The Celebrity Collector:
Ellen Burstyn

By Ken Hall
Posted March 2012

The actress has traveled the world and that’s reflected in her furnishings and many decorative pieces.

Ellen Burstyn has achieved a feat few can claim: she’s a triple-crown winner in acting, having earned an Oscar for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More (1974), a Tony for Same Time, Next Year (1974), and an Emmy for Law & Order: SVU (2009). She’s also been nominated for an Academy Award five other times, for The Last Picture Show (1971), The Exorcist (1973), the film version of Same Time, Next Year (1978), Resurrection (1980) and Requiem for a Dream (2000).

The veteran star of stage and screen lives in suburban Rockland County, outside New York City, in an 1805 home that’s filled with wild and wonderful furnishings and decorative accessories. Many of these have been brought back from Ms. Burstyn’s travels around the world. Others were found right here in the United States, like the period furniture she spotted while on location for a film in New Orleans about 20 years ago. You might say it was a case of reverse sticker shock.

“On my time off from the set, I browsed the antique shops on Magazine Street, Royal Street and the French Quarter, and was amazed at how reasonable the prices were compared to New York City,” Burstyn said. “I ended up filling a container loaded with all kinds of period pieces and other furnishings, and had it trucked up to New York. It was soon after I bought my house, so the timing was good, and it all fit in perfectly—fine old furniture placed into a fine old house.”

One piece is a large armoire, circa 1690, that has been converted to house a music system in her bedroom; another is a large William & Mary chest of drawers, circa 1680, that Burstyn keeps in her dressing room; yet another is a French provincial bonnetiere that displays china in her dining room. Other pieces include an ornate chest brought back from Mexico, an early bread-making table, several early chairs purchased in New Orleans, and an Eastlake chair with tile inlay. In the kitchen, she has a massive (and very well stocked) cupboard, with nine glass panes per section (four sections).

As for decorative items, Burstyn chalks many of those up to wanderlust.

“I left home at 18 to see the world, and the places I traveled to - South America, Africa, Asia and elsewhere—I saw so many incredibly beautiful native objects I couldn’t resist buying some and bringing them home.”

She’s especially fond of masks (examples from Mexico, Africa and elsewhere dot the walls in her home), Buddhas and Hindu figures from India, Tibet and Bali, plus a “…big, beautiful hand-carved Jesus figure from Germany.” One of her favorite pieces is a lamp featuring a bronze statue of Buddha with five globes made of seashells from Thailand.

Other prized objects include: a six-foot-long mermaid mask with movable arms and a tail that moves behind her (purchased in Mexico); a 79-inch by 82-inch multi-sheet restored lithograph of the Sutro Baths that opened in San Francisco in 1896 (a duplicate print sold last year at Christie’s for $27,500); a small Tiffany vase; old ethnic jewelry (Native American, Tibetan, Middle Eastern, and African); icons and crystals; an Art Deco wall clock; and a good-luck bracelet given to Burstyn by the Greek-born actress and singer Melina Mercouri. An attached greenhouse added to her home in the 1930s is lined in antique Delft tiles, the highly collectible blue-and-white pottery that has been made in the Netherlands since the 1500s.

In addition to the main house on Burstyn’s 1.3-acre property (only the central portion of the structure was built in 1805, with several additions built over the years), there is also a smaller out-building that was once a garden shed that Burstyn converted into “a Zen teahouse in the Adirondacks,” as she described it.

“It’s the most charming little Hansel and Gretel guesthouse you’ve ever seen.”

Driftwood beams line the birch bark ceiling with unmilled cedar creating a rustic wainscoting throughout.

Burstyn is an avid reader and a huge fan of poetry. Her house is filled to overflowing with books numbering into the thousands, which she said “…would easily rival a small-town library.” She owns some first-editions, a beautifully illustrated copy of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, many volumes of poetry, and books on a wide range of subjects including theater, art, gardening, spirituality, classic literature and photography. (Burstyn is also a photographer.)

Ellen Burstyn was born Edna Rae Gilooly in Detroit, Mich., on Dec. 7, 1932. She worked a number of jobs before becoming an actress, starting at age 14 as a short-order cook at a lunch counter. (The experience helped prepare her for her Oscar-winning role as a waitress in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.) After graduating from Detroit’s Cass Technical High School, she found modeling work in Texas before moving to New York City, where she was hired in 1952 to be a showgirl on The Jackie Gleason Show. After that, she was a nightclub dancer in Montreal, and then came back to New York where she starred on Broadway in Fair Game (1957). During this time, she went by the name Ellen McRae and later took the last name of her husband, the actor Neil Burstyn. Ellen has a son, Jefferson.

In the 1960s, Burstyn appeared on many TV shows including The Doctors, Perry Mason and Doctor Kildare. Her big break came in 1971, when she was cast as Cybill Shepherd’s mother in the critically acclaimed movie The Last Picture Show, for which she was nominated for the Golden Globe and the Academy Award for best supporting actress. She then starred in a long string of successful movies, including The Exorcist, Resurrection and Requiem for a Dream. Her many theater credits include the Broadway production of 84 Charing Cross Road (1982), the acclaimed one-woman play Shirley Valentine (1989), Sacrilege (1995), The Little Flower of East Orange (2008), and more recently, in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour in London’s West End (2011).

Burstyn was the first woman elected president of the Actors Equity Association (1982-85) and serves as artistic director of the famed Actors Studio, where she studied with the late Lee Strasberg. She continues to be active there as co-president with fellow actors Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel. She holds four honorary doctorate degrees and lectures throughout the country on a wide range of topics. She added best-selling author to her resume in 2006 with the publication of her memoir, Lessons in Becoming Myself (Riverhead Press). She just finished a re-make of the movie, Coma, in Atlanta (it will be aired sometime this spring as a two-part mini-series on the A&E network) and is busy writing a screenplay and compiling a book of her photography, which will be accompanied by her favorite poetry. 






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