Tina Dupuy was, and has been, many different things — a stand-up comic, a political columnist, the host of a cult podcast, a press secretary for a Congressman on Capitol Hill.
But one afternoon in 2013, she was just another New Yorker who locked herself out of her building on the Upper West Side. She had only just 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 his apartment until Mrs. 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 smart and charming and energetic, but also more than that. Floating? She lived here, alone, for 30 years, almost as long as Ms. Dupuy lived, period. She told stories that made them both laugh when the husband arrived with the key.
That was nice, they told each other. Goodbye Funny now, a decade later, to look back at how it all began.
After that first meeting, Mrs. Dupuy would hear Mrs. Sullivan through the walls of the apartment, singing – showing tunes? There was something beautiful about this woman, an eccentricity that was attractive.
And boy, did she have stories.
It was the time when she worked 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 a nuclear bomb in the desert. She would never forget that cloud, that explosion.
Or the time she 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 fell ill and she had to go on. Sammy was so funny and kind.
She had was married to the actor Robert Culp, hot from his 1960s television show, “I Spy”, which was famous at the time for casting a Black actor as his co-star, Bill Cosby.
Mrs. Dupuy, a journalist at heart, listened and quietly asked herself: Was any of this even true? There was hardly any time for questions before the next big reveal — that day bed you’re sitting on? You won’t believe it – it once belonged to Charlie Chaplin.
Madame Dupuy’s own life, with hers are-this-really-happening twists, played alongside. In 2017, when a handful of women accused then-Senator Al Franken, the former comic and liberal Minnesota lawmaker, of groping them, they were ignored by many. But Ms. Dupuy said she had the same experience with him, at a political event before President Obama took office in 2009, and she felt compelled to support the plaintiffs.
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 a face of movement, and it was a lot.
She visited Mrs. Sullivan for small hits of the older woman’s energy. Mrs. Sullivan sympathized with what Mrs. Dupuy was going through. One night at the Tropicana, Frank Sinatra called her over and said, “You’re a good-looking broad.” Ms. Sullivan, who was 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 turned and walked away. When his friend followed her to apologize, she closed the door in his face because she had no idea the friend was Joe DiMaggio: “I don’t follow baseball,” she explained to Mrs. Dupuy.
The neighbors became true friends. Then, in 2020, Covid arrived. Their apartment building cleared out, everyone moved out. Even Madame Dupuy’s husband was away, quarantined with his family in California. Only Mrs. Dupuy and Mrs. Sullivan remained.
The city was so quiet. And, Madame Dupuy understood, so did her neighbor – she stopped singing. The younger woman would visit with flowers, or breakfast or fun junk food or beer, and Mrs. Sullivan would perk up again. They met in the courtyard outside and talked and talked.
One day Ms. Sullivan showed Ms. Dupuy a photo from 1965. She was walking in a line of men that included Sammy Davis Jr. and, strikingly tall and stone-faced, Harry Belafonte. It was the civil rights movement and the march against Selma, Mrs. Sullivan explained. Celebrities flew to Alabama to form a human shield around the protesters, the idea being that surely no one would take Harry Belafonte.
Madame Dupuy stared at the picture. What other memorabilia did Mrs. Sullivan have? The older woman carried a large box and placed it on her desk. Inside:
Play sheet for “Golden Boy” with her name in the cast. Pictures backstage with Sammy and others.
Photos from her role in the Broadway hit “Play it Again, Sam” (1969) written by and starring Woody Allen.
It 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: La Tropicana.
Madame Dupuy was in awe. You could tell the story of America at the end of the 20th century through Sheila, she thought.
Their backyard visits were interrupted in 2021 when Ms. Dupuy, facing rent and a noisy new neighbor upstairs, felt it was time to move out. She found a place 15 blocks up, and promised Mrs. Sullivan, by then in her 80s, that they would still see a lot 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 that they’re like a toddler that you encourage with gin.”
They were regulars at an Italian place next door where they ordered Cosmopolitans with lunch.
“When we walk down the street, people know she’s somebody,” she said later of Ms. Sullivan. “They how she walks, how she dresses.”
In 2023, Mrs. Sullivan marked her 40th year in residence. She always kept a good eye on the mail for bills and such, so she was completely 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 had to appear in housing court on the appointed date.
She sat on Charlie Chaplin’s old bed and re-read it and re-read it. How could this be? She lived here for so long. Now all she could hear, reading the city’s form letter, was “Get her out of here!”
When she called Madame Dupuy, her friend heard an uncharacteristic tone in her voice. Real fear.
I’ll be right there, she said.
Mrs. Sullivan was lacking in facts. “A terrible mistake somewhere,” she would say. “I don’t know. Something is rotting in Denmark.”
Never mind the odd cockroach, the window that wouldn’t open – Mrs. Sullivan loved that apartment. It was her dressing room, she would say, and outside, the city was her theater. Suddenly, she was afraid she was going to lose it.
We will fix this, Madame Dupuy told her. The journalist and fact finder in her got to work. She discovered a bureaucratic tangle that appeared 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 one.
She collected documents and receipts and traced the original problem, when a city agency that subsidizes Ms. Sullivan’s rent asked for a current lease and no one responded. That agency quietly stopped paying their share of her rent.
Mrs. Sullivan, who marched in Selma in front of armed troops who looked into an exploding atomic bomb, was now consumed by fear experienced by countless, anonymous New Yorkers. She started having a recurring nightmare. “They come and pick me up and carry me out,” she said. “I say, ‘No!'”
The court date was approaching, at an imposing gray building in the city center 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. “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 a lawyer became available, free of charge.
Madame Dupuy, if she was honest, was frightened on her own. What if she missed something? What if this process took too long to stop, and she left her friend? She imagined Mrs. Sullivan, with the stamp of some office worker who would never look at her, being forced out of her home and looking for a new one on her fixed retirement income. How far would they end up living?
Finally, they were shown to a cabinet.
Housing court attorneys deal with all kinds of anxious men and women facing evictions with no ready answers, no job, no income. No hope. Here is 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, would be all right.
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 that box of pictures and Game Pictures.
They went straight from court to their Italian place. Two Cosmopolitans, please.