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Pete Gurney & Kit Cornell: The Grand Manner

Kate Burton as Katharine Cornell in the Lincoln Center Theater production of "The Grand Manner", a new play by A.R Gurney directed by Mark Lamos. (photo by Joan Marcus)

I have on my shelf a copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables in which the original owner has inscribed her name in careful penmanship: “Katharine Cornell—St. Margaret’s School, Buffalo, New York, October 7, 1909.”

This Buffalo school girl, known to her family and friends as “Kit,” would one day become the greatest actress of her generation and “the First Lady of the American Stage.”

St. Margaret’s School was located at the corner Franklin and North Streets, and so to get there, young Kit Cornell would have walked from her home at 174 Mariner Street, along North Street, and past the Hotel Lenox (where young F. Scott Fitzgerald, just three years her junior, lived for a time). Around the corner, she would see the first plays of her life in a fully equipped attic theater in her grandfather’s house at 484 Delaware Avenue. And just downtown, at the Star Theatre, which her father Peter managed, she would find inspiration for a stage career when she saw Maude Adams fly up over the rooftops as Peter Pan.

Cornell reigned supreme on Broadway and across the stages of America from the 1920s through the 1950s in plays like A Bill of Divorcement, The Green Hat, The Barrotts of Wimpole Street, The Letter, and in the great plays of Shakespeare, Shaw, and Chekhov.

The House of Seven Gables is among several artifacts from her life in my collection. I also have her checkbook and a credit card; numerous letters from her and to her; countless photographs and autographs; magazines with her image on the cover; and perhaps most enticing of all, a recording of her voice reading Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese.

Sadly, the geography of Buffalo and these few touched relics are as tantalizingly close as I will ever come to the great Cornell. I never saw her on the stage. She retired in 1961, died in 1974, and none of her legendary stage performances was ever filmed. Greta Garbo appeared in the film version of The Green Hat. Norma Shearer starred in The Barretts of Wimpole Street. Katharine Hepburn appeared in A Bill of Divorcement and Little Women. Bette Davis did The Letter.

Unlike the work of screen actors that we can replay at will on Netflix, the performances of the great stars of the stage disappear as the final curtain falls. For this reason, collecting artifacts from their lives has become an obsession for me: Paul Robeson’s membership card for the Screen Actors’ Guild; a poem in the hand of David Garrick; an apology from Sarah Siddons; regrets from Ellen Terry; an appeal to a debt collector from Rachel of the Comédie-Française; an effusive thank you from the Divine Sarah Bernhardt. I even have a letter from Laurence Olivier addressed to “Dear Kit and Guthrie,” thanking Cornell and her director husband, Guthrie McClintic, for remembering his birthday.

Over the years I have been fascinated to meet people who knew Cornell or who saw her on the stage. I have been told stories by June Havoc, who saw her as Juliet repeatedly; by Marian Seldes, who toured with her and named her own daughter Katharine; by William Hutt, who loved her voice; by Eli Wallach, who played the messenger in Antony and Cleopatra. Many of these tales contradict the official version of the life of Katharine Cornell.

A.R. Gurney, Buffalo’s best known playwright and the author of The Dining Room, Sylvia, Far East, and The Cocktail Hour, has written a new play based on his own brush with Cornell after a performance of Antony and Cleopatra in 1948. The Grand Manner opened at Lincoln Center in New York last weekend. Directed by Mark Lamos, the play stars Kate Burton as Cornell, Boyd Gaines as McClintic, Bobby Steggert as Pete Gurney, and Brenda Wehle as Cornell’s manager, Gertrude Macy.

The play is billed as “a mix of remembrance and imagination.” In reality, young Gurney traveled from St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire to New York City to see Antony and Cleopatra, having convinced his teachers that the educational value of seeing Shakespeare in performance justified missing classes. His grandmother used a Buffalo connection to arrange a backstage visit. Once in the presence of the great lady, however, young “Pete” Gurney used the occasion to talk about Buffalo rather than to ask Cornell about Shakespeare or her life on the stage. The star autographed his program and the meeting was over.

My god, what I would not give to have had a moment like that with the legendary Katharine Cornell! Would I, similarly, have squandered the opportunity?

As Gurney frequently does in his plays, in The Grand Manner he revisits his past with a combination of sentiment, regret, and yearning. Specifically, he recreates a moment that was inadequately savored as it was lived. He then repeats the scene, redirecting events into a fantasy of what might have happened had he lingered longer, had his concerns been less adolescent, and had the past played out in a manner that would satisfy an adult’s sense of loss, 60 years later. At this point, Gurney weaves together the facts, legends, and myths of Cornell. The First Lady of the American stage and her director husband become far more candid and revealing than they ever were in life.

Katharine Cornell in a 1929 performance of "The Age of Innocence."

Cornell herself carefully edited and orchestrated her legend and life story to create an appealing fiction. The reality was that for such a public person, Katharine Cornell was spectacularly private. She authorized a biography and wrote a memoire, as did her husband. Each book is illuminating, but also frustratingly elusive.

It is commonly discussed, for instance, that the celebrated marriage and collaboration between Cornell and McClintic was “a lavender arrangement.” They were devoted to each other and their professional partnership was impressively productive, but those who knew them report that the legal bond provided a screen behind which each could pursue same-sex relationships—Cornell in a series of long-term monogamous romances, McClintic more promiscuously.

It is said that by mutual agreement, the third floor of their home at 23 Beekman Place in Manhattan was Cornell’s exclusive domain, the fourth floor was McClintic’s, and the floors below were shared.

By association, biographies of Cornell and others put her in the company of a litany of theatrical lesbians, including Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Mercedes de Acosta.

I have, in my collection, Christmas cards signed by Cornell and the final partner of her life, actress, playwright, lyricist, and Oscar-winning documentary director Nancy Hamilton. After becoming Cornell’s companion, Hamilton declined to give personal interviews.

Indeed, while anecdote is abundant, hard evidence of Cornell’s private life is difficult to come by.

It is a part of the Cornell legend that her single-minded devotion to the stage inspired her to refuse to work in film. This, too, is a myth manufactured by Cornell.

True, she had seen audiences laugh at the over-emoting of stage actors on screen and was hesitant to jeopardize her own reputation as the greatest actress of the 20th century. But even more significantly, Hollywood studios of the 1930s deliberately secured Broadway properties for its established stars. Cornell was never even considered for the film version of her greatest stage successes. For example, Irving Thalberg aggressively secured the rights to The Barretts of Wimpole Street specifically for his wife, Norma Shearer.

Moreover, I have seen correspondence from Cornell to film director George Cukor in which she concedes that she has not, heretofore, pursued a film career, but intimates that she would be interested do so if he would direct her. This solicitous letter explodes the fiction that Cornell staunchly refused to appear in film. (The letter was owned by my friend and Cukor’s longtime assistant, Tucker Fleming, who died this winter, leaving his expansive collection of letters and photographs to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.)

Cukor was celebrated for his ability to capture dazzling performances from actresses on film. Significantly, in addition to directing Vivien Leigh during the initial shooting of Gone With the Wind (and coaching her throughout the filming), he had directed Katharine Hepburn in two of Cornell’s stage roles and Norma Shearer in a third. Had anything come of her query, Cornell’s legacy might be profoundly different.

After the death of her husband in 1961, Cornell and Nancy Hamilton retired to Martha’s Vineyard, where the great star would die in 1974. From this point, Cornell is gone, as if she had evaporated. Once the First Lady of the American Theater, her face twice graced the cover of Time magazine, she was featured on the cover of Life, and immortalized in the lyrics of songs by Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, but today she is almost entirely forgotten.

With The Grand Manner, Gurney uses a happy theater memory to restore her status, and to remind audiences why the theater is important. He has a signed souvenir program to prove that a magical moment in his life occurred. I take comfort in my own souvenir programs and artifacts, but I am grateful that with this play, Pete Gurney takes me one step closer to the great Katharine Cornell.

The Grand Manner plays through August 1. Tickets are $85. Visit www.lct.org for details.


Watch a preview for The Grand Manner


See more clips from The Grand Manner and an interview with playwright A.R. Gurney here.