“The Lunts”, Alfred Lunt (1892- 1977) and his actor wife Lynn Fontanne (1887-1983) ruled the American Theater scene with a dazzling partnership. Their careers flourished at a time when even the biggest of stars would do national tours and successful actors worked year-round exclusively on the stage. The Lunts’ friends included other glamorous theater people: Noël Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, Helen Hayes, Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, and Laurence Olivier.
There was never a question of their devotion, but the offstage union of Lunt and Fontanne was a marriage between a gay guy and a lesbian. Their presentation of themselves as the ideal couple may have been their most skillful performance.
When prodded by best buddy, Coward, the couple would sometimes teasingly hint about their private lives. The trio’s scandalous collaboration, the hit comedy Design For Living (1933) allowed Coward and his co-stars to romp through the story of a three-way relationship implying that there was sex between the two male characters. Design For Living remains one of my favorite plays. I am fascinated by the ups, downs and pitfalls of a three-way relationship. The original production showcased the flawless comic gifts for which The Lunts were most admired. They could be effective in dramatic pieces, but The Lunts will always be known for their gift for light comedy and for their dazzling chemistry.
When they first began working together, the Lunts were true innovators. They defied the over-the-top acting style popular at the time, developing instead a conversational, overlapping technique that audiences found startlingly realistic. They brought risqué physicality to their romantic comedies, making their love scenes sizzle and steam. By the 1950s, however, they were rather passé. Yet, at the height of their careers, they brought something magical to the works of William Shakespeare, G.B. Shaw, and Anton Chekhov.
When not doing a show, the famous couple retreated in high style to their country manor, 10 Chimneys, in Lunt’s home state of Wisconsin, where he would cook and redecorate while she sewed chic clothing. The Lunts were my kind of couple; they ate off an orange crate while sitting on Biedermeier chairs. The Lunts were Bohemians, for certain. The theater was their life, and their life was theater. Their dwellings were theatrical sets, their parties were stage shows, and everyone and anyone who socialized with them was turned into an audience. The Lunts knew next to nothing about what was going on in the world, had mostly theatrical friends, usually acted together as a team, and rehearsed their parts in taxi cabs and even in bed.
There are all sorts of marriages; I should know. Unlike in other showbiz unions, The Lunts were equal stars; equally glamorous to the world and to each other. There was not much reason for jealousy. Their passion was for acting on the stage.
The Lunts had a design for living that suited them both. There had their deep devotion, close friendships, particularly the triangle kind that Fontanne preferred (Fontanne, Lunt and a gay male), kindness, courtesy, loyalty and generosity. They had total commitment to their work. They enjoyed separate affairs and they shared the details.
Lunt took his final curtain call in August 1977, a few days before his 85th birthday. After Lunt’s death, Fontanne toasted him with a glass of champagne, saying simply: “To Alfred”. 10 Chimneys is now a museum.