August 12, 1892– Alfred Lunt:
“Charm is that extra quality that defies description.”
I have always been absorbed by these types, the forceful and resourceful theatre and film personalities of the 1920s-1960s. “The Lunts”, Alfred and his actor wife Lynn Fontanne ruled the American Theater scene during that era with their dazzling partnership. Their careers flourished at a time when even the biggest of stars would do national tours and successful actors worked year-round exclusively on the stage. The Lunts’ friends included other glamorous theater people: Noël Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, Helen Hayes, Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, and Laurence Olivier.
There was never a question of their devotion, but the offstage union of Lunt and Fontanne was a marriage between a gay man and a lesbian. Their presentation of themselves as the ideal couple may have been their most skillful performance.
They became noted as an acting duo in the Theatre Guild’s production of The Guardsman by Ferenc Molnár in 1924. The two were known to the public thereafter as “The Lunts.” In the three and a half decades that followed, they appeared in one elegant vehicle after another, for the Theatre Guild and for companies that they assembled and managed themselves. As a tribute to their long dual career, a venerable Broadway theater, The Globe, was re-christened The Lunt-Fontanne. Under the new name, the first production was the couple’s final Broadway show: Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, directed by Peter Brook.
When prodded by best buddy, Noël Coward, the couple would sometimes teasingly hint about their private lives. The trio’s scandalous collaboration, the hit comedy Design For Living (1933) allowed Coward and his co-stars to romp through the story of a three-way implying that there was sex between the two male characters. Design For Living remains one of my favorite plays. I am fascinated by the ups, downs and pitfalls of a three-way relationship. The original production showcased the flawless comic gifts for which The Lunts were most admired, they could be effective at dramatic pieces, but The Lunts will always be known for their gift at doing light comedy and for their dazzling chemistry.
When they first began working together, the Lunts were true innovators. They defied the over-the-top acting style popular at the time, developing instead a conversational, overlapping technique that audiences found startlingly realistic. They brought risqué physicality to their romantic comedies, making love scenes sizzle and steam. By the 1950s, however, they came to represent a passé sort of eminence.
In J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye, Holden Caulfield, describing the Lunts’ performance in a comedy, faults them for being “too good”. Salinger writes:
“When one of them got finished making a speech, the other one said something very fast right after it. It was supposed to be like people really talking and interrupting each other and all. The trouble was it was too much like people talking and interrupting each other. If you do something too good, then, after a while, if you don’t watch it, you start showing off.”
By the time Salinger published his famous book, the Method was the new style of acting and the Lunts were passé. But, at the height of their careers, they brought something magical to the works of William Shakespeare, G.B. Shaw, Anton Chekhov, Robert E. Sherwood, and Maxwell Anderson, as well as playing Dmitri and Grushenka in a fabulous adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.
When not doing a show, the famous couple retreated in high style to their country manor, 10 Chimneys, the Lunt’s home state of Wisconsin, where he would cook and redecorate while she sewed her chic clothing. The Lunts were my kind of couple; they ate off an orange crate while sitting on Biedermeier chairs. The Lunts were Bohemians, for certain. The Theater was their life, and their life was theater. Their dwellings were theatrical sets, their parties were stage shows, and everyone and anyone who socialized with them was turned into an audience. It has been remarked that The Lunts knew next to nothing about what was going on in the world, had mostly theatrical friends, usually acted together as a team, and rehearsed their parts in taxi cabs and even in bed.
There are all sorts of marriages, I should know. Unlike in other showbiz unions, The Lunts were equal stars; equally glamorous to the world and to each other. There was not much reason for jealousy. Passion was for acting on the stage. Fontanne:
“We were friends right away. I loved him utterly. We were in the same profession. We were like twins. When we were acting, I always thought of him as another person. I had a new lover every night, and so had he.”
The Lunts had a design for living that suited them both. There would be deep devotion; there would be close friendships, particularly the triangle kind that Fontanne preferred (Fontanne, Lunt and a gay male), kindness, courtesy, loyalty and generosity. There would be total commitment to their work. They would have separate affairs and they would share the details.
Lunt took his final curtain call in August 1977, a few days before his 85th birthday. He is buried next to his wife at the Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee. After Lunt’s death, Fontanne toasted him with a glass of champagne, saying simply, “To Alfred”. 10 Chimneys is now a museum and a resource center for theatre people.
There is a stage play being produced at regional theatres across the country based on their time as a couple and their relationships with their famous friends. It is titled appropriately, 10 Chimneys. It was produced at Portland’s own Artist Repertory Theatre in the 2012 season. It seems to me that the MFA style of acting, craft-worthy as it may be, is the very cultural and artistic opposite of what The Lunts offered. You can’t get a college degree in Glamour. The effervescence of The Lunts, their dazzle on stage, and the charm of their world, we will probably not see their likes again.