Alongside the many accolades she's received—21 Oscar nominations and three wins; 32 Golden Globe nominations and eight wins, plus the Cecil B. DeMille Award; three Emmys; two SAG Awards and countless other prizes, all for acting—Streep has managed an even more laudable achievement in Hollywood.
Namely, the 74-year-old has enjoyed a five-decade-plus career in which the focus has remained primarily on her work instead of what she's up to off camera, which is why the mother of four and grandmother of five quietly separated from husband Don Gummer six years ago without fanfare.
These days especially, living that private life sounds like a far more daunting challenge than mastering accents, channeling historical figures and disappearing into characters.
But it's not as if Streep's personal life started out charmed. Rather, she suffered a crushing heartbreak, after which she accidentally fell into Gummer's arms after a series of unlikely events.
Streep met John Cazale when he auditioned to co-star with her in a 1976 Shakespeare in the Park production of Measure for Measure. He got it, and she fell in love with the actor.
When he was only 42, Cazale was diagnosed with lung cancer and for five months Streep was by his side as he underwent treatment at New York's Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center as they shoot The Deer Hunter. Upon finding out that he was sick, the studio wanted to drop Cazale from the picture, and Streep threatened to quit if they fired him.
Cazale died on March 12, 1978, not long after they finished filming, and Streep ended up with her first Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actress.
Devastated, she left New York to stay with a friend in Canada, only to find upon her return that she was being evicted from the loft she and Cazale had shared. According to Michael Schulman's 2016 biography Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep, her brother Harry showed up to help her move, and he brought a friend, a sculptor who Meryl had met a few times but hadn't thought much about.
The kind artist offered to keep whatever boxes she didn't have room to store at his studio while she went to go make a movie in Maryland.
Streep went off to shoot The Senator and the sculptor, about to leave the country, offered her the use of his loft when she got back to New York. Rattling around the generous fellow's apartment, she thought a lot about him and they started writing to each other.
That sculptor became her husband Gummer, who she shares kids Henry, 43, Mamie, 40, Grace, 37, and Louisa, 32, with.
Originally from Louisville, Ky., he had been married once before, briefly, to his high school sweetheart. He got his MFA from Yale, at the same time Streep was attending the School of Drama. When their letters took a turn for the serious, a still-grieving Streep wasn't sure she was ready for a new relationship. But a recently widowed friend encouraged her to simply spend time with Gummer, if she liked him.
She liked him so much she married him on Sept. 30, 1978, in an Episcopal ceremony in the garden of her parents' home on Mason's Island, in Connecticut. Even Streep's mother wondered, "What is she thinking about?" recalled theater director Joe Papp, who had just worked with Streep on Taming of the Shrew, according to Schulman.
Despite her many turns playing women who exude power, decisiveness and self-reliance (yet always with a soupçon of vulnerability), Streep herself wasn't interested in becoming anyone's go-to source for life lessons, about marriage or anything else.
"I hate seeing myself pontificating," Streep said to the New York Times in 1994 on the subject of doing interviews. "I can't bare it, as if I'm an expert on anything. I'm barely in control of my own life. And there's the pressure to be articulate. With motherhood, you can barely put the subject before the predicate and make a sentence."
She couldn't help it that she continued to come off as so wise that people wanted to hear from her any chance they could get. For the last 27 years she has continued to give interviews sparingly and never divulges much about her family—though she will do her press when need be and will talk at length about causes she's passionate about.
Of course, technically she's more passionate about her family than anything else, but they remain off-limits for good reason.
Regarding the family life she keeps so private, she explained, "Robert Redford taught me that when they were babies: 'They are not your props.' I really admired the way he protected his family. It's something I consciously emulated."
You don't mess with the role of a lifetime.
(Originally published Sept. 30, 2019 at 3 a.m. PT)