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My Patty Duke

What it's like to suddenly be related to your fashion hero

It was one of those "holy shit" moments that I'd read about before but never experienced. Patty Duke was about to be my mother-in-law. I'd gotten used to being engaged to my husband Mackenzie—a well-respected actor in his own right—and my brother-in-law Sean Astin's fame, along with my father-in-law John Astin. Patty was on another level.

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I grew up watching The Patty Duke Show late at night along with some Mary Tyler Moore movies and was obsessed with the neatly-combed, short-flipped bob that became such a staple look for Patty's hair. I spent hours in front of the mirror as a fourth grader trying to get the style just right. This involved borrowing my mother's kitten heels and buying turtlenecks three sizes too big for me from Petite Sophisticate at the local mall. Patty fit in perfectly with my developing aesthetic from a remarkably young age, and as I matured, I grew into her later style adaptations. Her metamorphosis from teen star to adult actress coincided with my own coming-of-age fashion identity. Neely O'Hara in Valley of the Dolls? That was me in college. (Who doesn't love being a pill-popping drunken mess? Okay, not everyone, but damn it, I did.)

I was getting my BA in Philosophy from Manhattan's most avant-garde, liberal, stylish (I think) university, The New School, and I would strut my shit up Fifth Avenue in my very best Sharon Tate/Patty Duke crossover, which consisted of backcombed, half-up hair with a tight, top ponytail, a white men's Ralph Lauren button-down with the collar popped, and vintage high-waisted black cropped pants from What Goes Around Comes Around, complete with my mother's brown leather '70s Ferragamo boots. (Why she let me steal them, I'll never know.) I was Patty. In fact, it was while I was decked out in my Patty finest that the NYPD wrote me a ticket on 14th street for being "too hot." The cop included his phone number and I never called him back, because creepy. (But I digress.)

Patty Duke 27th Golden Globes Photo: Ron Galella/WireImage

Patty had two looks in particular that I distinctly remember as turning points in my fashion evolution. One was a candid photo of her in a tweed blazer. I immediately went out and scoured my local thrift stores for a similar style, ending up with an insane, red silk-lined tweed equestrian jacket, complete with elbow patches. I wear it to this day, and when I had the chance to sport it in front of her, I was absolutely giddy when she exclaimed, "I had one just like that!"

The second was a blue knitted dress with feathered sleeves [pictured] that she wore to the 27th Golden Globe Awards in 1970 that seemed straight off the runway. It was so bold and so damn beachy; I couldn't believe she had the balls to wear it to a major awards show, especially when she was up for a Globe. (Which she won, of course.)

Fast forward to 2009, and it was my time to finally meet her. I'd been engaged to Mack for almost six months. She and her husband Mike came to Baltimore for a speaking engagement and by then I was pursuing my PhD in Philosophy at Johns Hopkins (thought I: so fancy, how could that not impress her?) and Mack and I were due to meet them in their suite at a nice hotel downtown. I spent hours agonizing over what to wear. What the hell does one wear to meet Patty Duke, for god's sake? I didn't want to look too try-hard or done up, but I also wanted to look pulled together so that she'd know I took fashion seriously. I went with a black cotton shift dress from Theory, my grandmother's thick pearl necklace, and my mother's huge opal ring.

Mack had forewarned me that his mother was short, so I made sure to stick with black patent leather Loeffler Randall flats, not wanting to tower over her and risk making her uncomfortable. We rode up in the elevator to the penthouse, my heart pounding the entire ride, and I could feel my blood pressure increase with each floor that we passed. Finally, the door opened and there she was, all (almost) five feet of her. She wore Escada and when she took me into her arms I was enveloped in Bulgari—her signature scent. "Call me Anna," she said, and with that, I knew I was home.

Patty Duke Jennifer Astin

From that moment forward, I was fascinated by her. Here was this diminutive, bonafide movie star graciously showering me with affection and casually surrounded by St. John skirt suits (a perennial favorite of hers), Calvin Klein dresses, and the tiniest shoes I'd ever seen. We immediately bonded over our love of clothes, and once I found out that she had to shop for shoes in the children's section, I commissioned a pair of velvet, bejeweled mules for her by a former shoe designer for Roger Vivier so that she'd never have to suffer another sartorial injustice. She wore diamonds with the ease of an Oscar winner, and was immune to those pesky wrinkles across the lap of her trousers that relentlessly trouble mere mortals. She brought Kentucky Derby-worthy Easter hats for everyone to a party at Sean's house, just to add a little flash to the scene. Who does that? It was delightful.

A few years after our first meeting, my husband told me tales of her unchecked spending sprees before her bipolar diagnosis, and although I know it's wrong, I was so unbelievably jealous that I wasn't there to witness her high-fashion purchases. We spent one Christmas together in Idaho, where Anna and Mike lived for more than 30 years, and I remember the sheer joy I felt when she complimented my clothing. "Oh my, what a gorgeous sweater! You have such style. And your legs! So long and thin," she'd say while flashing that signature smile and laughing with that little girl giggle she never lost. We also bonded over my love for her son, and I was grateful that she accepted me so readily. Watching her apply her makeup at a dressing table in her bathroom is a moment in time that I will never forget. Each step was taken with not only care, but the precision that comes with practice, commitment, and interest. I felt honored to be invited into her inner sanctum.

Patty Duke Walk of Fame Ceremony Photo: Vince Bucci/Getty Images

Less than a year before she passed, I expressed an interest in buying her a bucket bag—a favorite silhouette of hers—and suggested a few brands here in LA, including a designer named Erin Shaffer. I mentioned Shaffer's Dana—a perfect drawstring pouch in a light bluish gray that I knew Anna would adore. We lost her before I could give her the bag, but I bought one for myself and intend to have it monogrammed with "PD" as a tribute to the woman whom the world knew as a movie star, and I knew as my mother-in-law.

Patty Duke Walk of Fame Star

Jennifer Astin is a daily contributor at Racked LA.