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She lifts her hands (one of them bearing a diamond pave ring the size of a Jordan almond) and then drops them like airplane flaps in front of her ears. Tammy Grimes has just been asked how she would describe the sound of her own voice, the voice that has been her fortune and has sent writers scurrying to their typewriters to tap out metaphors. Hands winged around her ears, she listens to herself talk. "If you want to hear how you sound, you do this," she says. "Do it." I do it. We sit there for a minute, flaps down. I am not listening to my voice. I am trying to decide whether herm voice sounds more like hot butterscotch sauce poured over Rice Krispies or like angora mittens filled with gravel. It is a low, warm, soft voice with unexpected crackles of grit in it. The accent, somewhere between Back Bay and London, is what's generally described as mid- Atlantic.

Miss Grimes's voice over the years has also been described as sounding fogbound, or like a key turning hurriedly in a boudoir lock, or like the pipes of Pan. Washington Post critic James Lardner, reviewing the newmusical "42nd Street," which recently completed its run at the Kennedy Center here, and in which she stars with Jerry Orbach, wrote of "that amazing voice of hers," which reminded him of mint-flavored dry ice.

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Tammy has heard about that line, and can quote it. She cannot quote the rest of the review or the other reviews of this $2 million David Merrick musical that audiences love but critics suggest needs more work. Her reviews are collected for her, but she never reads them until much later, when they can't affect her performance.

Meanwhile, she talks about that extraordinary voice of hers. No, she can't describe it, except to say, "I think I'm quite lucky to have this sound."

Has she always had that sound since she was a child?

"No, it broke, it changed like a boy's . . . at 16. . . . I had overstrained it, yelling a lot at football teams at school [the exclusive Beaver Country Day school in Chestnut Hill, Mass.]. And it went away from me for a while. By the time I got to New york, I could only sing six notes, [all] below middle C."

Whatever her range, she really knows how to belt it out and enthrall an audience, as she does in "42nd Street." The musical, which will open on Broadway soon, is based on the '30s "putting on a show" movie classic that starred Ruby Keeler. In it, Grimes plays Dorothy Brock, a seasoned actress trying to make a comeback in a frisky new musical after 10 years away from the stage. It is a musical within a musical with a trunk full of Al Dubin songs from old MGM films. Gower Champion choreographed and directs it, with Grimes and co-star Jerry Orbach leading a cast of hopeful new faces and feet.

Tammy grimes's first big splash as an actress was in another Broadway musical , "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," which won her a Tony award and made her a star. At the time the show went on tour, she kept a diary which included these instructions to herself from near the end of the tour: "Don't smile at all. . . . assume Garbo-type privacy. Look worn-out and brave. . . ."

Is it always like that at the end of a tour, she is aked; is it like that now?

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It is 11 a.m. on a tropical Washington morning in her hotel room overlooking the Potomac. The light is subdued, pearly, from an approaching summer storm. Miss Grimes does not look at all worn-out and brave, but quite refreshed and even chirpy (if you can imagine a contralto robin) after a grueling series of rehearsals and late-night performances. She is standing in a tiny alcove making herself a hot drink and talking about hydrangeas. There is a dramatically blue hydrangea in a vase on the table, its big flowery head drooping toward her. She is not particularly fond of hydrangeas, she notes, as she measures out sugar; in a group they look like hats. But she must have flowers around.

Her voice is relaxed, almost purring. She has changeable, cat-colored eyes that go from green to gold. But she is not all the tigress in chiffon that Dorothy Brock sometimes is on stage. Her small-boned, 5-foot-2-inch frame looks considerably taller with the addition of tan leather and cork platform wedgies. She wears a high-necked Victorian blouse of black, lavender, green, and red taffeta plaid with a black silk skirt. Her tawny hair is swept up in a French twist that gradually becomes unspooled during the interview as her expressive hands fly up, down, through it, behind it.

This isn't a taxing and hard show to do, she says, "because I don't have the full responsibility. . . . Jerry Orbach [who plays the show-with-in-the-show's director] has to work much harder than I do. His is a much bigger part and he is in control, so to speak, of the pace of the evening. . . . At night I'm not tired, and I want to go out to a lot of parties. I have time to write [she's keeping a diary of the show], time to read [Elizabeth Hardwick's novel, "sleepless Nights"]. I mean, I really am having a wonderful time. Because usually, when I'm doing a play, I feel totally responsible for the success of the evening. And I'm usually never off stage. . . . The last play I did was Ivan Turgenev's 'A Month in the Country.' The lady never stops talking. She's never off stage. It's a great part and a very difficult part. Challenging. . . . You have to use every shred of technique you have to be enticing for 2 1/2 hours and never leave the stage and never stop talking."

Which of the roles she's played is most like Tammy Grimes herself?

"The one that have been successful," she says after a pause, and explains: "The ones that haven't been successful, I could't bring the two of us together. I couldn't bring me and the character together enough.

"The most difficult and rewarding part I've ever played was Natalya in 'A Month in the country.' the part that most changed my life was "The Unsinkable Molly Brown.' The most beautiful comedy role was Amanda in 'Private Lives.'"

It was Noel Coward, author of "Private Lives," who discovered her and first put her on Broadway. At the time, she was singing at Julius Monk's nightclub "Uptairs at the Downstairs," where a Life magazine critic wrote that "Tammy makes the torrid songs seem tame, the sophisticated simple, the sweet saucy. . . ." Coward heard her there, gave her a 10-minute audition, and promptly cast her in the title role of "Look After Lulu," his adaptation of Georges Feydeau's 1908 French farce "Occupe-toi d'Amelie." Her association with Coward includes the musical "High Spirits," as well as the role in "Private Lives" for which she won a Tony award as best dramatic actress.

Speaking of Coward, she says, "He was a very demanding man, difficult about clarity, economy, simplicity, good diction, how to time a laugh. All those things are very important. He was very kind, loved the theater, was extremely competent. We were very good friends. A great wit.

"One day he had gone to a matinee of 'Butterflies Are Free' [starring Keir dullea, rhymes with "near delay"]. I said, 'Did you have a good time?' 'Oh,' he said, I had a wonderful time, wonderful time. Wonderful.' I said, 'What did you think of Keir Dullea?' He said, Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow.' And this was probably rather a cruel thing to say, but it was so funny that even Keir Dullea would have had to laugh."

Miss Grimes, like most artists, tells stories as naturally as other people breathe. We are talking about that voice of hers and whether she does anything special to keep it limber.

"I go and vocalize. It's a terrible sound." she illustrates: Her mouth and nose and chin begin to slip and slide as though they're made of Silly Putty, as she warms up to vocalize.

"Nyaaaaaaanahnahnahnyooooowwwwwwwwwwww," a piercing sound high in the sinuses , is like a cross between a New Jersey mosquito and a Phantom jet. We both wince.

"You have to put your voice up there in the mask," she says, producing an even weirder sound, somewhere between a knock on wood and a horse's hoofbeat. Then she tells a story about the star she worked with, "who shall remain nameless," who vocalized with such ferocity before every performance that she lost her voice two or three times a wek, for which she blamed an aversion to the floorboards in her dressing room, which she ordered torn up periodically.

There are stories, too, that are told about Grimes in her old reviews. Like the time she lost her summer job as an apprentice at the Westport (Conn.) Playhouse because she gave away $500 worth of tickets at the box office. Or the time she ended her four-year marriage to actor Christopher Plummer with a phone call to the studio, where she told his stage manager to give her husband a message. The message was that all his clothes had been forwarded to the Algonquin Hotel, where she had reserved a suite for him, complete with flowers and refreshments.

She had met Plummer, whom she once described as "a thin, keen sword edge that catches the light," when Marlon Brando took her to see Plummer starring on Broadway in "The Dark is Light Enough."

The impression given in the early reviews is that of a rather madcap actress, saying outrageous things and tossing convention like a marabou boa over her shoulder. But the Tammy Grimes you meet now is not like that. She is vivid, in the way that actresses are, but she is now almost mellow. Today, she is not -- as her friend Roddy McDowell once described her -- living "on the tilt, half on the earth and half somewhere between the earth and the sky."

She says of her earlier image: "Well, I was very young. It's difficult to know what to do with success when you're so young."

Tammy Lee Grimes was born in Lynn, Mass., to a hotel and club manager and his wife, who later moved to Chestnut Hill, just outside of Boston. There, her father became manager of the fashionable Brookline Country Club. At Beaver Country Day School, she played her first stage role in "Victoria Regina" and Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth." But she'd been putting on her own plays for years, dressing up in old clothes kept in the attic of the family's summer house in New Hampshire, and charging everyone 10 cents' admission "to this kind of play, which mainly consisted of the high point of jumping off the hayloft." She loved it even then:

"I always seemed to be happy when people were watching me, as opposed to not watching me. You don't know as a kid, really, whether you want to act. You know it's a good feeling, having an audience, and later on it becomes -- it ism -- an art form. . . ."

At her coming-out party, before she went waltzing off to stephens Junior College in Missouri, Miss Grimes had this to say about how she didn't want to be like the girls she knew: "Knitting their way through Wellesley and then getting married to men with 9-to-5 jobs and living happily ever after with their wall-to-wall carpeting."

Hearing those lines read back to her, she smiles thoughtfully. "I was a bit harsh on them, wasn't I . . . ? I see these ladies I graduated with and whom I was talking about every once in a while, and the ones I see are very happy. They have good relationships with their children, good marriages, they're usually independently doing something. One is a wet nurse, the other is a photographer. . . . If you were going to compare, say, the three of us, I think we've all turned out very well, you know. I really don't think their lives were as mundane as I has thought. It was just the things that I wanted to get so far away from when I was a kid. Actually, I think it was fear of leading a dull life. But one can certainly be an actress and lead a dull life, too. Dull is a state of mind.

"It depends on how you wak up in the morning: Is this the kind of day you look forward to . . . ? Is every day a celebration of some kind, or is it very difficult? And of course one can get so involved with your work that the other sections of your life which feed you, so to speak, you're careless with them, and pretty soon the work is driving you. If you have nothing but the work, it becomes a very small world. The danger, I think, with actors is that the best parts of our lives, perhaps, are on the stage. And if we don't really know what to do with the rest of our lives, we waste them. And if we don't live the rest of our lives, we have nothing after a while to bring back. Some years I do very well, and some years I don't."

A big part of the rest of her life is Amanda, her daughter by Christopher Plummer.

"My daughter was brought up in a very disciplined household because I was an actress, and to be a good actress you have to be very disciplined. . . . She was brought up in a kind of formal, traditional manner. . . . I thought that because I wasn't going to be there so much of the time that she had to have a very strong structure and routine which would make her feel secure. . . . Up until the time she went away to college [Middlebury, in Vermont], she had led a very sheltered life." The most important thing a mother can do for her daughter, she says, "is to be on her side . . . [so] they have the feeling that no matter what they do, you will never let them down. You are always ready to help."

Now, Amanda, who when she was growing up wanted to be a veterinarian or a jockey, has become an actress. Mother and daughter did the Turgenev play, "A Month in the Country," together last year. Amanda has also made a film, with Burt Lancaster and Rod steiger.

Miss Grimes has done films, too; in her newest, a dubious movie titled "Can't Stop the Music," she plays an "outrageous" agent named Sidney who wears lots of purple fox. Her films include "Somebody Killed Her Husband," Stanley Kramer's "The Runner Stumbles," and Frank Perry's "Play It As It Lays," based on Joan Didion's book.

Of Joan Didion, she says, "She's a brilliant writer . . . who reminds me of a creature that lives in the desert; she's all those colors, those desert colors. She seems so fragile. . . . You wonder in the desert how anything can survive. But there are things that do. And Didion reminds me of those things that do survive, no matter what. . . . She's the strongest lady I have ever known."

Grimes, whose extensive career has included everything from Shakespeare to Moliere and Anouilh, has had a lot of time to think about being a star. She told Lewis Lapham, long before he became editor of Harper's, when he was interviewing her for esquire, "People say to me, 'You are like my first Christmas tree,' which is nice, but maybe not enough. You can be a star, somebody that everybody adores, but maybe only for a moment and not to live with. . . ."

Does she enjoy the applause?

"I think you enjoy it, yes. You see, what happens up there us, your mind is working lickety-split and you're thinking of so many things in one second, it seems. You don't work for the applause. You work to make each moment as complete as it should be. You don't go out there to be loved. That would be nice. But you go out there to do the best you can, to bring this character to the people, to make her as real, to make her all the things that she

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