May 2, 1865 – Clyde Fitch:
“I knew of course that every boy regarded me as a sissy; but I would rather be misunderstood than lose my independence”
At the beginning of the 20th century, Clyde Fitch he had four plays running on Broadway; on one occasion, he had five. He wrote 62 plays: 36 original scripts, 21 adaptations and five stage adaptations of novels.
He was the first American dramatist to be regularly, and successfully, produced in Europe. He wrote comedies, dramas, farces and melodramas, plus American adaptations of works by European writers. When his career began, American drama just barely existed.
He composed plays for the biggest stars of the era: His first play, Beau Brummell, (1890) was commissioned by pretty-boy actor Richard Mansfield; Captain Jinks Of The Horse Marines (1901) was written for 21-year-old Ethel Barrymore, and she became the toast of the West End; he helped make the careers of Maude Adams, John Drew, and John Barrymore in his Broadway appearance.
Today, very few remember who Fitch was. His works lost relevance as the society that had inspired them faded away. Noël Coward wrote that Fitch:
”…is an old-fashioned author who writes stilted and dated dialogues.”
Fitch was queer. It wasn’t a secret. A dandy, his wardrobe’s legendary flamboyance marked him as a sissy. His personal trademark was his bold effeminacy.
He was part of a circle of gay and gay-friendly friends and associates. Fitch corresponded with Oscar Wilde and the two playwrights had an affair, or at least a hookup, and it seems that Wilde dropped Fitch for Lord Alfred Douglas.
Fitch’s agent was Elizabeth Marbury (1856 – 1933), a lesbian. Marbury was a pioneering theatrical and literary agent and producer who helped shape the business part of modern theatre while encouraging women to get into the business. Marbury’s clients included Wilde and George Bernard Shaw; plus, the popular dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle. Marbury was an early promoter of many African-American writers of the Harlem Renaissance. She also was a major force in the development the modern “Book Musical” that fans came to know as defining “Broadway” in the 20th century, including Cole Porter‘s first musical, See America First, (1916) and Jerome Kern‘s Nobody Home (1915), Very Good, Eddie (1915), and Love O’ Mike (1917) through her American Play Company.
Marbury brought the plays of Shaw and Wilde to America. Fitch’s producer, Charles Frohman, was a Broadway showman and a gay man who died when the RMS Lusitania, a British ocean liner that was sunk on May 7, 1915 by a German U-boat 11 miles off the coast of Ireland, killing 1,198 passengers and crew.
To fathom Fitch you have to know how manfully he hid his queerness in plain sight. A magazine article from 1903 just could not get over Fitch’s opulent townhouse including the male nude statues in the hallways.
Fitch directed most of his own plays starting in 1900, when her cast a tall and angular woman as the lead in William Congreve‘s Restoration comedy The Way Of The World (1700). Her name was Elsie de Wolfe (1859 – 1950). She was Marbury’s girlfriend. As an actor, de Wolfe was limited in her range. Fitch was maddened by de Wolfe’s habit of waving to fans and friends in the audience when she made her entrance. But, instead of scolding de Wolfe for breaking character, Fitch rethought the scene and directed de Wolfe to drive a car across the stage, from which place waving would seem perfectly natural. Long after Fitch’s death, long after leaving Marbury’s arms, de Wolfe gained fame as the founding member of modern American Interior Design, and shocking polite society by marrying Lord Mendl. Read about her here.
No reviewer in Fitch’s time mentioned his gayness. Fitch was aware of the rigid confines of the society in which he grew up, and to which his work as a writer catered to. He strove to keep his sex life secret. Nevertheless, rumors abounded. I mean, come on, he was an obvious sissy with a penchant for the arts and sartorial finesse.
At Amherst College, where he graduated in 1886, Fitch was noted as a scenery painter and actor. Because of his slight frame, Fitch often played female roles, including Constance Neville in Oliver Goldsmith‘s She Stoops To Conquer, and Peggy Thrift in William Wycherley‘s The Country Girl. These and other English classics inspired the style of Fitch’s first plays: Beau Brummel, Frédéric Lemaître, and Betty’s Finish, all produced in 1890.
Fitch created women characters that the female-dominate audience of the time could easily identify with. Given his penchant for spectacular settings, there was a Wild West play, The Cowboy And The Lady (1901); The Climbers (1900), a play that began with a funeral and ended with a wedding; a play about the Civil War, Barbara Frietchie (1899) and two plays about the Revolutionary War, Nathan Hale (1902), Major Andre (1903); a play that took place on the deck of an ocean liner, The Stubbornness Of Geraldine (1911). He wrote plays where the wardrobe was part of the spectacle, female-centric shows like Girls (1910) and The Girl With The Green Eyes (1916.) Fitch, of course, also designed these extravaganzas with impeccable attention to costuming, lighting and props.
Fitch’s visuals astonished, yet he aspired to write the kind of realistic, psychology-driven dramas associated with Henrik Ibsen, Shaw and Edmond Rostand, whose Cyrano de Bergerac, was his favorite play.
In December 1905, Fitch visited novelist Edith Wharton in her Park Avenue apartment to discuss collaborating on a stage version of her novel The House Of Mirth. Wharton was not a fan of Fitch’s plays, which she regarded as more commercial than artistic, but knew he was a consummate professional. She enjoyed his ironic sense of humor. Wharton describes him as “a showily dressed little man, with his olive complexion and his beautiful Oriental eyes full of wit and understanding“. They met in Paris and at Wharton’s estate in Massachusetts, to work on the play. At one point, when the work was not going well, Wharton asked Fitch why he ever had thought her novel could be turned into a successful play. Fitch replied that he never had thought that it was a plausible endeavor. It became clear, to their great amusement, that each had been set up by producer Frohman to believe that the project had been initiated by the other and, seduced by the thought of working with a famous person in another field, they had each agreed to collaborate. The play was the critical and commercial failure Wharton feared it would be, but the two remained good friends.
Fitch’s career only lasted two decades, before his work went out of style, but he earned $500,000 from his plays at a time when the working wage was $10 a week. Few revivals have been mounted since the turn of the 21st century but most of his most successful plays were filmed, most during the silent era; perhaps the best-known is Beau Brummell (1954) starring handsome, dashing Stewart Granger.
Fitch’s plays courted a bit of controversy. Sapho (1906) adapted from the novel by Alphonse Daudet led to a noted First Amendment case. English-born actor Olga Nethersole played a scene in a diaphanous gown. The play’s protagonist whisked her offstage, leaving the audience sure that her virtue would soon be given away. Nethersole was arrested on stage and charged with indecent behavior. Her trial became an international story and the play became a big hit. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and the New York Mother’s Club sued Fitch and Frohman for indecency. Overwhelmed, Fitch suffered a nervous breakdown because the risks brought by such a scandal to his own private life and he fled to Europe.
The City (1903) was written so that Fitch could prove to the critics that he could produce a ”man’s play”. His audacious use of the word ”goddamn” marked the first time an expletive was uttered at a Broadway performance. Several members of the opening-night audience fainted.
Fitch attracted drama. The Truth (1904) bombed on Broadway but was a huge hit in London. Fitch’s close friend, Clara Bloodgood, for whom he wrote parts in three different plays, was the leading lady. She felt Fitch preferred the work of Marie Tempest, the English star of The Truth. Bloodgood committed suicide with a pistol moments before a performance in Baltimore.
Fitch suffered from appendicitis but refused his American doctor’s recommendation of surgery, instead trusting the specialists in Europe who assured him that they could cure him without surgery. He left for Europe in the spring of 1909 against his doctor’s wishes. In France, he suffered a fatal attack. He underwent surgery but died from blood poisoning at 44 years old.
Queer tid-bits: Barbara Stanwyck (born Ruby Catherine Stevens) took her name from a combination of the name of the Fitch play Barbara Frietchie and its British star, Joan Stanwyck. His name comes up in All About Eve (1950) when Margo Channing (Bette Davis), feeling old, states:
“Fitch was well before my time.”