We said goodbye to Dorothy Zbornak 25 years ago today.
“One Flew Out of the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the two-part series finale to The Golden Girls, aired on May 9, 1992. In its final moments, Bea Arthur’s Dorothy said her goodbyes to the women with whom she’d shared a Miami home for the past seven seasons. And then she headed off to Atlanta with her new husband.
It still chokes me up every time I see it.
No, not only because it marked the end of a funny TV show that meant a lot to me and to many other gay men. I was invested in The Golden Girls as a 10-year-old and still am today, so Dorothy leaving Sophia (Estelle Getty), Blanche (Rue McClanahan) and Rose (Betty White) behind meant the breakup of a family unit. (I refuse to acknowledge the existence of The Golden Palace — even the episode where Bea Arthur came back.) They weren’t related — except for Dorothy and Sophia, whose relationship frequently defied the typical mom-daughter dynamics — but they lived together, they ate cheesecake together, they shared each other’s struggles, and they bickered and squabbled only to make amends by the end of any given episode. By and large, they succeeded because they lived together.
As I look toward my future, The Golden Girls has taken on new significance. It may to you as well. You see, I’ve never had any inclination to have children. A dog is enough. And while that’s freeing for me in the short term, I realize that I’m depriving myself of a safety net in my own golden years, should I be lucky enough to see them. Here’s hoping the money saved by not sending a kid through college might be enough to keep me out of a real-life Shady Pines.
I spoke to Los Angeles nightlife promoter and actor Mario Diaz about the virtues of being a gay man who opts to live with friends. For years, Diaz lived in a setup that he shared with friends, Golden Girls-style.
“Not all of us find our peace with traditional lifestyles. Partnering up and settling down isn’t the path that works for all of us. We have options,” Diaz says. “And let’s face it: No one has more fun than a bunch of homos. We’re clever, funny and have great style, if I say so myself.”
Diaz has since sold the compound that he nicknamed “The Diaz Home for Wayward Boys,” and he says he’s noticing the difference. “Now that I’m living alone again, I’m dealing with some feelings of isolation and loneliness that I haven’t had for some time. I’m realizing how much it means to have loved ones around. I miss it.”
And in a city as big as Los Angeles, the logistics of maintaining contact with friends gets harder the further they live from you and the more time everyone spends developing their careers. “There’s one thing we all need, and that’s connection and companionship,” Diaz says.
It so happens that I entered my Golden Girls phase early. I bought a house in 2014, and I was using the second bedroom as an office when I decided to invite a friend to live in it. (That makes me the Blanche, though homeownership is the only way I’ll ever get to be the Blanche.) I’d previously vowed never again to have a roommate if I wasn’t in a relationship with him, and I think both of us thought of the living situation as temporary. But we’re a good fit. He’s a Dorothy. (Hi, Glen, if you’re reading this. I’m sure you agree that you’re a Dorothy.) And years into this setup, it feels right.
There may come a time when my roommate decides to move into his own place, and there may come a time when the person I’m dating might move in with me. Looking decades down the road, however, there may also be a point at which I invite platonic friends to share my living space with me once again. A lot of my unmarried peers seem to think of not having roommates or not needing roommates as an indictor of having — at long last — “grown up,” but I’m not sure I agree. Just practically speaking, it’s easier to manage life with someone to fall back on — to wait for a plumber or feed the dog if you’re obligated elsewhere. It’s nice to have someone to watch your stories with. And barring any future technological advancements, dogs can’t drive you to a doctor’s appointment.
It’s a stereotype of the gay journey to leave behind your biological family in Cornpie, Indiana, and then to amass a de facto gay family in the big city. But I feel like one of the reasons gay men gravitate toward The Golden Girls, even today, is that those four ladies made the de facto family a lot more literal.
In fact, the episode that aired immediately before the series finale is another two-parter, “Home Again, Rose,” in which Rose suffers a heart attack and her daughter Kirsten (Lee Garlington) flies in to take her away to be with family. In time, however, Kirsten realizes how much Blanche, Dorothy and Sophia care for Rose, and she sees the group for what it really is: a functional family that she’d made for herself in Miami.
It maybe stings all the more that the next episode has Dorothy marrying and moving away, but the lasting memory shouldn’t be Dorothy leaving so much as how well it worked when the four ladies lived together. When I’m golden myself, and if I’m divorced or widowed or just willfully celibate after spending this long in Los Angeles, I want a support network like that. I want to share my life and my kitchen table and whatever cheesecake might be in the fridge with the family members I’ve chosen.
Diaz agrees, saying he can also see this sort of living situation in his future. “I already have a vision in my head of me and my tranma Jackie Beat rolling around in our bejeweled wheelchairs bickering with one another,” he says. “God help me.”
Tonight, should the mood strike you, watch your favorite episode of The Golden Girls. (The entire series is streaming on Hulu now, don’t forget.) Laugh at Rose being dumb, at Sophia being crass, at Dorothy being a sarcastic curmudgeon or at Blanche relishing her role of gleeful sexpot. But it’s also worth thinking about what made this show work so well and what has drawn gay men to it for so long: It’s about people who pick their own family and are all the better for it. Time will tell, but it might just be that we’ve been looking at our own futures all this time.
We should be so lucky to have friends like them.
(A little end note: In case reruns aren’t enough to satisfy your Golden Girls fix, I did an oral history of the show one year ago in which I interviewed a handful of its writers to talk about its longtime gay appeal and to share behind-the-scenes stories. If I can be so bold, it’s a must-read for fellow diehards.)