As Valentine’s Day is upon us, we think of it as celebrating the romance of couples in love. Men shower their wives or girlfriends with arrangements of red roses, a romantic dinner and cap it off with a heart-shaped box of chocolates. We reflect on the day we first met and celebrate our love. While I embrace that tradition, I’ve learned that “True Love” isn’t reserved just for couples in love.
One of the sweetest love stories I’ve ever known is not of a husband and wife but of a mother and daughter, and the love they share goes well beyond their bond. Anyone who has met Nanette Leonard and her mother, Adeline Seakwood, knows of their lasting contributions and passion to their chosen professions, community, and friends. Volumes have been written about their storied careers in the entertainment industry, and for someone who just celebrated her 100th birthday, Adeline’s life is nothing short of remarkable. Born in Brooklyn in 1923, she was enamored with New York City’s entertainment industry. Starting as a John Robert Powers model, she went on to appear in several films before taking on the highly skilled position as a production secretary, a title she later had the industry change to “Production Office Coordinator.” The production office was the “brain” that organized a film’s necessary functions. Adeline handled budgets, production schedules, transportation, locations, permits, equipment rentals, billing, getting catered food on set, and communicating with crew members and the actors. From her appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” Adeline worked on numerous TV shows that, included “Naked City,” “The Patty Duke Show,” and “The Defenders.”
She also worked on major motion pictures where she rubbed shoulders with Paul Newman, Christopher Reeve, Michael J. Fox, Farrah Fawcett, Burt Reynolds, and Peter Falk of Colombo fame. She recounts a story of a last-minute script change on the last day of shooting of “Three Days of the Condor,” starring Robert Redford. While Adeline’s role was typically off-camera and behind the scenes, she rushed to the movie set that was in Manhattan to deliver the revised pages. Spectators who were cordoned off behind the ropes wanted to know who the woman was that was delivering the script to Robert Redford, who then picked her up and kissed her. Without missing a beat, Adeline said, “that’s how rumors start.”
In 2016 I had the pleasure of interviewing Nanette Leonard, Adeline’s daughter. Like her mother, Nanette is not comfortable having the spotlight shine on her. I think it’s safe to say you would have an easier time getting the combination to Fort Knox than you can get Nanette to talk about her extraordinary life. Growing up in Stuyvesant Town in New York City, Nanette was exposed to the vibe of big city life and the culture that went along with it. She developed an appreciation for music and the arts at a young age by taking guitar and piano lessons, even writing half a dozen songs. With a smile, she added, “There wasn’t any way I could ever quit my day job.” However, like her mother, the entertainment industry was in her blood.
Nan an experienced public relations/marketing professional and producer with over 40 years in the entertainment industry began her career at Allied Artists Pictures, serving as Publicity Manager, working on PR campaigns for Academy Award-winning films that included, “Cabaret,” “The Man Who Would Be King,” and “Papillon.” At United Artists, Nan served as East Coast Director of Publicity, mounting PR campaigns on such films as “Raging Bull,” the Bond films, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” starring Meryl Streep, and has worked with Steve Guttenberg, Marvin Hamlisch, Alan King, Jay Leno, and Redbook Magazine. In the 80s, Nan became Senior Vice President at Solters/Roskin/Friedman, one of the largest entertainment PR firms, where she represented Whoopi Goldberg and helped launch her career. Also included in a long list of celebrities Nan represented are Dolly Parton, Gregory Peck, Frances Ruffelle (“Les Miserables”), and Anthony Crivello (Kiss of the Spider Woman). In 1992, Nanette opened her agency, “Nanette Leonard Public Relations,” servicing a diverse clientele that included two-time Tony Award-winning actress Judith Ivey, Tony Award winner Anthony Crivello, international television personality, journalist, and author, Cristina Saralegui, Michael Uslan (Executive Producer of all the Batman films) and a host of organizations that reads like a “Who’s Who.”
One would think with just a fraction of their impressive resumes I’m sharing, Adeline and Nanette would find contentment reminiscing on their extraordinary past. However, those experiences have provided a foundation for the care and service they continue to give their community and the lives they touch. Unlike the typical daughter taking care of a mother relationship; this is more like George Burns and Gracie Allen; comedian and straight man, with Adeline being the comedian. As I entered their home, I was taken aback by the hundreds of cards, flowers, and balloons from Adeline’s recent 100th birthday celebration. Among all the gifts and early Valentine’s Day decorations was a signed picture from Robert Redford, congratulating Adeline on her special day. Sensing I was somewhat overwhelmed, Adeline grabbed my arm and, pointing to Nanette, said, “You know Nurse Radchet” (of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” fame), don’t you?” I couldn’t help but laugh, knowing this would be one of my most entertaining interviews. Adeline is as quick-witted as Nanette is humble. Each time Nanette would leave the room to answer one of the many calls she received, Adeline would proudly share Nan’s accomplishments and tell me how proud she is of all her achievements and how much she appreciates all Nan does for her. She said, “She’s added ten years to my life.” I would venture to say, “Much more.”
I recall the movie “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” where a man played by Brad Pitt starts aging backward. As each year passes, he gets progressively younger-looking. Adeline and Nanette would be a real-life version of this movie. As long as I’ve known them, they look younger with each passing day. Adeline shared with me a previous interview she did where the radio host asked, “Your complexion is so good; what do you use?” The story goes she looked at Nanette, “who looked back in horror and gave her a “NO, Don’t say it,” signal, and said, “I was going to say because I use Preparation H, a standard application in the modeling industry, but so as not to embarrass Nanette I said, “Dove Soap.” Alfred Hitchcock, too, was mesmerized by her beauty during the filming “North by Northwest,” and said she was “too pretty” to put into a street scene as an extra and put her in an elevator scene behind Cary Grant. On the first take, Grant stood in front of her so she couldn’t be seen. As filming paused, without missing a beat, Adeline whispered in Grant’s ear, “My mother would never forgive you.”
You would think with backgrounds like theirs, they would have been attracted to a larger city, but Adeline’s husband, who was the love of her life she lost in 2016, said he needed the warm weather. Adeline shared, “The first thing I ever said to him after being married was, “One place I never want to live is Florida.” When he asked why, she said, “Your hair comes down the minute you walk out the door, and your makeup falls off.” She still feels his loss and says he would often tell her, “God outdid himself when he created you,” and “I won the lottery in life the day I met you.” Adeline said their marriage was idyllic, and together wrote 25 love songs about their relationship.
For Nanette, the move to Punta Gorda was an act of love. Having lived in Middletown, New Jersey, for 34 years, Nan was not only relocating her business but leaving friends and organizations she had supported for years. Affectionately she added, “It’s a circle of life. My parents took care of me; it was my time to take care of them.” Nan continued, “My stepdad would often say, “My blood may not run through your veins, but my love does.” For Nan, the move was a leap of faith. “I didn’t know what I was going to do,” but she committed to herself that she would recreate the type of life she had in New Jersey in Punta Gorda. Some people take a lifetime to leave a lasting impression on their community and friends; for Adeline and Nanette, very few organizations haven’t benefitted from their love and commitment. For 30 years, Adeline has been a Punta Gorda Civic Association member and is known to all as the “Sunshine Lady.” While the role was considered an Ambassador of sorts welcoming new members, she expanded the role to offer solace and encouragement to the ill and bereaved. Adeline said, “I always write notes to people, letting people know there is someone who cares about them. She continued, “From the moment I moved to Punta Gorda 30 years ago, I wanted to give back to my community, and I’m always forming groups.” She recounted a group of women she formed where one came and said, “I miss my mother,” Without hesitation, I said, “You could have me as Mom #2.”
The woman threw her arms around Adeline and said, “Would you?” that is how it started and grew from there. Some collect jewelry, antiques, and autograph pictures; I collect friends.” On the other hand, Nan champions more causes in the community than you can imagine. She has a soft heart for animals and is on the board of directors with the Welfare League. Aside from her countless hours of community service, Nanette created her organization called “Fresh Jersey Tomatoes (FJT). What started as a few ladies from New Jersey who met at a restaurant reminiscing about their lives back home now boasts over 350 members. Now in its 8th year, FJT’s has collected toys to benefit Charlotte Behavioral Health Care, and filled a 58-foot trailer with supplies sent to Ukraine to help those suffering in their war-torn nation.
In 2015 Nan brought a short film festival to Charlotte County and the Punta Gorda Short Film Festival was born. Along with her business partner, Doug LeClaire, director and creator of Asbury Shorts/USA (New York City’s longest-running concert of award-winning short films), it is as a celebration of the World’s Best Short Films.”
Adeline and Nanette share their unique backgrounds and commitment to serving others continually and feel Punta Gorda is the “smallest city with the biggest heart.” Yet despite their ongoing community involvement, they savor their moments together. They leave loving notes for each other and end each day watching a rerun together of “Everyone Loves Raymond. As they turn out the lights of another productive day, they each make the shape of a heart with their hands and finish by saying, “I love you.” Then out of the darkness, a voice replies, “I love you more.”
In today’s age, where tradition, compassion, and service to others are often missing, I was honored to be invited into a home filled with so much love and embodied an aura of a sweeter, kinder, and gentler era. As I was leaving, Nanette shared with me the video tribute of her mother’s 100-year celebration. I was surprised to find out what an accomplished pianist she is. While Nanette plays the guitar, both play by ear, and similar to the Beatles, neither can read music, which confirms my belief music comes from the soul.
I often consider how blessed I was to have grown up in a loving family and, for the past 34 years, have had an equally loving marriage. As I got back into my car, I couldn’t help but feel the contagiousness of the love story Adeline and Nanette shared with me. After losing my mother and mother-in-law, it was very gratifying to know I walked away having been adopted by another “Mom” as well.