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When Marty Met Helen in Feb. Talk Magazine

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Tony 'The Butcher' Janiro

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Feb 8, 2000, 3:00:00 AM2/8/00
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A NEW YORK FABLE

Helen Morris labored in the salt mines of upper-middle-class New York.
She was lonely. Now she's Mrs. Martin Scorsese.

By Susan Cheever

New York is a city of beautiful and accomplished women. They can quote
Yeats and the NASDAQ, but late at night, alone between the Porthault
sheets, they wonder if they've been so driven by ambition that they
have sped right by something really important. As the years pass they
accumulate cute terriers, classy jobs, and cashmere twinsets. Yet
sometimes - at Elaine's, after a few glasses of white wine, or at the
end of their own little cocktail parties in their own little co-op
apartments, they yearn for something else. They go to glamorous parties
in designer gowns and have affairs with rich men who are afraid of
commitment or married men who never get around to leaving their wives.
They are much too savvy to believe in happy endings.

Helen Morris had been a toiler in the vineyards of New York publishing
for decades, a brainy soft-talking blond from an aristocratic family
who had been too busy to have a life. Diagnosed with a mild case of
Parkinson's disease in 1990, she had allowed herself one panicky night
before following the Morris family motto: "Forge Ahead." By 1995, she
was close to 50 and closer to burnout. Her obsession with work was so
intense that she woke up at 4:00 am. thinking about picture captions.
Once at an ATM machine, she avoided being robbed because when a gun was
placed in her back she was too preoccupied to turn around. She was
living alone with her West Highland white terrier and working at an in-
house magazine for Random House when she met Martin Scorsese, in the
course of editing a memoir by his friend, the late Michael Powell.

Bingo.

"I don't want to be a role model," says Morris, 53, at home as Mrs.
Martin Scorsese in a sunny, book-lined East Side townhouse, while a
friendly nanny dandles the Scorseses' newborn baby girl, Francesca.
Still, she's an instant patron saint for other middle-aged women who
wonder where all the men have gone. "I hear women say that they get
divorced and when they look around there's nothing there. That's
baloney," Morris says. "There's always someone out there, but you have
to be receptive, and you have to be realistic."

"She proves that there are brilliant second acts," says a friend.
"There is hope!" Helen Morris was lucky, and as it turns out she and
the 57-year-old Scorsese, who has been married four times before, seem
to be made for each other. She's relaxed, and he's intense. They share
a fascination with the lost New York worlds they grew up in - his a
Sicilian immigrant world in a Little Italy tenement on Elizabeth
Street, hers a debutante's world of Junior Assemblies, prep school, and
a father who chatted with the family portraits in the hallway. They
have both experienced serious illness - Scorsese suffers from chronic
asthma - and they have both lost beloved parents.

And women make their own luck. When she met Scorsese, the legendary
director of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and, most recently, Bringing Out
the Dead, Helen Morris decided to do something different; she decided
to be nice. She resolved "to make an effort," she says. She decided to
try to see the world through someone else's eyes. "Before, everything
had to be on my terms," she explains. "It wasn't conscious, of course.
By the time I met Marry I had figured things out. Marty is very direct
about what he wants. I was happy to give that. When you're young, you
look forward to a perfect person who's going to solve all your
problems. The other thing that helped a lot was that I had no interest
in the movie business. I don't even like movie scripts, because I
always think there should be more background. So I didn't want anything
from him." Scorsese agrees. "When you are with an actor, you get
involved with their career and the lines start to blur," he says. "It's
very disruptive. Helen doesn't want anything from me except just to be
with me. There's nothing else going on."

Their first meeting in 1995 was a disaster. She was escorting him to an
event to promote the Michael Powell book; it was raining, she was late,
and he was preoccupied with the filming of his movie Casino. "We sort
of grunted at each other," she remembers. Because of her connection to
Scorsese, Morris started working on another Random House project,
Italian-American, a cookbook written by Scorsese's mother that included
all the recipes Catherine Scorsese used to feed her family, their
friends and employees, and actors on the set. The book was named for
Scorsese's autobiographical documentary short, in which his mother
appeared. Since Mrs. Scorsese never measured ingredients, Morris worked
with her in the kitchen trying to quantify the secrets of the Scorsese
marinara. In the meantime, Morris and Scorsese had occasional dinners
to chat about the two projects.

"The first time I noticed Helen was in a meeting," Scorsese says. "I
was editing Casino and I was consumed by the picture. I was there but
not there. Then I heard this sound coming from my left. It was a soft
sound. I looked over and saw a pair of legs intertwined in these pastel
stockings. Slowly, I looked up. It was like a long, slow tilt to her
face. I was very struck by her. Besides being attracted to her
physically, her intelligence was very attractive to me. It was very
sexy." They had a lot to talk about. "I thought he was great, and we
laughed a lot," Morris says. "He was very funny"

Funny but serious. "I knew it would be serious and I wasn't sure I was
ready for that," Scorsese says. Morris realized that she was interested
in Scorsese one night when she was out with some friends at Elaine's.
"They were talking about him, about how attractive he was and how he
dressed, and I thought, Hey, that's my friend. I felt proprietary."

In the summer of 1996 Scorsese left for Morocco to film Kundun, his
movie about the Dalai Lama. He invited Morris to visit the set, where
he had recreated a Tibetan village in the middle of the desert at
Ouarzazate, 125 miles cast of Marrakech. "I went out for a week,"
Morris says, "and stayed for six months." isolated from the pressures
of New York life, stranded in the desert, they fell in love. "We found
that we just got along really well," says Morris. "We never fight. I'm
calm and he's not. We come at things from different angles but we often
reach the same conclusion. I think we are both at this stage when we
know what we want - and we know what we don't want."

"I don't want to anger the gods," Scorsese says. "I come from a
Sicilian background. It's a good life right now." He is Roman Catholic,
and Morris is planning to convert when the couple are in Rome next year
to film Scorsese's next feature, Gangs of New York, with Leonardo
DiCaprio playing a young mid-19th-century gang leader. "You make a
family with a person like Helen," Scorsese says. "She's someone I want
to be with, she's a companion. I learn a great deal from her."

"It's made him into a decent human being - at long last," says
Scorsese's friend and collaborator Jay Cocks. "She's got him on his
exercise bike reading Melville's Pierre, or the Ambiguities. It's a
true literary romance."

"Smarty had a party and only Cutie came," Morris's mother used to say -
warning her daughter against the social liabilities of being a female
smarty. After a brief early marriage and a disastrous semester at
Georgetown University, Morris spent a few years in Paris, where she had
grown up as the daughter of a diplomat. Back in New York, she took a
degree in Oriental studies at Columbia and found herself reveling in
her own intelligence. In Scorsese, she found a man who appreciated her
smarts.

Although the two come from completely opposite worlds - Scorsese's
grandparents never learned English; Morris can trace her family back
for centuries - their contrasting backgrounds are weirdly similar. Both
place a premium on discretion and both worship family as the closest
thing to God. Scorsese grew up in a house where there were no books,
but he was a passionate reader, devouring Melville and Huxley. Morris
grew up in a house where everyone was always reading, and she matched
his passion with her erudition. She worked as an editor in 1989 on The
Reader's Catalog, a selection of 40,000 of the world's best books. They
give each other first editions as gifts. Their library is vast and
eccentric, including a collection of books that have been made into
movies - and the novels of Patricia Highsmith, a favorite of Morris's.
The leather-bound sets of Tolstoy and Maupassant are inherited from her
family - which includes Gouverneur Morris, the United States minister
to France during the Revolution, and the novelist Edith Wharton.

Even before they met, Scorsese had become fascinated by the old-
fashioned New York society that was Morris's milieu. He explored this
world in his brilliant 1993 film The Age of Innocence, based on
Wharton's novel about a man, Newland Archer, who gives up the thrill of
his great but socially inappropriate love for the humdrum pleasures of
a conventional marriage. In the final scene, years later, Archer is a
widower in Paris and when he has a chance to see his great love again,
he stands up and walks away. Morris thought she knew the story, but
Scorsese's movie gave
her another way to look at the restrictions and obligations of the 19th
century. "When I saw the film," she says, "I realized for the first
time that there was a man's point of view, that Newland Archer really
did love his wife, and that a man who gives up love for his marriage
might have a viewpoint." When Morris took Scorsese to visit her 80 year-
old favorite aunt in Northeast Harbor in Maine, they went to dinner
parties right out of the Gilded Age, parties where people talked
passionately about the fall of the British monarchy. "Marty said it was
like being on Mars," Morris laughs.

Just before Christmas in 1996 Scorsese and Morris returned from
Morocco. "There was sort of an attempt at taking up our previous
lives," she remembers. "We both had different Christmas plans. He went
home and I went home but it just didn't make any sense. So he said,
"Let's try it, let's try living together and see if we get along."
Morris began moving into Scorsese's townhouse. She ordered bookcases
and moved her sets of Turgenev and Maurice Baring in with Scorsese's
Melville. In January, when Scorsese's mother died after a long bout
with Alzheimer's disease, Morris was able to help - her own mother has
Alzheimer's. They had often talked about Scorsese's desire to have
another child; Morris had never wanted a child before. "I went to my
gynecologist," she says, "and he thought I was a little old. A doctor
in New York was recommended, someone who specialized in high-risk
pregnancies, and I got pregnant immediately. I mean, I was 51. I have
Parkinson's. I was in bed for a few months, but it was easy. I watched
a lot of television." Last July 22, Scorsese and Morris were married in
a small ceremony at the townhouse. In November, Morris gave birth to
Francesca Scorsese by cesarean delivery. At Thanksgiving, Morris and
Scorsese opened the house to their extended families. The Westie
feasted on table scraps while Scorsese's grown daughters chatted with
Morris's brothers and their wives and children. It was definitely
Smarty's party, and everyone was there.


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