Lydia Heston, photographer, actor, NU alum, wife of Charlton Heston, dead at 95

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Lydia Heston became a globe-trotting photographer during her marriage to actor Charlton Heston. | Provided photo

Her husband famously played Ben-Hur, John the Baptist, Michelangelo and Moses, but Lydia Clarke Heston liked to say he was also the guy who toted her cameras around five continents.

The wife of screen actor Charlton Heston, she met him while studying theater at Northwestern University and was a successful stage and screen actress before segueing into photography as they raised their family in one of Hollywood’s longest marriages, lasting 64 years.

Mrs. Heston, 95, died of pneumonia Sept. 3 at a hospital in Los Angeles.

Early supporters of the civil rights movement, she and her husband attended the March on Washington. She photographed the 1963 march, as well as tense anti-segregation protests in the South, said their son Fraser Heston.

Lydia Heston with husband Charlton Heston. | Northwestern University

Lydia Heston with husband Charlton Heston. | Northwestern University

Mrs. Heston published her work in books including “Children Around the World,” “Light of the World” and “Mi Vida,” according to her family. She showed her photos at galleries and at the Chicago Cultural Center. They were also the centerpiece of fund-raisers for the YMCA, college scholarships and people with retinitis pigmentosa.

“They weren’t just snapshots of behind-the-scenes at movies,” their son said. “She would go into the souks of Cairo with just a kid to carry her cameras. She would come back with amazing, amazing images.

“She traveled by camel, by elephant, by biplane,” he said. “She was the Indiana Jones of our family.”

Before Northwestern, young Lydia was a high school debate champion from Two Rivers, Wisconsin. She spoke Latin and Greek thanks to her father, an erudite school principal.

Lydia Clarke Heston in a 1944 Northwestern University production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Candida.” | Northwestern University

Lydia Clarke Heston in a 1944 Northwestern University production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Candida.” | Northwestern University

Other drama students from the class of 1945 included Cloris Leachman, Paul Lynde, Patricia Neal and Charlotte Rae.

She met her future husband, an alum of New Trier High School, in class. “He leaned forward and pulled her hair,” their son said.

Her first impression? “He was arrogant and conceited and supremely self-confident,” she told Marilyn Funt, who conducted interviews with wives of famous men for the 1979 book “Are You Anybody?”

Her opinion softened as they labored over a student performance. “We were doing several one-act plays, and I had an idiot line to say,” she said. “I tried so many different ways to say it. He started to help me, and I found I was saying it better.”

They went out for a cup of tea, “and that was it,” she told Funt. “I was insanely in love with him.”

They got married in 1944 but were apart in the early days of their marriage because of his military service. Her husband was a radio gunner in the Aleutian Islands with the Army Air Forces.

When he returned, they lived in a cold-water flat in Hell’s Kitchen as they broke into New York theater.

They worked together in Asheville, North Carolina, where Carl Sandburg was said to be so taken with Mrs. Heston’s acting that he urged her to continue her stage career.

In 1949, she appeared in “Detective Story” with Studs Terkel at Chicago’s Blackstone Theatre. Mrs. Heston also performed in the play on Broadway and starred  in the 1952 film “The Atomic City” with Gene Barry and “The Seven-Year Itch” at Chicago’s Parkway Theater in 1954.

“When they started out,” their son said, “she was the more famous of the two.”

Mrs. Heston began taking pictures on the set of “The Greatest Show on Earth,” the 1952 Cecil B. DeMille circus extravaganza that starred her husband.

She realized photography was her passion when “I missed my entrance at a theater in Florida because I was too busy loading film backstage,” she told an interviewer.

In her later years, Mrs. Heston and her husband performed A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters” in Australia, England and the United States. In 1993, they appeared in the play at Northwestern to benefit its theater department.  In the mid-1960s, the Hestons did a benefit performance of “A Man for All Seasons” at the Mill Run Playhouse in Niles.

Her Hollywood memories included the time a baby bottle halted filming on her husband’s 1956 epic “The Ten Commandments.” Fraser Heston, then an infant, was about to appear as the baby Moses but was fussing and hungry. So hundreds waited on set while Mrs. Heston fed him. She reported, “Mr. DeMille remarked afterward that never in his life would Fraser have a more expensive meal!”

“She was not haughty at all or stuck up or snobby. She didn’t do that ‘Hollywood wife’ thing,” Fraser Heston said. “She was definitely a Midwestern schoolteacher’s daughter.”

Her husband died in 2008. Mrs. Heston is also survived by her daughter Holly Reston Rochell and grandchildren Jack Heston, Charlie Rochell and Ridley Rochell, who is studying art history at Northwestern. Services were held Saturday in Los Angeles.

In 2001, the Hestons returned to Chicago with “Love Letters” at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts. Asked if they ever wrote letters to each other, they told the audience they wrote to each other every day during World War II — and still had the letters.

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