1973.…James Cagney, the Country Gentleman
In 1999 the American Film Institution ranked James Cagney as 8th among the greatest male stars of all time. Even the young people today recognize his name, although his films were most prevalent in the 30’s through the 60’s.
He has often been misquoted but his raspy voice with high pitched inflections will always be his outstanding feature. The mimics of today still delight in hitching up their shoulders and squawking out the words; “You dirty rat…” (a line that Cagney says he never uttered, by the way !)
In 1961 James Cagney bought an 800 acre farm in Dutchess County, NY. It was in the same township where my husband, 3 children and I settled three years later. Although the farm was just over the hill from our house we never saw the famous man. He loved the country and would stay there whenever possible but he was also a private person and kept very much to himself.
Off and on, over the years, I would hear tales about the great “Jimmy Gagney” and his love of the country life, antiques and his farm pets. He was now in his mid 70’s and spent almost all of his time at the Dutchess County property. He even agreed to let the Millbrook High School dedicate their yearbook to him in the year that my oldest son graduated from there...1976. He was good to the county and everyone that met him was duly impressed. I, however, had never even spied him from afar.
One Spring day in 1974 I was grocery shopping at our little local store. My arms were full and, as I approached the door, I saw a small, hefty man holding it open for me. He was slightly hunched and had a plaid felt hat with brim covering his balding head. It was tilted to give it a rakish look, and as I turned to say, “Thank you”, he tipped it toward me and said, “The pleasure is mine, little missy.”
There was no mistaking that voice ! James Cagney was my doorman and his twinkling eyes told me that he knew it was a thrill for me. Even in his 70’s he was a captivating presence and you could tell that, as much as he loved his anonymity, he was still the consummate showman.
In 1981 he ended a 20 year retirement by co-starring in the movie, “Ragtime”. That was to be the last of his long career and he spent his remaining years at his beloved farm in Dutchess County until his death in 1986.