Tina Dupuy was, and would be, many different things: comedian, political columnist, host of a cult podcast, communications director for a congressman on Capitol Hill.
But one afternoon in 2013, she was just another New Yorker locked out of her Upper West Side building. She had recently moved in and pressed the doorbell of a neighbor she barely knew, an older woman who lived next door to her.
The neighbor let her in and invited her to wait in his apartment until Mrs. Dupuy’s husband returned home. They sat in her neat little study with her antique divan and her embroidered pillow: “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.”
Her name was Sheila Sullivan, and at 75, she was elegant, charming and energetic, but also more than that. Buoyant? She had lived here, alone, for 30 years, almost as long as Mrs. Dupuy had lived, period. She told stories that made them both laugh when her husband arrived with the key.
That was nice, they told each other. See you later. It’s fun now, a decade later, to remember how it all started.
After that first meeting, Ms. Dupuy would listen to Ms. Sullivan through the apartment walls, singing, show songs? There was a kind of charming quirk about this woman, an eccentricity that she invited.
And boy, did she have stories.
There was a time when she was working as a singer and dancer at the Tropicana in Las Vegas in the 1950s and was invited by a crew-cut pilot to watch a planned detonation of an atomic bomb in the desert. She would never forget that cloud, that boom.
Or the time he appeared on Broadway with Sammy Davis Jr. in a show called “Golden Boy.” She was an understudy who finally nervously got the call one afternoon when the lead actress got sick and had to continue. Sammy was very funny and kind.
She had been married to actor Robert Culp, fresh off his 1960s TV show “I Spy,” which was famous at the time for casting a black actor as his co-star, Bill Cosby.
Ms. Dupuy, a journalist at heart, listened and wondered quietly: Was any of this true? There was barely time for questions before the next big reveal: that divan you’re sitting on? You won’t believe it, he once belonged to Charlie Chaplin.
Mrs. Dupuy’s own life, with its unexpected twists, was taking place next door. In 2017, when a handful of women accused then-Sen. Al Franken, the liberal and comedic former legislator from Minnesota, of groping them, many ignored them. 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.
His article in The Atlantic, “I believe in Franken’s accusers because he groped me too” it was, in retrospect, a turning 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 being in the spotlight, but in places like Price, Utah and Scobey, Mont. She now felt like the face of a movement, and it was a lot.
He visited Mrs. Sullivan to get little hits of the older woman’s energy. Ms. Sullivan was sympathetic to what Ms. Dupuy was going through. One night at the Tropicana, Frank Sinatra called her and said, “You’re an attractive woman.” Sullivan, who had been denied her dream job as a Trans World Airlines flight attendant because she was told her hips were too wide, thought Sinatra was making fun of her, turned and walked away. walked away from her. When her friend followed her to apologize, she slammed the door in her face because she had no idea her friend was Joe DiMaggio: “I don’t follow baseball,” she explained to Ms. Dupuy.
The neighbors were becoming real friends. Then in 2020 Covid hit. Their apartment building cleared out, they all moved out. Even Mrs. Dupuy’s husband was gone, quarantined with his family in California. Only Mrs. Dupuy and Mrs. Sullivan remained.
The city was so quiet. And Dupuy realized that his neighbor had also: she had stopped singing. The younger woman would visit her with flowers, breakfast, fun junk food, or a beer, and Mrs. Sullivan would perk up again. They met in the small courtyard outside and talked and talked.
One day, Ms. Sullivan showed Ms. Dupuy a photograph from 1965. She was walking in a line of men that included Sammy Davis Jr. and, surprisingly tall and stone-faced, Harry Belafonte. It was the civil rights movement and the march on Selma, Sullivan explained. Celebrities had flown to Alabama to form a human shield around the protesters, figuring surely no one would shoot Harry Belafonte.
Ms. Dupuy stared at the photo. What other memories did Mrs. Sullivan have? The older woman dragged a large box and placed it on her desk. Inside:
A Playbill for “Golden Boy” with his name in the cast. Backstage photos 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 that designed rockets in the space race, volunteering to be an astronaut. Return address: The Tropicana.
Ms. Dupuy was amazed. You could tell the story of late-twentieth-century America through Sheila, she thought.
Her backyard visits were cut short in 2021 when Ms. Dupuy, facing a rent increase and a noisy new neighbor upstairs, felt it was time to move on. She found a place 15 blocks uptown and promised Mrs. Sullivan, then 80, that they would still see each other a lot.
In fact, they got closer. Mrs. Dupuy’s marriage was falling apart and she focused her energy on helping Mrs. Sullivan with whatever she needed. “The thing about taking care of an 85-year-old,” she was fond of saying, “is that they’re like little kids you motivate with gin.”
They were regulars at a nearby Italian restaurant, where they ordered Cosmopolitans with lunch.
“When we walk down the street, people know that she is someone,” he later said of Ms. Sullivan. “The way she walks, the way she dresses.”
In 2023, Ms. Sullivan turned 40 in her apartment. She’d always been good at checking the mail for bills and the like, so she wasn’t prepared for what she got one day in late April: an eviction notice.
He owed thousands of dollars in unpaid rent, the notice said, and was due to appear in housing court on the appointed date.
He sat on Charlie Chaplin’s old bed and reread and reread. How could this be? She had lived here so long. Now all she could hear, reading the form letter from the city, was “Get her out of here!”
When she called Ms. Dupuy, her friend heard an unusual tone in her voice. real fear.
I’ll be there right away, she said.
Ms. Sullivan fell short on facts. “Some terrible mistake somewhere,” she would say. “I don’t know. Something is rotten in Denmark.”
Never mind the weird cockroach, the window that wouldn’t open: Mrs. Sullivan loved that apartment. It was her dressing room, she said, and outside, the city was her theater. Suddenly, she was terrified that she was going to lose her mind.
Let’s fix this, Mrs. Dupuy told him. The journalist and researcher in her went to work. She uncovered a red tape that seemed to be behind the eviction notice. It was like pulling a thread out of 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 located the original problem, when a city agency that subsidizes Ms. Sullivan’s rent requested a current lease and no one responded. That agency had quietly stopped paying her portion of the rent.
Mrs. Sullivan, who had marched in Selma before armed soldiers, who had stood watching an exploding atomic bomb, was now consumed by the fear experienced by countless anonymous New Yorkers. She started having a recurring nightmare. “They come, pick me up and take me away,” she said. “I say no!'”
The trial date was drawing near, in 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 official silenced them.
The clerk called her case, and she stood up. “I’m Sheila Sullivan,” she said.
There were questions about the lease, and Ms. Dupuy showed the secretary her file of documents. The women were directed down the hall to an office where they were told to sit until a lawyer was 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 had let her friend down? She pictured Mrs. Sullivan, with the stamp of some clerk who would never see her, being forced out of her home and looking for a new one on her fixed retirement income. How far away would they end up living?
Finally, they were led to a cubicle.
Housing court attorneys handle all types of distressed men and women facing evictions with no ready answers, no job, no income. Hopeless. 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 in front of him. Everything, he said, is going to be fine.
Ms. Sullivan remembers that day in 2013 when the new neighbor next door rang the doorbell because she had been locked out. Think, now, how all that turned out. It’s like a story straight out of that box of photos and Playbills.
They went directly from the court to his Italian home. Two cosmopolitans, please.