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 and film personalities of the 1920s through the 1960s. With their dazzling partnership, “The Lunts” ruled the American Theatre world during that era; a time when Broadway stars mattered. Their careers flourished when even the biggest stars would do national tours and successful actors worked exclusively year-round on the stage, owing nothing to Hollywood and the film industry. The Lunts counted among their friends, the other glamorous theatre people, including Gertrude Lawrence, Helen Hayes, Mary Martin, Ethel Merman and Laurence Olivier.
There was never a question of their devotion to each other, but the offstage union of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne was a marriage between a gay man and a lesbian. Their presentation of themselves as the ideal couple may have been their most accomplished performance.
When prodded by best buddy, gay playwright-actor-songwriter Noël Coward, the couple would sometimes teasingly hint about their private lives. Their scandalous hit Design For Living (1933) allowed Coward and his co-stars to romp through a three-way relationship implying that there was sex between the two male characters. Design For Living remains one of my favorite plays. I remain fascinated by the ups, downs and pitfalls of a three-way love affair. That production showcased the flawless comic gifts that The Lunts were famous for, but they were also noted for dramatic performances. But, those dazzling Lunts will always be remembered for their light touch doing breezy comedy and 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 (the state that brought us Liberace, Golda Meir, and the lovely Paul Ryan), where Alfred Lunt could cook and redecorate while she sewed her own 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 theatre was life for them, and their life was a piece of theatre. 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, and rehearsed their lines in taxi cabs and even in bed.
There are all sorts of marriages, I should know. Unlike many showbiz marriages, The Lunts were equal stars; equally glamorous to fans and 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, and 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 and a gay male. They shared kindness, courtesy, loyalty and 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 and bed. They coached him in acting, and also advised Clift to protect his reputation by finding a relationship modeled after their own.
Fontanne made only three films, her special gift didn’t really transfer to the screen. She still managed to be nominated for an Academy Award for one of them, Best Actress in The Guardsmen (1931) opposite Lunt, of course; losing the Oscar to another theatre type, Helen Hayes for The Sin Of Madelon Claudet.
The Lunts starred in four television productions in the 1950s & 1960s with both Lunt and 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 a broadcast of Anastasia (1967), both rare performances that she did without her husband.
After Alfred Lunt’s death in 1977, Fontanne toasted him with a glass of champagne, saying simply:
Fontanne had her final curtain call in 1983, at 95 years old, taken by pneumonia. She is buried next to her husband, in Milwaukee. 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 and were inseparable both on and off the stage.”
Lunt and Fontanne were honored with a 33-cent USPS stamp in 1999.
They have a Broadway theatre named for them, The Lunt-Fontanne. It opened as the Globe Theatre in 1910, named in honor of London’s Shakespearean playhouse. Although it is technically on 46th street with its grand Beaux-Arts facade, it also has a smaller entrance on Broadway between 46th and 47th Streets. When it was rechristened in 1958, The Lunts starred in a production of The Visit, with their names in lights twice. The opening night audience including Olivier, Henry Fonda, Helen Hayes, Katharine Cornell, Peter Ustinov, Mary Martin, Bette Davis, Ginger Rogers and Beatrice Lillie among many others. The theatre served champagne between acts, and in an old theatrical custom, permitted smoking in the mezzanine. Theatre fans attending Tina: The Tina Turner Musical today could study the framed photographs from the The Lunt’s private collection on display in the lobby.
In 1970, the retired Lunts paid a rare return visit to New York City when they were presented with special Tony Awards for their lifetimes of achievement. Introduced by the then-husband and wife acting team of Robert Stephens and Maggie Smith, this was the Lunts final appearance together.
Ten Chimneys, their house in rural Wisconsin, is now a museum and resource center for Theatre.
We will probably not see their likes again.