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Lord Alfred and Lady Lynn

Charles Wright has mixed feelings about Margot Peters's new biography of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. logo
Back when the craft of motion pictures was primitive and television still unknown, Ring Lardner penned a tribute in doggerel to the reigning stars of the English-speaking theater:
"You want to pack 'em in out front?
Hire Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt."

For half a century, Lunt and Fontanne represented the pinnacle of sophistication for playgoers in North America and Britain. They achieved fame separately in the Jazz Age, when stage celebrities routinely trouped their New York successes around the country. Making their initial mark as a performing couple in the Theatre Guild's 1924 presentation of The Guardsman by Ferenc Molnár, the two were known to the public thereafter as "The Lunts." In the three and a half decades that followed, they appeared in one elegant vehicle after another, for the Guild and at the head of companies that they assembled and managed themselves. As a tribute to their long dual career, a venerable Manhattan theater, the Globe, was re-christened the Lunt-Fontanne at the premiere of the couple's final Broadway show: Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Visit, directed by Peter Brook.

Fontanne, born in 1887, was a Londoner who crossed the Atlantic in 1916 in a company of players headed by Laurette Taylor. Lunt, six years Fontanne's junior, was born and educated in Wisconsin. The two met in New York in 1919; they married three years later and lived together for five and a half decades. From 1929 to 1960, they appeared onstage exclusively as a pair. They were noted for indefatigability -- rehearsing tirelessly, honing and rethinking their performances throughout the run of a show, incessantly touring, even relishing one-night stands in out-of-the-way places. As Margot Peters says in her entertaining new biography, Design for Living: Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne (Alfred A. Knopf, 398 pages, $30), the Lunts' "partnership...outlasted those of Henry Irving and Ellen Terry and Julia Marlowe and E.H. Sothern," who had previously been the "English-speaking theater's most famous acting couples."

In their youth, the Lunts were innovators. They defied the histrionic acting style of their contemporaries, developing instead a conversational, overlapping technique that audiences found startlingly realistic. They brought risqué physicality to romantic comedy, making love scenes sizzle and steam. With age, however, they came to represent a passé sort of grandeur. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield, describing the Lunts' performance in an S.N. Behrman comedy, faults them for being "too good." "When one of them got finished making a speech," says Holden, "the other one said something very fast right after it. It was supposed to be like people really talking and interrupting each other and all. The trouble was it was too much like people talking and interrupting each other....If you do something too good, then, after a while, if you don't watch it, you start showing off." By the time Holden (and his creator, J.D. Salinger) came along, the Method was all the rage and the Lunts were old hat.

It's more than a little odd that Alfred Knopf has issued a new biography of Lunt and Fontanne in this new century. They were in few motion pictures and made only one together; they seldom appeared on television; their performing styles are largely documented in the writings of critics rather than on film or video, which makes them almost as remote from our day -- at least, to those born after the 1950s -- as Bernhardt or Duse or even David Garrick. What's more, there have already been biographies of the Lunts to serve most any purpose. In 1958, Gerald Freedley published a slender work of hagiography that doesn't include the final chapters of the couple's story but is rich in photographs. The first major biography, the sprightly, anecdotal Stagestruck: The Romance of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, appeared while both of the stars were still living and so the author, Maurice Zolotow, pulled his punches. But Jared Brown's The Fabulous Lunts, published in 1986 after both Lunt and Fontanne had died, is comprehensive and superbly written; indeed, it's matchless among theatrical biographies.

Margot Peters's Design for Living doesn't rival Brown's masterwork but it's diverting as all get out. Though Peters, a sometime English professor at the University of Wisconsin, has published solid biographies of Mrs. Patrick Campbell and the Barrymores, she has chosen to make Design for Living breezy, chatty, and ultimately as inconsequential as one of those gossamer comedies for which Fontanne and Lunt were celebrated. Brown's The Fabulous Lunts focuses on the couple's professional accomplishments, developing the thesis that they exercised a greater influence over our national theater than any other 20th century figures. A long and complex book, it depicts the "fundamental decency of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne: their fidelity and devotion to one another, their loyalty to friends, their compassion, their dignity in the face of adversity and serious illness, their humor, their integrity, their warmth, their charm." Peters, on the other hand, concentrates on the pair's private lives and the intricate dynamics of the circles in which they moved -- or, to be more precise, the circles that moved around them. Where no record exists, the author is willing to speculate.

Margot Peters
The ostensible occasion for Design for Living is the opening this year of the Lunts' rural retreat Ten Chimneys in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin, as a museum, conference center, and tourist attraction. Peters offers the obligatory information about Ten Chimneys, including its development and design, but her writing really hits its stride when The Lunts travel to the bohemian precincts of New York, London, and Paris, attend parties and openings, cross the Atlantic on the great liners, and loll around that storied round table at the Algonquin. The book's unexpressed agenda is to redress the reticence of prior biographers regarding the more intimate aspects of Lunt and Fontanne's histories; the problem is that there's not much information to go on.

Throughout their professional lives, the Lunts were subject to rumors -- most notably, the suggestion that they were gay and their marriage merely a front. In 1933, the couple yanked the public's chain in this regard by appearing as part of the comedic ménage à trois in Design for Living, which their close friend Noël Coward wrote for them and in which he also played. Jared Brown dismisses the idea that either Lunt or Fontanne was actively homosexual. "If any of these rumors had been remotely true," he writes, "some confirmation would surely have been found; they were married for fifty-five years -- ample time for the dark underside of their marriage to be seen by someone, at some time, somewhere. But the simple, honest truth, disappointing no doubt to some, was that the rumors had no basis in fact."

When Brendan Gill, whose social life in New York overlapped with that of the Lunts, reviewed Brown's book in 1986, he referred to Alfred as being gay and to the couple's union as a mariage blanc. Peters seems to accept Gill's assessment, at least for argument's sake, although she doesn't refer to his review; and she passes along the allegation of Diana Sinden (wife of actor Donald Sinden) that she was propositioned by Fontanne when the great lady was in her 80s. Peters acknowledges the lack of hard evidence about the Lunts' respective affectional preferences and, to her credit, the emphasis in her book is not so much on their sexual practices as on the way they "worked out a design for living to suit them both" -- no offspring, close friendships (most notably triangular relationships, with the third being a gay male), the fiercest sort of loyalty to each other and, above all, dedication to the theater.

Peters's account of the sociable whirl and the periodic cat fights of the Lunts' existence never flags as entertainment but, in the end, her subjects seem nearly as trivial as the characters they played in their most evanescent comedies. Reading Design for Living, one may be tempted to side with those reviewers who faulted the Lunts for wasting their considerable talents. ("[G]olly," wrote Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, "what they could do if they selected a script as subtle and skillful as they are!") But that view doesn't jibe with the fact that Lunt and Fontanne's "design for living" included well-regarded appearances in substantive works by Shakespeare, Shaw, Chekhov, Robert E. Sherwood, and Maxwell Anderson, as well as playing Dmitri and Grushenka in an adaptation of Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. And let's not forget that bleak, curious capstone to their long partnership: Dürrenmatt's The Visit.

In sum, Peters captures the effervescence of the Lunts, their dazzle behind the footlights, and the glamour of their world. Jared Brown, on the other hand, finds a balance of substance under all that style, plus "a goodness rarely seen in any walk of life" and the prospect that "success is possible" in the volatile sphere of theater "without undue temperament or ambition so great that it overrides all human considerations."

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