It's a good thing Rhea Feikin isn't superstitious. Almost two years ago, the longtime Maryland Public Television personality sold her Stevenson home of 42 years and moved into a swank new condo on Charles Street in Baltimore. "I always knew I wanted to live in the Charles Street area," she explains. "My friends live in this area, and I was tired of being the designated driver!" But literally a few days after she moved in, disaster struck. Feikin woke up at 4 a.m. with a startle. "I got out of bed and ended up walking through two inches of water," she recalls. A pipe on a water heater in a neighboring apartment had burst and leaked water into her apartment.
While Feikin moved to the nearby Colonnade for a week (and her belongings were stored), a team of disaster specialists dried out the walls, pulled up the soaked carpeting, and dehumidified the space. Once the apartment was restored, a reordered Karastan carpet was laid down again, and designers Ted Pearson and Rita St. Clair (also two of Feikin's dear friends) got back to the business of decorating.
Crisis averted, right? Wrong.
Within days, Feikin noticed strange dirt spots appearing all over the carpet. This time around, the carpet was deemed defective (the glue backing was eating up into the yarn). Because Pearson and St. Clair were afraid the glue would get on Feikin's belongings, the movers came back, put everything in storage for a second time, and Feikin moved back to the Colonnade.
Unbelievably, yet a third round of carpeting was defective, and Feikin was forced to hang her hat at the Colonnade again before moving in for good in July of 2007.
"She was a champ," recalls Pearson. "She was so kind and sweet and patient with us the whole time. I said to her, 'You've been so nice to us—anyone else would have lost it.'"
As for Feikin? She took the whole thing with characteristic good humor. "I've never been faced with anything like that before," she laughs. "What could I do except believe it was going to be all right? Did it teach me anything? Not a damn thing other than don't use that carpet! I loved being here. I knew it was going to work out."
Standing in her condo's doorway, dressed in a navy-and-white-striped boatneck sweater, elegant white trousers, and the perfect pair of white leather sandals, the 73-year-old Feikin seems to have completely recovered from the stress of moving in. In fact, she positively glows. It was light, Feikin says, that sold her on the two-bedroom apartment in the first place. "When I first saw this apartment," she says, "the light drew me. I love light."
While Feikin also loved her suburban home, she decided it was time to move on after more than four decades in one place.
"I was living in the house by myself," she explains. (Son Daniel lives in Kenya and is an epidemiologist for the Center for Disease Control; daughter Jennifer lives in Los Angeles.) "My second husband [actor Colgate Salsbury] had died seven years before," says Feikin, "and my dog, Maud, died. So there I was in this house, which I loved, with beautiful old trees, and a basement stuffed with things my kids couldn't get rid of. The years went on, and they never looked through any of it. I just decided one day it was time for me to change my life."
The first order of business was selling the house. Feikin's Realtor, Michael Yerman, thought the '60s-era home, with its small rooms and outdated spaces, might be a tough sell. But within several days of putting it on the market in October 2007, a developer purchased the one-and-a-half-acre property with the intention of razing the house and building a new one on the land.
"I didn't have to paint it or do anything," says Feikin. "All I had to do was empty it and find a place to live immediately."
Ironically, it was Feikin's kids who found it more difficult to let go. "My children, who come home two times a year at most, were broken-hearted about my move," she says. "We had to go through every room of the house with a camera and talk about our memories from every room. Then my daughter put it to music and gave us DVDs."
Not everything was left behind. Feikin was able to take her favorite pieces from her old county home and incorporate them into her new urban one—while updating and creating a space of her own. The airy, light-filled apartment is a rhapsody in cream, peaches, and pale pinks—a palette based on the Indian silk taffeta Tafford curtains in her bedroom.
"I didn't want a lot of color," she says. "I didn't want to be jangled. I wanted to feel calm and serene, and I wanted the art to show. Because Rita knows me so well, I didn't have to say a lot. I like Art Nouveau and Art Deco. I wanted some of that feel here."
Feikin brought all of her artwork (magnificent signed lithographs from Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha, a Douglas Hoffman painting, wooden antique hand carvings from an Italian donkey cart) and objects (a valuable 1920s Handel leaded stained glass lamp, a stunning silver tea set samovar, a wooden box from a noted Chinese artist purchased at the American Craft Council Show in Baltimore) from the old house. For the furniture, St. Clair and Pearson balanced treasured pieces—like Feikin's Scandinavian table and chairs (actually purchased by St. Clair nearly 50 years ago) and a pair of black lacquered and zebrawood Art Deco chairs—with new ones, including a Deco-style dining room sideboard, a stunning living room sofa covered in a cream-colored Old World weavers fabric, and woven outdoor furniture with leopard upholstered cushions (where Feikin reads her beloved crime novels).
At least one relic from the Stevenson home didn't make the final cut. "I'm a big lover of bathrobes," says Feikin. "When I get home, I don't put on warm-ups. I put on a bathrobe. I had my favorite old, ratty bathrobe, and as I was washing it at my old house, I looked at it and said, 'Girl, I'm sorry, but you're not coming with me—you go with the house!'"
Feikin's bedroom is a study in feminine glamour. After sleeping on a platform bed for many years, Feikin wanted one with a headboard. "I told Rita I wanted something really special," she says. "She said, 'I want to show you something. If you hate it, just say so.'"
Rita's grand idea? To take elements from an Art Deco armoire and headboard she had bought at a French flea market and use them all throughout the room. "She said, 'What I'd like to do is take the armoire apart and build you a headboard and side table,'" Feikin recalls. St. Clair also designed an elegant walnut and silver-leafed dresser with legs fashioned from the leftover wood.
The results are quite striking—and Feikin is thrilled with them. "It's just what I wanted," she says.
"I would like to think that we captured her look and personality," says St. Clair of the bedroom. "Rhea is a diva, but without all that drama. She is not what I'd call a drama queen. She is a warm, intelligent, and very feminine lady, and I wanted to create a 'stage set' according to her personality and lifestyle."
Part of that stage set includes a walk-in closet stocked with beautiful clothing purchased at favorite shops such as Ruth Shaw and Jones and Jones and a makeup table with ample lighting. "I am a makeup junkie," says Feikin, who loves Bare Escentuals makeup. "I'm fast, and I can practically put it on in the dark."
Of course, when Feikin gets dressed for the day, she has to mind her fashion more than most. "I probably am a little more cognizant of how I look when I go to the grocery store, although sometimes it's bad," says Feikin, who is a fixture at such Baltimore restaurants as The Prime Rib and Kali's Court. "It's part of the job. I'm grateful that people like me. I'm grateful they want to say, 'Hi,' but that means I can't go out in my bathrobe. That's the downside. It's hard to look hideous when you go out, though I've managed to do it quite a number of times!"
When Feikin was a little girl growing up in Hampden, she dreamed of becoming a movie star. "I wanted to be an actress, and I acted all through high school and college at University of Maryland."
But her career choice was frowned upon by her family. "My parents said, 'You have to learn to do something. You can't major in drama.'" Feikin graduated with a degree in speech pathology, and went to work for the Department of Education as a speech therapist.
As luck would have it, a year into her job, WBAL-TV was looking for someone from the department to do a show on speech. "They said, 'Who wants to do it?' And no one did, and I said, 'I do, I do!' and that was the beginning of my TV career," says Feikin.
A stint on the children's show, Miss Rhea and Sunshine with puppeteer Cal Schuman (who kept things lively when he came straight to work hungover from a night of drinking, Feikin reports) followed, as well as a weather gig with Schuman at WBAL-TV in the '60s. "We didn't know a thing about the weather," says Feikin. "They had teletype machines in the newsroom and we would pull off the weather and make it up. Once in a while, when the teletype machine didn't work, we had to call the weather bureau and talk to a meteorologist, and they were always so annoyed that we were doing the weather and didn't know the first thing about it."
Even as Feikin's TV career was flourishing, she never lost her first love: the theater. She helped found Centerstage in 1963 and appeared in several productions including La Ronde by Arthur Schnitzler; it was also where she met her second husband. Acting in professional theater, however, helped her realize that acting was not going to be her calling. "I was smart enough to know that, although I thought I was hot stuff in college, I was mediocre when it came to people who really knew how to act," she chuckles. "So fortunately, I was able to forge a career in TV."
That's an understatement. Feikin is about to celebrate her 35th year with MPT. As the host of Artworks This Week (recently renamed Artworks) and other shows, Feikin has proven herself the consummate conversationalist, able to interview actor Jeremy Irons (an admitted crush), cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and lifelong friend John Waters (whose movies she has had bit parts in, including Hairspray and Cecil B. Demented) with equal aplomb.
Ironically, she might even be most famous around town for her cheerful and persuasive presence at MPT fund drives. "One time I came home from doing a membership drive, and my second husband said, 'You know, you really are a fabulous actor.' And I said, 'What are you talking about? I'm doing a membership drive!' And he said, 'You only do one character—you—but you do it so well.' That was a really wonderful compliment because, in fact, I think people on TV who are closest to who they really are are the most believable and successful—you can't choose a role you can't play."
Feikin, a devoted yogi, plans on playing herself for a long time to come. "MPT doesn't have this age neurosis, especially since they have an older audience," she says. "It's never been an issue for me there. My daughter says, 'Who do you know that's your age except Barbara Walters who does what you do? You are making younger women realize they can have a career on camera for longer.' And I hope that's true. I hope women will be allowed to age on camera, just as men have been allowed to age on camera."
Meanwhile, off camera, Feikin couldn't be happier about this turning point in her life. "Sometimes I feel like I'm living in a hotel," says Feikin. "The feeling I get from living here is so welcoming and comforting. And other times, I feel like I'm living on a big cruise ship. Everything is here, and it's all very easy."
For now, it's smooth sailing. "I'm finished with responsibility. I went away to Italy recently and had my mail held at the front desk. I closed the door, and I left. This is the right thing for me now. This," she says with dramatic emphasis, "is nirvana."