September 23, 2009
Miraculously, She’s Alive
Joan Hyler’s Arduous Road to Recovery After a Horrific Accident
At dusk on Friday night, Aug. 15, 2008, Joan Hyler was crossing Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu when she was struck by a car traveling 60 miles per hour. Her 5-foot frame was thrown 25 feet through the air before she landed on the hard pavement. It was after midnight on the East Coast when her sister, Nancy Berlin, a nonprofit consultant, got a call saying Hyler, a prominent Hollywood manager, was in critical condition.
When Berlin arrived in Los Angeles the next morning, the mood at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center was grim. There was a vigil in the waiting room of movie stars, agents, industry executives and friends — Hyler’s longtime clients Diane Lane, Ricki Lake and comedy writer Bruce Vilanch were there, along with “Will and Grace” star Eric McCormack and his family, “Joan of Arcadia” star Amber Tamblyn and her family and actor Robert Patrick. They were all gathered together, eager to be of use. But at this point there wasn’t much to do but pray. Hyler was in the intensive care unit, where the din of beeping machines were the only signs of life. She lay unconscious, with tubes protruding from every orifice, fluid was draining from her head, her body was battered, bruised and swollen to twice its size, and her face bloodied beyond recognition.
The doctors told Berlin that Hyler probably would not survive — there was too much internal bleeding, and the head injuries and trauma throughout her body were severe. Hyler also had nerve damage, a collapsed lung and possible damage to her spinal cord. She wasn’t breathing on her own; her pelvis was crushed; her arms, elbow and shoulder were broken; and her legs were so badly mangled that her doctors were considering a double amputation.
Even if she were to survive, everyone knew, Hyler’s quality of life was uncertain. There was no way to guess the extent of her brain injuries because she was in a deep coma, where she would stay for the next four months.
When the accident occurred, Hyler was at the height of her career. A pioneer in the entertainment business, she was the first female to become a vice president at the William Morris Agency, having hustled her way from secretary to super agent. As a talent agent she had represented some of the most iconic names in show business, including Madonna, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol and Meryl Streep in the 1970s and ’80s. By the mid-’90s, she owned and operated Hyler Management, a boutique management company with a small, loyal base of clients like Lane, Alfred Molina, Tamblyn and Vilanch.
Hyler was always a workaholic. She was deeply involved with her clients both personally and professionally (“I thought of her as my sister,” said actress Karen Allen, star of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Animal House”; “Joan was the stitches through everything that’s ever broken in my life,” Tamblyn said). Without a husband or children, Hyler’s clients became her family. Although she was every bit as driven by ambition as any of her peers, she displayed little of the ego bashing and backstabbing that is characteristic in Hollywood, and her clients appreciated her as much for her drive as they did for her quality of character. She was, according to those closest to her, a mensch.
Hyler was also a community leader and a committed Jew. She taught classes on how to succeed in Hollywood both here and in Israel as part of the Tel Aviv/Los Angeles Partnership program created by The Jewish Federation; in May 2007, she led a “Hollywood 101” master class at Tel Aviv University. Here in Los Angeles, Hyler helped found the Hadassah advocacy group, The MorningStar Commission — a band of high-powered women in entertainment devoted to improving images of Jews in film and on television. By many accounts, Hyler lived an enviable life filled with self-made success, famous friends and community recognition.
With the same determination she used to create a name for herself, now Hyler has not only survived, she’s beat the odds: After a year of recovery, Hyler has learned to walk again — on her own once-shattered legs. And on Oct. 1, the UCLA neurosurgery team will present her with the Courage Award at their annual Visionary Ball, alongside actor Jim Carrey.
The story of Hyler’s miraculous recovery is as much about the community that supported her as it is about medical miracles or an act of God. From those early, grave moments, Hyler received an outpouring of support from both Hollywood and the Jewish community (in some cases they overlapped) that was so strong it demanded a show of spiritual strength from Hyler in return. That she survived, and after a protracted recovery has regained many of her basic skills, seems nothing short of astounding. But Hyler wants more. Because life is never the same once you’ve come close to the other side. So even while she’s working hard to reclaim her old life, Hyler now believes she’s been given an opportunity to do something entirely new.
As word of Hyler’s accident spread, more and more people reached out to help. Berlin quickly enlisted a group of caregivers, who became known as “Team Hyler,” who would remain at her side for the duration of her recovery. Many of them — including Lane and McCormack — continued to visit daily from that first weekend and for many months to come. “It was so typical of her life,” said Vilanch, Hyler’s longtime client and oldest friend. “Everywhere she went there were A-listers.”
Others saw something different. Olivia Schwartz, wife of Rabbi Shlomo “Schwartzie” Schwartz, whom Hyler counts among her spiritual mentors, was surprised by the presence of celebrities whom she previously thought of as selfish: “I’m the least Hollywood person you’ll ever see in your life — I don’t know who anybody is,” she said. “And there’s this parade of movie stars coming through; it changed my opinion in some way — seeing people I might not have had so much respect for showing up for her, it touched me very deeply.”
As Hyler’s closest living relative, Berlin took over all major medical decisions, leaving insurance negotiations and the operation of Hyler Management to Hyler’s ex-husband and business partner, Larry Scissors, with whom Hyler remains close. Berlin set a determined tone for her sister’s recovery, designating visiting hours, delegating responsibilities and setting protocol for reporting on Hyler’s condition. Scissors created a Joan Hyler Web page on the UCLA hospital CarePages site, where he and Berlin posted updates on Hyler’s progress.
The first update was posted to CarePages the day after the accident, prompting an outpouring of 140 messages in response. The following day, 109 more responded. For the next 10 months, Scissors posted regular updates that were broadly optimistic, stressing slow, steady progress, even though the reality was more erratic. Throughout, the response continued to be overwhelming: To date, nearly 1,500 visitors have come to Hyler’s CarePage, sharing more than 4,500 postings.
“I had hope from the very beginning,” Berlin said in a recent phone conversation from Florida.
Hyler’s doctors were not so optimistic, she admitted. Even when it looked like Hyler might survive, there was much talk about amputation and brain damage. “When I spoke to the doctor,” Berlin recalled, “he said, ‘I’m not real hopeful’ and I said, ‘you don’t know Joan.’”
“We never ever said the words out loud that ‘she’s not going to make it,’” Schwartz said. Hyler met the Schwartzes in 1985 when a friend of Bob Dylan’s invited her to Shabbat at their home, and she has been loyal ever since. Schwartzie married Hyler and Scissors in 1990, and Hyler is close with the couples’ children. She also credits the Schwartzes with inspiring her Jewish practice; Hyler keeps kosher and routinely studies Torah. “The Torah teaches, ‘think good, and it will be good.’ I just went to that place, the place where God makes miracles happen and I was convinced she was going to survive,” Schwartz said.
Berlin didn’t leave the hospital for the first two weeks, and for the better part of the next 10 months, as Hyler went from the hospital to rehab to an assisted-living facility before finally moving home, Berlin would spend at least three weeks out of four at her sister’s side, switching off with her husband occasionally so she could fly home to care for her own five children. Berlin made sure that in her absence at least one friend or family member would be at Hyler’s side every day — though there were usually more — and that everyone who visited would report back to her on any progress. Until Hyler was in better condition, very few people were allowed to see her directly.
“We were careful about who would see her, because she is well known and a lot of people like to say they’re close to her,” Schwartz explained. “We were very upset when somebody came in and said they had permission, and then sent an e-mail to 50 other people saying basically how terrible she looked. It was stuff we didn’t want people to know in terms of preserving her dignity. Everybody didn’t need to know how many times she peed.”
Everyone who visited had a job to do. Berlin’s husband wrapped his tallit around her bed; Danny Sussman, a manager with Brillstein Entertainment Partners who serves on the executive committee for The Jewish Federation’s Entertainment Division, brought an Israeli flag; someone else sent her an Our Lady of Guadalupe figurine (the Mexican icon of the Virgin Mary); and another brought Shabbat candles that were lit for Hyler every week. The MorningStar Commission led a prayer service. Rabbi Deborah Orenstein made Torah tapes. And still others brought photos, read her books and told their favorite stories. Everyone who visited was asked to give tzedakah. And during last year’s High Holy Days, Schwartz brought one of her sons to lead a service in Hyler’s hospital room.
Hyler, of course, was not conscious for any of this, but she says now she remembers hearing the sound of the shofar.
That life went on so vividly around Hyler had an impact on the hospital staff. “Instead of seeing a body there, a body that couldn’t move, because of the outpouring she became a person to everyone,” Berlin said. “For all the doctors and nurses, she became very much alive to them — they knew funny stories about her; they saw her through the community that surrounded her, and through that they were inspired.”
“I would just sit with her and hold her hand,” actress Karen Allen said. “There was this sense of being there in the room with your love and your will, sort of willing her to heal.” Allen, who lives in Massachusetts, said that visiting Hyler reconnected her to the Hollywood community, which she’d long been apart from. “We all had a common thread, and that was Joan. In that way of people coming together, there is a lot of spiritual power.”
“Community is contagious,” said Rhoda Weisman, a leader in the Jewish community and close friend of both Hyler and Berlin. “But I don’t think community just happens. There’s a leadership piece in it, and her sister took the lead. I don’t think it would have happened otherwise.”
For the first four or five months, Hyler oscillated in and out of consciousness. She underwent multiple surgeries on her arms, legs, head and trachea. Following that, there were still unknowns. One moment she would improve, become increasingly responsive, and then she would drop off. The doctors discovered a buildup of spinal fluid that was creating pressure on her brain and causing her to lose consciousness. That’s when they put a shunt in her brain to drain the spinal fluid, which allowed her to fully regain consciousness. Still, after five months of being intubated and after a tracheotomy to ease the strain on her throat, she had lost her voice and had to learn how to talk again.
Hyler says she remembers seeing Diane Lane when she finally came to, and her friends Brian Swardstrom, a senior-level agent with William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, and his partner, producer Peter Spears, hovering over her bed. Lane likes to tell of one time when Hyler was only half-awake and she commented that Hyler needed a pedicure. Out of the abyss, Hyler squealed, “I want PINK!” So the Oscar-winning actress ran to CVS for pink nail polish and performed the pedicure herself.
Vilanch, Hyler’s oldest friend (the two dated briefly in college, though he was already out of the closet, which Hyler brazenly downplays, “It was the ’60s! It was wild and woolly”) recalled his first conversation with Hyler after she awoke. “I had to explain who Sarah Palin was,” he said with an ironic laugh. “I told her it was a character Tina Fey does. I told her, ‘This is McCain’s running mate,’ and she gave me a look of complete horror.”
As soon as Hyler was well enough to speak, she went back to work. For months, she conducted business as usual on a cell phone from her hospital bed.
It’s a year after her accident when I arrive at Hyler’s townhouse in Santa Monica, and before I even see her, her caregiver sends me straight into her office. There is a stillness inside reflecting months of not being used — the carpet is spotless, the red-velvet couch un-creased — but the walls are filled with 30 years of history — photographs, movie posters, magazine covers and Variety clippings, each spattered with Hyler’s clients’ names and faces. There are various awards and certificates, a framed article about Hyler from the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz and another from the Los Angeles Times from the 1980s about breakthrough female talent agents — Hyler’s picture is at the center of the spread. In the back corner, there is a huge poster from the 1979 Broadway show Hyler worked on, “The Elephant Man,” about a character with a horrible deformity, and in bold letters is the phrase: “My head is so big because it is filled with dreams.”
Upstairs, on the third floor, Hyler is lying in a big white bed. Her face is rosy, her hair cut boyishly short — the blonde completely grown out now, revealing her dark, natural color. She’s just returned from a morning at rehab, and she’s hungry.
“Do you want ice cream?” she asks. “I want a skinny cow,” she tells her caregiver, Gilda, whose name reminds me of the movie by the same name, starring Rita Hayworth. Almost everything surrounding Hyler seems storied — filled with famous people, fortuitous timing and personal triumph — a glamorous Hollywood tale from a time gone by.
“I’ve lived many lives,” Hyler tells me, with a satisfied smile. Her voice, always dramatic, is now low and raspy — not her normal level, her sister says, since the tracheotomy. Hyler doesn’t talk about the accident, but wants to talk about her rise from a small-town Ohio girl to a big-time Hollywood success.
She grew up lower-middle class in Dayton, in a “conventional, conservative” Jewish family. Her father was a salesman at the Bargain Barn and her mother a homemaker — with “a big booming laugh and guts,” Hyler says. Her childhood dream, as she puts it, was to “get out of Dodge.”
Hyler started out in New York in the 1970s as a secretary for the William Morris Agency (“What I didn’t have in skills, I made up in smarts”). She had come straight from Ohio State University, where she’d married Joe Hyler, a campus radical, but the couple divorced by the time she arrived in Manhattan. She worked for Marvin Minoff, the head of the agency’s theater department, reading screenplays and writing reports, working 12-hour days for $120 a week (“The money was s—-, like it is today,” she says). When the agency refused to promote women, Hyler moved to ICM, in 1975, and worked her way up to becoming an agent — representing the likes of Streep and Warhol. This caught the attention of William Morris, which hired her back in 1981, this time in their L.A. office. Hyler describes herself at the time as “a young, hungry, hot agent.”
In Los Angeles, she moved in with Vilanch at the top of Coldwater Canyon. She also reached the top of the Morris Agency, where she repped Madonna and Dylan, but she grew tired of “agenting” after 20 years, and, in 1995, she reinvented herself as a manager.
“I’d like to think I understood their talent and was able to help them articulate it,” she has said of her success with A-list clients. “I wanted this big-ass career, and I got it.”
“I was a woman in the age of women, an agent in the age of agents, a New Yorker when that was the place to be ... I have a thousand memories and not a single regret,” she says now. “That’s a quote from ‘Fiddler Jones.’ He ended up with a broken fiddle. That’s my favorite poem.”
But even today, much healed — Hyler suffered no permanent brain damage — she still needs a wheelchair to get around and can walk only briefly with a cane. She is reticent to talk about her accident. She says, somewhat irresolutely, that she remembers nothing of being hit. Pressing her on the content of her inner life over the past year yields little: What were the hardest moments? “Wanting to be normal and resume my own life and not knowing when I would be able to”; What enabled her to survive? “I don’t know. It was a gift.”
She attributes her recovery to her sister, to the Schwartzes, to the CarePages, to the community and to Scissors, who kept her business afloat. (Hyler has lost a few clients, including McCormack, who spent much of the year at her bedside but recently moved on to work with someone else. Hyler has only favorable things to say about him and their time together, and the two remain friends.) Hyler also owes much to yoga: Almost everyone interviewed said Hyler was in the best physical shape of her life at the time of the accident, which many believe helped her body heal.
But Hyler still has a long way to go: she is in outpatient rehab twice a week, building up muscle strength in her legs so she can walk without a cane and drive a car again. She is also undergoing weight training to build upper-body strength. When prompted on what she isn’t able to do that she’d most like to, she answers, “The Hora,” without missing a beat. “And to sing on pitch — but I never could.”
I ask her if she ever felt confused or afraid.
“I can’t explain it,” Hyler says. “For the longest time I didn’t want it described to me what I’d been through. It sounded awful. All I wanted to do was focus on the future, not the past. It was enough that I was alive — I’m still shocked I lived through that. My legs were smashed, but they put them together again. And I can walk, thank God. I’m learning how to walk all over again.”
Hyler says she has been most surprised by the magnitude of people’s kindness to her over the course of her recovery.
“I live in show business,” she says. “It’s a rough, tough business.”
And, she says, from the moment she awoke, all she ever felt was grateful.
“One of the things I’m studying with the Schwartzes is how to take what’s left and fashion it into a life of meaning,” Hyler says. “That’s what I liked about the rebbe so much — there was real meaning in Jewish life. There’s not a word out of place in the Torah; it all has depths of meaning, and our job is to figure out what it means.”
“And I’m inflamed by that,” she says quietly. “The search for meaning. What does it mean that it happened to me this way?”
“The real question,” Hyler concludes, “is not why something happens to you — it happens to everybody — nobody gets out of here alive. The question is, ‘What now?’ That’s what I’m struggling with. What do you do with all of this?”