August 17th, 1888: Monty Woolley:
“Is there a man in the world who suffers as I do from the gross inadequacies of the human race?”
Edgar Montillion Woolley was born in New York City. He grew up with parents who mixed with the best of high society. Woolley attended Yale University, where Cole Porter was a buddy and classmate. His master’s degrees were from Yale and Harvard; such an underachiever. He was a professor, lecturer and head of the drama club at Yale. Among his many students were gay playwright Thornton Wilder and straight, but not narrow writer Stephen Vincent Benét.
He came to be an actor rather late in life, making his stage debut on Broadway in 1936 when he was 48 years old, although he had directed Porter’s earliest musicals starting with See America First in 1927, and four more Porter musicals four years.
His most famous role is the cantankerous radio personality forced to stay immobile because of a broken leg in The Man Who Came To Dinner, a most delightful comic confection from George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. It debuted in 1939, where it ran on Broadway and ran until 1941, closing after 739 performances. The song What Am I To Do was written by Porter specifically for the play.
Woolsey performed it on Broadway, on the road, and in the faithful 1942 film version. The play is based on famous radio and press celebrity of the 1930s and 1940s, Algonquin Roundtable member Alexander Woollcott, who was also gay. In fact, three more of the leading characters are based on real-life figures: Lorraine Sheldon, by musical stage star Gertrude Lawrence; Beverly Carlton, by playwright and wit Noël Coward; and Banjo, by Algonguin Round Table member Harpo Marx.
In the early 1970s, I performed in The Man Who Came To Dinner. I played the role of Banjo. In a crazy coincidence, I would play Harpo Marx again a year later in a rather good musical, ready to be revived, I believe, titled Minnie’s Boys.
His friendship with Porter continued throughout their lives. They enjoyed many amusing disreputable adventures together in Manhattan and on their many foreign travels together. Woolley often joined Porter to cruise New York City’s waterfront bars and recounted that one night, a young sailor they approached by car asked outright, “Are you two cocksuckers?” Woolley responded: “Now that the preliminaries are over, why don’t you get in and we can discuss the details?”
Wooley played himself, badly, in Warner Bros.’ miserable, misinformed, misrepresented biopic about Porter, Night And Day (1946), an almost completely fictionalized telling of Porter’s peculiar professional and personal life. In the film Wooley is much older than Cary Grant‘s Cole Porter, but he was actually only three years older than his friend, which might give you a clue about the nature of some of their audacious assignations.
When Bette Davis saw the Broadway production of The Man Who Came To Dinner, she thought the role of Maggie Cutler would be a refreshing change of pace. She urged Jack L. Warner to purchase the screen rights for herself and John Barrymore, who tested for the role of Whiteside but was deemed unsuitable when, as a result of his heavy drinking, he had difficulty delivering the complicated, fast-paced dialogue.
Both Charles Laughton and Orson Welles wanted the role, producer Hal B. Wallis thought that Laughton was too overblown Welles was not overblown enough. Warner suggested Grant, which makes no sense at all. Woolley was not familiar to film audiences, yet Wallis finally cast him in the role, despite Warner’s concern that the actor’s gayness would be all too obvious on screen. Welles played the role years later in a television adaptation of the play.
I recommend watching the film version as a Christmas Eve tradition instead dreary old It’s A Wonderful Life (1946).
Woolley starred in a CBS TV adaptation of The Man Who Came To Dinner in 1954, the very year of my birth, and as host of the television series Best Of Broadway, a variety show that features scenes and songs from Broadway’s current crop of shows preformed in front of a live audience on a special sound stage. I wish Netflix would produce a modern incarnation.
He appeared in 36 films, especially good in The Bishop’s Wife (1947) with Grant, Loretta Young and David Niven. He was even nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor in 1943 for The Pied Piper and as Best Supporting Actor for Since You Went Away (1945), an all-star war weeper with Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotton, Shirley Temple, Lionel Barrymore, and a trio of lesbians: Hattie McDaniel, Agnes Moorehead and Alla Nazimova.
I have it on good authority that Woolley had a passion for gentlemen of color, as did his pal Cole Porter. If he were alive today, I imagine Idris Elba would send him into apoplexy.
Starting in 1939, Woolley lived with Cary Abbott, who had also graduated from Yale in 1911. Abbott was discreetly identified in the press as Woolley’s “secretary-traveling companion”, which is an old-timey term for boyfriend. In 1942, Woolley and Abbott moved into a house in Saratoga Springs, where they lived together until Abbott’s death, at 58 years old, from lung cancer, in 1948.
According to Bennett Cerf in his memoir Try And Stop Me (1944), Woolley was at a dinner party where he loudly farted. A woman at the table glared at him; he glared back and said:
“And what did you expect, my good woman? Chimes?”
Cerf wrote: “Woolley was so pleased with this line that he insisted it be written into his next role in Hollywood“.
In 1943, Alfred Hitchcock wrote a short story for Look magazine titled The Murder of Monty Woolley.
Woolley took his final curtain call in 1963. His New York Times obituary named him as a “a lifelong confirmed bachelor”, my all-time favorite euphemism for a queer.
I could play his signature role- Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came To Dinner with just a single day of rehearsal. It is a role I was born to play.