September 22, 2018

Freda Sandrich

Back in Hollywood’s Golden Age, a radio host asked directorMark Sandrich who, in his opinion, was the most alluring woman in Hollywood.”That’s easy,” said Sandrich, who directed such stars as Ginger Rogers andClaudette Colbert. “My wife, Freda.”

Freda Sandrich died Feb. 25 at the age of 103, and to theend, she was easily one of the most alluring women those who knew her wouldever meet.

Early in her long life, Freda, born Freda Wirtschafter in1899 in Trenton, N.J., was wife to her famous husband, Mark, and mother to hersons, Mark Jr. and Jay. The son of a rabbi, Mark Sandrich drew on hisbackground in engineering to become a pioneering director of movie musicals,including “Top Hat,” “Holiday Inn” and “Shall We Dance?” The Sandrich home in Beverly Hills was a haimish gathering place for Hollywood royalty: the Bennys, the Gershwins,the Astaires and Irving Berlin, to whom Freda remained close throughout hislife.

Mark died suddenly of a heart attack in 1945, at the age of45, and Freda’s world shattered. She would never remarry, and would alwaysrefer to Mark as “my husband,” as if carrying on a long-distance relationship,across time and death.

Yet the source of Freda’s allure was not her past, but howshe made people feel in her presence. She was warm and engaging, curious andsupportive. Everyone she met was a dear, every project they cared about wasmarvelous and everyone they cared for was wonderful. And she meant it; a womanwho had suffered much loss in her own life valued above all the presence ofothers. Whatever compliment you paid Freda was returned with, “That means somuch coming from someone as wonderful as you.”

She ate regularly at Fromin’s Deli in Santa Monica(mushroom-barley soup and a half a turkey sandwich, may you, too, live to 103),and all the servers invariably found a reason to stop by her table for a doseof Freda’s love and attention. She lit up to see you (and if you wereaccompanied by a small child, even more so), and instantly engaged friends andstrangers alike with her kindness, humor and intellect.

There was a memorial service for Freda last Sunday inWestwood, and it was clear that for this disparate group of people she was amatriarch — the matriarch of a family brought together solely by the force ofher affection.

She extended that affection to those far-less fortunate,helping at soup kitchens and volunteering for the AIDS charity Tuesday’s Childas recently as this year.

Freda must have led a glamorous life in Hollywood, marriedto one of its leading filmmakers. Her son, Jay, went on to become a renownedtelevision director; her late son, Mark Jr., wrote a Broadway hit; and hergranddaughter, Cathy Sandrich Gelfond, is a top casting director, but Fredanever traded in the stories of the good old days. Name-dropping and Hollywoodgossip were alien to Freda — she revered mensches, not movies.

And it was always clear that she reserved her greatest lovefor her husband. Imagine Freda’s joy now — her daughter-in-law, Linda Sandrich,said at the memorial service — as she is finally reunited with him. Mark Sandrichoffers a hand to Freda, and she hears the words she has been longing to hear,”Shall we dance?”

She is survived by son, Jay; five grandchildren; and fivegreat-grandchildren.