The A-Bomb, Selma, Broadway: She Saw It All and Knew Everyone

Tina Dupuy was, and was going to be, a lot of different things — a standup comic, a political columnist, the host of a podcast about cults, a congressman’s press secretary on Capitol Hill.

But one afternoon in 2013, she was just another New Yorker who had locked herself out of her building on the Upper West Side. She had only recently moved in, and pressed the buzzer of a neighbor she barely knew, an older woman who lived next door.

The neighbor let her in and invited her to wait in her apartment until Ms. Dupuy’s husband returned home. They sat in her tidy little studio with its antique daybed and its embroidered pillow: “Too Much of a Good Thing is Wonderful.”

Her name was Sheila Sullivan, and, at 75, she was trim and charming and energetic, but also more than that. Buoyant? She had lived here, alone, for 30 years, almost as long as Ms. Dupuy had lived, period. She told stories that had them both laughing by the time the husband with the key arrived.

That was nice, they told each other. See you again. Funny now, a decade later, to look back at how it all began.

After that first encounter, Ms. Dupuy would hear Ms. Sullivan through the apartment’s walls, singing — show tunes? There was a sort of lovely peculiarity about this woman, an eccentricity that was inviting.

And boy, did she have stories.

There was the time she was working as a singer and dancer at the Tropicana in Las Vegas in the 1950s and a pilot with a crew cut invited her to watch a planned detonation of an atomic bomb in the desert. She would never forget that cloud, that boom.

Or the time she appeared on Broadway with Sammy Davis Jr. in a show called “Golden Boy.” She was an understudy who finally, nerve-rattlingly got the call one afternoon when the lead actress fell ill and she had to go on. Sammy was so funny and kind.

One of Ms. Sullivan’s mementos from her time as an actress. In the background is Sammy Davis Jr.

She hadbeen married to the actor Robert Culp, hot off his 1960s television show, “I Spy,” which was famous in its time for casting a Black actor as his co-star, Bill Cosby.

Ms. Dupuy, a journalist at heart, listened and quietly wondered: Was any of this even true? There was barely time for questions before the next big reveal — that daybed you’re sitting on? You won’t believe it — it once belonged to Charlie Chaplin.

Ms. Dupuy’s own life, with itsis-this-really-happening twists, was playing out next door. In 2017, when a handful of women accused then-Senator Al Franken, the former comic and liberal lawmaker from Minnesota, of groping them, they were disregarded by many. But Ms. Dupuy said she had the same experience with him, at a political event before President Obama’s inauguration in 2009, and she felt compelled to support the accusers.

Her article in The Atlantic, “I Believe Franken’s Accusers Because He Groped Me, Too,” was, in hindsight, a tipping point, and Senator Franken resigned the day after it was published.

Ms. Dupuy, in her time as a traveling comedian in the early 2000s, was used to the spotlight — but in places like Price, Utah, and Scobey, Mont. Now she felt like a face of a movement, and it was a lot.

Ms. Sullivan was once married to the actor Robert Culp.Credit…Dove/Daily Express, via Getty Images

She visited Ms. Sullivan for little hits of the older woman’s energy. Ms. Sullivan sympathized with what Ms. Dupuy was going through. One night at the Tropicana, Frank Sinatra had called her over and said, “You’re a good-looking broad.” Ms. Sullivan, who had been denied her dream job as a flight attendant for Trans World Airlines because, she was told, her hips were too wide, thought Mr. Sinatra was teasing her, and she spun and walked away. When his friend followed her to apologize, she shut a door in his face because she had no idea that the friend was Joe DiMaggio: “I don’t follow baseball,” she explained to Ms. Dupuy.

The neighbors were becoming real friends. Then, in 2020, Covid arrived. Their apartment building cleared out, everyone relocating. Even Ms. Dupuy’s husband was gone, quarantined with his family in California. Only Ms. Dupuy and Ms. Sullivan remained.

The city was so quiet. And, Ms. Dupuy realized, so was her neighbor — she’d stopped singing. The younger woman visited with flowers, or breakfast or fun junk food or a beer, and Ms. Sullivan would perk up again. They met in the little yard outside and talked and talked.

One day Ms. Sullivan showed Ms. Dupuy a photograph from 1965. She was walking in a row of men that included Sammy Davis Jr. and, strikingly tall and stone-faced, Harry Belafonte. It was the civil rights movement and the march on Selma, Ms. Sullivan explained. Celebrities had flown to Alabama to form a human shield around the marchers, the idea being that surely no one would take a shot at Harry Belafonte.

Ms. Sullivan flew to Alabama for the march on Selma, where she joined Harry Belafonte (center) and Sammy Davis Jr.Credit…Sam Siegel

Ms. Dupuy stared at the picture. What other mementos did Ms. Sullivan have? The older woman hauled over a big box and put it on her desk. Inside:

A Playbill for “Golden Boy” with her name in the cast. Pictures backstage with Sammy and others.

Photos from her role in the 1969 Broadway hit “Play it Again, Sam,” written by and starring Woody Allen.

There was a letter she wrote to the head of a company designing rockets in the space race, volunteering to be an astronaut. The return address: The Tropicana.

Ms. Dupuy was in awe. You could tell the history of late-20th century America through Sheila, she thought.

Their backyard visits were interrupted in 2021 when Ms. Dupuy, facing a rent hike and a noisy new neighbor upstairs, felt it was time to move out. She found a place 15 blocks uptown, and promised Ms. Sullivan, by then in her 80s, that they would still see plenty of each other.

In fact, they grew closer. Ms. Dupuy’s marriage was falling apart, and she focused her energy on helping Ms. Sullivan with whatever she needed. “The thing about taking care of an 85-year-old,” she liked to say, “is they’re like a toddler you motivate with gin.”

They were regulars at an Italian place nearby, where they ordered Cosmopolitans with lunch.

“When we walk down the street, people know she’s somebody,” she said later of Ms. Sullivan. “They way she walks, the way she dresses.”

Among her acting credits, Ms. Sullivan was cast in Woody Allen’s “Play It Again, Sam” on Broadway.Credit…Friedman-Abeles, via New York Public Library

In 2023, Ms. Sullivan marked her 40th year in her apartment. She had always been good about watching the mail for bills and things like that, so she was wholly unprepared for what arrived one day in late April: an eviction notice.

She owed thousands of dollars in unpaid rent, the notice stated, and she was to appear in housing court on the appointed date.

She sat on Charlie Chaplin’s old bed and reread it and reread it. How could this be? She’d lived here such a long time. Now all she could hear, reading the city’s form letter, was “Get her out of here!”

When she called Ms. Dupuy, her friend heard an uncharacteristic tone in her voice. Real fear.

I’ll be right there, she said.

Ms. Sullivan was short on facts. “Some awful mistake somewhere,” she’d say. “I don’t know. Something is rotten in Denmark.”

Never mind the odd cockroach, the window that didn’t open — Ms. Sullivan loved that apartment. It was her dressing room, she’d say, and outside, the city was her theater. Suddenly, she was terrified she was going to lose it.

We’re going to fix this, Ms. Dupuy told her. The journalist and fact-finder in her got to work. She discovered a bureaucratic tangle that seemed to be behind the eviction notice. It was like pulling a thread from the proverbial sweater, except it’s the sweater you’ve worn for 40 years, and you don’t have another.

She collected documents and receipts and tracked down the original problem, when a city agency that subsidizes Ms. Sullivan’s rent had requested a current lease and no one replied. That agency had quietly stopped paying its share of her rent.

Ms. Sullivan, who had marched in Selma before armed troopers, who had stared into an exploding atom bomb, was now consumed by a fear experienced by countless, anonymous New Yorkers. She began having a recurring nightmare. “They come and pick me up and carry me out,” she said. “I say, ‘No!’”

Ms. Dupuy and Ms. Sullivan on the Upper West Side, July 2023.Credit…Brittainy Newman for The New York Times

The court date approached, at an imposing gray building downtown near City Hall. The two women took a car and arrived early. They sat in the crowded gallery and waited and whispered. A court officer shushed them.

The clerk called her case, and she stood. “I’m Sheila Sullivan,” she said.

There were questions about the lease, and Ms. Dupuy showed the clerk her file of documents. The women were directed down the hall to an office where they were told to sit until an attorney became available, free of charge.

Ms. Dupuy, if she was being honest, was scared in her own right. What if she had missed something? What if this process was too far along to stop, and she’d let her friend down? She imagined Ms. Sullivan, with the stamp of some office clerk who would never lay eyes on her, being forced from her home and looking for a new one on her fixed retirement income. How far apart would they end up living?

Finally, they were shown to a cubicle.

Lawyers in housing court deal with all manner of distraught men and women facing evictions with no ready answers, no job, no income. No hope. Here was this client, Sheila Sullivan, and her friend with an organized stack of documents drawing a clear line from problem to solution.

The lawyer looked at the two women facing her. Everything, she said, is going to be fine.

Ms. Sullivan remembers that day in 2013 when the new neighbor next door rang her buzzer because she had locked herself out. To think, now, how that all turned out. It’s like a story from out of that box of pictures and Playbills.

They went straight from court to their Italian place. Two Cosmopolitans, please.

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