April 1, 1883 – Laurette Taylor:
“Personality is more important than beauty, but imagination is more important than both of them. “
Taylor had a long and rather checkered stage career working on Broadway starting in 1909. Her first really big hit, the thing she was famous for, was Peg O’ My Heart in 1912. A simple Cinderella-ish vehicle written for her by her husband J. Hartley Manners (1870 – 1928) that ran on Broadway from December 1912 to May 1914, setting a new Broadway record of 607 performances. The play earned her $10,000 a week ($400,000 in 2010 dollars) and made Taylor one of the most worshiped theatre stars of her era. After it closed on Broadway, Taylor starred in the London production until German Zeppelin bombing closed it down in 1915. After a revival on Broadway in 1921, which ran for another 692 performances, Taylor toured the USA in Peg O’ My Heart. It had been a personal triumph, but success came early for Taylor and then faded almost as quickly. There were decades where she could not access the special thing she brought to the stage. What she needed was another role of a lifetime. She kept trying to find the next Peg O’My Heart.
She was a wild woman, and one of the most quotable of theatre people. My favorite Taylor anecdote: She was doing a play which was not a success. Audiences were small and the reviews were brutal. After one performance, Taylor went to a party, where she began to drink. She struck up a conversation with a young man. They talked for a bit, and then he left to go mingle. Taylor immediately turned to the hostess and said: “That man walked out on me tonight at the theatre!” The hostess, disbelieving, said: “Are you sure? How do you know?” Taylor answered: “I sometimes forget a face, but I never forget a back!”.
Taylor was not beautiful, tall or slim. She was not a leading lady. She was a bit dumpy and a bit plain, but with huge tragic eyes. She was hard to cast. Her hit play had capitalized on her fresh youth, and when that was gone, she was out of work. Taylor was of Irish descent, and she fought against the stereotyping of Irish people on stage.
As a teenager, she worked in vaudeville, tap dancing and making people laugh, but as she became middle-aged, she became difficult and difficult to cast. Taylor did not fit in to the film industry. She did a couple of silent films, and footage of one of her screen tests does survive, but again, she needed that great role.
In 1943, along came young Tennessee Williams with a new play titled The Glass Menagerie. Taylor was not in good shape. She was forgotten by the public, a 60-year-old recluse and a drunk. Many people assumed that she must have died. Taylor had been waiting for almost 40 years, but it was worth the wait because it is one of the greatest theatrical comebacks of all time in one of the great female roles. Williams gave Taylor the character of Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie.
She was still remembered for Peg O’ My Heart, but she had a bad reputation, and everyone was nervous she would fall off the rails before the show opened. During rehearsals, she worried everybody for the first few weeks because she didn’t seem to be doing anything. She wasn’t learning her lines, she held her script in her hands, she mumbled, fumbled, and seemed unable to project. The producers and cast were terrified she would start drinking.
Williams later wrote Taylor appeared to know only a fraction of her lines, and these she was delivering in “a Southern accent which she had acquired from some long-ago black domestic”. He complained that she was ad-libbing many of her speeches. They fought terribly and she said that Williams was a fool, and reminded him that she had once been a big star.
There were problems with the set design, lights, and integration of the incidental music by Paul Bowles. Plus, Taylor started to drink after rehearsals as the pressure grew. Everybody connected to the prduction was grim. Bowles saw a dress rehearsal and called it a complete disaster.
Forty minutes before opening night curtain, December 26, Taylor disappeared. They were forty minutes from curtain. The great Jo Mielziner, the lighting designer, decided to try the basement. He recalled:
“Far down a passage I saw a light and heard running water. There, in a sort of janitor’s storage and washroom, was Laurette Taylor, dressed in a rather soiled old dressing gown with the sleeves rolled up, bending over a washtub, wringing out the dress that she was to wear in the second act. Her hands and arms were dripping with lavender dye. I said, ‘Laurette, can’t somebody do this for you? You should be resting in your room or getting made up’. Her great, tragic, beautiful eyes smiled at me and she said, ‘No, it’s all done’. The dress was an important costume, the much-talked-about party frock. Early in the production I had assumed that the management would have something specifically designed; but pennies were being pinched to such an extent that the dress had been bought off the pile. At the costume parade the day before, Tennessee Williams had commented that it was far from right, and so Laurette Taylor, on her own, had bought some dye and was trying to remedy matters.
Before the curtain rose, a small audience made it to the theatre in a snowstorm; everything seemed stacked against the play, even the weather.
The show was a triumph and one of the most talked about opening nights in theatre history. The reviews were raves. Taylor’s performance as Amanda set a standard against which other actors taking the role were to be judged.
In the 2004 documentary Broadway: The Golden Age, By The Legends Who Were There, most older Broadway actors rank Taylor’s performance as the most memorable of their lives. It has been hailed as one of the most extraordinary pieces of acting the world had ever seen. But, as is typical for a lot of great actors, she had huge humility and felt she could not take complete credit.
“She had such a creative mind. Something magical happened with Laurette. I used to stand backstage. There was a little peephole in the scenery, and I could be just about three feet from her, and when the lights hit her face, suddenly twenty years would drop off. An incandescent thing would happen in her face; it was really supernatural.“
What was perhaps most extraordinary about The Glass Menagerie as a theatrical event was the meeting of these two great artists, one ending her career and the other beginning his.
Katherine Hepburn‘s enthusiasm for The Glass Menagerie sent her straight to MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, saying that the studio should buy the play, have George Cukor direct, cast her as Laura and Spencer Tracy as the gentleman caller, just to capture Taylor’s incomparable performance on film. The project never came about, and so we will never know what Taylor’s performance was like.
We do know that on opening night on Broadway, there were 24 curtain calls, but Amanda Wingfield was Taylor’s final role. The play ran from March 1945 – August 1946. Taylor died in December 1946, taken by a heart attack at 63 years old.
Other celebrated Amandas have included: Shirley Booth, Maureen Stapleton, Jessica Tandy, Julie Harris, Jessica Lange, Judith Ivey, Harriet Harris, Cherry Jones, and Sally Field. Hepburn played her in a 1973 television adaptation.
There is a 1922 silent film version of Peg O’ My Heart directed by King Vidor starring Taylor. I don’t know of anyone who has ever seen it, although there is a copy owned by Museum of Modern Art in New York City.