December 6, 1887– Lynn Fontanne:
“We can be bought, but we can’t be bored.”
I have always been absorbed by these types, the glamorous theatre & film personalities of the 1920s-1960s. With their dazzling partnership “The Lunts” ruled the American theater scene during that era. Their careers flourished at a time when even the biggest stars would do national tours & successful actors worked exclusively year-round on the stage. Their friends included other glamorous theater people: Gertrude Lawrence, Helen Hayes, Mary Martin, Ethel Merman & Laurence Olivier.
There was never a question of their devotion to each other, but the offstage union of Alfred Lunt & Lynn Fontanne was a marriage between a gay man & a lesbian. Their presentation of themselves as the ideal couple may have been their most accomplished performance.
When prodded by best buddy Noel Coward, the couple would sometimes teasingly hint about their private lives. Their scandalous hit Design For Living (1933) allowed Coward & his co-stars to romp through a 3-way implying that there was sex between the 2 male characters. Design For Living remains one of my favorite plays. I remain fascinated by the ups, downs & pitfalls of a 3-way relationship. That production showcased the flawless comic gifts that The Lunts were famous for, but they were also noted for dramatic performances too. But, The Lunts will always be remembered for their light touch doing breezy comedy & for their amazing chemistry.
When not performing in a hit play, the pair retreated in high style to their country manor, 10 Chimneys, in Lunt’s home state of Wisconsin (home of the lovely Paul Ryan), where he could cook & redecorate while she sewed her chic clothing. The Lunts are my kind of couple; they ate off a packing crate while sitting on Biedermeier chairs. The Lunts were Bohemians, for certain.
The theater was life for them, & their life was a piece of theater. Their residences were theatrical sets, their parties were stage shows, the people who socialized with them became their audience. They knew little about what was going on in the world, had mostly arty friends, usually performed as a team, & rehearsed their lines in taxi cabs & even in bed.
There are all sorts of marriages, I should know. Unlike many show biz marriages, The Lunts were equal stars; equally glamorous to fans & to each other, with not much reason for any sort of jealousy. Passion was what they portrayed 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, & so had he.”
The Lunts had a design for living that worked for both of them. They shared everything, especially a deep devotion. They had close friendships, particularly the triangle kind that Fontanne favored: Fontanne, Lunt & a gay male. They shared kindness, courtesy, loyalty & generosity. They shared a passionate, total commitment to their work.
In 1940, they appeared in Robert Sherwood’s drama There Shall Be No Night as the middle-aged parents of a young man played by Montgomery Clift. The Lunts took Clift into their home & bed. They coached him in acting, & also advised Clift to protect his reputation by finding a relationship modeled after their own.
Fontanne made only 3 films, but still managed to be nominated for an Academy Award for one of them, Best Actress in The Guardsmen (1931) opposite Lunt, losing to another theatre type, Helen Hayes for The Sin Of Madelon Claudet.
The Lunts starred in 4 television productions in the 1950s & 1960s with both Lunt & Fontanne winning Emmy Awards in 1965 for The Magnificent Yankee, becoming the first married couple to win Emmys for playing a married couple.
Fontanne narrated the classic television production of Peter Pan (1960) starring her pal Mary Martin. She received a second Emmy nomination for playing Grand Duchess Marie in broadcast of Anastasia (1967), both rare performances that she did without her husband.
After Lunt’s death in 1957, Fontanne toasted him with a glass of champagne, saying simply:
Fontanne took her final curtain call in 1983, at 95 years old, taken by pneumonia. She is buried next to her husband, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The inscription on their tombstone reads:
“They were universally regarded as the greatest acting team in the history of the English speaking theater, married for 55 years & were inseparable both on & off the stage.”
Lunt & Fontanne were honored with a 33-cent USPS stamp in 1999.
They have a Broadway theatre named for them, The Lunt-Fontanne at 205 W. 46th St., originally The Globe Theatre. When it was rechristened in 1958, The Lunts starred in a production of The Visit, with their names in lights twice. Theatre fans attending a matinee of Finding Neverland today could study the framed photographs from their private collection on display in the lobby.
Ten Chimneys, the house in rural Wisconsin, is now a museum & resource center for Theatre.
We will probably not see their likes again.