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A Life: Geraldine Marsicano Jacobson

  • Gerry Jacobson with her daughter Antoinette and their kittens in a circa 1950 photograph. (Family photograph)

  • Gerry Jacobson in a 2017 photograph. (Family photograph)

  • Gerry and Nick Jacobson dance in a circa 1960 photograph. (Family photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/12/2020 2:44:28 PM
Modified: 10/12/2020 2:44:15 PM

NORWICH – After studying acting in Missouri, Geraldine Marsicano moved back to her native New York to seek roles on the stage.

This was in 1945, but she was living a life that would seem familiar to creative people drawn to New York in any era. She shared lodgings with roommates in Manhattan and held down a day job to make ends meet. She was in her early 20s and single.

But there was a nagging doubt. Life in the theater is hard, notoriously unremunerative. What if she didn’t make it?

By the late 1940s, she had gotten a role as an understudy to the lead in a play at the Cherry Lane Theatre, now the city’s oldest continuously operating off-Broadway theater. She had also met a man, playwright Nicholas Biel Jacobson, who was recently back from Army service in Europe and who brought his little boy from a previous marriage to the theater with him. He was 13 years her senior. They’d met at the Henry Street Theater, where she was in a play and one of his plays was in rehearsal.

After a play of his got a bad review, Jacobson wanted to get out of the city, escape to his farm in Norwich. He wanted Geraldine to come with him, and though she had misgivings, she went. It was while she was up on Bragg Hill that the lead at the Cherry Lane came down with laryngitis. The show went on, without Geraldine.

In September 1948, she married Jacobson and they made their home in Norwich and the following year she gave birth to the first of her three children. Though she embarked on a new life, missing that opportunity in New York was an episode she never forgot.

“Why she did it, who knows,” her middle child, filmmaker Nora Jacobson, said. Older sister “Antoinette told me recently that my mother had told her that right when they got married, she thought it was a mistake.”

“She loved New York. She loved the theater,” she continued. “Why she did it, it may come back to this economic insecurity.”

Gerry Jacobson, as she was known to friends in the area, died July 27 at the age of 94. She had long suffered from emphysema.

She was a loving mom, a generous member of her community who loved to feed people, a longtime poet, an activist who protested against nuclear power and supported Planned Parenthood. But there was a depth to her that plunged down far enough to be dark.

“She was a complicated person with components that may seem contradictory at times,” her son Noah Jacobson-Goodhue, of Hartland, said. “She wasn’t a very self-secure person.”

Part of the reason for her insecurities lay in her upbringing. Her mother, Esther (Sullivan) Marsicano, was a child of Irish immigrants and had been an indentured servant, handed off to a childless couple after her own mother had died when she was quite young. The couple then had a child and Esther was charged with caring for the baby. She left that home at 14 and took jobs in shops. Her father was a son of Italian immigrants, a big family of musicians. Though John A. Marsicano wasn’t a musician himself, he loved opera and passed that love to his daughter.

“There was economic insecurity kind of ingrained in my grandmother and also my mother,” Nora Jacobson said.

Born in Brooklyn, Geraldine was the younger of their two children. Her older brother, Jack, was a glider pilot in World War II. She was cossetted almost to the point of suffocation.

“Her mother kept her like a precious object,” Antoinette Jacobson said. She had a bout of scarlet fever, and several of tonsillitis, and a heart murmur that meant she wasn’t supposed to exert herself. Her children suspect she read a lot.

Still tiny, “she got up one day and walked out the front door,” Antoinette said. “She’d had enough.” A neighbor found the sheltered but strong-willed little girl and brought her home.

Her father was a businessman, always trying to get enterprises off the ground, with mixed success. At one point, when Geraldine was maybe 6 or 7, her family lost its house and spent over a year living with friends in Red Hook, N.Y., in the Hudson River Valley, while her father tried to revive their fortunes.

He succeeded, and moved the family into Manhasset, a suburb on Long Island, where Geraldine went to public schools.

Not all of her children were clear on where her love of theater came from, but Antoinette, who is an artist based in Norwich, said that “she wanted to be an actress from an early age.”

She attended Stephens College, a two-year school in Columbia, Mo., where she planned to study with actress Maude Adams, who was famous for starring in plays by J.M. Barrie, including as the first actress to play Peter Pan on Broadway. In some recollections, Adams had retired from Stephens just before Geraldine arrived there, and she felt thwarted, while in others, Adams had retired but was still at the school and mentored the young New Yorker. A biography of Adams says she was head of the drama department at Stephens until 1949, four years after Geraldine graduated with an associate of arts degree.

How the sheltered little girl ended up in college halfway across the country was not a mystery to her kids. “She would really insist on things,” Antoinette said. Further, “she was burning to be on her own and get away.”

After graduating, “she came back as a professional artist,” Antoinette said.

Given when she was born, “there as an expectation, I think that maybe she would go to school, but mainly she would get married and raise a family,” Noah Jacobson-Goodhue, who is a licensed clinical social worker, said. The economic uncertainties of the Great Depression would have influenced her, too, along with the insecurities of her orphaned mother.

It’s unclear how well she was faring in her fledgling career when she met Nicholas Biel Jacobson, who was handsome, self-possessed and well off, the son of a shirtmaker who had suffered from depression before dying by suicide, leaving his son with an inheritance that paid for the farm in Norwich. The young playwright had dropped out of Dartmouth College to study at UMass’ Stockbridge School of Agriculture and had a brief marriage to a young Smith College student.

He proposed to Geraldine and she felt committed to him, but as the day drew near, she felt unsure, as if she had to go through with it, even though she wanted to continue her career. “She felt that she had no financial prospects,” Noah said.

“She didn’t want to go to Vermont,” Antoinette said. “She didn’t want to leave her profession.” But, “she had promised to be with this man.”

They had a City Hall wedding.

The scenario with the role at the Cherry Lane Theatre was “out of a movie,” Noah said, a classic missed opportunity. She had “a real feeling that she was robbed of an opportunity to perform in New York.”

“It’s sad,” Antoinette said about the resentment her mother bore. “It’s not uncommon.” She had her life in front of her. “You just have to make something of it,” Antoinette said.

That was what she did. Once settled in Norwich, Nicholas bought an Ayrshire bull, started a dairy herd and continued to write plays. Antoinette was born in 1949, when Geraldine was 24. Nora was born three and a half years later and Noah seven years after Nora.

The nearly 200-acre farm on Bragg Hill was essentially a subsistence farm. Nicholas Jacobson knew he had enough money to live on so long as they kept expenses down, and they raised their own food. He continued to write plays and shop them in New York, occasionally leaving his young wife on the farm.

“She was a mama, a farmer’s wife,” Antoinette said. “My father would go to New York to flog a play, with suitcases full of stringbeans, and she would call him and say ‘The cows are out. Where did they go?’”

Geraldine continued to act, though, in plays at Dartmouth, which was still all male. Antoinette learned to read by running lines with her mother, who played Lady Macbeth and was in a production of The Lady’s Not for Burning, by Christopher Fry. Much later, she had a small role in Nora Jacobson’s first film, My Mother’s Early Lovers.

“I was amazed at her seriousness and her passion,” Nora said.

Growing up on Bragg Hill, the Jacobson children had “an amazing, idyllic childhood,” Antoinette said. They were outside all the time and kept horses. But the brick farmhouse had its tensions. “I always drew,” she said. “One of the reasons that I drew was to escape their fights.”

There were to be more chapters in Gerry’s life. The family lived in Paris from 1962 to 1968, partly because Nicholas felt the local schools were too provincial for his kids. Noah was a toddler, but once he had an au pair, Gerry got out and worked in radio and in dubbing films into English.

Then in 1977, she graduated from Goddard College and became a speech therapist, working in the Orange East Supervisory Union. Her career was brief, about 10 years, but joyful, as she loved language and loved being out of the house. One of the first condolence notes the Jacobsons received after Gerry died was from the parents of a child she had helped at Thetford Elementary School.

She traveled with her husband and continued to look after her kids, better than she looked after herself, they said. “I would go away and when I came back, she would have filled my fridge full of food,” Antoinette said. She also took care of her husband until his death, in 2001.

Her final act was one of emancipation. Tired of living in what the family called “the brick house,” she worked with architect Daniel Johnson to design a small triangular one for a plot of land on the farm that had been held outside its conservation easements. Its tiny footprint, green roof, wooded surroundings and idiosyncratic layout were all hers.

Through it all, she wrote poems, her primary creative outlet, and she and Nicholas were longtime members of a group called the Thursday Poets, who shared poems with each other.

“I think poetry can be a way to access your deepest feeling,” Nora Jacobson said. “She had a dark side. My father used to call her a tragic actress, a tragedienne. I just think of it as depth.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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