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June/July 2007
Great Dame
The Satya Interview with Gretchen Wyler

The animals and their advocates have lost a passionate friend. Just before going to press, after a long battle with cancer, Gretchen Wyler died on May 27, 2007. This interview was conducted about a month earlier. We grieve her passing and hold her in our hearts.


Gretchen Wyler at 2006 Genesis Awards. Courtesy of HSUS’s Hollywood Office

One in a million. That’s how many describe Gretchen Wyler.

A precocious young girl originally from Oklahoma, Gretchen Wyler made her way to New York City to become a star in the 1950s, during Broadway’s “Golden Age.” Wyler made her fame starring in eight Broadway shows, including “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Damn Yankees.” At the height of her career, Gretchen had a series of a-ha! moments exposing her to the horrors of animal exploitation…changing her life forever.

A force of nature, Gretchen channeled her limitless energy into creating change for animals, becoming one of the pioneers of the early animal rights movement. She founded a dog and cat shelter in Warwick, NY. To create reform from within, she became the first female board member of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. She went vegetarian and initiated street protests and legislative efforts.

Her awakening through seeing things, coupled with her experience in show business, inspired Gretchen to found the Genesis Awards in 1985. With the moniker “cruelty can’t stand the spotlight,” Genesis rewards entertainment and media that produce animal-friendly stories and films in an annual ceremony that now attracts celebrities and media-makers from all over the world. “We went from 140 people at a little luncheon,” she recalls, to “1,780 people” for Genesis 21. There were over 200 candidates this year, she points out. “This to me is the real proof of where we are, knowing that the media is now having the daring and bravery to include animal issues in their works. I never expected that to happen so fast.”

Gretchen was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago, which was successfully treated. But last year she returned for tests and “son-of-a-gun” the cancer had metastasized and spread to her bones. Not one to be defeated, Gretchen remained optimistic and dedicated all of her energy to becoming a survivor. She even found time to initiate a disaster program for people and their companion animals in her home county.

A month before her passing, Gretchen Wyler talked with Catherine Clyne about a-ha! moments, the animal rights movement and her legacy.

Was there a specific a-ha! moment when you made that initial irreversible connection to animals and how we treat them?
As a child, my parents were not interested in having a companion animal. When I was doing “Bye Bye Birdie” on Broadway and met my then to-be husband, he said to me one day, “Why don’t we get a dog?” We went to the Westchester dog show and I said, “Oh, I want one of those!” and pointed to this glorious great dane standing in the ring, being beautiful. [So back then, I bought a great dane.] The dog became so important to me that when he died, at the age of four, it was a terrible shock for me. I learned how much I had needed the dog.

Then I moved into being interested in what was going on at the local ASPCA dog pound [in New York City]. I was kind of popular and well known at that time, and people asked me if I could help reform the ASPCA because there were so many things wrong with its operations—they were still using the decompression chamber. It was unbelievable to me that such a thing could happen, that they would crowd the dogs, and there was a lot of euthanasia going on.

That was topped off by the turning point: here I am in Warwick, New York, where I have a home, and one day I ran into a little old lady in the supermarket. She said, “You love animals, don’t you?” I thought a minute, and said, “Uh, yeah.” I’d never really thought about loving animals. I was crazy about the dogs and cats I was committed to helping at the ASPCA, but this lady [asked if I could] help our shelter here in Warwick. We have a shelter? I thought.

I decided to drive there one dark day in 1966, to this terrible place—it was the village dump. As I arrived, two old men were going back and forth from this little medieval dungeon, carrying out the dogs—it was unbelievable. They stuffed one of them into the car and slammed the door on its tail. That was really a wake-up call, where my life was going to go now that I was seeing all these things happening. I knew I was kind of the only one being vocal about it and showing my anger and vowing to change things. So I posted a notice in the local paper, “Town meeting, Wednesday night! Everybody come and find out what’s happening to our stray and unwanted animals.” At the town meeting, the supervisors came (because it was Gretchen Wyler, you know!) and son-of-a-bitch, we got a new shelter built!

What was the moment that turned you veg?
The turning point for not eating animals and not wearing them came in the late ’60s. And nobody was in that camp, it was not a camp, there was no humane movement. I was in London doing a show in ’68. I was still an animal eater—I was still really just involved in the dog and cat situation, which so many people start with, which is fine. Friends of Animals had asked me if I would carry a film of a slaughterhouse to London and share it with people there who were fighting for humane slaughter. It was undercover footage of a New Jersey slaughterhouse. I tell you Cat, I’d never known how an animal got on my plate, never thought about it.

I went to the theater that night and there was a beautiful song in the show called “Where am I going?” [Breaks into song:] “Where am I going and what will I find? What’s in this grab-bag that I call my mind?” A song of the character, Sweet Charity, who was confused in her life. The lyric was just so appropriate after going through what I had that day, and I cried as I sang (and of course directors love when you really cry!). I stepped downstage and sang that song and went home that night and I haven’t eaten an animal since.

Tell us about your early days of protesting.
I organized “Animal Liberation from Laboratories,” a big protest in New York when we picketed against the Draize test, way back in the beginning. And again, nobody knew any of it.

Was that the one against the Museum of Natural History, with Henry Spira?
You bet. But we had no proof of anything—we didn’t have even one photo to carry on our picket signs. This was long before Britches, long before all the animals we’d gotten to know the names of. But, boy oh boy, that was a hot time. I really loved the ’70s because the humane movement started to show itself.

You have a soft spot for the lady elephants, don’t you?
Oh boy, yeah. I’m very excited about Ruby, a 46 year-old female elephant who has never stepped on grass in her life. For four and a half years she was thrown back and forth between different zoos. It’s horrible. That took over my heart. In the middle of May, she will be retired from the L.A. Zoo. Four of us are going to fly down [to the PAWS sanctuary] and be there to see Ruby stepping on grass! It’s wonderful to know there was a victory there. We’ve won so few.

You recently saw elephants in the wild, right?
I went to Africa this past summer. A donor [paid] for me to go on a fabulous safari. At one point there were 16 elephants surrounding our land rover—16 standing looking at us. And I said, “They know I’m here.” [Laughter.]

Thanks to that woman, because now, with this cancer I probably would never have been able to take such a trip. But I did. And what a lovely kind of finale. I would certainly consider it a wonderful exit.

What was it like seeing all of those animals you’d read about and seen on TV and worked for, in the wild?
As much as I absolutely adored the trip, seeing 14 giraffes galloping over beautiful big open land, it was sad, also, to see what they do: they are free, they are safe, they are healthy, they all stay together in groups—the girls never leave their mother, never ever. But the humans just love taking them from the mothers and putting them in zoos and circuses. You hear it all the time: somehow people really believe they have an inalienable right to see an elephant up close. I don’t know where they think that comes from.

Tell us about your horse friends.
I have a wonderful old man, he’s 25. I call him Fred Astaire because he loves to go riding with me. I just indicate I might like to move to the left and—he’s there. He’s a former show horse, so he had a lot of injury to his legs. The other one, Rio, is a big beautiful paint horse. He’s 16, and he too loves to go out. They’re both wonderful. I would never ride them hard or have them uncomfortable. They see the bridle coming and they’re ready.

I’m apologizing to them now because I can’t ride. They’re afraid I could be thrown, and you have brittle bones when you have cancer. It’s a heartbreak. I have to be driven down to the barn because I can’t walk. I go down and hug them and meditate with them.

“Wild Wyler Wildest” Album Cover, circa 1959.
Courtesy of HSUS’s Hollywood Office

I’ve got a question for you, ready? You’ve never shied away from your glamorous vampy side.
You oughtta see me today.

[Laughs.] Okay, today and the past couple of months being the exception to the rule. Would you like to see more animal activists perhaps embrace their inner glamorpuss?
Well, you get the attention of an audience. That’s why if I have a meeting, say with the town’s supervisors, I wouldn’t go as far as saying I’ll be tits and ass [laughter], but there is no doubt that over the years, it was very important to me to present the picture of a woman who was attractive to the other sex.

How do you feel about the word dame?
Well, I was never a big feminist activist. That was probably because in show business, it was really more discrimination against the men than the women. We were always the stars of the show—the Ethel Mermans, the Mary Martins. I never one day in my life felt discriminated against. As far as bandying about a word like dame, if somebody says to me, “She’s really a cute dame,” I would never be annoyed, because the guy is smiling and probably has a lot of respect in saying that. I think we have gotten over that kind of reference and disrespect.

How are you doing, Gretchen?
You know, if this is the end, Cat, so be it. I’ve had two great worlds that satisfied me, that let me live and reach my expectations. The show business was nearly 50 years—eight Broadway shows and wonderful satisfaction doing “Sweet Charity” in London for a year. I mean, how can you beat all that? It was what I wanted—and I got it!

And then, moving into the movement—our movement. The victories were not bountiful, but on the other hand, wow, when I think back to the beginning, when we started, there was no movement! I didn’t tell anybody I didn’t eat animals, I was in the closet. Both of those worlds have given me great satisfaction, and that’s why I know I’m tougher with fighting the cancer.

Life is very weird for me right now. It’s like I don’t kind of know who I am, Cat. Because I’m not in campaigns. I’m really not out of the movement, but while I’m fighting my cancer, I can’t campaign too. People are beginning to understand that I can’t help them, and that makes me sad. I feel there’s an element missing in who I am. When you have cancer, you just have to be about cancer. I fight for myself and not get on big campaigns.

You’ve got your own campaign right now—the campaign of taking care of Gretchen Wyler.
I really do. And you have to. I still get calls and e-mails from people, could you just help us with this or this? But there’s no “just help.” “Just help” is your life.

But I’d do it all again. I don’t recall any big mistake I made. I just know that all of the failures I’ve had, I don’t want to keep my eye too close on all of that. It’s sad. When I think of knowing about the dogs in China, what they’re going through, when I continue knowing all of this that’s going on, the transport of the food animals, this darkens my brain and hurts me a lot.

If I make it through the cancer, my next life will not be so much as an activist. I want to get on one of the biggest lecture circuits because I have two great stories to tell. One is Broadway in the ’50s, the golden age, which people really love to hear about. And I was there. And then, tell the story of this humane community.

Is there anything you would like to add?
I think as long as we get across the point that public awareness is what is worth fighting for. And then of course, raising or improving their sense of kindness and gentleness and sharing the planet, not bulldozing through it. I do encourage people to say, “Thank you, I don’t eat animals,” and forget the word meat, because meat doesn’t look like an animal.

To learn more about the Genesis Awards, see