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Meryl Streep Fought Through the Tragic Loss of Her First Love to Find Happiness

Meryl Streep Fought Through the Tragic Loss of Her First Love to Find Happiness

Meryl Streep is an icon. The New Jersey native had starred in nearly 70 films, holds the record for the most Academy Award nominations of any actor and, at 70, she’s still acting. Add to that her four decade-long marriage and four loving kids and, upon first glance, it may seem like Meryl Streep has lived the perfect life. 

However, she’s had to deal with her share of heartbreak. In the late ‘70s, while she was still making a name for herself, Streep suffered a terrible loss, which could have easily derailed her career, as well as her personal life.

Instead, she chose to open up her heart and it was that very decision that helped lay the groundwork for decades of success and happiness.

When "the one" is unexpected

Meryl Streep found her first true love early in life. At 29, she met 41-year-old actor John Cazale when they both landed roles in the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Measure for Measure and their connection was instant.

As Streep recalled, “He wasn’t like anybody I’d ever met” and Cazale was equally smitten. According to actor Marvin Starkman, “Once [Cazale] was in that play, the only thing he talked about was her."

Cazale was a gifted character performer whose worked was admired by the iconic directors and actors he collaborated with. Every film he starred in was nominate for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, but he is best known for his roles as Fredo in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather and The Godfather Part II and as Sal in Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon, both of which he starred in alongside Al Pacino.

Of their powerful, singular love, Streep quipped to the New York Times: “The jerk made everything mean something. Such good judgment, such uncluttered thought. For me particularly, who is moored to all sorts of human weaknesses. ‘You don't need this,’ he'd say, ‘you don't need that.’"

How did she handled the dark turn her life took?

In May 1977, Cazale was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. A devastated Streep never left his side, becoming a prime example of what unconditional love looks like.

Following the diagnosis, the couple began shooting The Deer Hunter together and as director Michael Cimino told People in 1995, “Meryl stayed by his side every single moment.” 

When medical bills began piling up, she accepted roles she didn’t like just to pay them off. When it became clear he didn’t have much time left, she took five months off from work, so they could spend as much time together as possible, even moving into the hospital during his final days.

Speaking about her unfaltering devotion, which some viewed as too extreme, Streep explained, “I’ll do anything for this man. Look, would there be any hang-up if this were a mother talking about her son? Service is the only thing that’s important about love." She embodied the biggest pillar of true love: selflessness.

“Everybody is worried about ‘losing yourself’ — all this narcissism,” Streep continued. “Duty. We can’t stand that idea now either. But duty might be a suit of armor you put on to fight for your love.”

She didn't let anything taint her outlook on love


On March 12, 1978, Cazale passed away. The tragic loss weighed on Streep heavily — “The death is still very much with me,” she told People a year later — but it didn’t taint her outlook on love. 

A few months after her partner’s death, Streep was kicked out of the apartment they had shared. Faced with the difficult task of having to pack up Cazale’s belongings, she called on her brother, Harry, for help. He, in turn, brought along a friend, sculptor Don Gummer, to lend a hand. 

As fate would have it, Streep ended up subletting Gummer’s apartment since he was supposed to be in Pakistan for an extended holiday. The two began exchanging letters, then a motorcycle accident cut his plans short, bringing him home sooner than planned.

While holding her two-year relationship with Cazale close to her heart, Streep didn’t allow its tragic end to stop her from moving forward, both in life and in love.

She won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie for Holocaust that year, landed some major roles and, instead of running away from her budding connection with Gummer, made the brave decision to open her heart again.

Just six months later, in September 1978, the actress and the sculptor said “I do.”

The speedy nuptials raised plenty of eyebrows, even straining Streep’s relationship with her mother, but no one could stop them from following their hearts.  

Four decades of wedded bliss and four kids later, they were still proving the critics wrong.

Why it was never a competition


Four decades of wedded bliss and four kids later, Streep and Gummer are a rarity in Hollywood. They’re as happy as ever and have managed to keep a notoriously low profile, even moving to a secluded estate in Connecticut in 1985. 

The few times that the Oscar winner hasspoken about her private life, however, she’s made it clear that one of the biggest keys to their long-lasting romance has been the fact that they’re equals. Their relationship has never been a competition and Gummer has never tried to outshine his wife’s first love, nor her career.  

In fact, he couldn’t be more supportive. In addition to being her date to countless premieres and award ceremonies, Gummer helped his wife’s career blossom by always being there for her.

As Streep once said, “I couldn’t even dream of being a mother and making movies without Don.” That’s because he was “the linchpin” who was always happy to look after their kids, so she could be on set.

What’s more, asOprah Magazine pointed out, “Gummer has managed to forge a successful career in his field without using his wife’s A+ reputation to help bolster his own.”  

In a rare moment in 2012, Streep revealed just how important Gummer has been in all aspects of her life, as she gushed about her husband while accepting the Best Actress Oscar for her role in The Iron Lady.

“First, I’m going to thank Don, because when you thank your husband at the end of the speech they play him out with the music,” she noted, adding, “And I want him to know that everything I value most in our lives you’ve given me.”

Giving yourself permission to find love after loss can oftentimes feel insensitive or like a betrayal. It can even garner negative reaction from friends and family, as it did in Streep’s case. However, happiness is worth fighting for and having the strength to follow your heart shouldn’t be shameful.

As the actress has shown the world, finding love again is not a matter of forgetting what came before. Instead, it’s about celebrating that memory without allowing it to stagnate your personal growth, whether professional or personal. 

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