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No Ordinary Jo -- Mielziner: Master of Modern Stage Design

Charles Wright sits down and cracks open Mary C. Henderson's new book on the life and work of famed set designer JO MIELZINER. logo

"I do not believe that there is half enough screaming about Mr. Mielziner," raved Dorothy Parker, during her stint as play reviewer at The New Yorker. "Show me, that's all I ask you, anybody better in our theatre."

In 1931, the year Parker singled him out to her readership, Jo Mielziner, age 30, designed sets for such prominent New York productions as The Barretts of Wimpole Street with Katharine Cornell and Of Thee I Sing, the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. During a career that lasted more than five decades, Mielziner (who designed costumes and architectural features in buildings as well as sets and lights) contributed his talents to almost 300 shows, most of them on Broadway. His aim, he said, was to "design with an eraser," creating elliptical, even abstract stage pictures that would stimulate the spectator's imagination. His best work was with playwrights, such as Tennessee Williams, who preferred lyricism to naturalism. Designing sets and lighting for Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947 and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman in 1949, Mielziner created some of the most enduring images of the 20th century stage.

In Mielziner: Master of Modern Stage Design (Back Stage Books, 320 pages, $45.00), historian Mary C. Henderson offers a detailed account of the cultural, social, and political background of this innovative designer's career. Henderson's previous book, The New Amsterdam: Biography of a Broadway Theatre, published by Hyperion Books, was a sumptuously illustrated coffee-table volume issued to coincide with the premiere of The Lion King at the refurbished New Amsterdam. In that book, Henderson made a landmark building the ordering principle for chronicling an era of New York theater. Similarly, in Mielziner, the author uses her subject and his spectacular career to refract events of several decades in the theatrical community that kept him employed. Though not as lavishly produced as New Amsterdam, Mielziner is a well-ordered, well-indexed pictorial guide to a period in which Broadway offered 200 or more productions every season. Theater-lovers will be tempted--and many, no doubt, persuaded--to buy it for the array of colorful reproductions of Mielziner's drawings.

Jo Mielziner in WWII uniform
No doubt about it: Mielziner's is a whopper among American lives. As is the case with Moss Hart (the subject of Steven Bach's upcoming Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart), it's hard to imagine why no enterprising scholar has written a major biography of Mielziner before now. The offspring of arty American expatriates, he was born in Paris on March 19, 1901. Seventy-five years later, he died of a heart attack in a New York taxicab on the Ides of March, four days short of his 75th birthday, while rushing between appointments pertaining to a musical being readied for its out-of-town tryout. (For the record, he was designing The Baker's Wife for David Merrick; his concepts for the show were completed by his colleague, Ming Cho Lee.) Mielziner went to primary school in England and high school on New York's Upper West Side, and studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. During World War II, he was an Army camouflage expert before being transferred to the Office of Strategic Services, where he served under the legendary General William J. ("Wild Bill") Donovan.

While Mielziner was enrolled in art school, his older brother, actor Kenneth MacKenna (born Leo Mielziner, Jr.), recruited him as stage manager for summer stock in Michigan and his destiny was sealed. Two traveling fellowships from the Pennsylvania Academy allowed him to study scenic design in Paris, Vienna, and Berlin. After that, he apprenticed with Robert Edmond Jones, now best remembered as the designer of O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms and the author of The Dramatic Imagination. In succeeding years, Mielziner worked hand-in-glove with a Who's Who of the century's theater: George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson, Balanchine, Behrman, Berlin, the Gershwins, Kazan, Frank Loesser, Rodgers, Hart, and Hammerstein. He consulted on numerous architectural projects, including the Mark Taper Forum in the Los Angeles Music Center, the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, the chapel in Bishop Fulton J. Sheen's residence, and the setting for Michelangelo's Pietà in the Vatican Pavilion at the 1964-65 World's Fair.

Of mixed Christian and Jewish ancestry, Mielziner converted to Roman Catholicism in the 1930s under the tutelage of Sheen, the celebrity monsignor who snagged the era's most eye-catching convert, Clare Booth Luce. His personal life, especially after the religious conversion, has the lineaments of a Graham Greene novel. Three marriages, two divorces; one wife conspicuously unfaithful, another famously alcoholic; touch-and-go relations with at least two of his three adopted children. As a felicitous sort of epilogue, Mielziner enjoyed late in life the steady companionship of Bishop Sheen's beautiful private secretary, though they couldn't marry because the Church wouldn't permit him a divorce.

Mielziner: Master of Modern Stage Design contains the bones of its subject's story but little of his flesh or spirit. Henderson, who has taught at New York University and Hunter College and been curator of various museums and exhibitions, brings to the task of historical narrative a formidable understanding of several disciplines: economics, the history of labor relations, literature, music, and the graphic and plastic arts. She sets forth her facts succinctly in an authorial voice that's crisp, elegant, and often enthusiastic, with useful scholarly notes and appendices. This handsome though cumbersomely rectangular volume (designed by Areta Buk), chock-a-block with illustrations of the work Dorothy Parker and countless others raved about, will be welcome on the reference shelf of anyone interested in the history of 20th century theater. Mielziner: Master of Modern Stage Design leaves one hoping that a biographer like David Herbert Donald, Fintan O'Toole, or Steven Bach will take on this fascinating theater figure in the kind of book that burrows under the skin of its subject and into his psyche in search of the artist's inner life.


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