Tony--actually, Toni--was the nickname of a stunningly beautiful, tough-as-nails Denver-born actress, Antoinette Perry, who successfully turned to producing and directing in an era when women in the business were usually relegated to acting, costume design, or choreography. Well into the 1970s, she remained the only woman director with a track record of Broadway hits.
Born in 1888, Perry showed theatrical instincts from an early ago. "I wanted to be an actress as soon as I could lisp," she wrote. "I didn't say I was going to become an actress. I felt I was one. No one could have convinced me I wasn't." Her uncle, who ran a touring company, stimulated her desire to act, but at age nine, her goal changed. She put on plays at her Denver home, "but I didn't perform. I was director, costumer, and set designer."
Perry began her acting career in Chicago and then moved to New York. In 1909, at the peak of her success, she married Frank Frueauff, who merged Denver Gas and Electric with Cities Service Corporation (now CITGO). They were madly in love, and traveled the great ocean liners to Europe. Back home on Fifth Avenue, they entertained in robber-baron style. Soon, however, Toni's theatrical aspirations clashed with Frank's conservative lifestyle, and he convinced her to give up the stage and raise their two daughters.
In 1920, approached by Brock Pemberton, a flamboyant press agent turned producer, Perry rejected her husband's advice and became an "angel" in Pemberton's production of Zona Gale's comedy Miss Lulu Bett (which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize). Frueauff died of a heart attack in 1922, leaving a $13 million estate but no will. After court battles involving Frueauff's stock in Cities Service, the company settled out of court for $9 million--two-thirds placed in trust for the couple's children; the balance to Perry.
"Mother lent money generously," recalled her daughter Margaret Perry, now 88 and a former actress. Speaking from her wilderness ranch in Colorado, Margaret explained, "She bailed actors and playwrights out of overdue hotel bills. She enjoyed the extravagant life. In the summer of 1923, she took us, our governess, Uncle Brock (as we were instructed to call him), his wife Margaret, and 10 others to Europe for seven weeks. On coming home, Mother heard theater's siren call again."
At the time, Perry confessed to an interviewer she didn't find her life very fulfilling. "Should I go on playing bridge and dining, going in the same old monotonous circle?" she mused. "It's easy that way. But it's a sort of suicide, too."
Toni hadn't been forgotten, and was soon back on the boards starring in a broad spectrum of plays by Kaufman, Ferber, and William S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan). However, in 1927, after suffering a stroke that left one side of her face paralyzed, she left acting for good.