January 24, 1883 – Estelle Winwood:
”Who wants to be 100? I wouldn’t mind being dead. It would be something new.”
She is yet another figure who is totally fascinating and totally forgotten, and that kind of makes me sad. She was the oldest member of the Screen Actors Guild in SAG history when she died at 101 years old, a record she held until last summer when Olivia de Havilland was taken at 104.
I also find it fascinating that Winwood was one of the few stage actors who wasn’t initially willing to work in film. When she finally did, all of her scenes in her first project were cut, and she didn’t do another during the 1940s, although she did do a television version of Noël Coward‘s Blithe Spirit in 1946.
She made her Broadway debut in 1916. Her career went on to include plays by Coward, James M. Barrie and George Bernard Shaw.
Winwood was one of the ”Four Riders of the Algonquin”, a group known for their appearances together at that gathering of wits, the “Algonquin Round Table”, along with those other lesbian-inclined acting talents Tallulah Bankhead, Eva La Gallienne and Blyth Daly (better known for her relationships in the lesbian acting community than for her acting career).
Born Estelle Ruth Goodwin in Kent, Winwood decided at five years old that she would go on the stage. Her mother approved; her father did not. But she made her debut at 20 years old in Johannesburg, of all places, then on to Liverpool, London and then Broadway. In 1939, she starred in and directed a Broadway revival of Oscar Wilde‘s The Importance Of Being Earnest. Her more than 50-year career stage career is impressive, yet few seem to be aware of it anymore. After the 1930s, she remained almost entirely in the USA.
I first noticed her in a small role in Walt Disney‘s deliriously demented Darby O’Gill And The Little People (1959). She plays a scheming, conniving woman determined to get her drunken son the best possible life. It’s not much of a role that could have been played without as much force as Winwood brings to it. She was over 70 years old at the time, already getting typecast as a certain kind of dotty old biddy, but there were few players better at that kind of role. So, when I first became a fan, Winwood was already ancient.
She’s not in the clip below, but I just wanted you to be able to treasure this moment:
She is Agatha Christie‘s Miss Marple stand-in character Jessica Marbles’ (Elsa Lanchester) nurse in a wheelchair in Neil Simon‘s underrated comedy Murder By Death (1976). It also stars gay favorites Eileen Brennan, James Coco, Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Maggie Smith, and Nancy Walker. The movie is spoof of traditional country-house whodunits. The cast skillfully plays send-ups of well-known fictional detectives, including Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Charlie Chan (is he cancelled?), Nick and Nora Charles, and Sam Spade. It also features a rare acting performance by Truman Capote. Murder By Death was the last movie role for Winwood.
She plays one of the old women Zero Mostel romances and fleeces in The Producers (1967), and Lady Clarinda in Camelot (1967). She played Aunt Hilda on the campy television series Batman (1966-67) and Aunt Enchantra on the ultra-queer Bewitched (1964-1972)!
Unlike her stage career, she had small parts in films and television, including The Misfits (1961), The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1962), the nutty Dead Ringer (1964) with Bette Davis, and the hippie rom-com Jennie (1970) with Marlo Thomas and Alan Alda.
A homosexual gentleman of a certain age might remember her as the Fairy Godmother in a Cinderella retelling, The Glass Slipper (1955) with Leslie Caron.
Bankhead was her lover and companion for three decades. Winwood, a dainty, demure woman, was two decades older than Bankhead, but she outlived her famous lover by 16 years.
I think that the reason Winwood did not have much of a film career was that for a long time she didn’t want one; she wanted to be onstage. By the time she got around to pursuing movie roles, she had aged out. Showbiz is tough. She has over 40 Broadway credits, and probably just as many in Britain. She was in the cast of the original productions of Christie’s Ten Little Indians (1944), and Jean Giraudoux‘s The Madwoman Of Chaillot (1948-1950). Her last credit was an episode of Quincy in 1979.
Like others of her generation such as Helen Hayes, Ethel Barrymore and Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Winwood preferred the long tradition of prestige and excitement that came from working on stage and maybe she didn’t think the money made from working in movies was reason to go and learn a whole new art form.
Yet, she seemed to love doing television, with hundreds of appearances on all sorts of shows. 83-year-old Winwood complained in an interview that under union rules rehearsals could not exceed seven consecutive hours. When Winwood turned 100 in early 1983, she was still drinking sherry, smoking three packs of cigarettes a day, and playing cards three times a week.
Winwood was 101 years old when her final credits rolled. It must have been the smoking. When she shot that episode of Quincy, she officially became, at 96 years old, the oldest actor working in the USA.
Winwood is a character in Answered Prayers, Capote’s final, unfinished, thinly veiled roman à clef. Capote uses her real name. She attends a drunken dinner party with Bankhead, Dorothy Parker, Montgomery Clift, and the novel’s narrator, P.B. Jones.
Winwood on showbiz:
”My advice to actresses is don’t worry about your looks. The very thing that makes you unhappy in your appearance may be the one thing to make you a star.”