Katharine Cornell as Mary Fitton in the Broadway production of Clemence Dane's
Will Shakespeare (1923)
February 16, 1893|
Berlin, German Empire
|Died||June 9, 1974
Tisbury, Massachusetts, U.S.
(m. 1921; his death 1961)
Cornell was the first actress to win a Drama League Award and garnered the nickname of "First Lady of the Theatre", a title also bestowed upon her friend Helen Hayes, though each deferred the honor to the other. Cornell is noted for her major Broadway roles in serious dramas, often directed by her husband, Guthrie McClintic. The couple formed a production company, which gave them complete artistic freedom in choosing and producing plays. Their production company gave first or prominent Broadway roles to some of the more notable actors of the 20th century, including many British Shakespearean actors. Cornell was noted for spurning screen roles, unlike other actresses of her day, appearing in only one Hollywood film, Stage Door Canteen (1943), in which she played herself. Cornell is regarded as one of 20th century Broadway's greatest leading ladies.
- 1 Acting career
- 2 Family and childhood
- 3 Early career
- 4 Stardom
- 5 The Barretts of Wimpole Street
- 6 The 1933 tour
- 7 Broadway successes and maturation of style
- 8 The war years
- 9 Post-war changes
- 10 On acting and the theatre
- 11 Legacy
- 12 References
- 13 External links
Cornell's most famous role was as English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the 1931 Broadway production of The Barretts of Wimpole Street. Other appearances on Broadway included: W. Somerset Maugham's The Letter (1927), Sidney Howard's The Alien Corn (1933), Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (1934), Maxwell Anderson's The Wingless Victory (1936), S. N. Behrman's No Time for Comedy (1939), a Tony Award-winning Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra (1947), and a revival of Maugham's The Constant Wife (1951).
She appeared in only one film, the World War II morale booster Stage Door Canteen, in which she played herself and, along with one of the soldiers, recited a speech from Romeo and Juliet. She did appear in television adaptations of The Barretts of Wimpole Street (recreating her original role some 20 years later), and Robert E. Sherwood's There Shall Be No Night. She also narrated the Oscar-winning documentary Helen Keller in Her Story. Primarily regarded as a tragedienne, she was admired for her refined, romantic presence. One reviewer observed, "Hers is not a robust romanticism, however. It tends toward dark but delicate tints, and the emotion she conveys most aptly is that of an aspiring girlishness which has always been subject to theatrical influences of a special sort."
Her appearances in comedy were infrequent, and praised more widely for their warmth than their wit. When she appeared in The Constant Wife, critic Brooks Atkinson concluded that she had changed a "hard and metallic" comedy into a romantic drama.
Family and childhood
Cornell was born into a prominent, wealthy Buffalo society family. Her great-grandfather, Samuel Garretson Cornell, a descendant of pioneer ancestor Thomas Cornell, came to Buffalo in the 1850s, and founded Cornell Lead Works. One of his grandsons, Peter, married Alice Gardner Plimpton, who gave birth to Katharine in Berlin, where Peter was studying medicine at the University of Berlin. Six months later, they returned to Buffalo and lived at 174 Mariner Street in Buffalo, New York. As a child, her relationship with her parents was troubled, due in part to her mother's alcoholism. She play-acted in her backyard with imaginary friends. Soon, she was performing in school pageants and plays, and she would watch family productions in her grandfather's attic theater, still standing at 484 Delaware Avenue. She played at the Buffalo Studio Club parlor theater, located at 508 Franklin Street. She loved athletics and was a runner-up for city championship at tennis, and an amateur swimming champion. She attended the University of Buffalo (later the State University of New York at Buffalo).
After Cornell had become famous, she would often bring her productions to her native Buffalo. Although she never returned to Buffalo to live, her enthusiasm for the city and its inhabitants was well known. Biographer Tad Mosel wrote: "To show her affection for her hometown, she always walked slowly when she left her hotel, turning her head to smile on everyone on the street, missing no one, so they could feel close to her and be able to say when they got home that night, 'Katharine Cornell smiled directly at me.'" For the rest of her career, she would be greeted backstage by family and friends from Buffalo on her opening Broadway night. Many of her productions were held at the Erlanger Theater on Delaware Avenue,  across from the Statler Hotel. The Erlanger was demolished in 2007.
In 1915, her mother died, leaving her enough money to be independent, and she left for New York City. There she joined the Washington Square Players and was hailed as one of the most promising actresses of the season. After just two seasons, she then joined Jessie Bonstelle's company, a leading New York repertory ("stock") company that divided its summers between Detroit and Buffalo. (See Temple Beth-El (Bonstelle Theatre). Now aged 25, she was consistently receiving glowing reviews.
Cornell joined with various theater companies, including the Bonstelle, that toured around the East Coast. In 1919, she went with the Bonstelle company to London to play Jo in a stage adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's novel Little Women. Although the critics disparaged the play itself, they specifically mentioned Cornell as the one bright spot of the evening. The paper The Englishwomen wrote of Cornell: "London is unanimous in its praise, and London will flock to see her." Upon her return to New York, she met Guthrie McClintic, a young theater director. She finally made her Broadway debut in the play Nice People by Rachel Crothers. She had a small part alongside Tallulah Bankhead.
Her first major Broadway role was as Sydney Fairfield, in A Bill of Divorcement in 1921. The New York Times wrote of her performance, "[she] has the central and significant role of the play and ... gives therein a performance of memorable understanding and beauty." It played for 173 performances, well enough to be considered a hit. Afterwards, Cornell played a succession of forgotten plays.
She married McClintic on September 8, 1921, in her aunt's summer home in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada. Cornell's family often summered there among other wealthy Americans. Nonetheless, it is generally acknowledged that Cornell was a lesbian, and McClintic was gay, and their union was a lavender marriage. She was a member of the "sewing circles" in New York, and had relationships with Nancy Hamilton, Tallulah Bankhead, and Mercedes de Acosta, among others. The couple eventually bought a townhouse at 23 Beekman Place in Manhattan.
In 1924, she and McClintic were part of The Actor's Theatre, a successor to the Washington Square Players. This was a group of actors that sought to be a democracy without any stars. As their first production, they selected Candida by George Bernard Shaw. At the time, the play was considered perfect for the group, as none of the characters were considered to outshine the others, because Shaw intended the play to be about ideas. Even though the leading protagonist is Candida, she doesn't really come into her own until the third act. However, Cornell essentially re-envisioned the play. She made Candida the core of the play, a view adopted by directors and critics ever since. Reviews were ecstatic and audiences responded in kind. The Actor's Theatre changed its plans and decided that Cornell's name must appear above the play's title in all future productions of the troupe. Another acting troupe, the Theatre Guild, controlled the rights to all Shaw's plays, and thereafter only allowed Cornell to play the role of Candida so long as she was alive, a role which she reprised several more times in her career. Shaw later wrote her a note stating that she had created "an ideal British Candida in my imagination."
Cornell's next role was to play Iris March in The Green Hat, a romance by Michael Arlen in 1925. The play had themes of syphilis and loose morals, and Iris March was a strong sexual creature. Leslie Howard played the role of Napier. While the play was still in Chicago, it became an international hit, known all over the US and Europe. Ashton Stevens, senior drama critic in Chicago, wrote that The Green Hat "should die at every performance of its melodramatics, its rouge and rhinestones, its preposterous third act.... Already, I am beginning to forget its imperfections and remember only its charms." Its chief charm, he conceded, was Cornell, who sent "tiny bells up and down my unpurchasable vertebrae." Most other critics panned the play itself, but nonetheless found it irresistible because of Cornell's ability to mesmerise, despite the garish dialogue. Critic George Jean Nathan wrote that the play was "superbly acted in its leading role by that one young woman who stands head and shoulders above all the other young women of the American theater, Miss Katharine Cornell."
The play had 231 performances in New York before going to Boston and then a cross-country tour. The play's success spawned a fashion in green hats of the type worn by Cornell in the play. Later, Tallulah Bankhead played the role of Iris March in a less successful London adaption of the same story, and Greta Garbo played the role in a silent movie version (A Woman of Affairs).
She then starred in 1927 in The Letter, by W. Somerset Maugham, as Leslie Crosby, the woman who kills her lover. Maugham himself suggested Cornell for the part. Although the critics weren't too excited, Cornell by then had developed a loyal following and the opening night was such a sensation that the New York Sun wrote that the sidewalks were packed with people after the performance straining to catch a glimpse of her. The play was later made into a movie starring Bette Davis.
In 1928, Cornell played the lead role of the Countess Ellen Olenska in a dramatized version of Edith Wharton's novel The Age of Innocence. The performance received not a single bad review. After this success, Cornell was offered the lead in The Dishonored Lady. Originally, it was intended for Ethel Barrymore, who failed to accept the role. The play is a lurid melodrama about true-life murder in Glasgow, Scotland. Walter Winchell wrote, "Never in the history of the theatre has an actress of such distinction permitted such an exciting scene. She [Cornell] actually permits a man to crack her a powerful wallop in the face!" One critic complained about the "fifth rate claptrap" of a play, and chastised Cornell for selecting such lowbrow theater as a waste of her talents.
Vogue asserted that Cornell does these types of plays because "she prefers... to be blunt, trash of a violent kind." Biographer and playwright Tad Mosel counters that although this is meant as a reproof, when stripped of its condescension, "it is a simple statement of the truth. There was a part of her that indeed preferred trash of a violent kind. Her integrity as an artist was the only defense such a preference needed. Every performance had to be as much a revelation of herself as it was an interpretation of a role, and therefore her choice of roles and the way she played them offer great insights into her nature, greater perhaps than can be inferred from her gracious, smiling, always agreeable, and increasingly guarded behavior offstage. One must look at her performances as one looks at the output of a writer or a painter."
The Barretts of Wimpole Street
Katharine Cornell is perhaps best known in her role as poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Rudolf Besier's play The Barretts of Wimpole Street. The play is based on the real story of the Barrett family who lived on Wimpole Street in London. The play opens with Elizabeth, the oldest child of a large and loving family. Their father is widowed and has become embittered and determined that none of his children would ever marry, lest they become slaves to the "brutal tyranny of passion" and "the lowest urge of the body." As the play progresses, his smothering concern for his family and particularly for Elizabeth, who is an invalid, takes on a sinister character. Poet Robert Browning has read some of Elizabeth's poetry and comes to meet her, and they immediately find an attraction for each other. When he leaves, Elizabeth struggles to her feet to watch him disappear down the lane. Elizabeth and Robert later elope, against her father's strict orders, and when he finds that she has married without his permission or knowledge, he orders that her beloved dog, Flush, be put to death. However, her sister had taken care to see that her cocker spaniel joined them in their escape.Text of the play
The play has several difficulties. The lead role of Elizabeth has to be played as submissive to her father, yet must be the center of attention throughout. Although the ending is happy for Elizabeth and Robert, the rest of the family remains under the domination of the father, who is deranged in his obsession. Elizabeth must be played for the first half lying still on a sofa wearing heavy Victorian costume, and covered with a blanket, as befitting an invalid. Many, including Lionel Barrymore, who was asked to play the part of the father, thought it was too melodramatic and past its time. The play was turned down by 27 New York producers before McClintic read it and found it so moving, he cried whenever he read it.
When McClintic was in London, he was able to secure Brian Aherne to play the part of Robert Browning. Afterwards, McClintic immediately went to a London jewelry store and bought a necklace, two bracelets and a garnet ring, all at least 100 years old. For every single performance that she ever gave as Elizabeth Barrett, Cornell wore this same jewelry in the last act where she leaves the family home for the last time. Katharine Hepburn was selected for the part of Henrietta, but since she was going to play in a summer stock company a few months later, she could not be signed to a contract. Casting the dog was troublesome, since it would have to lie still in its basket on stage for a great length of time, and then exit when called for. McClintic selected an eight-month-old cocker spaniel who played the role for the full run and many others afterwards to unanimous applause.
McClintic directed the play with a meticulous attention to period detail, and it lasted three hours. Cornell was herself listed as the producer, although it was actually produced by C. & M.C. Productions, Inc., a company wholly owned by both McClintic and Cornell. The play opened first in Cleveland, then Buffalo before reaching New York in January 1931.
Brooks Atkinson wrote of opening night: "After a long succession of meretricious plays it introduces us to Katharine Cornell as an actress of the first order. Here the disciplined fury that she has been squandering on catch-penny plays becomes the vibrant beauty of finely wrought character.... By the crescendo of her playing, by the wild sensitivity that lurks behind her ardent gestures and her piercing stares across the footlights, she charges the drama with a meaning beyond the facts it records. Her acting is quite as remarkable for the carefulness of its design as for the fire of her presence.... The Barretts of Wimpole Street is a triumph for MIss Cornell and the splendid company with which she has surrounded herself."
All other critics were uniform in praise of her acting: superb, eloquent, exalted, dark, rhythmic, luminous, haunting, lyric, ravishing. Even Dorothy Parker, known for her caustic wit and unsentimental reviews, wrote that although she didn't think it a good play, she "paid it the tribute of tears." Further, "Miss Katharine Cornell is a completely lovely Elizabeth Barrett.... It is little wonder that Miss Cornell is so worshipped; she has romance, or, if you like better the word of the daily-paper critics, she has glamour." The play ran for 370 performances. When it was announced that it was closing, the remaining performances sold out and hundreds were turned away.
The play's success engendered a revival of Robert Browning's poetry, and cocker spaniels became the popular dog that year. Irving Thalberg wanted Cornell to play her part in an MGM production, even offering that if she was not completely satisfied with the result, the film would be destroyed. She refused, and a movie was released with most of the cast intact, and Thalberg's wife, actress Norma Shearer, played the part. Cornell refused to ever act in movies because she had seen audiences laugh at the acting of old movies and did not want that to happen to her. According to biographer Tad Mosel, "she did not feel that she was acting for historians or nostalgia fans of the future but for audiences of the here and now, people who came into the theatre tonight, sat in their seats and waited for the curtain to go up. Not only were they the ones she wanted to reach, but she wanted to be there when they responded, she did not want to be off in another part of the world while they gazed at a second-hand image on a screen. In fact, she was not sure she could give them anything to respond to without the inducement of their presence." Moreover, the largeness of her facial structure—her bone structure—were so explicit that they could be seen to the last row, but "might have been less than an asset on the screen where the camera enlarges and exaggerates. Her voice and gestures were eloquent theatre props that might have been too much for the screen, necessitating adjustments so basic that she could not make them. And beyond physical equipment ... it is possible that the quality she had as an individual, the unique something about her that transcended technique and craft and fifth-rate writing might not have transcended cameras; it would not have come through to an audience without her physical presence."
However, other sources state that Hollywood would secure Broadway plays for its own actors under contract, and that Cornell was never considered for the roles she originated. Additionally, Cornell apparently wrote to film director George Cukor, intimating that she would consider a film if he would direct her. Nothing came of this effort.
She turned down many movie roles that eventually got Academy Awards wins and nominations for the actresses who actually did play those parts, from Olan in The Good Earth, to Pilar in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Additionally, many of her hit plays continued life either as vehicles for other great actresses, or became movies. However, as audiences were deserting live theater for the movies, Cornell became even more determined to stay in the theater in order to help keep it vibrant.
The 1933 tour
After Barretts closed, Cornell played leading parts in two plays, Lucrece and Alien Corn. A considerable portion of her role in Lucrece was played in pantomime. Her success in Lucrece landed her on the cover of Time on December 26, 1932. In the article, she is quoted as saying "To act, you have to burst out spontaneously and feel constantly and deeply. So if you're too accustomed to using your head instead of your feelings you won't be able to call on your feelings when you want them. I tell young women not to come on the stage, unless there is nothing else they can be happy in."
Her next production would be Romeo and Juliet, with McClintic directing. Basil Rathbone was Romeo, and Cornell played Juliet. It would be the first time either had participated in any Shakespearean play, and their inexperience showed. Moreover, Shakespeare wasn't fashionable at that time, and his plays were rarely presented in live theater, the last play being Hamlet with John Barrymore twelve years earlier. The play opened in Buffalo and had a difficult time. Her friend, modern dance pioneer Martha Graham, choreographed the dance sequences. In Buffalo, Graham thought Juliet's costume was all wrong. She bought some soft white nun's veiling, from which she fashioned a flowing robe. The play was incorporated into a seven-month country-wide tour that would rotate three plays, Romeo and Juliet, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, and Candida. Planned during the height of the Great Depression, many theater experts and actors advised against such an ambitious tour. In fact, this was the first time anyone had tried to take a legitimate Broadway show on an all-country tour, let alone three. It took them to such cities as Milwaukee, Seattle, Portland, Oregon, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Cheyenne, San Antonio, New Orleans, Houston, Savannah, and back up the east coast to New England.
As movies had taken over from live theater to a large degree, there were major areas of the U.S. closed off to the tour. Many stops at smaller cities had not seen live theater since the First World War, or ever. Nonetheless, box office records were set in most cities and towns. In New Orleans, women rioted when they found out that tickets has been sold out. Variety reported that the tour gave 225 performances and played to 500,000 people. People in smaller areas travelled up to two days to see a performance, and the presenting towns would gain a small but welcome swell in revenues from restaurants and hotels as a result. The most famous story to arise out of the tour came when the troupe was to play Barretts on Christmas night in Seattle, McClintic's hometown. They planned to arrive in the morning, and as it normally takes six hours to set up the stage, do lighting and blocking checks and distribute costumes, they figured there would be plenty of time.
However, it had been raining for 23 days, and roads and railroads were being washed out. The train moved very slowly, often stopping. The theater management telegraphed that the venue was completely sold out for the evening performance and wanted regular updates to assure the public that the production was on its way. The troupe kept up the telegrams, but eventually even these lines gave out. By that evening, the troupe was still far from the city and gave up hope of doing any performance that night. The train finally arrived in Seattle at 11:30 pm. There was a lively crowd waiting for them at the train station, and the manager of the Metropolitan Theatre came up to Cornell and informed her that the audience was still waiting. McClintic asked, "how many?" "The entire house," was the reply, "Twelve hundred people." Cornell was shocked and asked, "Do you mean they want a performance at this hour?" "They're expecting it," the manager replied.
All 55 members of the cast and crew immediately drove to the theater. Sets and props had to be protected in the downpour. As soon as the troupe arrived at the theater, the audience streamed back into their seats. Cornell decided that the audience could watch the sets for "Barretts" be unpacked and set up, and so raised the curtain. The stage hands, sound checks and electricians worked to accomplish in one hour what normally took six. By 1 am, they were ready to begin the play. Biographer Tad Mosel writes: "The audience had paid the actors the supreme compliment of having the faith to wait for them, and the actors responded with the kind of performance actors wish they could give every day of their lives. When the final curtain fell at 4 am, they received more curtain calls than they ever had."
Ray Henderson, the troupe's publicist and manager, managed to get this story into every newspaper in America the next day. Alexander Woollcott established a radio tradition on his program, The Town Crier. For years afterward, every Christmas, Woollcott would tell the story of the Seattle audience that waited until 1 am for to see Katharine Cornell "emerge from the flood" and give the performance of her life.
Broadway successes and maturation of style
Romeo and Juliet
Although they had toured with this play, Cornell and McClintic decided to open Romeo and Juliet in New York with a completely new production. McClintic threw out the entire production and started over, with just a handful of the actors from the tour. Orson Welles was kept, but played Tybalt instead of Mercutio, making his Broadway debut. Basil Rathbone played Romeo, while Brian Aherne took the part of Mercutio, and Edith Evans played the Nurse. McClintic's idea was to keep the play "light, gay, hot sun, spacious" with no hint of the doom that would conclude the play. Also, he coached Cornell to read for meaning, sense and emotion, in place of the poetics of iambic pentameter.
This was a great break with past productions, which up until then had relied upon Victorian prudery and notions of how a classic play should be performed. McClintic reinstated the Prologue and believed that all twenty-three scenes were necessary, cutting only the obsolete comedy of the musicians and servants. For the first time, the carnal desires, the youthful romanticism, and the earthiness of language were given equal importance.
The production opened in December 1934, and, as usual, the reviews were glowing. Burns Mantle called Cornell "the greatest Juliet of her time." Taking note of the freshness of approach, Richard Lockridge of the New York Sun wrote that Cornell played Juliet as "an eager child, rushing toward love with arms stretched out." Cornell herself said that her biggest secret of acting is to do away with all excesses and embellishments, to bring an interpretation to its utmost simplicity. Margot Stevenson from the original cast later said that Cornell was "just this big Italian girl in love!" Stark Young said in The New Republic: She makes you believe in love, that Juliet loves, and that the diapason and poetry of love are the reward for its torment. Of various [other] Juliets this must have been one of the last things to be said."
John Mason Brown wrote in the New York Post: "It is not often in our lifetime that we are privileged to enjoy the pleasant sensation of feeling that the present and the future have met for a few triumphant hours.... Yet it was this very sensation—this uncommon sensation of having the present and future meet; eye-witnessing the kind of event to which we will be looking back with pride in the years to come—that forced its warming way, I suspect, into the consciousness of many of us last night as we sat spellbound. Miss Cornell's Juliet is luscious and charming. It finds her at her mellowest and most glamorous. It burns with the intensity Miss Cornell brings to all her acting. It moves gracefully and lightly; it is endlessly haunting in its pictorial qualities; and reveals a Miss Cornell who equals the beauty of the lyric lines she speaks with a new-found lyric beauty of her own voice.... To add that it is by all odds the most lovely and enchanting Juliet our present-day theatre has seen is only to toss it the kind of superlative it honestly deserves." Later, the same critic determined that this role was a turning point in her career, as it meant that she could finally leave the "trifling scripts" of her earlier career and could meet the challenging demands of the greatest classic roles.
The Barretts revived
Romeo and Juliet closed on February 23, 1935, and two nights later, the production company revived The Barretts of Wimpole Street, with Burgess Meredith in his first prominent Broadway role. Critics found that this new production had grown richer and more satisfying, but it closed three weeks later because other plays were contracted.
For the next season, Cornell and her husband decided to do St. Joan by George Bernard Shaw. McClintic cast Maurice Evans as the Dauphin, Brian Aherne as Warwick, Tyrone Power as Bertrand de Poulengey, and Arthur Byron as the Inquisitor. The play opened on March 9, 1936, and Burns Mantle wrote that the triumph belonged to two maids, "the Maid of Domrémy, France, and the Maid of Buffalo, N.Y." John Anderson of the New York Journal wrote, "Before there is any haggling, let it be said that it is Shaw's greatest play and that Miss Cornell is superb in it. She is beautiful to look at and her performance is enkindled by the spiritual exaltation of a transcendent heroine."
It was in this play that Cornell's real artistry became apparent. Audience members talked of having been "changed" by her performance, and "mesmerized." Writer S.N. Behrman said "it was something essential in herself, as a person, that the audiences sensed and reached out to." Another said that she was like "radium, flashing its healing rays," while others used an older phrase, "magnetic influence."
The play closed in the spring of 1936 only because the production company had already contracted to produce Maxwell Anderson's The Wingless Victory. Saint Joan finished with a seven-week tour of five major cities.
Flush, the spaniel that played the part of Flush in Barretts, died in July 1937. He had played his role 709 times, and traveled over 25,000 miles on tours, never getting drunk or arriving late. At his death, the Associated Press sent the story out over its entire network worldwide.
The Wingless Victory
In Maxwell Anderson's The Wingless Victory, McClintic decided to avoid the so-called "star entrance," where the audience expects the star of the play to enter grandly to general applause. Instead, he had another character take the star entrance, and only then was it revealed that Cornell was onstage. The effect was startling. Opened in 1936, the play received mixed reviews, and many bad ones, but Cornell was nonetheless respected for taking any role and twisting it to make it her own. Gently disparaging the play itself, Brooks Atkinson wrote that Cornell is "Our Queen of tragedy, a thoughtful actress and a great one."
Alternating with Victory, Cornell revived Candida with Mildred Natwick as Prossy. After their conclusion, she took a year off and wrote her memoir (with the help of Ruth Woodbury Sedgewick) entitled "I Wanted to Be an Actress". It was published by Random House in 1939.
No Time for Comedy
Cornell's assistant Gertrude Macy produced a musical revue One for the Money which starred unknown actors who later achieved fame, including Gene Kelly, Alfred Drake, Keenan Wynn and Nancy Hamilton. Immediately after that closed, Cornell starred in her second comedy, No Time for Comedy by S.N. Behrman. McClintic cast the young Laurence Olivier in the leading role of Gaylord. During rehearsals, Cornell had a difficult time with the comedic timing, and someone shook their head and said, "Poor old Kit!" Olivier shot back, "Poor old Kit is the most successful woman in the American theater! The richest, the most beautiful, the most sought after, the most distinguished, the most loved -- Poor old Kit indeed!"
In his memoir, S.N. Behrman wrote, "Miss Cornell had less [exhibitionism] than any actress or actor I have ever known. Her position in the theatre transcended technique.... It was something essential in herself, as a person, that the audiences sensed and reached out to.... The whole stage and the other actors took light from the radiance of her personality."
The play opened on April 17, 1939 and became the third biggest money maker for Cornell, and the second production to gross over a million dollars. With a few cast changes, including that of Olivier, the play went on a nationwide tour.
The Doctor's Dilemma
Cornell next played in Shaw's play, The Doctor's Dilemma, and Raymond Massey starred opposite her. Her production company was running so smoothly that Massey said, "Whatever anyone tells you, Kit ran her own show. They will say everything was managed by those people around her, but it is absolutely not true. She knew everything that was going on and she made all the decisions. At the end of the day you could find her poring over the box office receipts. She was a shrewd and intelligent businesswoman."
The play opened in 1941 in San Francisco, just one week before Pearl Harbor, and was the only show not cancelled, despite numerous blackouts. Given the distraction of the war, the play was not well received. Gregory Peck was part of the tour as "the secretary."
The war years
Shortly after the U.S. entered World War II, Cornell decided upon a revival of Candida to benefit the Army Emergency Fund and the Navy Relief Society. Of her five productions of this play, this fourth one is remembered for the star-studded cast of Raymond Massey, Burgess Meredith, Mildred Natwick and Dudley Digges. Cornell was able to convince all actors, Shaw, the theater hands and the Schubert organization to donate their labor, services and venue so that almost all proceeds went directly to the fund.
The Three Sisters
A year later, Ruth Gordon urged McClintic to produce Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters. Judith Anderson played Olga, Gertrude Musgrove was selected for Irina, while Cornell had the role of Masha. Others included theater legend Edmund Gwenn, Dennis King and Kirk Douglas in his Broadway debut. The play opened in Washington in December 1942, and was not expected to be much of a financial success. The opening was attended by Eleanor Roosevelt and the Soviet ambassador. It played for 122 performances in New York before going on the road, exceeding the low expectations. It had the longest run of any Chekhov play in the U.S. and the longest run of this particular play anywhere up to that point.
Cornell is said to have played Masha with a nobility of spirit without ostentation, and that she found the wit in her role. Time Magazine wrote, in anticipation of its opening, "Not for nothing is Katharine Cornell the top-ranking actress in the U.S. theater as well as a successful producer as well as the wife of able Director Guthrie McClintic. Over the years Cornell has performed many near-miracles. She has made the yearning soul as good box office as the fiery body. She has made an invalid lady on a couch the essence of glamor. She has turned Shakespeare and Shaw into rousing hits. And when, next week, she brings her revival of Chekhov's 'The Three Sisters' to Broadway, it will boast a dream production by anybody's reckoning — the most glittering cast the theater has seen, commercially, in this generation."
Cornell's only film role was speaking a few lines from Romeo and Juliet in the movie, Stage Door Canteen (1943), which starred many of Broadway's best actors, under the auspices of the American Theatre Wing for War Relief. This organization was created by playwright Rachel Crothers, and created the Stage Door Canteen to entertain troops during the war. Cornell donated time to work at the Canteen cleaning tables.
General George C. Marshall asked Cornell to do a play to entertain the troops in Europe. Cornell decided to take The Barretts of Wimpole Street to the troops in Europe as a touring production with the USO and the Special Services Division. However, the USO and the Division stated that no G.I. would sit for a three-hour costume drama about two middle-aged Victorian poets. They suggested an alternate, some sort of "ribald farce" in case Barretts proved a failure. Cornell would prepare Blithe Spirit, but nonetheless insisted upon Barretts, saying that if she was going to entertain the soldiers, she must take them her very best, and her very best was Barretts. The Army then asked that they cut the love scenes, as the play was far too long at three hours, wanted someone to "explain" the play to the men beforehand, and prepared her for what they saw as rude, tasteless and ignorant troops. The entire company, backed by Cornell and McClintic, resisted all entreaties and played their roles with every degree of authenticity as the Broadway original.
At the first production, the army's fears seemed to be validated. At the start of the play, which takes place in damp, chilly London, the doctor advises that Elizabeth go to Italy for rest. The audience, G.I.s fighting in war-torn Italy, exploded in laughter, hooting, yelling and stamping. According to actress Margalo Gillmore, "It was true, then, we thought, they would go on laughing and it would never stop and the Barretts would go under a tidal wave of derision. But we were wrong. Kit and Guthrie were holding the laugh, just as if they had heard it a hundred times, not showing any alarm, not even seeming to wait for it, but handling it, controlling it, ready to take over at the first sign of its getting out of hand. It rose and fell and before it could rise again, Kit spoke."
The play continued, and outbreaks of an occasional catcall, guffaw or heckling were quickly shushed by others. Gillmore continues: "Kit had a shining light in her. With that strange sixth sense of the actor that functions unexplainably in complete independence of lines spoken and emotions projected, she had been aware of the gradual change out front from a dubious indifference to the complete absorption of interest. At first they hung back, keeping themselves separate from us, a little self-consciously, a little defiantly, and then line by line, scene by scene, she had felt them relax and respond and give themselves up to the play and the story, til at last they were that magic indivisible thing, an audience. 'We must never forget this, never,' said Kit. 'We've seen an audience born.'"
The tour opened in Santa Maria, a small town 15 miles north of Naples, in 1944. G.I.s lined up three hours ahead of time and profusely thanked the cast afterwards. Brian Aherne wrote that after one show in Italy, the manager overheard a tough burly paratrooper say to his buddy, "Well, what I tell ya? Told ya it would be better than going to a cat house." Convinced of its success, the Army brass sanctioned two more weeks. The company eventually played for six months, from August 1944 to January 1945, throughout Italy, including stops in Rome, Florence and Siena. From there, the company was transferred under the aegis of General Dwight D. Eisenhower and played in France, including Dijon, Marseilles and Versailles. In Paris, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas wanted to see the play, but found that performances were strictly limited to enlisted personnel. They were nonetheless given disguises and were able to see the play. Additionally, the cast made a point of visiting hospitals every day throughout the entire tour.
Now aged 51, Cornell was then told by the Army that she had done enough for the effort and to remain in Paris. Her response was to be taken as close to the front as possible. The company performed in Maastricht and Heerlen in the Netherlands, just eight miles from the front. The tour concluded in London amid exploding German V-2 bombs.
Upon her return to New York, Cornell found mail piled up from the G.I.s who had seen the show. They thanked her for "the most nerve-soothing remedy for a weary G.I.," for having brought "yearned-for femininity," reminding them that, unlike other USO shows, "a woman is not all leg," and for "the awakening of something that I thought died with the passing of routine military life in the foreign service."
Long after the tour was finished, Cornell continued to receive letters, not just from servicemen who had seen the show, but from wives, mothers and even school teachers from the home front. Their letters say that the first letter they received from their boy came after he had seen her show, or it was the first time they had heard from them in two years. Fellow actors reported that G.I.s in the South Pacific were heard to talk about the show.
After the war, Cornell co-chaired the Community Players, a successor to the American Theatre Wing, to assist war veterans and their families on their return home.
Cornell was featured for the second time on the cover of Time magazine on December 21, 1942, with Judith Anderson and Ruth Gordon.
After the war, American theater was experiencing a change in style with the new generation. Cornell revived Candida for the fifth and last time in April 1946, with Marlon Brando playing the role of the young Marchbanks. Whereas Cornell represented an older, exuberant romantic style, Brando heralded the newer style of Method Acting, with its reliance upon psychological insights and personal experience. Although reviews were as good as ever, audiences and some critics had difficulty with the play itself, as the Edwardian drama had little relevance to post-war American life.
Now in her mid-50s, appropriate roles became harder to find. The plays that had earned her such an exceptional reputation—young Elizabeth Barrett, Juliet, St. Joan, various sexually charged women—were no longer playable by her. The newer roles were simply not her style.
Shakespeare and Anouilh
In 1946, Cornell chose Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, which opened at the Hanna Theater in Cleveland, a difficult role for which she was ideally suited. Critic Ward Morrison praised Cornell's "beauty and power and grandeur and I do not hesitate to proclaim it one of the finest achievements of her career." Again, Cornell's presence insured that this play would have its longest run ever, at 251 performances.
She followed that with Jean Anouilh's adaptation of the Greek tragedy Antigone. Sir Cedric Hardwicke played King Creon, and Marlon Brando was cast as The Messenger. After the opening, Cornell's friend Helen Keller told her, "This play is a parable of humanity. It has no time or space." One critic said, "if the world and the theatre had more courageous spirits like [Cornell], our cumulative dreams would be greater, our thoughts, nobler."
Alternating with Antony, Cornell produced another revival of Barretts of Wimpole Street, for an eight-week tour to the West Coast, with Tony Randall in both plays, and Maureen Stapleton as Iras in Antony. Other cast members included Eli Wallach, Joseph Wiseman, Douglas Watson, Charles Nolte, and Charlton Heston.
Finding good roles became increasingly a concern. Kate O'Brien dramatized her historical novel For One Sweet Grape into That Lady, set in the Spain of Philip II. A swashbuckling romance, the play was not well received. In 1951, Cornell played the lead in Somerset Maugham's comedy, The Constant Wife for a summer festival in Colorado. The play, starring her longtime favorite Brian Aherne, was produced again in New York and grossed more money for the production company than any other play.
In 1953, Cornell found a suitable role in The Prescott Proposals, about a United States Delegate to the United Nations. Christopher Fry wrote a verse drama The Dark is Light Enough, set 1848 Austria. The cast included Tyrone Power, who played the love interest, Lorne Greene, and Marian Winters. (Christopher Plummer was Power's understudy. In his memoir, Plummer states that Cornell was "the last of the great actress-managers," and that she was his "sponsor.") In 1957, Cornell staged There Shall Be No Night, the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Robert E. Sherwood, adapted to the events of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. This play was adapted for TV and broadcast on NBC's Hallmark Hall of Fame with Charles Boyer, Bradford Dillman and Ray Walston. Another play by Fry, The Firstborn, was set in Biblical Egypt, with Anthony Quayle playing Moses. Leonard Bernstein, recently appointed musical director of the New York Philharmonic, wrote two songs for the production. The play toured in Tel Aviv in 1958. She continued with several other forgettable plays, and her last production was Dear Liar by Jerome Kilty.
Although Cornell was constantly performing, she took a three-year absence from 1955 to 1958 while she recovered from a lung operation. Additionally, with the exception of The Constant Wife, box office receipts were lagging even when she received excellent reviews. Tours continued to sell out, but even those began to fail as the decade bore on. By the end of the 1950s, the C. & M.C production company was finished. She did find time in 1954 to be narrator for the film The Unconquered, the life story of her friend Helen Keller.
Starting in the 1940s, however, she began to collect tributes from various theatrical organization and colleges and universities, which bestowed her with honorary degrees and awards.
Cornell made her radio debut May 6, 1951, on Theatre Guild on the Air. The program featured the first broadcast of George Bernard Shaw's Candida. On April 13, 1952, she appeared in Florence Nightingale, also on The Theatre Guild on the Air.
McClintic died on October 29, 1961 of a lung haemorrhage, shortly after the couple had celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. As he had always directed Cornell in every production since their marriage, she decided to retire from the stage altogether. She sold her residences and bought a house on East 51st Street in Manhattan, next door to Brian Aherne and down the street from Margalo Gillmore. Since all three were cast members of Barretts, East 51st Street became known as Wimpole Street. Cornell also bought an old building on Martha's Vineyard known as The Barn and made additions to it, and restored the 300-year-old Association Hall on the island.
For her 80th birthday party in 1973, an assistant put together a tape of birthday greetings from Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, and Ralph Richardson, among many other actors whom she had known. The tape runs for seven and half hours. She died of pneumonia on June 9, 1974 at The Barn in Tisbury, Massachusetts.
On acting and the theatre
Cornell served on the Board of Directors of The Rehearsal Club. The club was a place for young actresses to stay while they looked for work, and offered support for their careers. Occasionally, she could be seen serving food to the women, and McClintic often found minor roles in his productions for them.
In her memoir, Cornell states: "I do think that the rapid success achieved by some people in pictures has seriously hurt the chances of a lot of young men and women who are studying for the stage. The success stories that we read in the Hollywood magazines make it all sound too easy. A youngster was a chauffeur yesterday and today he owns four swimming pools! It doesn't work that way on the stage... Some young actresses haven't been inclined to listen to me when I told that there was no royal road to success on the stage.
"Getting started in the theatre still has a great element of luck in it, of course. Some producer must see the right person at just the right time. To get that kind of break, a girl has got to keep pounding away and tramp the streets from one manager's office to another, no matter how discouraging it may be. At the same time, she must remember that when the break does come, she must have the equipment necessary to capitalise on it. I get the impression that most of the young girls who come to me for parts simply haven't worked hard enough. In New York they have every chance in the world to round out their education in their spare time. At the galleries along 57th Street they can see the best pictures in all the world. They can hear the finest music. They can get the best books in inexpensive editions. Best of all, they can listen to the finest actors and actresses of the day. When they tell me that they can't afford to go to the theatre very often, I usually find they think it beneath their dignity to sit in the top balcony!
"I think the most important thing for young actresses to do is to learn to use their voices properly. I always found that reading French aloud helped me tremendously. I think that French makes you use your mouth more than any other language I know. I still occasionally read some French book aloud to myself before a performance." 
Katharine Cornell is one of the most respected, versatile stage actresses of the early-mid 20th century, moving easily from comedy to melodrama, and from classics to contemporary plays. She was a particularly accomplished interpreter of romantic and character roles.
Theatres and research centers
The Tisbury Town Hall on Martha's Vineyard houses a theatre on its second floor. Originally known as Association Hall, it was renamed "The Katharine Cornell Theater"  in her honor and later, her memory. A donation from her estate provided the funds for renovation (lighting, heating, elevator) as well as decoration of four large murals depicting Vineyard life and legend by local artist Stan Murphy. The Katharine Cornell Theater is a popular venue for plays, music, movies and more. Her gravesite and memorial are located next door to the Theater.
The Katharine Cornell-Guthrie McClintic Special Collections Reading Room was dedicated in April 1974 at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. The Billy Rose Theatre Division at the library holds extensive archival and special collections materials related to Cornell and McClintic.
The New York Public Library contains correspondence between Russian dance critic Igor Stupnikov and Cornell's assistants Nancy Hamilton and Gertrude Macy in the Billy Rose Theater Archive.
Cornell and Quayle also recorded for LP a scene from Barretts, and Cornell recited a selection of poetry by Elizabeth Barrett from Sonnets from the Portuguese. Cornell's short scene in Stage Door Canteen can be viewed on YouTube. In it, she recites some lines from Romeo and Juliet. Video on YouTube
The Paley Center for Media
The Paley Center for Media has a collection of Cornell's television appearances:
On April 2, 1956, NBC TV broadcast of a production of Barretts with Anthony Quayle as Robert Browning. She was featured in Hallmark Hall of Fame's production of Robert E. Sherwood's play, There Shall Be No Night, which was broadcast on NBC on March 17, 1957.
She appeared on TV as herself for an NBC Symphony Orchestra broadcast on March 22, 1952 She was also interviewed three times for the radio program Stage Struck, hosted by Mike Wallace.
Awards and honors
Katharine Cornell was one of three actresses awarded in the first Tony awards (1937, award year 1948), her award was received for her performance in Antony and Cleopatra. She was also honored with the first New York Drama League Award in 1935 for her performance as Juliet. In March 1937, The Chi Omega Sorority's National Achievement Award was given to her by Eleanor Roosevelt at a White House reception.
Cornell was awarded a medal "for good speech on the stage" by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and received a citation as Woman of the Year by the American Friends of the Hebrew University in 1959. After her role in St. Joan, she was awarded honorary degrees from the University of Wisconsin, Elmira College Smith College, the University of Pennsylvania, and Hobart. Clark University, Ithaca College and Princeton awarded degrees in the 1940s, and Baylor University, Middlebury College and Kenyon College awarded theirs in the 1950s.
On January 10, 1974, she received the American National Theater and Academy's National Artist Award for "her incomparable acting ability" and for "having elevated the theater throughout the world." In 1935, when the University of Buffalo was still a private institution, she was awarded the Chancellor's Medal of the University. The Artvoice, a weekly arts newspaper in Cornell's native Buffalo, each year awards the Katharine Cornell Award to a visiting artist for outstanding contribution to the Buffalo theatrical community.
The townhouse at 33 Beekman Place that Cornell and her husband lived in for many years has a historical marker in honor of their importance to New York City.
- Katharine Cornell I Always Wanted to be an Actress, 1939 by Random House.
- Guthrie McClintic Me & Kit, 1955 by the Atlantic Monthly Press/Little Brown Company.
- Lucille M. Pederson Katharine Cornell: A Bio-bibliography, 1994 by the Greenwood Press ISBN 9780313277184
- Gladys Malvern Curtain Up! The Story of Katharine Cornell, 1943 by Julian Messner, Inc., and includes a foreword by Cornell.
- Igor Stupnikov Ketrin Kornell, 1973 by Leningrad, Iskusstvo, Lening 
- Inspired by The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Virginia Woolf wrote Flush: A Biography, 1933, by Harcourt, Brace
- a part-fiction, part-biography of the original dog owned by Elizabeth Barrett 
Subject of artworks
The Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, has a 1926 full-length portrait of Cornell by artist Eugene Speicher in her role as Candida. The gallery also possesses a 1930 life mask by Karl Illava, an undated drawing of her as Elizabeth Barrett by Louis Lupas, and two sculptures by Anna Glenny Dunbar from 1930.
The Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University has a portrait of Cornell in her role as Elizabeth Barrett painted by Alexander Clayton on display. The actress donated the portrait and several items related to Barretts to the library.
The Katharine Cornell Foundation
The Katharine Cornell Foundation was funded with profits from Barretts. The foundation was dissolved in 1963, distributing its assets to the Museum of Modern Art (to honor her close friend from Buffalo, A. Conger Goodyear, who was a founder of MoMA and its first president), Cornell University's theater department, and the Actor's Fund of America.
Cornell is featured in a play by Buffalo-born playwright A.R. Gurney entitled The Grand Manner. The play is about his encounter with Cornell as a young man when she was in the production of Antony and Cleopatra. The play ran during summer 2010 at Lincoln Center and starred Kate Burton as Cornell. In Buffalo, the play was produced by the Kavinoky Theatre in May 2011.
Cornell is mentioned in the third chorus in the song "Gee How I Wish I Was Back in the Army" by Irving Berlin:
Cornell is also referenced in the lyrics of "Let's Face It", by Cole Porter:
Cornell is referenced as a plot point in the comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. The character Bert Jefferson writes a play, and his girlfriend Maggie Cutler, convinced the play would be a hit on Broadway, gives the play to another character in the hopes that Katharine Cornell will produce it.
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- Photographs from the George Eastman House:
- Obituary in the New York Times
- For more photos of Cornell, her first home in Buffalo, and other information: http://www.buffaloah.com/h/cornellk/tc.html
- Yale has a website: Katharine Cornell
- Life Magazine has a collection of photos.
- Katharine Cornell Papers, 1801-1983. Held by the Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
- Katharine Cornell Papers, 1938-1960. Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College
- Nancy Hamilton Papers, 1862-1992. Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College