Design for Living: Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne: A Biography

Design for Living: Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne: A Biography

by Margot Peters

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From the much-admired biographer of Charlotte Brontë, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, and the Barrymores (“Margot Peters is surely now . . . our foremost historian of stage make-believe”—Leon Edel), a new biography of the most famous English-speaking acting team of the twentieth century.

Individually, they were recognized as extraordinary actors,


From the much-admired biographer of Charlotte Brontë, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, and the Barrymores (“Margot Peters is surely now . . . our foremost historian of stage make-believe”—Leon Edel), a new biography of the most famous English-speaking acting team of the twentieth century.

Individually, they were recognized as extraordinary actors, each one a star celebrated, imitated, sought after. Together, they were legend. The Lunts. A name to conjure with. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne worked together so imaginatively, so seamlessly onstage that they seemed to fuse into one person. Offstage, they brawled so famously and raucously over every detail of every performance that they inspired the musical Kiss Me, Kate. At home on Broadway, in London’s West End, touring the United States and Great Britain, and even playing “the foxhole circuit” of World War II, the Lunts stunned, moved, and mystified audiences for more than four decades. They were considered to be a rarefied taste, but when they toured Texas in the 1930s, the audience threw cowboy hats onto the stage.

Their private life was equally fascinating, as unusual as the one they led in public. Friends like the critic Alexander Woollcott (whom Edna Ferber once described as “the little New Jersey Nero who thinks his pinafore is a toga”), Noël Coward, Laurette Taylor, and Sidney Greenstreet received lifelong loyalty and hospitality. Ten Chimneys, their country home in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin, “is to performers what the Vatican is to Catholics,” Carol Channing once said. “The Lunts are where we all spring from.”

In this new biography, Margot Peters catches the magic of Lunt and Fontanne—their period, their work, their intimacy and its contradictions—with candor, delicacy, intelligence, and wit. She writes about their personal and creative choices as deftly as she captures their world, from their meeting (backstage, naturally)—when Fontanne was a young actress in the first flush of stardom and Lunt a lanky midwesterner who came in the stage door, bowed to her elaborately, lost his balance, and fell down the stairs—and the early days when an unknown and very hungry Noël Coward lived in a swank hotel in a room the size of a closet and cadged meals at their table to the telegram the famous couple once sent to a movie mogul, turning down a studio contract worth a fortune (“We can be bought, my dear Mr. Laemmle, but we can’t be bored”).

We follow the Lunts through triumphs in plays such as The Guardsman, The Taming of the Shrew, and Design for Living; through friendships and feuds; through the intricate way they worked with such playwrights and directors as S. N. Behrman, Robert Sherwood, Giraudoux, Dürrenmatt, Peter Brook, and with each other.
Margot Peters captures the gallantry of two remarkably gifted people who lived for their art and for each other. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were once described as an “amazing duet of intelligence and gaiety.” Margot Peters re-creates the fun and the fireworks.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
Eleonora Duse, the turn-of-the-century Italian actress who inspired Stanislavsky’s Method, told her company that to play Ibsen’s characters they had to know unhappiness, and, if necessary, they should go looking for it. In Eleonora Duse: A Biography, Helen Sheehy makes it clear that Duse followed her own advice. Duse was a genius at creating misery for herself; her disastrous affair with the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio must have fed her onstage characterizations of Hedda and Marguerite, just as it gave d’Annunzio material for his novel “Il Fuoco.”

As the premier husband-and-wife acting team of the middle of the twentieth century, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne—the subject of Margot Peters’s Design For Living—projected sizzling chemistry onstage. Offstage, their marriage was probably sexless—Alfred was rumored to have been gay—and their domestic arrangements gravitated toward chaste ménages à trois, often with their friend Noël Coward. Did their sexuality, repressed at home, emerge more conspicuously in their performance? One critic wrote that “The Guardsman,” a comedy about a couple who lead each other in sex games, was the true story of the Lunts’ marriage: “They lived to act for each other.”

Bela Lugosi was a sensation as Dracula on Broadway, and the film version made him Hollywood’s leading horror star. But, as Arthur Lennig tells us in The Immortal Count, Lugosi wanted romantic roles and was frustrated that his accent and European mannerisms limited him to playing the heavy. Only in life could he play Don Juan: he married five times and died in 1956 beneath a large nude portrait of Clara Bow, a souvenir of their affair.

(Kate Taylor)
The New York Times
People interested in the Lunts may wonder why after Jared Brown's seemingly exhaustive book The Fabulous Lunts (1986), which runs to 500-odd crowded pages, Peters's 394 more widely spaced ones are needed. First, because despite new material, her book is more concise; second, because from a greater distance clearer perspective and greater candor are possible; third, because Brown is a conscientious academic, but Peters, author of several fine theatrical and literary biographies, is a writer. — John Simon
Publishers Weekly
In 1951, Alfred Lunt revealed insecurity when he said of his acting partnership with wife Lynn Fontanne, "I hope people don't get tired of us." Peters's penetrating biography shows why Lunt's fears were groundless and why theater audiences from 1909 to 1962 relished their work, individually and together, in such productions as The Guardsman, Taming of the Shrew and Design for Living. Fontanne (1887-1983), a prot g e of Ellen Terry and Laurette Taylor, was critically applauded from the start. Lunt (1892-1977) overcame childhood scarlet fever and loss of a kidney to pursue acting. Peters portrays the pair as tempestuous beings (Lunt once screamed, in a fit of rage, "you're the rottenest actress I've ever worked with!"). Warned by Taylor that Lunt would make a terrible lover and a worse husband, Fontanne married him anyway, and they dedicated themselves to joint theatrical greatness. Peters laces her story with anecdotes about close friend No l Coward, self-destructive John Barrymore and others. She handles the issue of Lunt and Fontanne's bisexual marriage thoughtfully, and perceptively analyzes their acting styles. Wit abounds throughout, and Peters points out the paradox that made Lunt and Fontanne-whose marriage may have been unconsummated-generate heat onstage, as opposed to sexually active married couples who had no acting chemistry together (e.g., Burton and Taylor; Cruise and Kidman). More poignantly, she quotes Fontanne as admitting Lunt's decision to lock himself into a team prevented him from achieving full recognition of his stature. The book's blend of breezy humor, along with darker insights into complex personalities, make it a potent, provocative journey. 62 photos. Agent, Lynn Nesbit. (Oct. 23) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Before movies, television, and the Internet, when audiences were entertained by live theater and many stars began their careers performing in plays, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were a superstar couple who performed internationally for over four decades, sought after by major playwrights of the time. The Lunts helped to launch the Theater Guild, then created their own production company. Though rumors abounded that Alfred was homosexual and Lynn was bisexual, a passion for acting and theater held their unusual marriage together until Alfred's death in 1977. If this book were a play about the Lunts, it would close on opening night. Peters (Victorian literature, Univ. of Wisconsin) has done an extensive amount of research using mostly secondary sources. The retelling of the Lunts' incredible journey through life does not have the spark it needs to make this a satisfying biography, and though it may hold limited interest to theater aficionados, it will not appeal to the general public. Not an essential purchase.-Rosalind Dayen, South Regional Lib., Broward Cty., FL Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Veteran biographer Peters (May Sarton, 1997, etc.) limns the glamorous life of the American theater’s most successful acting team. Alfred Lunt (1892-1977) and Lynn Fontanne (1887-1983) were a couple offstage as well as on, though persistent rumors peg it as a sexless marriage between a gay man and a bisexual woman. Their biographer seems to accept this judgment, though she never comes right out and says so: more important, she correctly assumes, was their lifelong devotion and the astonishing partnership that began in 1924 with Ferenc Molnár’s witty two-hander, The Guardsman, and continued through Friedrich Dürrenmat’s mordant satire, The Visit, in 1958. The Lunts were particularly admired for their flawless comic gifts, highlighted to scandalous effect in pal Noël Coward’s smash Design for Living, which had Coward and his costars romping through a threesome that implied—as much as you could in 1933—the two men’s sexual involvement. But they had a serious side, highlighted in Robert E. Sherwood’s brooding prewar allegory Idiot’s Delight and his patriotic drama There Shall Be No Night, which they played amidst bombs falling over Fontanne’s native England in 1943. When relaxing, they retreated in high style to their country manor in Lunt’s home state, Wisconsin, where he could cook and redecorate to his heart’s content while she sewed her ultra-chic clothes. Capably following their busy career and social life—friends included Alexander Woollcott, Helen Hayes, and Laurence Olivier—Peters hews to the accepted wisdom that Fontanne was a brilliant technician, Lunt a truly great actor who slightly limited himself after 1928 by working only with her. Both were relentlessperfectionists who refined their performances long after the Broadway premieres, in the vanished days when stars routinely made national tours and successful actors worked exclusively year-round on the stage. Peters’s footnotes are spotty, and she stoops at least once to inventing a conversation, but she colorfully evokes her subjects’ theatrical personalities and stylish amusements nonetheless. An appealing portrait of the attractive Lunts and of Broadway in its heyday. Agent: Lynn Nesbit/Janklow & Nesbit

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Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE Lynn's Way: 1887-1919

Much of Alfred Lunt's early history Lynn Fontanne would learn from Alfred himself as well as from his mother, his half-siblings, his scrapbooks, his neighbors, and his childhood friends. Alfred would learn less about Lynn.

For one thing she came from across the pond. She was born on the wrong side of the tracks in a small Victorian house in Station Terrace, Snake's Lane, at Woodford Bridge in Essex, about ten miles northeast of London. He would not know her parents and seldom see her two sisters, Mai and Antoinette; meet few of her early friends and associates. And there was that British reserve: a cool customer, Lynn was less confessional than Alfred. One fact he would not learn till much later: Lillie Louise, renaming herself Lynn, was not born in 1892, as she claimed, but on December 6, 1887.

Lynn's father, Jules Pierre Antoine Fontanne, owned a typefounding business inherited from his father. Yet Fontanne was less a businessman than a would-be bon vivant. Lynn aspired to her father's imagined heights.

"I will be a mother," she said, "and have four children and twelve nursemaids."

She told everyone that her noble family had given up its title during the French Revolution. This was Fontanne fantasy; what was true was that her maternal great-grandmother came from a titled family in Ireland, though Lynn apparently did not know it.

Frances Ellen Thornley, Lynn's beautiful, dark-haired mother, resented her husband's impracticality. High-strung, her temper fueled by frustration and disappointment, she quarreled abusively with Jules. Lynn and her sisters often took shelter with their Irish grandmother, Sarah Ann Barnett, who lived nearby.

Lynn grew up poor one day, prosperous the next, but always in an atmosphere of fantasy. Her father read the girls Dickens, Tennyson, and Shakespeare. She memorized Shakespearean soliloquies, recited them in a voice that could "ring out like a bell." When the family moved for a time to the London suburb of Walthamstow, Lynn was often discovered missing from her bed. Antoinette knew where to find her: "She had climbed out of the window and was down the road where she had crept into the theatre to watch the performance." Taken to the Lyceum Theatre to see Henry Irving and Ellen Terry in The Merchant of Venice, Lynn stood up in the gallery and loudly recited the "quality of mercy" speech right along with London's reigning actress. Taken to The Worst Man in London, a thriller, she hid her face in her sister's lap, crying, "I never shall go on the stage-don't let me go on the stage!"

It was perhaps on that visit that she saw Queen Victoria riding in a carriage. There was a sudden stir in the crowd and shouting and she rushed forward. A bobby caught her arm; she stared as the Queen rode by, and the Queen's great blue eyes stared straight ahead: a performer, just what Lynn wanted to be.

"I was a very noisy, happy, and exuberant child until I was eight," Lynn told Maurice Zolotow, the Lunts' first biographer, "and it was then my mother scolded me for being clumsy and I got to be self-conscious and lost all confidence."

When Lynn was in her teens, Jules Fontanne was called to the side of a dying French aunt. She left him some money; he promptly celebrated by taking his family to Paris. Strolling in the Bois de Boulogne, Antoinette complained that a man was following them. Jules accosted the stranger: "I demand to know, sir, why you are hounding my daughters!" The man explained that he was Wilfred de Glehn, an artist and a member of the British Royal Academy. He was struck by the girls' beauty. He begged permission to paint them.

Great luck for Lynn. All three girls had to work to support themselves (Jules spent his inheritance at a rapid clip); but though Antoinette was the raving beauty, Lynn became the favorite model of de Glehn and his wife, Jane. As Jane de Glehn's girl in The Blue Coat and Wilfred de Glehn's señorita in The Spanish Mantilla, Lynn hung in the Royal Academy. The money she earned modeling kept her in tea and buns while searching for acting jobs. More important, the de Glehn connection led to an introduction to the great Ellen Terry.

It was a September afternoon in 1905 when Lynn called at the small Georgian house at 215 King's Road, Chelsea. Ellen Terry was fifty-eight, three years parted from Henry Irving and the Lyceum Theatre (Irving would die that October), depressed about her failing memory and poor eyesight. Yet she still encouraged aspiring actresses who flocked to her: "her little circle of girls," Lady Duff Gordon described them, who "would gladly have laid down their lives for her sake."

Lynn was shown upstairs. Ellen was lying in bed wrapped in shawls, untidy fair hair falling about her shoulders. She gazed at the thin dark girl with the turned-in toes, gestured her forward. As Lynn knelt at the side of the low bed, Ellen put her hands on her shoulders and impulsively kissed her.

"Do something!" she commanded in a husky voice as the maid brought breakfast on a tray. Lynn took a deep breath. "The quality of mercy . . ." she began-Terry's most famous speech. Ellen laughed but she listened.

"I will give you lessons. I don't know exactly when or what hours, or how often, but mind, when I call for you, you must come at once. You must make no other engagements, not even in the evenings, for I may want you to work in the evenings."

Lynn had to receive Ellen's messages through a neighboring plumber in Down Street, where she lived in a shabby-chic room with no water but fan windows and an Adam fireplace. The lessons were sporadic, though one session working from Ellen's own annotated script of King Lear deeply impressed her. "Oh, my dear father," said Lynn as Cordelia. Ellen interrupted: "No, don't say it like that. You love him. You must say 'Oh, my deeeere father.' Now, no more instruction for Cordelia, for the whole understanding of the part lies in this line." She also gave her pupil a key that unlocked the spontaneous technique Lynn used all her life: "Think of the meaning of what you are saying and let the words pour out of your mouth."

Ellen got Lynn a job in the chorus for the Christmas pantomime Cinderella at Drury Lane. She paid Lynn to read to her afternoons. She let Lynn take baths at King's Road. She invited her to her Elizabethan country house in Kent, paid her for odd jobs around the house, coached her in stage deportment. She pinned a bedsheet to the front of Lynn's dress and one to the back, then made her walk gracefully among the tangles. "Must get Lynn more money," Ellen reminded herself in her diary. "It's wicked. She is so intelligent."

But Ellen's attention was distracted by rehearsals of Shaw's Captain Brassbound's Conversion, where she fell impulsively in love with the thirty-three-year-old actor James Carew. She managed to get Lynn a walk-on in July 1906 at the Savoy, and before she took Brassbound to America she gave Lynn a miniature boxed set of Shakespeare as a keepsake and a letter of introduction to the actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree. "That's all I'm going to be able to do for you," she told Lynn, kissing her. "If I helped you any more, it wouldn't be good for your character, for each one runs his own race."

In 1907 Lynn got another walk-on, in Booth Tarkington's Monsieur Beaucaire at the Lyric, under the name Viva Fontanne. Perhaps she thought calling herself "Viva" would boost confidence, for when not acting she was painfully shy. "I thought to myself, 'Why are you so shy? What makes you stiffen up as soon as you meet anyone?' " She answered herself: "It is because you are wondering what it is they think about you. Now, don't think that any more. Wonder what it is you think about them. And when you go into a restaurant, instead of dying when you go in, just . . . have a look, Lynnie, and see who's there instead of bothering whether they're looking at you." Slowly she began to gain more poise.

That fall of 1907 she used Ellen's letter of introduction to Beerbohm Tree, who was looking for schoolgirl types for his staging of Dickens's Edwin Drood. Rather hard of the great Tree to demand experience for a mere walk-on, and Lynn, with her new confidence, rebelled. "But how will you find girls this young with experience? And how will I get experience if you don't give me work?" Delighted, the eccentric Tree hired her, cautioning her to give her address to future managers not as unfashionable Pimlico, but as Belgravia.

Like many shy people, Lynn was a comic. Antoinette took her to parties where she "kept these men in their thirties in fits of laughter." When Tony was invited to dinner by three men one evening, she asked Lynn along for protection. Immediately attracted to the apprentice lawyer Edmund "Teddy" Byrne, Lynn launched into comic impersonations and wild tales of life backstage. Teddy laughed. When they found themselves alone in a cab together, he kissed her and Lynn kicked him in the shins. He was impressed. "Oh, he had a beautiful baritone voice," said Lynn, "and he stole my heart away."

Lynn was still sitting for artists like the de Glehns. "He'd be waiting for me to finish modeling in some Chelsea studio. He was tall and quite slim and he had a raincoat draped over his shoulders and he'd be leaning on the Battersea bridge, waiting, looking down into the river." Teddy would take her to her flat, where she'd change into an evening dress she'd made herself, then on the town to the Cafe Royal, the Savoy Grill, Rules, or Hatchetts. It was all glamorous and glorious and she wanted to marry Teddy, but her career came first.

She longed for a London tour de force but, as Mrs. Patrick Campbell quipped, was forced to tour. In 1909-1910 she played a small role in Somerset Maugham's Lady Frederick, returned to London in Where Children Rule at the Garrick, set out for the provinces again as the maid Harriet Budgeon in Mr. Preedy and the Countess. In June 1910 she was back in London in lodgings at 37 Lambs Conduit Street in Holborn and writing to her mentor, who, now married to James Carew, had been reduced to lecturing on Shakespeare:

Dear Miss Terry,

You will be pleased I am sure to hear that I have secured another engagement this time in London in Billy's Bargain at the Garrick to open on Thurs. the 23rd. It is only a tiny part in the first act-but I have never played in London before, so I am very delighted and excited about it. . . .

Yours affectionately,

Lynn. P.S. Let me come & do something for you.

Lynn had appeared in London before, but Lady Mulberry was her first speaking part. She shook so badly she kept repeating, "I'm on the stage, I'm on the stage, I'm on the stage" to calm herself.

Brother of George Grossmith, the famous Gilbert and Sullivan patter singer, Weedon Grossmith had directed Mr. Preedy and the Countess, hired Lynn again for Billy's Bargain, and now engaged her as Harriet Budgeon for a North American tour that played in Montreal, Washington, and came into New York at Nazimova's 39th Street Theater, where it died after twenty-four performances. In February 1911 Lynn was back in London playing in a one-act curtain raiser at the Criterion, again directed by Grossmith. In January 1912 he cast her in A Storm in a Tea-Shop, another curtain raiser, then engaged her on tour as an understudy. It was their last association, but Lynn learned much from this multitalented man, even though-frustratingly-she'd still gained no real recognition in London.

Though Teddy Byrne doubted Lynn could really act, in 1912 he introduced her to Lady Higson, whose at-homes attracted prominent theater people. There she met the producer J. E. Vedrenne and the actor-manager Dennis Eadie. Currently their London hit Milestones was the hottest ticket in town. They gave Lynn the part of the old maid Gertrude Rhead in their third touring company, which played villages not even on the map. She set off with the White Company in November 1912.

"Oh, places with only one train a day and you lived in cheap theatrical digs and ate awful food and it was all one-night stands, and I loved it, I loved it, I loved every moment of it, for experience was what I needed." She toured in Milestones six months, feeling at last that she was really acting. In three acts Gertrude Rhead ages from twenty-one to eighty: a great part for an actress of twenty-five to pull off. She could tell that audiences believed in her. When skeptical Teddy came to a performance in the Midlands he said in awe: "But you were good!"

Arnold Bennett and Edward Knoblock wrote Milestones, and Lynn went on to act in three other plays by Knoblock: A War Committee, How to Get On, and My Lady's Dress, with Gladys Cooper and Edith Evans. (John Gielgud believed Lynn and Edith Evans never got on: "Both belles laides.") Most important, she played Gertrude Rhead in a fall 1914 London revival of Milestones. It was her first significant London part.

Teddy, who had avoided introducing her to his family, now took her to meet his parents in Walthamstow. They got engaged; they might have married, but on June 28, 1914, Archduke Francis Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo; major powers in Europe armed; England declared war against Germany in August. Lynn and Teddy decided to postpone marriage. She would also have to postpone fame. Though she was noticed in the Times ("Lynn Fontanne, who takes up the old-maid part . . . achieves the miracle of making as beautiful a thing of it as her predecessor"), London was focused on the coming conflict.

Ellen Terry had given Lynn a start, but an American actress propelled her directly to success. Laurette Taylor ("Greatest of them all!" said theater manager George C. Tyler) became an instant London celebrity in Peg o' My Heart. The Marchioness of Townsend gave Laurette a tea to which Lynn, courtesy of Lady Higson, was invited, still murmuring as she entered the room, "Don't worry what they're thinking about you, concentrate on what you think of them!" A crush of guests waited to meet the new star. Lady Higson urged her forward. Prim in a little hat with two velvet streamers down her back, Lynn recoiled. Instead she slipped into a chair, sipped a cup of tea. She was about to leave when miraculously the crowd around Laurette Taylor dissolved and their eyes locked across the room. "Why, she's as shy as I am!" thought Lynn. Impulsively she crossed the room and sat down next to the celebrity, teacup rattling in her hand.

Meet the Author

Margot Peters has been Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin and holds a Ph.D. in Victorian literature. She is the author of eight books, among them Unquiet Soul: A Biography of Charlotte Brontë, The House of Barrymore, Mrs. Pat: The Life of Mrs. Patrick Campbell, and May Sarton: A Biography. She lives in Lake Mills, Wisconsin.

From the Hardcover edition.

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