Sharon Gless, the Emmy Award-winning star of hit shows like Cagney & Lacey and Burn Notice, joins Zibby to discuss her memoir, Apparently There Were Complaints, which took her seven years to complete. Sharon unpacks some of the stories she shares in the book about her grandmother and tells Zibby about how the two reconnected through a medium. The two also talk about how Sharon’s body has changed throughout her career, why she made the decision to not have children, and how she largely wrote this memoir using notes from her friend about all of the stories she has told through the years.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sharon. Thanks for coming. Tell me, why do you not like being a writer but you do like being an author? That’s interesting.

Sharon Gless: Writing, the skill, did not come easily to me. It took me seven years to do it. I had a wonderful publicist, Simon & Schuster, who were very patient with me. They kept throwing out things. Now that it’s over and I get to talk to you and the response has been so good, it’s nice being an author. It’s nice that it’s done and the response has been favorable.

Zibby: It’s like going to the gym. It’s nice once you’ve already finished it. Maybe when you’re there it’s not always the most fun, but what an accomplishment.

Sharon: Exactly. Thank you.

Zibby: Why spend seven years writing your memoir, Apparently There Were Complaints? What was it inside you that made you want to get your story out there?

Sharon: How I came by it was I was just finishing up a series called Burn Notice. It was a seven-year series on USA. It was about to end. CBS invited me in for a meeting. I thought, this is cool. I went in. The president of CBS held the meeting in her office. They never hold them in their office. They like to leave. She held it in her office. They had the head of comedy, the head of drama, the head of new shows. I was there for an hour answering all the appropriate questions and trying to entertain them. At the end of the meeting — oh, the nicest thing was that when I walked in, Nina Tassler, the president of CBS, said, “Welcome home, Sharon.” I thought, that’s so cool. Cagney & Lacey was there. I’ve done many series on CBS, but not in a long time. They welcomed me home. I thought, oh, this is going to be so cool. I’m going to walk out of here with a series deal. At the end of the meeting, she said, “Sharon, you know, we own Simon & Schuster.” I said, “I didn’t know that, Nina.” She said, “We do. I think you have a book in you.” I said, “Nina, I’m not a writer.” She said, “No, but you’re a storyteller. I’m going to have the head of Simon & Schuster call you.”

That’s what happened. The next day, the head of Simon & Schuster contacted me and asked me, the next time I was in New York, if I would come and meet with him. I did. While I was there, I read one of my chapters to him. He signed me that day and also signed me to an audio deal. The way I read the one chapter, I’d prepared for and made his secretary down the hall laugh. That’s how it started. For a year, I let it go. I just really was not interested in doing a book deal, but it was nice. I had it in the back on my pocket. After a year, I thought, well, I’m not so busy. I didn’t get that series I wanted, so I started. It was slow. My husband would tell me — for my birthday, he said, “I want thirty pages.” I said, “All right.” I’d write thirty pages, triple-spaced, huge print. I gave him that. I had done the chapter I read to Jonathan Karp at Simon & Schuster. It was slow-going. It’s in my book, but people kept dying in my life. That would set me back a piece. Slowly and surely, it came along. I have boxes and boxes and boxes of pages, which I’ll never throw away. The work was hard and eventually impressive, I thought, and so I kept it for my heirs, the stuff that you’ll never see.

Zibby: That’s okay. I understand. There has to be some filtering. Not everything is ready for primetime, right?

Sharon: Right, exactly.

Zibby: Sharon, I was so impressed, particularly by the early sections of your relationship with your grandmother and your body and your eating and the debutante ball and dieting and ratcheting back and forth and your whole self-image and self-worth and how all of that conspired to make you who you are. Can you talk a little bit about that and your grandmother and the effect of all of that scrutiny on you?

Sharon: I should tell you I came up with the title first. What made it, certainly not easy, but the title informed the piece. There were a lot of complaints about me. I remembered all of them. My best friend used to take notes whenever I’d talk to her. “That’s such a good story. You should write a book one day.” She kept all these notes, so I referred to the notes. The real complaints were deep, deep, deep in my psyche. I’m still the fat girl. I’m still trying to use a modulated tone when I speak. I’m sorry, I’m rattling on. I needed to tell you about the title, which informed the book. It’s all about the complaints that —

Zibby: — I totally understand.

Sharon: Forgive me. You had asked me a direct question.

Zibby: No, no, I wanted just to hear a little bit more about — I had a grandmother, too, who I loved very dearly and was — even this morning, I was thinking to myself, if she were looking at me today, she would have something to say about what I look like. She would say, I think it’s time. You better get back to the gym. My appearance was always on the table to be discussed and picked apart and was some sort of reflection on her in some way even though that doesn’t make much sense.

Sharon: It makes perfect sense to me. Where are you from?

Zibby: I’m from New York. My grandmother, she was born in Cincinnati and lived her whole life in Dayton, Ohio.

Sharon: I was in Dayton, Ohio, once.

Zibby: Oh, yeah?

Sharon: The only place in Ohio I’ve ever been is Dayton.

Zibby: Me too, basically. Not too much there. All to say, I related a lot to you and your grandmother, and particularly your time where you were basically starving yourself for the debutante ball and then what happened after and just having all that focus on you and your body from a young age.

Sharon: She locked me up in the house in Carmel. I had just graduated from a boarding school. She moved me into her house because the ball was coming up that next December. I remember her saying, “I’ll be damned if you’re going to walk up there looking like Moby Dick.” You know, we all wore white gowns. She moved me into her house. She used to make me chew to a metronome. She made me eat with chopsticks because I gobbled my food. It was always something, always something I was doing wrong. Yet I knew she loved me. My parents had no money, but my grandparents did. They held the purse strings. I had to dance. I had to dance, Zibby. When someone else holds the purse strings and they’re running your life and your school and your clothes and everything you do, in this particular case to which you’re referring, the debutante ball, I had to put myself in her hands. I loved her. I wanted her to love me. I wanted her to be proud of me. I never quite mustered up like the other grandchildren, but I seem to have been her favorite. She took me to task. She was very strict. She took forty pounds off of me. In my book, I tell the moment that I wanted her to see me in my gown, which she also paid for. I didn’t want to just walk out there that evening and have her see me for the first time. I thought she should see me alone.

I talk about, there was a cocktail party. All the debutantes were just sort of left by themselves. The parents or grandparents were having their cocktail hour. We were told to stay away. Of course, I went immediately to the room where the parents and grandparents were where I was not supposed to go. I knocked on the door. My mean old aunt happened to be the one that answered. She said, “What do you want? You’re not supposed to be here.” I said, “I want to see my grandmother.” She said, “You’re not supposed to be here.” I said, “I want to see my grandmother.” It was her mother also. My grandmother came to the door. She wasn’t angry that I defied the rules. She looked me up and down and just nodded. “You look lovely. That will be fine.” That was it. I said, “Oh, thank you, Grammy.” It meant so much to me. The next day, she called me. She said, “Sharon, a lot of people were commenting me last night on how lovely you looked. I think the praise was misplaced. You are the one who did it. The compliments should go to you.” I said, “Grammy, thank you so much.” She said, “That will be all,” and hung up the phone. I make her sound like some ogre. She wasn’t. She was cold and strong and demanding. When you hold the purse strings, Zibby, you have the power.

Zibby: Then soon after this, though, didn’t you end up moving to the La Brea — not the La Brea — what is it called?

Sharon: The La Brea Towers. That was before my parents got divorced while I was in boarding school. I was raised in my grandmother’s home that she had built and raised her children in. After my parents got divorced — I was fifteen — my grandmother sold the house. It sounds like, poor little rich girl, boo-hoo. I don’t mean it that way. It’s just that I’d lost my parents. I was locked up in a convent school. Now I was losing the home that was all I knew. My grandmother bought my mom an apartment in the Park La Brea Towers. I was in boarding school, so I didn’t really live there. When I’d come home to LA for vacations, I’d have to stay there. I hated it. I missed my father. I missed my older brother. I guess you could say I was spoiled, but I don’t think anyone would ever describe me as someone who conducted themselves as a spoiled child. I just was used to a certain life and certain people in my life, and it all was gone.

Zibby: I feel like there were always so many limits on you, though. It was never unrestricted. It’s like, you can be in the house, but you can’t be over here.

Sharon: Oh, at my grandmother’s house?

Zibby: Yeah.

Sharon: We were moved into my grandmother’s house when I was two. Yes, there were off-limit parts of the house. Her quarters — they were called her quarters — we were never allowed in. It was half the house. We weren’t allowed in the formal living room. We weren’t allowed in her formal bedroom. We had a beautiful swimming pool in the old days when they were those big, long, rectangular things without heaters and filters. We had a badminton court. We had a tetherball court. We had really swell things. We were hardly deprived, but there were certain places that were off limits. When my grandmother was gone out of town, which was most of the time, I would sneak into her bedroom. Her walls were gray felt. I’d just run my hands up and down the walls and look at all her perfumes and things on this long, long mirror. A makeup table went from one side of the room to the other. She had satin sheets. Once, I stripped down naked and crawled in just to see what that felt like. It was so exciting. This probably all sounds very sophomore to you, but I was young.

Zibby: Not at all. I love it. You know, it was another time.

Sharon: It was another era. It was forbidden, which made it even more exciting.

Zibby: After this childhood, going through your whole life you had this, obviously, super successful actress career, everything. So much happened, so much drama. Here we are now today. How do you feel now reflecting back on all of this about even something as simple, or not simple, as how you feel in your body and how the world sees you and your weight and image and all of that?

Sharon: I don’t think I ever got comfortable with my body. I’m half Irish; a quarter French Basque, sheepherders; and a quarter English. I have a zaftig body on me. There was an era during — I did a series called The Trials of Rosie O’Neill, which I’ve been watching lately, that my husband developed for me. It ran two years. I was so thin. Sometimes I put it on just to see, my god, what I was capable of. Most of my life, it’s how I look now. Even as Christine Cagney, I was young enough where my body was good to me. I could eat and drink and didn’t pay the price. As I got older — as I say, I was obese in boarding school. Then after my thirties, into my forties, I gave up smoking, and I got fat again. Forties, fifties, I got fat again. I went on to do a series called Queer as Folk. I went after it. I wanted the role. I was two hundred pounds by then. You know, it’s okay for everybody but the blond to be heavy. I swear to god. At any rate, I called the producers from Queer as Folk because I wanted the show. Showtime gave it to me.

They said, “Would you mind meeting the producers before we go ahead? We don’t want to just run roughshod over them.” I said, “Not at all.” They flew me out. I got on the phone and I said to the producers before I got on a plane, I said, “Do you know what I look like?” They said, “Yes, we do. We saw you and Tyne Daly do an AIDS benefit in Los Angeles. I said, “Okay, as long as you understand.” When they met me, they said, “Sharon, it’s not your body that we want. I know this is a shock to you, the blond, but it’s your heart we want for this role.” I said, “Okay, sign me in, coach.” My weight would go up and down during Queer as Folk. These guys were so loving, the producers, Ron Cowen and Dan Lipman, that they would have my character — if I was really losing weight, they had me eating a little piece of chicken at my kitchen table with a little bit of spinach, the character. If they saw that I was putting on more weight, they just had me eat ice cream out of a container. They never scolded me. They just accommodated — Debbie was my character’s name — just accommodated Debbie’s eating habits. Whatever size I was, they just put the appropriate food in front of me. I’d do scenes like that.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I love it.

Sharon: I know. In that particular case, there weren’t complaints. They just explained it on film with whatever I was shoveling into my mouth. I take that as a compliment as my ability as an actress, that they accommodate stuff like that with me because they wanted something else. They wanted the heart.

Zibby: What is your next actress, acting project?

Sharon: I don’t know. After I did that show, I did eight years on Burn Notice, a spy show in Miami. Then after that ended, I started this book. I have not been working since I started this book. I’m ready to go back. Somebody did — let me know if I’m talking too much.

Zibby: This is the whole point, is to hear you talk.

Sharon: Somebody did some research on me. They said, “Sharon, do you know that you have more series on television than any other actress in the history of the medium?” I said no. They said, “You and Cloris Leachman have done nine hit series.” I said, “I didn’t know that.” He says, “Well, you have. Cloris is gone now. Betty White has done ten.” I said, “Then I’ll just have to join Betty. I’ll do ten and meet Betty.” Now Betty’s gone. I still want to match Betty on the ten. I have one more in me, one more good one.

Zibby: You don’t want to just kick back and retire?

Sharon: No. Oh, my god, no. I love acting. I’ve been very, very blessed in this business. I have one more. I don’t know what else to do. I don’t have children. That was deliberate. First of all, I think having children is the most awesome, the most daunting job — I say a woman — that a parent could take on. To form another human being, I knew I probably wouldn’t be the best at it. I had a fabulous mother, but that’s what she was. She was a mom. Her whole life was us, her three little chicks. She used to call us her little chicks. I don’t believe I could’ve done my professional job well and also have raised a child properly. I’m sure I would’ve been one of these mothers who said, I know this is going to put you in therapy for twenty years, but no, you may not.

Zibby: Everyone ends up in therapy anyway no matter who your parents are.

Sharon: It’s true. It doesn’t matter how good you are. It’s true, but I do think it’s a daunting job and a very responsible job. I’d rather take care of myself and my work and be honest to that.

Zibby: Better to know it and act on it than try to force —

Sharon: — Thank you. I did. When I was a teenager, I wanted to please my grandmother, so I said, “I’m going to marry an attorney also. I’m going to marry an attorney and have beautiful children, much more beautifully behaved than I am.” It was all about wanting to please her. She didn’t live long enough to see me become an actress. I have a little story you might enjoy.

Zibby: Please.

Sharon: This was not that long ago. I was at a psychic, a woman who actually is a medium. She is very good at talking to those who’ve gone before us. She can totally imitate their voices. I said, “May I ask you something, Julie?” She said, “Certainly.” I said, “Can you conjure my grandmother?” She said, “Let me see. What do you want to know?” I said, “I want to know if she’s proud of me now. I have many awards. I’ve made a considerable amount of money. I don’t have to ask for anything from anybody. I’ve made a success in my industry. Is she proud of me now?” The medium went down for a bit and came up. She said, “She said to tell you, Sharon, she’s proud of you still.” Is that the best? I know that’s what she would’ve said. I didn’t imagine it at the time, but as soon as I heard it, of course, she was always proud of me. The fact that she was hard on me doesn’t mean she wasn’t proud of me.

Zibby: I love that. That’s very touching.

Sharon: Isn’t that good? I knew you’d like that. I don’t even know you, but I’m looking at your face.

Zibby: You are right. I did like that. You knew I would, and I did. I’ve also completely started believing in mediums, by the way, after a few things that mediums have said about people who have passed. I used to be very skeptical, but no longer. I think it’s an amazing resource.

Sharon: If they’re good.

Zibby: If they’re good, yeah.

Sharon: It is.

Zibby: That’s really wonderful. I think love is super — this sounds ridiculous to say.

Sharon: No, it doesn’t. You’re talking to me.

Zibby: Love is complicated. The people who love us are sometimes flawed. Yet if they love us, sometimes that’s all we can take away. Maybe they didn’t do their job the way we would’ve necessarily wanted or showed it in the ways that we would’ve needed on certain days or times, but people have their own limits. This is what they can give. Then we have to live through life knowing all that.

Sharon: Right. I was never abused. I may have been emotionally abused a little by her because she was tough. She didn’t cover me in velvet and kindly give me her opinion. She was rough, but I thank her. My mother was a very gentle, gentle soul. Her daughter, totally different. My father was a bit of a scoundrel and hysterically funny. That’s where I got my humor. If you hear my life story, you go, ew, but I’ve really been blessed. I’m still standing.

Zibby: I don’t think “ew” at all. I don’t think anyone reading the book thinks “ew.” That’s why it’s being popular. It’s a journey of a very interesting, unique life. It shows a whole time period passing by through your lens. It’s fascinating. I think it’s fascinating. The reader can’t help but really root for you. I thought it was great.

Sharon: You’re a very accomplished young woman. I take that as a great compliment coming from you. Thank you.

Zibby: Thank you. That’s nice of you to say.

Sharon: Really.

Zibby: Thank you. Sharon, last question for you, do you have any advice for someone who is trying to write a book, having just survived this whole thing?

Sharon: You have to keep doing it because you want to stop. Get help. Get advice from people. Have somebody record you. Somebody suggested once — I didn’t do it, but I think it’s a great idea. Have your friends over one night. Have them ask you questions, and put a recorder there. You just start talking. Information is going to come up that if you sit all by yourself and just try to tell these stories, you’re going to miss stuff. Get yourself on tape. Have somebody help you go through the tape. Find the good stories. I was informed by that title, which made it, certainly not easy, but the title was Apparently There Were Complaints, so that’s where my attention went. Know, generally, what you want to write about. You may change your mind many times. I’d say — if somebody’s writing an autobiography, are you saying, or are they writing a mystery novel? I don’t know how to reply.

Zibby: No, no, that was great advice. I loved that advice.

Sharon: An autobiography, I think you just have to keep telling the stories. Tell it on tape. Tell it to your friends. Get it out there. Start listening. You’ll start to hear the bore, the boring stuff. Boy, that almost put me to sleep. You’ll hear things that remind you about other things, and write. Ask your friends what they want to know. I knew by my own title that it was about all the complaints about me. It’s not easy. You never do it alone. You have friends. You have friends who say, that sucked. You talk to them. You talk to the machine. You may need to get somebody to move subject matters to the right place, but it’s important that it’s your words. It’s very much my voice. That was important to me because people who know me know how I talk. I even had, Simon & Schuster once said, “You know, you’re cleaning this up a bit. You have a mouth on you. We’d like a little more of that.” I swear to god, they wanted more swearing and more bombs in my book. I said, “Really? No one’s ever told me that. They’re always saying, Sharon, watch your mouth.”

Zibby: Wow, I love that. Sharon, thank you so much. This has been such a joy. Thank you.

Sharon: I have so many wonderful things about you. I hope I get a chance to talk to you again.

Zibby: I would love that.

Sharon: I’ve done over five hundred hours of television.

Zibby: Amazing.

Sharon: I’m very, very blessed. What a treat to be on your show.

Zibby: Thank you. What a treat to have you. I appreciate it.

Sharon: Congratulations on all you do for all of us.

Zibby: Thank you. You too.

Sharon: I researched you.

Zibby: I see that. I am so flattered, really. It made my day. Bye.

Sharon: Bye, Zibby.



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