A Public Moment for a Private Actress

By Rachel Pritchett
She was here, living among us, and we didn’t even know.
At 76, Erin O’Brien still has the luxurious voice, the soft, haunting eyes that made her a television mainstay in the ’50s and ’60s. With her long, black mane and hat with black rose, she still carries the bigger-than-life aura of Elizabeth, the coyness of Audrey, the intimacy of Natalie.
And though even the people on her street didn’t know, she’s been right here, first in Kingston for five years, now in Seabeck for another three. She likes the Northwest.
Her days are spent inside her tucked-away home, compiling photo albums for her five children, maybe venturing into the garden to tend to her irises, but not much farther.
The limelight was so bright for so many years.
“I stay home a lot,” said O’Brien, sitting in her living room thickly filled with rare Middle Eastern and European furniture pieces, intricate lace curtains, and Persian rugs and art. Framed album covers, photographs and news clippings line the walls. Each room has the sense of a Hollywood set.
O’Brien sang regularly on variety shows like The Steve Allen Show, and she was the beauty on Old West shows like “Maverick,” “Cheyenne,” “Bat Masterson,” “Laramie” and “Death Valley Days” opposite James Garner.
She was the beauty on “Girl on the Run,” the movie that led to hit TV series “77 Sunset Strip,” and in movies like “In Like Flint” with James Coburn.
She was a cover girl for Life magazine.
The Warner Brothers contract actress entertained the troops in Korea with Bob Hope in Korea, leaned over Liberace’s piano, but was dismissed by Gene Kelly as too tall for a role opposite him in the movie for a role in the 1958 movie “Marjorie Morningstar.”
National advertisers exploited her Irish heritage to make her “the Schlitz Girl” and later the face for Smirnoff vodka.
Along the way, she married what Hollywood columnists called at the time called a shiek, actor Kanan Abdullah Awni Al-Zaidy. They have been married 47 years.
O’Brien is not well.
She needs oxygen and tires easily. The diaphragm and vocal chords behind her sad, mellow voice no longer work.
“I’m not going to give up,” she said.
And so they are downsizing, finally going pubic just long enough to sell of a lifetime’s accumulation of treasured possessions. After that, they will move to the Tacoma area.
The public is invited to O’Brien’s sale, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday at her Seabeck home. Prepare to see — and pay for — some exquisite furniture pieces and all her other house belongings.
The quiet, exceedingly polite actress will be on hand to greet her fans, if health permits.
The most satisfying string of songs O’Brien ever delivered at age 15, to Helen Keller, staying at a nunnery in Pasadena.
The girl sang three songs as attending nuns surrounded Keller’s bed.
Keller reached up and held her hand to O’Brien’s throat, so she could feel the vibrato.
Keller began crying.
“Afterward she kept kissing my hand again and again and again,” O’Brien said, approaching tears even now.
She had this advice for young starlets:
“In my honest hear of hearts … if you’re going to perform, study, for young girls, study.”
“That’s how you learn.”
Steve Allen described O’Brien like this in notes for one of her albums.
“She has a simplicity and quaint charm that sets her apart as an individual and as a singer.”
O’Brien said of her life, “It’s been interesting.”

Estate Sale
Fine furniture, rugs and other items belonging to singer/actress Erin O’Brien and husband Kanan Abdullah Awni Al-Zaidy are available in a public estate sale taking place at the couple’s home at 7231 Snapdragon Place, Seabeck, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. O’Brien will be on hand to greet visitors, her health permitting. A preview of some items is at www.mikewallandassociates.com.

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