January 11, 1899– Eva Le Gallienne
We love the lesbians. Butch or femme, softball playing or treading the boards, in therapy or giving therapy; at my house, we feel good about our gay sisters.
I was one of the lucky theatre fans who saw her, along with Theatre legends Rosemary Harris, Sam Levene and Ellis Rabb, on Broadway in the hit revival of the Edna Ferber/George S. Kaufman comedy The Royal Family based on the lives of the famous Barrymore family of actors. It was the hit of the 1976 Broadway season and a major triumph for the amazing Eva Le Gallienne, who played the mother of the fabled family, skipping girlishly upstairs in Act One and then descending like an elderly queen in Act Three. Her performance in this gem is one of the most memorable in my long theatre going history.
She was born in London, the daughter of a famous English poet and a Danish journalist. Her parents divorced when Le Gallienne was a toddler. She and her mother moved to Paris, where, as a young girl, she saw Sarah Bernhardt in a play, and was taken backstage to meet the star, who, at the time, was the most famous woman in Europe. Le Gallienne:
“It made such an enormous impression on me that I thought, ‘That’s what I’d like to do’.“
When she was 15 years old, actor Constance Collier, a friend of the family, got her a small role in a play in London. With rave reviews and encouragement from fellow actors, Le Gallienne left wartime London and traveled to New York City in 1915. The first few plays to hire her were all failures. She spent a few years on tour and doing summer stock, before appearing in a string of Broadway hits beginning in the early 1920s.
She acted in or directed nearly 150 live theatre productions, plus 16 films and television performances, and she made many radio appearances. Le Gallienne translated in to English many of the works of Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekov.
She wrote four books, including a very good memoir, With A Quiet Heart (1953), a biography of gay actor Eleanora Duse, plus numerous articles for magazines. She made the cover of Time magazine in 1929. An especially gifted and dynamic actor who loved her craft, Le Gallienne was one of the most successful and popular figures in American Theatre for six decades.
In 1918, Le Gallienne had an affair with the flamboyant Hollywood actor Alla Nazimova. When the relationship with Nazimova faded, she became involved with set designer and writer Mercedes de Acosta, a former lover of Nazimova’s (reminding me of some of the lesbians in my life now, who have affairs with exe’s exes; it becomes so complicated). In 1927, Le Gallienne had an affair with married actor Josephine Hutchinson. Hutchinson’s husband named Le Gallienne in the divorce proceedings. The press, writing of the scandal used the term “shadow actress” as a euphemism for lesbian.
Although Le Gallienne had many lovers, she was never totally comfortable with her lesbianism and she briefly considered one of those special sham marriages to fellow actor Basil Rathbone, who had performed as a swell beard for her at parties and opening nights.
Le Gallienne came closer than any other person to establishing a permanent American company performing repertory in the style of London‘s Old Vic, or the Moscow Art Theater. She walked away from Broadway stardom in 1926, and founded Civic Repertory Theatre, staging the classics at popular prices at an old theatre on West 14th Street. The company gave more than 1,500 performances of 34 plays, 32 directed by Le Gallienne. Among the company members were young Burgess Meredith and John Garfield.
The theatre operated without government subsidy, but Le Gallienne had financial support from one of her many lovers, Alice DeLamar, a wealthy Colorado goldmine heiress, and at the time, the richest single lady in the USA. DeLamar and Le Gallienne became lovers.
Highlights of the Civic Repertory’s six seasons included the first American production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters; the Pulitzer Prize-winning Alison’s House by Susan Glaspell; the premiere of Le Gallienne’s own adaptation of Alice In Wonderland, which went on to have two Broadway revivals; and the very first Peter Pan in which Peter flew out over the audience. The variety and breadth of her roles, and of the productions in which she played them, was staggering. Today there are few actors in theatre that can hope to play as many plum parts in a lifetime as Le Gallienne did in six seasons.
Le Gallienne closed the Civic Repertory for one season, 1931–32, to recover from fatigue. Running a theatre company is exhausting, I know. During that time, she suffered severe burns in a water heater explosion at her home which scarred her face and nearly destroyed her hands. But with strength and faith inspired by her beloved Duse, Le Gallienne recovered, and reopened the Civic Repertory in 1932. But the Great Depression had left her wealthy donors broke. By 1934, the Civic Repertory Theatre was no more. In 1938, the Fourteenth Street Theatre was demolished. No trace of it remains.
Le Gallienne didn’t give up with the Civic Rep; her career continued for 50+years, during which time she worked consistently as an actor, director, translator, and writer. In 1964, she won a special Tony Award in recognition of her important work in the theatre. In 1986, she was awarded the National Medal of the Arts. She never gave up on her dream of a people’s repertory theatre. As she wrote in her first memoir, At 33:
“It may be that others will achieve my dream. That doesn’t matter as long as the dream materializes.”
And in her second memoir, With A Quiet Heart, she writes:
“How can anything come about unless you dream it first?“
Le Gallienne continued performing until the end of her life, but after the closure of the Civic Repertory Theater, she mostly lived quietly in the country with her partner of 50 years, actor Marion Evensen.
In the late 1950s, she had a success as Queen Elizabeth I in Friedrich Schiller’s play in verse Mary Stewart on Broadway, and she also appeared in several television specials, even winning an Emmy Award in 1976 for a televised version of The Royal Family. In 1964, she won a Tony Award as director for her production of her translation of Chekhov’s The Seagull.
In an episode of St. Elsewhere (1984), she gives a brave and funny performance along with Brenda Vaccaro and Blythe Danner as a trio of women sharing a hospital room.
Le Gallienne, at 80 years old, gave an especially brilliant performance opposite Ellen Burstyn in Daniel Petrie‘s film Resurrection (1980), earning her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, at the time, the oldest person ever to be nominated in that category. She was bested by Jessica Tandy for Fried Green Tomatoes in 1991, Gloria Stewart still holds the record, nominated for Titanic (1997) at 87, the oldest in any category, a record that still stands.
Le Gallienne was known to drink a bit, but I have never read that she was anything but professional in her theatre career. She took that final bow at her country home in Connecticut in 1991, surrounded by her beloved terriers. A long and fascinating life, Le Gallienne was 92 years old when she left this world.