Madeleine Stowe

The star of ABC’s hit series <em>Revenge</em> on perfect cream puffs, good neighbors, and late blooming

I went on my first date when I was 18. It was with Dennis Quaid. He had just come to L.A.—he’d maybe done a couple of films. We met at a theater where I was observing actors, and he asked me out. I made him come to a cinema class at USC, where I was studying journalism and cinema. He kept wanting me to go see Swept Away at his house. And something told me I wasn’t ready. He told a friend of mine, “You know, I think she’s a virgin. And I’d hate to take that responsibility.” He was very sweet.

I was born in Queen of Angels Hospital, but Eagle Rock is where we had our first house, on Wiota Street. Eagle Rock was one of those places that nobody seemed to know existed. It was pure working class, sandwiched between Pasadena and Glendale, an extraordinary neighborhood where all the neighbors knew what all the children were doing. And me, my brother, and sister ran wild.

We would run into other people’s houses for dinner or wait to be invited. We’d play hide-and-seek and dash throughpeople’s backyards. At that time there were these communal gates that would let neighbors cross into each other’s yards to take a shortcut. We’d spy on the neighbors, and we were convinced they were counterfeiters. We were reading a lot of  Nancy Drew. We would tunnel our way through a deep bank of ivy to peer into their cellars. That was the kind of play we had.

There were pomegranate trees all over the place, and we were doing our best to steal the fruit. We were out until dark, and then the streetlights came on. If I got bored, I would go talk to the woman next door, Mrs. Marks, and her mother, and we’d play pinochle. Another neighbor raced midget race cars—I remember I’d always look at his trophies. Another collected teeny-tiny penguins. When the Helms Bakery truck would come down our street, it was the biggest delight. The driver would toot his horn and open the back panel of his truck and reveal drawers and drawers of baked goods. Oh, my God, the cupcakes and the doughnuts. They had the best cream puffs. The smell of that was just all-time wonderful.

For all the bad raps that L.A. gets sometimes, I saw a lot of devotion here. I had a very sick dad—he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when I was four—and I remember him having terrible seizures in the middle of the night. The neighbors would come running in to help at two or three in the morning, no questions asked. It always gave me a sense, despite a lot of the darker things, of a great optimism in this neighborhood spirit.

I went to Rockdale Elementary in a brick schoolhouse. We used to tromp around the attic and pretend that the teachers were part of some kind of evil conspiracy. Every single weekend from when I was about six, my mother would drop us off at the movies at the Eagle Theatre at Eagle Rock and Yosemite. There’d be a double matinee. The first movie I remember was The Three Lives of Thomasina. Movies got there very late in the game, but I didn’t know that. Seeing them spurred my love of cinema.

When I was ten, I started to study the piano. First I studied with a woman at Occidental College, and then after about seven months I began to study with Sergei Tarnowsky, who had been Vladimir Horowitz’s teacher. He was in an old home in Hollywood—I want to say near Wilton—and he taught me until I was 17, when he passed away at the age of 92.

I adored him. Relaxation of the wrist was really important, and he’d put his fingers on my wrists to see if they were relaxed. I remember just loving the idea that someone could read me. He was really my father, I think. But we had a very formal relationship. After he became ill, in my last lessons he taught me from behind a trellis. He would sit in the sunroom, and I couldn’t see him, yet he was lucid and gave me these beautiful lessons. My last lesson, I just sensed I would never see him again, and I remember going to the trellis to say good-bye and my mouth started to quiver, but I wouldn’t cross to the other side to hug him. It was one of the real vivid moments of my life, and one of the things I really regret. I quit when he died. I’d spent so much time in isolation at the piano. And I also knew that I wasn’t good enough.

When I was a senior in high school, I was obsessed with James Dean—that’s what made me want to act. I was also interested in journalism, so I went to interview James Dean’s former best friend, William Bast. I was wearing knee socks and had this humongous tape recorder. Last year Bast wrote a book about having been Dean’s lover. He was very nice to me.

For a while my husband, Brian Benben, and I had a ranch in Texas, and I realized that I was somehow trying to approximate that feeling I had as a child, when we all took care of one another. What I got in Texas was a replica of that neighborly connection with people that I had growing up—where you can sit in someone’s kitchen and talk for hours—except with lots of land and lots of horses and cattle.

Now I’m back in L.A., and I go to this place in Santa Monica every morning that serves the most incredible lattes—Caffe Luxxe—and talk with people I would have never met otherwise. We’re all eccentric. And then we go off about our day.