I met Dorothy Silver at her apartment for the first time in the summer of 2016. At the time, Cleveland Magazine was pulling together interviews with individuals over the age of 65 who could share the lessons they’ve learned through their long lives. I did extensive research in preparation for my interview with Silver, reading about her historic career as an actress in Cleveland’s theater community, how she appeared in Love & Other Drugs and The Shawshank Redemption, how her and her late husband Reuben had a near 20-year run as resident guest directors for Karamu House, the country’s oldest African American theater.
But in truth, all that preparation went out the door the minute Silver invited me into her home. Sitting at her dinner table, I began firing off questions left and right — but instead of resigning to a one-sided interview, Silver sat back, took a deep breath, and started asking me questions in return, about what makes me happy in my own life, about what I think success looks like and if I was happy with how things turned out.
For three hours, we sat with each other, bouncing stories back-and-forth between us, and it dawned on me then that Silver was quite possibly one of the most vibrant, mesmerizing, and humble individuals I had ever had the pleasure of speaking with.
She spoke of her three children most, how she couldn’t imagine her life without them and how fascinating they were at every phase of their lives.
She talked of Reuben and the challenges of parenting while acting, how they spent nights around the dinner table critiquing each other’s work and encouraging the best out of one another even when those conversations were sometimes difficult.
She spoke of their 65 years together, and how hard it was to lose him to Parkinson’s disease.
“If I looked for a thousand years, I would never find anybody else like him, not after all the years we had together,” she said. And she confessed they still talked every day — she held on to his memory, his vibrancy, his love for theater and performance until the very end.
Silver had this uncanny ability to view the world around her with such deep determination and understanding that when the conversation was over, you felt your immediate worldview shift and you felt as if you had somehow become a better person just by being in her presence.
When I interviewed her again in the fall of 2019, few things had changed. Silver was still acting, gearing up for Kindertransport at the Ensemble Theater. When I asked her how she was preparing for the performance, she shared a little secret.
“About 10 years ago, I realized I shouldn’t rely on the fact that I have always been able to memorize lines,” she said. “I must start early. I must go into that first rehearsal knowing lines.”
So, she practiced the entire play, from start to finish, once a day for three months leading up to the first performance. It was a testament to Silver’s dedication and love for theater and what made her one of our Most Interesting People in 2020.
Silver’s love for theater sparked early in her life when her parents took her to see a production of King Lear at a Yiddish language theater. At 12, Silver lied about her age to get a job as an usher at Detroit’s Cass Theatre where she saw Katharine Hepburn and Katharine Cornell perform.
“You needed a working permit when you were 14,” she said. “I would go in an hour early to watch them rehearse, rewrite, change blocking — I was in the seventh grade. It was my first important lie.”
She never spoke about the challenges of theater as she got older. Rather, she always talked about how life and her lived experiences fueled the very performances she took on. With each role, she learned something about herself and the world around her as much as she learned to tap into her creativity and emotion.
“The use you make of your life experience is something you bring with you to the theater,” she said. “You’ve got to use everything you’re given. If you’re given emotions, fear, apprehension, love — you do it as fully as you can and you don’t try to repress it.”
And always, before long, conversation turned back to her family: when asked what was inspiring her in her life then, at 90, Silver got up from the table, searched for her iPad, and walked back, pointing to a photo of a man hoisting up a young, smiling child.
“Do you know what it means to see my son, who is now 63, lift his first grandchild up in the air? I love the experience of this new child,” she said.
Silver lived for the vibrancy of others. She was so in tune with the world around her, so committed to the health and wellness of others, that she could see you struggling in a room full of people and still find time to pull you aside and ask you how you’re doing.
The last time I spoke to Silver, that’s how she found me. I was sitting across the room from her at our annual Most Interesting People party and I had a lot weighing on my mind. We went and sat outside in the hallway where it was a bit quieter. Internally, I was struggling with making a difficult decision regarding my ongoing relationship with my partner and so, I asked her for advice: How do you know you’re doing the right thing? How do you know if it’s meant to be?
Silver placed her hand on mine, and sighed.
“There’s great risk in loving,” she said, “but there’s a considerable amount of adventure in commitment.”
And that’s how I will always remember her: full of love and life, forever watchful and endlessly committed to adventure.