Gretchen Rubin

In Honor of Gene Wilder, a Lesson about Happiness that I Learned from Wilder and Gilda Radner.

In Honor of Gene Wilder, a Lesson about Happiness that I Learned from Wilder and Gilda Radner.

I was very sad to hear the news that Gene Wilder died. I'll never forget him as Willie Wonka -- limping down the path outside of his chocolate factory, then dropping into a somersault and springing to his feet.

In honor of his death, I wanted to re-post something I wrote nine years ago, about Wilder and his wife, comedian Gilda Radner.

Here it is, from 2007:

One thing I do for The Happiness Project is to read memoirs of catastrophe – people who have gone through cancer, divorce, death, etc.

Several months ago I read Gilda Radner’s interesting memoir, It’s Always Something, and yesterday I finished Gene Wilder’s equally interesting memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger. The two were married when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and died, so reading the two memoirs gives a window into that experience from both perspectives.

One thing that made this story particularly striking to me is that I remember seeing Gilda Radner and Gene Wilder together, many years ago. It was in a drugstore somewhere in New York City, I can’t remember where. I do remember that Gilda Radner was carrying a little dog (named Sparkle, I know now after reading these memoirs).

A very peculiar aspect of fame is that fact that strangers remember the most fleeting encounters with you; it’s astonishing, really, that I remember seeing the two of them, for just a moment, so long ago.

One reason that I remember them was that I remarked on how serious they both seemed. They were speaking in low, intense voices and looked solemn. “Well, maybe they’re only funny and light-hearted when they’re acting,” I thought. “Maybe that’s how famous comedians are in person. Or maybe they’re trying to be inconspicuous, because they’re famous.”

In fact, this might have been the very day that Gilda Radner got a terrible report from her doctor. When I intersected with them would’ve been about the same time that she was sick. What for me was an ordinary day, with the fun of a celebrity sighting, might have been one of the worst days of their lives.

This is a perfect example of the fundamental attribution error — which Wikipedia defines as “the tendency for people to over-emphasize dispositional, or personality-based, explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing situational explanations. In other words, people have an unjustified tendency to assume that a person’s actions depend on what ‘kind’ of person that person is rather than on the social and environmental forces influencing the person.

I assumed that Radner’s and Wilder’s behavior reflected their characters as celebrities and comedians and actors; it never occurred to me that their behavior might reflect something happening to them.

Which reminds me – I should always cut people slack; always assume that their irritability, or unfriendliness, or absent-mindedness, neither reflects their true nature nor has anything to do with me. In brief, don’t take things personally. As Henri-Frederic Amiel wrote, “Life is short and we never have enough time for the hearts of those who travel the way with us. O, be swift to love! Make haste to be kind.”

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