Katharine Cornell: First Lady of the American Theatre

Born today: The First Lady of the American Theatre, Katharine Cornell (1893-1974). Helen Hayes is also sometimes called by that honorary title, but Cornell I think can lay the greater claim, both on account of her legacy, and because she yielded even less than Hayes to the temptations of film, television and radio. Cornell gave many important American actors their starts, introduced many important British actors to American audiences, created many roles in stage productions that were later reinterpreted by other actresses in famous Hollywood adaptations, was an important American proponent of Shaw and Shakespeare, and produced important American premiers and revivals of notable plays. Starting in the early 1920s, her principal theatrical collaborator would be her husband, stage director Guthrie McClintic. (Both are widely acknowledged to have been gay).

Among the important actors Cornell and McClintic nurtured and launched: Orson Welles, Burgess Meredith, Tyrone Power, Kirk Douglas, Marlon Brando, Tony Randall and Lorne Greene. Among the British actors they introduced to Americans: Basil Rathbone, Maurice Evans, Brian Aherne, and Leslie Howard.

Almost everything they did was kind of legendary. The productions included:

+ Smash revivals of Shaw’s Candida (1924, 1937, 1941, 1946), as well as St. Joan (1936) and The Doctor’s Dilemma (1941).

+ The Green Hat (1925), notable for its racy content, later made into the 1928 Greta Garbo film A Woman of Affairs.

+ A 1927 adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s The Letter (later made into made into a 1940 film with Bette Davis)

+ A 1928 adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (later also adapted for a film by Martin Scorsese)

+ The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1931, 1935, 1937, 1945 as well as a USO tour during World War Two, and a 1956 television production). The 1934 movie version starring Norma Shearer surely owes its existence to Cornell’s 1931 smash production.

+ The original 1933 production of Jezebel (made into a movie starring Bette Davis the following year)

Strange but true: Basil Rathbone was her Romeo

+ Romeo and Juliet (1934, 1935) The production was notable for being the first Shakespeare on Broadway since Barrymore’s Hamlet a dozen years earlier. Its success convinced MGM to make the 1936 film version, featuring past Cornell collaborators Leslie Howard and Basil Rathbone, but with Norma Shearer as Juliet. Cornell would get part of her Juliet down on film in the 1943 film Hollywood Canteen, her only Hollywood movie, a patriotic exception to her aversion to cinema. Cornell’s only other Shakespeare excursion was Antony and Cleopatra (1946-47).

+ The original production of Maxwell Anderson’s Winged Victory (1936)

+ The original production of S.N. Behrman’s No Time for Comedy (1939), opposite Laurence Olivier

+ A 1942 revival of The Three Sisters featuring also Judith Anderson and Edmund Gwenn. At the time, it was the longest run of any production of The Three Sisters anywhere in the world and the longest run of any Chekhov play in the U.S.

+ The American premiere of Anouilh’s Antigone (1946) with Sir Cedric Hardwick.

Cornell did not make her radio debut until 1951 (when radio was already on the way out), and, other than the previously mentioned Barretts of Wimpole Street her only ever tv appearance was in a 1957 production of Robert Sherwood’s There Shall be No Night.

Cornell’s last stage performance was in a two hander Dear Liar (1960), an adaptation of the letters of Mrs. Patrick Campell and George Bernard Shaw, with herself as Campbell and Brian Aherne as Shaw. McClintic passed away the following year, and Cornell retired at that point. She passed away on Martha’s Vineyard in 1974.

Yes, one of THOSE Cornells

For fun, as an added bonus, we talk now about her origins, which were just as interesting. Cornell was from a very old and important American family. Her immigrant ancestor Thomas Cornell (ca. 1595-1655) was a religious follower of my own ancestors Roger Williams and Anne Hutchison, was one of the founders of Westchester, New York (the portion which is now the Bronx), and Portsmouth, Rhode Island, which is where he died. Thomas Cornell’s other important descendants included Ezekiel Cornell (1732-1800), a revolutionary War General and Rhode Island Representative to the Continental Congress; William Cornell (1766-1860), an early settler of Ontario; and Ezra Cornell (1807-1874), founder of Western Union and Cornell University. Thomas Cornell Jr (1627-1723) was hanged for supposedly murdering his mother Rebecca Briggs Cornell. I say “supposedly” because he was partially convicted on spectral evidence — dreams and visions, the same sort of “evidence” used in the Salem witch trials.

At any any rate, Katharine was from the Buffalo branch of the Cornells, one of the most important families in the region. Her great grandather Samuel founded Cornell Lead Works. Her father was a doctor. Katharine was born in Berlin Germany, while he was studying there. Katharine herself studied at the University of Buffalo, and came to New York in 1915 after both her parents had died. Early critical success with the Washington Square Players and Jessie Bonstelle’s stock company led to all that you see above.