Barbara Feldon, At 90 Still Getting Smarter

Barbara Feldon, the actress who played lovable Agent 99 on the Emmy Award-winning 1960s spy-spoof television series, Get Smart, has finally written her memoir. It’s titled, appropriately enough, Getting Smarter. This is Feldon’s second book. The first, Living Alone And Loving It, was published two decades ago.

Feldon, a longtime single resident of New York, turned 90 in March, well on her way now to reaching her agent number in years. How cool will that be?

We caught up with her by phone to discuss the new tome, but also to look back at her illustrious career. Our last interview with Feldon took place in 2016. Following are edited excerpts from a more recent conversation, Part 1.

Jim Clash: Where did you get the clever title for this new book?

Barbara Feldon: That’s easy. My editor chose it. He’s amazing. He’s responsible for teaching me how to structure the book, to give it momentum. His name is Eli Gottlieb, a novelist who teaches at Columbia University.

I had called the book at one point, The Frenchman, but Get Smart was never in the title because the story isn’t about Get Smart. I talk about it, but the book is about Lucien [Verdeaux], my ex-husband. Eli came up with, Getting Smarter. It’s nice and concise, represents where I do get smarter, yet identifies the TV series with me, good to remind people of who I am, if that even matters to them.

Clash: As you say, the book is mainly about Lucien, the split personality Frenchman who took you for quite a ride when you were a young model/actress, and not necessarily a smooth one, and who comes to a tragic end.

Feldon: In the latter part of the book, I talk about going to Lucien’s memorial, giving a little speech about how we were all looking for adventure back then, those who got involved with him. That he was the dream-maker, fulfilling our dreams, but in concept only. We boarded his little plane, and went up to the stratosphere. But at a certain point, when we found out who he really was, we bailed. He kept flying higher and higher, like Icharus, and crashed.

Sadly, he became a drug addict over time, embezzled money, lost credibility in the business he was in – fashion. He was found dead in his mother’s apartment, where he had been living on her social security. He probably died of hepatitis from needles. He no longer had teeth, was borrowing cooking sherry from the neighbors, and obviously drinking it. It was so sad. He was only 61. When my sister called and told me of his death, I choked and burst into tears. I hadn’t really seen him in 25 years. But all of the great moments of the past came flooding back.

Clash: If you could give advice to your younger self, some words of wisdom, what would they be? Maybe to be more discerning about men?

Feldon: I don’t think you can tell yourself that. If I, being a more mature person now with more life experience, could have assessed Lucien better than my younger self, and said, “Don’t do this,” I would have robbed myself of the biggest adventure of my life. Sometimes it’s better to let people make mistakes, because it will lead them somewhere else. For me, to have used common sense there would have been a shame.

At the end of the book, I tell the reader about when, much later, I was having tea with my mother. She looked at me and said, out of the blue years after I had left Lucien, “I’m so glad you had him in your life.” I was shocked. “Even considering the way it ended, you were so in love, and not everyone gets to experience that.” I thought that was a wonderful way to look at it, because it’s true. As Shakespeare said, “Love is merely a madness…” But it is a glorious experience to have.

Clash: If you could say something to Lucien now, decades after his death, what would it be?

Feldon: Have you ever tried to warn people, or change them, when you can see how they could avert disaster, and have it be effective? I haven’t. I guess I would say, “I’m sorry for everything that brought you to that bad end.” And that I had loved him. At the end, I didn’t want to be around him, and I never regretted leaving. I didn’t mourn the relationship, because it was so over. But what a beautiful memory, the beginning of it. That’s how all great love stories start, isn’t it [laughs]?

Clash: Given the size of the universe, and all of the mystical possibilities out there, what are your thoughts?

Feldon: I don’t know. I recently wrote an essay about living without knowing, without having a definite answer, being comfortable with that. The image came out of me sitting atop a question mark, trying not to slide off of the top into a ready-made, comforting dogma – then waving to other people sitting on their question marks as I look to the horizon [laughs].

Clash: The big UFO question: Is there other life out there, and, if so, have they visited us?

Feldon: There’s something up there in the sky that people are seeing. There’s a lot of film documenting it. So do I think people are actually seeing these things, yes, I do. Do I think that some of them are little dragons, some little blind people, something else, I don’t know. If I saw the proof, I would definitely believe it. A very good friend has seen three UFOs. So to answer your question, yes, I believe there are UFOs, absolutely. Do I know what that means, no, I don’t.

Clash: You come out of a rural area – Butler, Pennsylvania – and hit it big quickly, with your modeling and acting. When did you realize you had become famous?

Feldon: Not right away, because the first year of Get Smart, we filmed 32 episodes. We were so busy. Afterward, you just went home and crashed, then got up the next day to do it again. Also, when you live in Los Angeles, you’re protected because you’re mostly in your car, never out in public [laughs]. Then you go to some little restaurant, where they know you.

In the book, there’s a funny thing when I was in Philadelphia looking into a bookstore window. This woman suddenly comes flying out, and says, “Oh my God, oh my God, you play that, um…” and I helpfully say, “99,” and she says, “Yes, and I’ve got to introduce you to the bookstore owner.”

She drags me into the store and plants me in front of the man, and says, “Look who I brought you,” and then looks at me. “Don’t you know who this is?” And he didn’t. Then she says Agent…” and again I helpfully supply, “99.” I’m standing there like an idiot. And he says, “No, I never saw it.” Then she whimpers, “I’m so sorry,” to me. And I kind of slink away [laughs]. But, after awhile, it becomes like the weather that you’re recognized. It’s always so sweet and nice.

(For more information, or to purchase Getting Smarter,

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