Polio left this North Dakota native mute for years. Now, she’s a voice coach for famous French actors

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She is late. Quite understandably, I find out, since she had just flown in from Los Angeles the day before. Jet lag can be blamed, but when she enters she is all smiles and energy despite having left her notes at home.

Warmup exercises at the start of the workshop. Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum

Warmup exercises at the start of the workshop. Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum

Home, for most of the year, is in the Paris suburb of Neuilly and has been for 40 years or more. Simone Crossen, who has organized this daylong workshop and who has worked with Vernice before, hands her a duplicate set of notes. And it begins.

Vernice is very good with people. Patient, but stern when needed, caring and solicitous of other people’s feelings. Almost always a smile on her face.

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Vernice Klier's acting students begin the day's C Me Acting workshop by doing breathing exercises on the floor. Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum

Vernice Klier’s acting students begin the day’s C Me Acting workshop by doing breathing exercises on the floor. Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum

It’s quite amazing when you find out what she has endured in life. Vernice Klier (pronounced “clear”) grew up on a farm near Perth, N.D. The oldest of four children, she was protector and leader and inspiration for the younger ones in a family that was quite poor, even by 1950s standards when many families in these rural farm communities were struggling.

In the winter, they often melted snow for water or had to transport it from a well miles away and made do without indoor plumbing; there were hardships aplenty. And then there was the polio.

Vernice Klier at 3 years old in 1948. Special to The Forum

Vernice Klier at 3 years old in 1948. Special to The Forum

From an interview she gave several years ago in Paris: “I love to work with language and that is surprising because I had Bulbar polio as a child and couldn’t talk for many years. Learning to speak again wasn’t easy and sometimes people laughed at me. Bulbar polio is the paralysis of the brainstem, which paralyzes vocal cords as well as the lungs. At the time, most of the children who had this type of polio died. Those who survived had the symptoms come back in their 30s and then they died.”

She and one of her brothers were the last two children in North Dakota to have polio. In fact, it was the year the Salk vaccine came out. She was 9 when she was diagnosed. The irony of going from being mute for several years to coaching actors how to speak and communicate properly is a miracle, an unmitigated wonder.

Like many other local families, Vernice’s parents were unable to afford her attending college in North Dakota, so she ended up moving to Eugene, Ore., as a night dispatcher working for the Southern Pacific Railroad. While there, she began taking classes at the University of Oregon. She once asked her sculpture professor if she could “act out the sculpture” they were studying. They were entranced and she continued “acting out,” doing physical interpretations of many things around her until a friend eventually said, “You’re always doing this crazy stuff, clowning around. Why don’t you become a real clown?”

The friend had seen an ad for clown school with the Ringling Brothers circus in Sarasota, Fla. Vernice applied, got accepted, moved to Florida and became a clown for real. In fact, she was the first woman to ever graduate from clown school, which drew the attention of some editors at Life magazine who sent a photographer and writer to do a story.

Vernice Klier (left) and Jane Shirley watch as other students practice gags in clown school in 1969. This photo was published in Life magazine in February 1970. Special to The Forum

Vernice Klier (left) and Jane Shirley watch as other students practice gags in clown school in 1969. This photo was published in Life magazine in February 1970. Special to The Forum

Marcel Marceau, the famous French mime artist, saw the piece on her in Life and invited her to come to Paris and study with him. So she did, graduating from the International School of Mimodrame of Paris, Marcel Marceau. She was a private student of Etienne Decroux, another famous mime, for many more years.

There are wonderful pathways in life that one can be led down when luck is your friend. Clown school was around 1968 or 1969, she can’t quite remember exactly.

“There was Clown College, and I was at Woodstock I remember, which was cool, and that was in 1969, I think. I also swam in an underwater theater tourist kind of thing called Weeki Wachee. Mermaids. That was fun, too,” she recalls.

So as kind of an aside to life, she was a mermaid, too.

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OK, now she’s in Paris, after Marcel Marceau, and another pathway presents itself. This one is romance. She marries Gene Moskowitz, an American Hungarian journalist and ardent movie lover, who is the Paris bureau chief for Variety (the influential movie-insider magazine). It is a May-December romance, Gene being quite a lot older than Vernice. They have a son, Justin. And here is where clouds begin to gather again, life’s challenges grow.

When their son is 5 years old, Gene dies of leukemia. Six months later, Justin is diagnosed with neuroblastoma, an almost always fatal childhood cancer. The doctors give him three weeks to live. To ease the massive pain they suggest chemotherapy, since many other functions like walking were fast deteriorating as well. Much to the surprise of the doctors, the chemo had an extraordinary effect. Because of this positive effect, they decided to do a very experimental form of bone marrow transplant. All of this valiant effort to ease the pain caused by a disease that still does not have a cure.

But there was a problem: there was no donor for the transplant. Take another chance. The doctors do an experimental operation to remove all of his bone marrow, freeze it while he undergoes full body radiation, the first autologous transplant for neuroblastoma ever done at UCLA Medical. Then they return the previously frozen marrow back into his bones.

This, too, works and buys more time, but the outcome was always preordained. Instead of dying three weeks after the diagnosis, he lives for nearly six years. Much of the last four years requiring nearly constant care primarily from Vernice.

It took a herculean effort and after he died, she was completely spent. And broke. She needed to reinvent her life again. And needed a job.

Her best friend knew a person whose mother ran the art department at the famous French photo agency Rapho. When the mother died, the daughter took it over and asked Vernice to join her. She worked closely with some famous photographers, like Robert Doisneau and Willy Ronis, editing and curating their work for publications and exhibitions. It was while at Rapho that the next chapter in her life, the one that’s still happening today, began.

Many actors came by Rapho’s offices because, well, they were actors and were in the business of being seen. Once some of them found out that she spoke English and had a background in performance, they wanted help and advice on how to get into English language movies. But mostly they wanted help with dialogue, something she was very good at. Remember “acting out a sculpture,” clown school and being a mermaid?

She was a natural. And the actors loved her. One in particular: Juliette Binoche. It was on a leave of absence from the Rapho photo agency job, working as a script girl on the 1991 movie “Les Amants du Pont-Neuf” (“Lovers on the Bridge”), where they met. Juliette had already had a marvelous beginning to her career in the 1988 Philip Kaufman film “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” with Lena Olin and Daniel Day-Lewis. The movie was in English, but Juliette knew very little of it. She learned all of her lines phonetically, but it was nearly impossible to communicate with the director or the other actors.

Vernice Klier and Juliette Binoche (right) began working together in 1989 on the film "Les Amants du Pont-Neuf." Special to The Forum

Vernice Klier and Juliette Binoche (right) began working together in 1989 on the film “Les Amants du Pont-Neuf.” Special to The Forum

Vernice could help, and did, and still does. Her next role was in “The English Patient,” and Vernice was her coach and confidante. Juliette won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for that one, and she was off and running in a brilliant career. So was Vernice. They are fast friends to this day, and Vernice has continued to coach her in nearly all of her roles since then.

Work with many other actors followed, like Faye Dunaway and Vincent Cassel, the French actor she just worked with in Los Angeles while filming “Westworld” for HBO.

“I really like actors. I think I’ve worked on over 100 films. Love the travel, the new places. I hate to travel just to travel, you know, like being a tourist. Really hate it, I get bored. I love getting lost in the movie, in the actor I’m working with, in whatever new location we’re at. And I love cities, like Paris where I live,” Vernice says.

Vernice Klier at home in Neuilly, France. This painting has hung on the wall for years, and it's what actors see when they sit across from her for a coaching session. Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum

Vernice Klier at home in Neuilly, France. This painting has hung on the wall for years, and it’s what actors see when they sit across from her for a coaching session. Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum

“My whole childhood was an absence of everything. We could hear a car coming from miles away before we could see it. Really quiet. Lonely out there,” she remembers.

There was that loneliness of the landscape and setting, but she reflects that it was that very landscape and upbringing that made her who she is: A resilient, hardworking adult, always caring for others and with a seemingly endless desire to see new places, to see beyond the horizon. She lingers on some early memories of Perth, making it sound not quite so lonely but a community of souls. In her mind, she retraces her footsteps through the town of her youth…

“Emma Johnson lived up there and the Isaacsons lived here, and then the Fair gas station (she was a nurse in the war). Isaacson’s Hardware and Nicholas’ grocery store and Heil’s store and the Post Office… and the school was over here. My uncle Leo lived over here, and Tom Hurd was between the school and our place. We stole raspberries from his patch by squeezing past the elaborate fence he had built over the top to keep the birds away. He never did figure it out,” she says.

Vernice recalls another time when she went back to Perth while still quite young, but old enough to drive, to visit her brother and help out for a time with his five children. Driving the car to Cando, N.D., to do laundry since the machine at the farm was broken, with five or six rowdy kids all jabbering at once in the back seat. They were discussing life, and beliefs, and religions, and what they believe in. Serious and funny at the same time. Like kids do.

A friend of her nephew asks, “What does Vernice believe?” He says, “She’s an agnostic.”

Vernice asks him, “Do you know what agnostic means?”

“Sure,” her nephew says. “It means she believes in everything.”

She nearly drove into the ditch she was laughing so hard. But it’s true — she really does believe in everything. Or maybe a better way to say it: She believes in everyone.

"Be aware of the shape of your words and how they are formed." Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum

“Be aware of the shape of your words and how they are formed.” Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum

To get your head and chin in the proper position, you pull your hair to realign your attitude. Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum

To get your head and chin in the proper position, you pull your hair to realign your attitude. Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum

“It’s a cliche to talk about love, but that is what makes me get up in the morning, stand up and put one foot in front of the other,” Vernice says. “Love of work, family and friends, love of the unknown and higher powers. I even love my actors! I may have felt alone in some of my personal life at times with tragedies and death, but that doesn’t stop love. There has been tremendous support from the movie community and all those actors and talented experts who keep it rolling. I’m blessed.”

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Tales From Afar is an occasional series of profiles and portraits by photographer Murray Lemley of folks with ties to North Dakota and Minnesota now living abroad. Look for more installments in The Forum’s Life section in the coming months, and contact Lemley at murray.lemley@gmail.com.

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