, across time and death.
Yet the source of Freda's allure was not her past, but how she made people feel in her presence. She was warm and engaging, curious and supportive. Everyone she met was a dear, every project they cared about was marvelous and everyone they cared for was wonderful. And she meant it; a woman who had suffered much loss in her own life valued above all the presence of others. Whatever compliment you paid Freda was returned with, "That means so much coming from someone as wonderful as you."
She ate regularly at Fromin's Deli in Santa Monica (mushroom-barley soup and a half a turkey sandwich, may you, too, live to 103), and all the servers invariably found a reason to stop by her table for a dose of Freda's love and attention. She lit up to see you (and if you were accompanied by a small child, even more so), and instantly engaged friends and strangers alike with her kindness, humor and intellect.
There was a memorial service for Freda last Sunday in Westwood, and it was clear that for this disparate group of people she was a matriarch -- the matriarch of a family brought together solely by the force of her affection.
She extended that affection to those far-less fortunate, helping at soup kitchens and volunteering for the AIDS charity Tuesday's Child as recently as this year.
Freda must have led a glamorous life in Hollywood, married to one of its leading filmmakers. Her son, Jay, went on to become a renowned television director; her late son, Mark Jr., wrote a Broadway hit; and her granddaughter, Cathy Sandrich Gelfond, is a top casting director, but Freda never traded in the stories of the good old days. Name-dropping and Hollywood gossip were alien to Freda -- she revered mensches, not movies.
And it was always clear that she reserved her greatest love for her husband. Imagine Freda's joy now -- her daughter-in-law, Linda Sandrich, said at the memorial service -- as she is finally reunited with him. Mark Sandrich offers a hand to Freda, and she hears the words she has been longing to hear, "Shall we dance?"
She is survived by son, Jay; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.