By Michele Graham
Photography by ChiChi Ubiña
Actress. Film story editor. Author. Preservationist. Philanthropist. Mother. Grandmother. It’s been an extraordinarily interesting journey. “My life has had so many episodes that it would have to be a series,” says Deborah Goodrich Royce. “Each chapter has been the right chapter for the age at which it occurred.” And now, with the publication of her first novel—Finding Mrs. Ford—Deborah’s embarking on another adventure.
The Acting Life
Deborah’s life reads like a yummy page-turner. She grew up in Warren, Michigan, an idyllic suburb. From there she catapulted into film. “I loved acting when I was in my twenties. I loved the roles, the travel to different cities for multiple films, the variety, the challenges, the excitement.”
But after she had her two daughters, her interest in acting waned. She and her first husband had an opportunity to move to France. Once in Paris, Deborah was hired by Studio Canal Plus as a reader of novels and screenplays that had the potential to be turned into film. “It was a fantastic job for a young mother dividing her time between small children and work. I remember sitting in a park in Paris reading A.S. Byatt’s novel, Possession, (and getting paid for it!) while my little ones were playing, and thinking that I was the luckiest person alive.”
Eventually, the family was called back to the states. Back in New York, Harvey Weinstein hired Deborah as the story editor at Miramax. “The years I spent there were like writing school because I got to work with the best and the brightest in their fields.”
In 2002, life took another turn when Deborah married Chuck Royce. The “pioneer of small-cap investing” and father of four had been in Greenwich for decades. Deborah says, “I had lived in New York, Los Angeles and Paris throughout my adult life. Chuck lured me here and I have never regretted it. The sweetest thing that has recently happened is that two of our daughters, Wesley and Alexandra, have moved here with their young families.”
The Philanthropic Life
Look closely and you’ll see the threads that run through Deborah’s volunteer commitments: the arts, community, and historic preservation as a tool to revitalize community.
“Chuck would tell you that he bought the Avon Theatre as an act of courtship with me! The Avon was our earliest restoration project. Chuck and I love the Avon deeply and are very proud of everything that our board and our talented team have created there. Our most recently developed series—the Black Lens—is an exploration of what it means to be African American in our country and how that story has been told through film. Harriette Cole, a former editor at Essence and Ebony, both curates and moderates this series. Attendance has been very strong and this series has brought new and more diverse audiences into the Avon.”
“Our ultimate vision for the Avon is for it to continue to offer the best of independent cinema to our region and to grow its base of support and audience for its myriad educational and cultural offerings.”
Deborah’s commitment to the arts also includes the American Film Institute and the Greenwich International Film Festival. “Each of these organizations embodies the best of what cinema has to offer and reminds us of the important role that film plays in the life of a culturally literate person.”
Another aspect of Deborah’s philanthropy revolves around historic preservation and community, “The Avon Theatre hit the jackpot for me, since it features all of these concepts—film, historic preservation, and community building!”
The Preservation Society of Newport and the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach are also examples of the Royce’s dedication to historic preservation. “Chuck and I have a house in Palm Beach—the Lido—that was built 100 years ago in 1919 and that we recently restored. We were very pleased to receive the Ballinger Award for Historic Preservation from the Preservation Foundation.”
A little closer to Connecticut, the Royces saved Ocean House in Rhode Island, near their home in Watch Hill. Around 2003, Ocean House was going to be torn down and replaced with residential development. “We felt strongly that this was one of the few remaining Victorian seaside hotels on the Eastern Seaboard and its absence would have meant a terrible loss to the community.” Because of structural issues, the project became a replication instead of a restoration and reopened in 2010. “Over five thousand architectural elements were harvested and stored before the old building was destroyed so that they could be re-used in the new structure.”
Chuck is now leading the efforts to restore and expand the United Theatre in Westerly, RI, which originally opened in 1926. The re-imagined United will encompass live theatre, music and education, and is expected to open Fall of 2020.
Deborah’s other volunteer commitments extend near and far: from The New York Botanical Garden to The PRASAD Project, which serves the neediest members of the global community with vital medical and social services.
The Writing Life
Deborah describes her writing journey as a bit unusual. In the 1990s she worked with other writers and began learning her craft. Some years later, with a writing partner, she wrote a screenplay that won a Massachusetts Arts Council Grant. For the past fifteen years, she’s been part of very meaningful writing groups in Greenwich. “From them—and also from the extraordinary Gene Wilder who was very involved with the Avon Theatre in Stamford—I gained confidence and encouragement to seriously pursue writing.”
Which brings us to her most recent endeavor: her debut novel, Finding Mrs. Ford. “My background—and my current life—are shamelessly poached for Finding Mrs. Ford! The novel is most definitely a work of fiction, but I—like most writers—use the places and the people I know. I think some Greenwich readers will recognize my husband, Chuck Royce, as the model for my character, Jack Ford. Doing that was great fun.”
There are rewards and a richness that comes with this stage of life that clearly suits Deborah. “Many women are convinced that their power lies in their youth and beauty. That is a certain power, for sure, but there are other types of power that can come later in life. If I could impart any wisdom at all, it would be that there is nothing to fear about this stage of life. I really could not have written Finding Mrs. Ford or my second book, Ruby Falls, when I was younger. I was too busy doing other things!”