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 David Dukes Memorial Scholarship

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The scholarship, established in memory of the late actor David Coleman Dukes, is awarded annually to a third-year Theater Arts student working toward a career in stage acting. A bronze plaque commemorating the scholarship benefit held in David Coleman Dukes' name can be seen in the lobby of the Bing Theater, off Queen's Court on the USC campus.
Madeline Puzo, Dean, USC School of Theatre

  2012 Carol Muske Dukes

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In a Heartbeat (Oprah Magazine)

November 2001

by Carol Muske-Dukes

CAROL MUSKE-DUKES was married to actor David Coleman Dukes until his sudden death - a situation eerily foreshadowed in her novel Life After Death. A year later, she ponders the unlit intersection where art and life converge.

"Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily"
- La Rochefoucauld

ON AUGUST 13, 1981,1 LEFT THE UFFIZI and walked through the crowds surrounding Michelangelo's David, feeling happy I was in Florence on a Guggenheim fellowship that summer, working on a book of poems -- and that afternoon I was on my way to Umbria, where I would spend the weekend visiting a poet friend at the castle of her parents. She'd arranged for me to ride down with a friend of her brother's, an actor who was in the miniseries The winds of War; which was shooting in the city I was thinking about poetry I was thinking about art -- about the David -- I was thinking about the weekend ahead, how my friend and I would talk about poetry far into the night.

I sat down to wait in the sunny lobby of the hotel where the actor and I had arranged to meet. After a few minutes, I looked up as a tall, dark-haired man appeared in the doorway He'd rushed over from the set, he said -- and apologized for being late. He put out his hand as he approached. "By the way I'm David Dukes," he said, and I understood, as I took his hand and gazed into those blue eyes, how we know when our lives are changing before us, how we sense something -- a little ripple in time, a kind of swerving from the present into an imagined future. I knew he was going to happen to me -- it felt, suddenly like what the Italians call destino.

But I didn't really believe in fate -- that something beyond our power can determine our lives. It was true that I began to take mental notes, as writers do, on what I was experiencing. I noted the pale gold fresco light ("the color of Giotto's halos," I wrote shamelessly in a journal) pouring through the skylights. I noted the way David stood, his blue eyes, the sunglasses in his pocket. He took me to lunch on the rooftop of his hotel; he drove me from Florence to Perugia through the wineblue valleys to the castle of my friend's parents, where we fell in love. We carried on a cross-country romance when we returned to America. We married at City Hall in New York City and moved to Los Angeles when I was pregnant. I could tell the story as if life assumed a shape -- from the fairy-tale fantasy of our meeting onward. But I had no idea the shape my life would take being married to an actor. I knew nothing then of the uncertainty the many times David would be gone away working, the intensity of missing him, the difficulty and strain of separation. I only knew that I was headed toward a place from which I could not turn away.

Nineteen years after we met, on another sunny day -- October 9, 2000 -- I stood with our 17-year-old daughter; Annie, on the front steps of our home in Los Angeles waving goodbye to David, who was flying back to the set of a miniseries called Rose Red, shooting in Seattle/Tacoma. He had been home for the weekend, attending a father-daughter picnic at Annie's school and a prospective-student function at USC, where I am a professor. I was sorry to see him leave but was cheered thinking he'd be home in a few days for a three-week break. I was pleased, too, because I'd just finished making changes to the copyedited manuscript of my new novel, Life After Death. Annie and I continued to wave as the car sent to take David to the airport pulled away from the curb. I stood on the steps after Annie went back inside, waving till the car disappeared around the corner. Then I packed up my novel, sealing it in the return envelope to the publisher-and drove to the FedEx drop-off box. On the way I thought about the book, how making the last copy changes represented a huge milestone. The novel had gone through many versions. David, with his actor's infallible ear for dialogue and diction, had read every revision over the years except this one. He'd asked to take a copy with him on the plane, then decided to wait to read it till he got back. I was eager to have his opinion of this final version of my unconventional novel about life and death, about (among other things) a woman whose husband dies of a heart attack on a tennis court.

A few hours later, around seven that night, the phone rang. The young man at the other end of the line identified himself as a tennis pro at a recreation center in Spanaway Washington. This is where my husband went after his afternoon flight -- for an early evening tennis workout. And this is where (as the agitated young voice was now telling me) he had dropped dead of a heart attack on the tennis court.

The phone rings and your life changes in an eye blink; you reject everything connected to the imposition of this new unreality a world in which someone you love deeply no longer exists. You think that what is happening cannot be happening, that a terrible mistake has been made. I talked to the doctor; who was sobbing, in the emergency room near the tennis court where David was taken. I talked to a cold and insensitive representative of the Pierce County Medical Examiner's Office. I tried to explain to Annie what had happened, but I could not grasp that he was gone. Hadn't he just kissed us goodbye? Hadn't he stood in the bedroom, in the sunlight, holding the proofs of Annie's senior class photos, his eyes brimming because his daughter was growing up, because (as he said then) she looked a little like his mother; who'd passed away just a few years earlier?

LIKE ALL SURVIVORS I FELT ALMOST immediately overcome by guilt. I ran through all the what-ifs in my mind. What if I'd paid more attention to his complaints of indigestion and fatigue over the weekend? What if I had insisted that he get a more thorough physical than the knee-jerk version required of performers for insurance purposes? What if I'd looked more closely at photographs taken of him on the miniseries set -- how pale and tired he looked, why hadn't I seen this change in this face?

I didn't think about coincidence -- the coincidence of the death of a character in my novel and David's death. But sometime during that first dreadful night, the absolute particularity of David's tragedy became shadowed by my sudden memory of the book and the character Russell Schaeffer, for whom I'd unknowingly written a kind of twin death. My first reaction was one of new wild guilt -- as if I had somehow contributed to David's death. I called my editor; Dan Menaker; and told him that I wanted to withdraw the book from publication. He said he would do whatever I wished in this regard, but he asked me to take a week to think it over. During the days that followed, as I moved, numb, through my housefull of relatives and guests, through the beautiful enormous funeral, attended by 500 people, the phone calls about obituaries and press statements, I tried to come to terms with what I was feeling. The impulse to throw the book away was powerful. I knew it was not in any way a record of my life, the characters were not my family Russell Schaeffer was a businessman, a failed poet, a substance abuser; an inveterate liar, a character who knows he has heart disease, who in fact exacerbates his own cardiac condition by taking digitalis prior to playing tennis, who in effect commits suicide. Nevertheless the suggestion of prophecy haunted me. Family and friends urged me to reconsider. David, they pointed out, after all his reading and patient suggestions, after his constant, loyal support, would have wanted me to go ahead. By the end of the week I agreed.

The decision did not stop me from going over and over in my mind this apparent convergence of art and life. How could I have written into existence the exact same fate for a character who was almost nothing like my husband except that he played tennis and was dramatic and handsome? I know that startling prefigurings are not unknown in literature. Many years before Hitler, Franz Kafka seemed to predict the Holocaust in his writings. The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes imagined the death of a son in a novel -- and his own son met a similar fate. But I do not believe this means that writers have a sixth sense, that writers are prescient; rather; I think they are so attuned to, so sensitive to, the present moment that what they do may appear to be a gift of divination.

David was a hard-driving, constantly busy actor. Acting is a brutal profession -- the work is high pressure, and the lack of work creates even more pressure. David, however; seemed to thrive on the demands of his career. A well-built man, he appeared fit and muscled; he exercised regularly He played handball, squash, and tennis and worked out at the gym lifting weights -- he never required a stunt double. He was a veteran of more than 20 films, countless television roles, and a distinguished stage career that brought him regularly to Broadway and London. (At the time of his death, he'd been flying back and forth between the miniseries in Seattle and North Carolina, where he was a regular on Dawson's Creek.) He had been told there was no heart disease in his family

I was the one with the family history of heart disease, the one with "symptoms." In the months before David died, I woke sometimes at night, my heart beating rapidly filled with anxiety Now I wondered, Had I intuited something as David lay next to me in bed? Intuited something about David's heart-and then internalized it? My friend the renowned neuroscientist Dr. Antonio Damasio told me it is possible that a sleeping person could register the irregular heartbeat of a partner lying next to her -- the unconscious brain could record and store an aberrant pattern of beats.

In the surge of poems that began to flow weeks after David's death, I wrote:

woke me, night after night -- insistent,
reverberant -- a word
finally understood outside conjuncture:
heart. Instead of turning
to you, breathing next to me in the bed,
I put my hand on my own

chest, my own pulse. I listened to the
hurried beats -- thought, afraid,
about the moving phrase of light on the
wall that I could not, at that time,
begin to decipher.

I'D SENSED SOMETHING, IT WAS TRUE. Late at night I'd heard the word heart as if a voice made of thunder, a strange below-the-surface dream voice, were speaking it -- but I never thought it might be David's heart that was failing. I put aside my night anxieties and worked on my novel. I'd done research on cardiac death. I'd even asked David, who was a passionate, obsessed tennis player; about the possibility of someone collapsing on the court in the way my character had. He said it seemed plausible -- tennis is a truly exhausting cardiovascular exercise. A cardiologist friend concurred: A person with undiagnosed coronary artery disease could "irritate" the heart with too strenuous exercise and precipitate arrhythmia. So I gave my character Russell coronary heart disease -- an essentially inoperable case, then let him add the deadly heart speed and play his tennis game. And yet, despite all my research, I remember thinking how unreal Russell's demise seemed to me, how unlikely! My conscious mind denied what the unconscious was telling it.

I spoke to the physician who'd examined David for his pre-Rose Red physical. She chirped on about his "low blood pressure" and his "good, strong heartbeat." Then I recalled how I once leaned against David's chest as we sat up in bed together reading, then pulled away How rapidly how forcefully his heart seemed to be beating, I said. He smiled his unforgettable smile and pointed to his chest. "Strong heart," he said with a grin, "strong heart."

No -- his was not a strong heart, rather a heart so compromised that its very defining function, the pumping of blood, was a struggle. Why hadn't I thought more about that moment, considered why a heart at rest was beating like that? I suppose because when I looked at him worried, he laughed at me, brushing my fears aside. But I believe that this fear resurfaced in a kind of fictional equation. Art equaled life, and transformed the burden of unconscious knowledge.

WHAT WE DO WHEN WE WRITE REMAINS A MYSTERY. The imagination is a force, a guidance system, an ungovernable power. It heats up a combination of elements from life and from dreams -- with a flash of inspiration -- and out of this furnace steps invention. We are so used to news stories, firsthand accounts, eyewitness testimony -- what we think of as the "authentic," it-really-happened like-this reality But the imaginative process that produces poems and narratives and novels (as well as the great transformational style of stage acting my husband loved most) may bring to light a deeper truth about our lives. This is what is so difficult to explain.

Somewhere in my unconscious I interpreted the clues of my everyday life, then the clues rose into that other dimension of imagining. We cannot as writers not take in what we see. The clues themselves are just details that strike us, stay with us -- a look on someone's face, a shadow falling suddenly a moment of imbalance, a spoon falling from a saucer. We cannot as writers turn away It is this access to the unconscious that keeps charging the engine of creativity Art says all we cannot say on this earth, all we are afraid to acknowledge in our lives.

And what a writer does is simply an intensification of what everyone alive does. We all tell ourselves the story of our lives as we go along. We all edit and reconstruct, denying what we can't bear to acknowledge; we heighten what we wish to heighten, making it work, making "sense" of the "facts," helping ourselves go on. In telling our stories, we deny death, we defy death.

I think back to 1981, to Florence -- the noon light pouring over us, how we shook hands. What seemed so much like fate, I believe, was sudden intuitive knowledge of another person -- and a sense of where that knowledge would take me. Sometime before David's death I began to know something unconsciously -- something unspoken, something gathering force about him -- the fading I recognized later in recent photographs. What I "knew" became what I imagined --and what I imagined could not protect David or save him. The person I knew and loved was not the person I made up in the novel's pages. Perhaps, on one level, I believed that that wild, invented, ungovernable character could alter the progression of my husband's "disappearance." But art can't save us, it can only "retell" us to ourselves: the pure narrative light of a story a poem, shining on its characters as if they were immortal, as if they're meeting each other outside of time.

OUTSIDE RIGHT NOW I HEAR THE WIND CHIMES sounding. Their music reminds me of David, always -- and reminds me to both release myself from and hold myself to the moment of apprehension. .

Carol Muske-Dukes's novel, Life After Death, was published by Random House last June.