Many of the people in this series are foreign to my readers. Let me assure you that some of them are foreign to me as well. As I do research, these artists they become more human, while, somehow maintaining icon status. These three women are such an example.
Among the great stage performers, Katharine “Kit” Cornell (1893-1974); Margalo Gillmore (1897-1986) and Tallulah Bankhead (1902-1968) had amazing careers, but their personal lives, (especially Bankhead’s), were the stuff that made tabloid journalism explode.
Katharine Cornell was the first actress to win a Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actress. A look at her credits make it seem as if no one else was creating important roles at the time: The Barretts of Wimpole Street; The Letter, Alien Corn, No Time for Comedy (Park Square, 1987), A Bill of Divorcement and The Constant Wife (Guthrie, 2005) aren’t familiar to modern audiences, (revivals would be most welcome). Cornell starred in all of them.
Kit was 15 when her mother passed on, leaving her enough money to move to New York’s Greenwich Village. The Washington Square Players gave Cornell her professional start, to outstanding reviews. In 1919, she traveled to London, where she played Jo March in Little Women. Upon her return, The Washington Square Players had evolved into the Theater Guild, and she made her Broadway debut in Rachel Crothers’ Nice People, appearing with her good friend (and infrequent lover), Tallulah Bankhead.
A Lavender Marriage
In 1921, she met and married director Guthrie McClintic. It was strictly professional, because both of them were gay. It lasted until McClintic’s death 40 years later. These days, directors try to give audiences something new (think of those big musical gimmicks like that chandelier and that tire). They often don’t realize that most of the audience hasn’t seen the show before. McClintic could have taught them a thing or two. For Romeo and Juliet, he removed the tragic overtones, focusing instead on the sensual heat. He reinstated the Prologue and other scenes previously eliminated. The actors were told to ignore the poetry, bringing out sense and emotion. The earthiness and the carnal, youthful romance were enriched, which strengthened the tragic end. Basil Rathbone played Romeo, Orson Welles was Tybalt, Brian Aherne was Mercutio, Edith Evans was the Nurse, with choreography by Martha Graham, this production was a massive success.
Voice Training and Perseverance
Cornell’s advice to actors was to persevere, implying that after the big break, the work should become more intense, because if not, someone else, who worked harder, could replace them. She emphasized proper vocal quality and expert warm-ups (Cornell’s were in French), with attention to mouth movement and vocal crescendos.
Cornell’s greatest stage role, the one to which she often returned was The Barretts of Wimpole Street, the story of the romance between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. This beautiful play opens with the Barrett sisters tyrannical father stating that his daughters will remain unmarried. When Robert Browning comes to meet Elizabeth, she’s an invalid. They elope against her father’s wishes, to their eternal happiness. With Brian Aherne as Browning, the show was a massive hit.
Working with other talents
Like Lunt and Fontanne, Cornell and McClintic worked with other actors who’d later make contributions to the theater. Charles Nolte, (later a professor at the U of M), was in the cast for Barretts. Marlon Brando, played Marchbanks to her Candida before he worked with Tennessee Williams; Laurence Olivier co-starred with her in Shaw’s Doctor’s Dilemma and in No Time for Comedy; Tyrone Power appeared in Saint Joan and Kirk Douglas was in a vastly successful Three Sisters. It costarred Ruth Gordon (Harold and Maude) and Judith Anderson (Rebecca).
Cornell and Company toured Barretts to war-torn Europe by request from General George C. Marshall. Among their audiences were Dwight Eisenhower, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Following the tour, she received hundreds of thank you letters from GIs and co-chaired the Community Players, a program of the American Theater Wing, to assist veterans and their families on their return to the U.S.
Another tour brought Cornell and Ensemble to Seattle (McClintic’s hometown) for a Christmas performance of Barretts. 23 days of rain had devastated the town, and the company considered cancelling, but the show was sold out. The troupe moved into the theater, the production was installed and the performance began at 1am.
Except for her sequence in Stage Door Canteen, Cornell eschewed movies, so her roles were played by Norma Shearer, Jennifer Jones, Rosalind Russell, Jeanne Eagels, Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. However, Cornell did appear on television in Barretts and There Shall Be No Night. Candida, Florence Nightingale and Dear Liar. Some of these are in the library at the Paley Center for Media in New York.
Personal and later life
Among her special friendships were actress Nancy Hamilton and writer Mercedes de Acosta, as well as Tallulah Bankhead. Guthrie McClintic succumbed to lung disease in October 1961. Cornell retired to Martha’s Vineyard, where she died in June, 1974. A theater was named for her in the Tisbury Town Hall, and the townhouse at 33 Beekman Place she shared with her husband has an historical marker in honor of their importance to New York City.
Trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Art and a member of the Theater Guild, Margolo Gillmore is probably the least known of this trio, but she had a career that spanned 45 years. After she came to Woollcott’s attention while starring in The Famous Mrs. Fair, she was invited to sit at the Algonquin Round Table. She created roles in O’Neill’s Marco Millions, Andreyev’s He Who Gets Slapped and in Outward Bound. She was the original Mary Haines in The Women and made her last Broadway appearance with Elaine Stritch in Noel Coward’s Sail Away.
During WWII, Gillmore toured with Cornell in Barretts. Giving attention to the injured, the ensemble made daily appearances at military hospitals.
In 1954, Mary Martin played one of her signature roles, Peter Pan. Margalo Gillmore played Mrs. Darling in that production and repeated the role in the television production, available on YouTube. This production is narrated by Lynn Fontanne. Gillmore never married, and lived near Cornell (and Katharine Hepburn) in the Turtle Bay section of Manhattan. She passed on in June 1986.
Miss Tallulah Bankhead
Who do you think is outrageous? The Kardashians? Madonna? 45? Well, they’re nothing compared to Tallulah Bankhead, not only an extraordinary actress, but infamous for grabbing headlines and running (often naked) with them. There was simply no one like her!
Raised in a political Alabama family, Bankhead’s grandfather and uncle were U.S. Senators and her father served as Speaker of the House. Tallulah supported many liberal causes, often opposing her family. Her sister, Eugenia, married at the age of 16 (and would marry again four times, while having relationships with several women). When she was 15, Tallulah sent a profile picture to a magazine contest. The prize was a visit to New York and a role in a movie. However, she neglected to send her name and address. She learned that she’d won by flipping through the next issue. Next to her photo was the question, “Who is she?” Her father sent a letter and duplicate photo. Tallulah she was on her way.
It wasn’t much of a career move, but she decided to stay in New York, taking up residence at the Algonquin where she was quickly befriended by Woollcott. Telling him during an underwhelming performance that there was “less to this than meets the eye,” Woollcott was delighted. Her own debut, in 1919, was the short-lived The Squab Farm. She also appeared in Nice People, 39 East and the appropriately titled Her Temporary Husband.
The Toast of London
In 1923, Bankhead starred in The Dancers in the West End, and became the toast of London when audiences and reviewers realized she could turn the most inferior scripts into fascinating theater. She appeared in the London production of Sidney Howard’s (Gone with The Wind) They Knew What They Wanted. She returned to New York, where she appeared in Noel Coward’s Fallen Angels and she was offered the greatest role of her career: Regina Giddens in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. Her ruthless performance as a greedy woman craving more, Bankhead was brilliant. During this period, it was commonplace for productions to give benefit performances for certain causes. Bankhead’s political activism often clashed with Hellman’s, so the two of them were often at odds.
On the Screen
Tallulah was a top choice for the role of Scarlett O’Hara. However, she didn’t photograph well in color and in spite of her Southern background, only offered the role of Belle Watling. She turned it down. Bankhead would appear onscreen in Tarnished Lady, The Devil and the Deep, and Faithless. She dominates Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, in the role of a survivor who can speak to a Nazi soldier also in the lifeboat, Bankhead gives a stellar performance. She’d later play Katherine the Great in A Royal Scandal. Bankhead was the top choice for Amanda in the film version of The Glass Menagerie, but the role went to Gertrude Lawrence. Shortly before her death, she appeared in the horror film, Fanatic, released in the U.S. as Die, Die, My Darling! Capitalizing on Bankhead’s famous catchphrase, she hated the movie.
Pure as the Driven Slush
Bankhead’s best friend and frequent lover was Estelle Winwood (Murder by Death), but she counted Kit Cornell, Eva Le Gallienne and Blyth Daly among them as well. In 1941,she surprised everyone when she married John Emery, who bore a striking resemblance to John Barrymore. The marriage lasted five years, during which the two appeared onstage in Antony & Cleopatra and later Maugham’s The Circle. The marriage ended because both of them were unfaithful.
“Cocaine’s not addicting, I should know, I’ve been doing it for years”
A lifelong insomniac, she was a very heavy smoker (over 100 cigarettes a day), drinker (two quarts of bourbon daily), nudist and drug addict, but she managed to keep working. Important roles included Sabina in The Skin of our Teeth, and she toured for years in Private Lives. Prior to the Chicago opening, she put the entire company, including herself, on the wagon. To celebrate the opening, she got drunk, naked and ran around the hotel. Later, she hosted The Big Show on radio and appeared on television, sometimes hosting The Tonight Show, The Luci/Desi Comedy Hour and played The Black Widow on the series, Batman.
Her last stage appearances were in Tennessee Williams plays. Williams himself thought she was the worst Blanche he’d ever seen in A Streetcar Named Desire. When she appeared in the revival of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, she was visibly suffering and her voice couldn’t carry past the third row. Tallulah Bankhead died at the age of 66 on December 1, 1968. She suffered from pneumonia, emphysema, malnutrition, and flu. What an astounding life she had!
Lee Israel’s biography, Miss Tallulah Bankhead is a pleasure to read. She was played by Carrie Nye, Dick Cavett’s late wife in the TV movie, The Scarlett O’Hara Wars. Helen Gallagher played her off-Broadway in Tallulah Bankhead Tonight. Kathleen Turner toured in a solo play, Tallulah several years ago as well.