Cornell, Katharine, 1893-1974Alternative names
Actress; Theatrical producer.
From the description of Papers 1938-1960. (Smith College). WorldCat record id: 46708799
From the description of Reminiscences of Katharine Cornell : oral history, [196-?]. (Columbia University In the City of New York). WorldCat record id: 122440903
From the description of Typed letter signed : New York, to Stark Young, 1937 Apr. 14. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270874894
From the description of Typed letter signed : New York, to Edward Wagenknecht, 1939 May 16. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270868044
Publicity photo of Katherine Cornell in costume, undated
Katharine Cornell (1893-1974) was born in Germany and raised in Buffalo, New York. She began her stage career with the Washington Square Players in New York City in 1916. In 1921, she married director, Guthrie McClintic, and in 1931, they formed the Cornell- McClintic Corporation, their own theatrical company. Some of Cornell's more famous roles were the leads in "A Bill of Divorcement" (1921), "St. Joan" (1936), "Romeo and Juliet"(1933- 34), and "The Barretts of Wimpole St." and Candide" (1931-34). She toured European front- lines during World War II, performing for GIs. Her last production was in "Dear Liar"(1959). Over her career, she received numerous honors and awards. Her autobiography, I Wanted to Be an Actress was published in 1938.
From the guide to the Katharine Cornell Papers MS 42., 1938-1960, (Sophia Smith Collection)
Katharine Cornell, actress, was born on February l6, 1898, in Berlin, Germany.
She married Guthrie McClintic in 1921. Miss Cornell performed primarily on the stage but has also worked in film and television. Miss Cornell won many awards for her performances and has earned honorary degrees from several universities. She died on June 9, 1974, in Vineyard Haven, MA.
From the description of Papers, 1910-1974. (New York Public Library). WorldCat record id: 122534043
Katharine Cornell was born on February 16, 1893, in Berlin, where her father, Peter Cortelyou Cornell, a distant relation of Cornell University founder Ezra Cornell, was studying medicine. Later in 1893, Peter Cornell and his wife Alice Gardner Plimpton returned to their native city, Buffalo, New York with their daughter, Katharine. Her father practiced medicine in Buffalo, for several years, but he found his time and interest increasingly taken up with the family hobby. His father, S. Douglas Cornell had been an active member of a theatrical group called the Buffalo Amateurs and Peter and his brother Douglas and sister Lydia also participated in many of the group’s performances. In 1901 Peter Cornell gave up medicine to devote himself full time to the management of the Star Theatre. Early exposure to the productions her family was involved in, as well as touring companies that passed through Buffalo, particularly Maude Adams in Peter Pan, developed the beginnings in Katharine Cornell of a lifelong passion with the theater.
After attending private schools in Buffalo, Cornell went to Oaksmere School, in Mamaroneck, New York, where she participated in many theatrical productions. Determined to pursue a career on the stage, she moved to New York in 1916. After unsuccessfully auditioning for a role with the Washington Square Players-an organization which would later become the Theatre Guild, Cornell was allowed to sit in on their rehearsals as an apprentice. When an actress playing the bit part of the mother in Bushido: A Japanese Tragedy failed to show up for rehearsals, the company managers gave the one-line part to the young actress who’d become a constant presence at the rehearsals, and Katharine Cornell made her New York debut.
After small roles in a few other Washington Square Players productions, such as Plots and Playwrights and The Life of Man, Cornell was hired by an actress she’d met years earlier in Buffalo, Jessie Bonstelle, to join her stock touring company in 1919. One of Cornell’s earliest triumphs came when she played Jo in the 1920 London production of Little Women . However, in the United States she still wasn’t a star and continued touring with the Jessie Bonstelle Company, by now she was playing leads in plays such as The Man Outside in 1920.
Guthrie McClintic was born in Seattle, Washington on August 6, 1893. A sickly child, with a delicate constitution that prevented him from developing any interest in sports, McClintic was fascinated by the theater. He saw both touring companies and the local Seattle groups, including the Charles Taylor Company, where he was especially impressed by the manager’s wife, the young actress Laurette Taylor. Even though McClintic’s father was unsympathetic to his ambitions toward the stage, he eventually prevailed upon his parents to send him east in 1910 for theatrical training at New York’s Academy for Dramatic Arts.
McClintic found some work as an actor, appearing in a tour of Oliver Twist as well as on Broadway in such plays as The Truth (1914), Major Barbara (1916) and Captain Brassbound’s Conversion (1916). However, he gradually realized that although he still loved the stage, he might belong behind, rather than on it. To this end, he got a job in the offices of the director/producer Winthrop Ames, where he worked as a stage manager and casting director. His ambition was to become and director and producer himself and this was his role in Jessie Bonstelle’s touring company, where he became acquainted with Cornell, whom he had met briefly, a few years earlier, at a meeting of the Washington Square Players. During the tour, Cornell fell in love with another member of the company, a young director named Guthrie McClintic and he and Cornell were married from her aunt Lydia Cornell’s house in Coburg, Ontario on September 8, 1921. McClintic had been briefly and unhappily married to and separated from the actress Estelle Winwood and it took over a year for him to secure a divorce from her.
Back in New York as Cornell’s career was blossoming, so was McClintic’s. Ames had agreed to help him mount his own production, providing he could find something inexpensive enough. When he read A. A. Milne’s play, The Dover Road, he knew he’d found the right property. The 1921 play was very successful and Ames’ gamble paid off. Over the next few years, McClintic continued to deliver on the early promise he had shown, with productions such as A Square Peg and In This Room in 1923. His reputation as one of the most talented young directors in town made it easy for him and Cornell to work together.
Cornell’s next New York play and Broadway debut was Rachel Crothers’ Nice People in 1921. Later that year, she would finally arrive as a major star on Broadway in the role of Sidney Fairfield, the self-sacrificing daughter of a mentally unstable father in Clemence Dane’s A Bill of Divorcement . She continued to be praised for her performances in the 1923 productions of Dane’s Will Shakespeare, Laura Pennington’s The Enchanted Cottage and Sidney Howard’s translation of Lorenzo DeAzteris’ Casanova . 1924’s The Way Things Happen, another Clemence Dane play, marked the start of the powerhouse professional team of Cornell and McClintic. Having established themselves as actress and director independently, the married couple embarked on their joint career and with a few exceptions, McClintic would direct and produce all of Cornell’s subsequent plays.
In 1924, Cornell played the title role in George Bernard Shaw’s Candida for the first time. Though some thought her too young for the role, she received stellar reviews. This was one of Cornell’s favorite roles and she revived it several times on tour and on Broadway. After Candida, Cornell played a string of “fallen women” roles, beginning with the stage adaptation of Michael Arlen’s popular novel, The Green Hat (1926), followed by Somerset Maugham’s The Letter (1927), Margaret Ayer Barnes’ adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel, The Age of Innocence (1928) and Barnes’ Dishonored Lady (1930). Though Cornell never got bad reviews, the public and critics were tiring of seeing her in the same type of roles in the same type of melodramas.
Her next play was a well-timed departure, which would provide her with the role she would be most identified with for the rest of her career. Rudolph Bessier’s dramatic telling of the romance between two of England’s great poets, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning had been rejected by 27 New York producers when it came to Cornell’s attention. She immediately admired the play, but didn’t see herself in the lead role as Elizabeth Barrett, until McClintic convinced her that she was ideally suited for it. Unsatisfied with the many American actors they had auditioned for the role of Robert Browning, Cornell and McClintic turned to the London stage and brought Brian Aherne over for his New York debut. The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1931) was not only a tremendous triumph for Cornell as an actress, but also her debut as a producer, which gave her a new position as an actress-manager.
After more Broadway successes, including S. N. Behrman’s Brief Moment (1931), Thornton Wilder’s translation of André Obey’s Lucrece (1932) and Sidney Howard’s Alien Corn (1933), Cornell devoted the entire 1933-1934 season to a cross-country tour. Once standard practice, the tradition of the great stars bringing their productions around the country had gone out of fashion, but Cornell considered it a duty she owed to the public. After Cornell’s triumphant 77 city tour, many other actors followed in her footsteps. Her repertory company consisted of three plays, two established successes, Candida and The Barretts of Wimpole Street and one new production, Cornell’s first Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet . After a rocky start, Cornell and McClintic were able to hone the production and her performance as Juliet into what would become one of her most acclaimed roles. When they brought it back to New York in 1934, Cornell was hailed by many critics as the best Juliet in a generation.
Cornell continued to tackle varied and challenging roles to great acclaim throughout the 30s and early 40s. Some of her most successful roles in this period were in three Shaw plays, Saint Joan (1936), another Candida (1937) and The Doctor’s Dilemma (1941) as well as other classic plays in translation, such as Hebbel’s Herod and Mariamne (1938) and Chekhov’s The Three Sisters (1942). In Maxwell Anderson’s The Wingless Victory (1936) she played a Malayan princess and she also appeared in several contemporary urban plays, including John Van Druten’s The Flowers of the Forest (1935), S. N. Behrman’s No Time for Comedy (1939) and Dodie Smith’s Lovers and Friends (1942).
Cornell, always a dedicated patriot was anxious to contribute to the war effort. In 1944, she took a company of actors abroad for a tour of the military bases of Europe, performing The Barretts of Wimpole Street with Brian Aherne and many former cast members, finally landing back on Broadway with the play in 1945. In the late 40s Cornell took on leading roles in classics such as Antigone (1946) and her Tony-award winning turn in Antony and Cleopatra (1947). She also appeared in another Candida (1946), costarring with a young Marlon Brando. Now over 50, and with the styles of acting and writing changing, Cornell was finding it increasingly difficult to find plays that intrigued her. She appeared in period pieces, such as That Lady (1949), The Dark is Light Enough (1955) opposite Tyrone Power and The Firstborn (1958). She also appeared in light comedies, such as Maugham’s The Constant Wife (1951) and The Prescott Proposals (1953).
Before retiring, she would have one more triumph. The young playwright, Jerome Kilty, had written a two-person play called Dear Liar, based on the witty and touching decades-long epistolary love affair between George Bernard Shaw and his muse, the great actress, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, who had appeared in many of his plays, most notably, originating the role of Eliza Doolittle in the original production of Pygmalion . As one of the last great ladies of the stage and a famous interpreter of Shaw’s plays herself, Cornell was a natural for the role of Mrs. Pat. Cornell’s old friend and frequent co-star, Brian Aherne, who’d recently been connected with Shaw in the public consciousness, by starring as Henry Higgins in the national tour of My Fair Lady, was another natural choice for the other leading role of Shaw himself. After a short run on Broadway, Cornell and Aherne took the production on a cross-country tour. Many of the audience members they played to had seen them in The Barretts of Wimpole Street more than 25 years earlier.
In addition to directing and producing most of Cornell’s vehicles, McClintic was one of the most sought-after directors on Broadway and he continued to direct acclaimed productions with other stars, including new productions of classics starring great modern actors, such as Hamlet (1936) with John Gielgud and Medea (1949) with Judith Anderson. He also staged adaptations of classic novels such as Edith Wharton’s The Old Maid (1935) and Ethan Frome (1936) and Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers (1937). He also directed many new plays by contemporary authors, such as High Tor (1937), Winterset (1935) and Key Largo (1939) by Maxwell Anderson, Tennessee Williams’ You Touched Me (1945), Mamba’s Daughters (1939) by Dorothy and Dubose Heyward and John Steinbeck’s Burning Bright (1950).
Dear Liar turned out to be both Cornell’s and McClintic’s last play. On October 29, 1961, McClintic passed away at his and Cornell’s Palisades home. Nearing 70, feeling a lack of connection to the current theater and without the partner who had helped her shape her career for 40 years, Cornell retired from the stage. Over the next 13 years, she split her time between her Manhattan apartment and her beloved Martha’s Vineyard house, where she lived with lifelong friend and companion, the writer Nancy Hamilton. She and Hamilton were active members of the Vineyard Haven community until Cornell’s death on June 9, 1974.
From the guide to the Katharine Cornell papers, 1801-1983, dates, 1921-1974, (The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.)
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