Lynn's Way: 1887-1919
Much of Alfred Lunt's early history Lynn Fontanne would learn from Alfred himself as well as from his mother, his half-siblings, his scrapbooks, his neighbors, and his childhood friends. Alfred would learn less about Lynn.
For one thing she came from across the pond. She was born on the wrong side of the tracks in a small Victorian house in Station Terrace, Snake's Lane, at Woodford Bridge in Essex, about ten miles northeast of London. He would not know her parents and seldom see her two sisters, Mai and Antoinette; meet few of her early friends and associates. And there was that British reserve: a cool customer, Lynn was less confessional than Alfred. One fact he would not learn till much later: Lillie Louise, renaming herself Lynn, was not born in 1892, as she claimed, but on December 6, 1887.
Lynn's father, Jules Pierre Antoine Fontanne, owned a typefounding business inherited from his father. Yet Fontanne was less a businessman than a would-be bon vivant. Lynn aspired to her father's imagined heights.
"I will be a mother," she said, "and have four children and twelve nursemaids."
She told everyone that her noble family had given up its title during the French Revolution. This was Fontanne fantasy; what was true was that her maternal great-grandmother came from a titled family in Ireland, though Lynn apparently did not know it.
Frances Ellen Thornley, Lynn's beautiful, dark-haired mother, resented her husband's impracticality. High-strung, her temper fueled by frustration and disappointment, she quarreled abusively with Jules. Lynn and her sisters often took shelter with their Irish grandmother, Sarah Ann Barnett, who lived nearby.
Lynn grew up poor one day, prosperous the next, but always in an atmosphere of fantasy. Her father read the girls Dickens, Tennyson, and Shakespeare. She memorized Shakespearean soliloquies, recited them in a voice that could "ring out like a bell." When the family moved for a time to the London suburb of Walthamstow, Lynn was often discovered missing from her bed. Antoinette knew where to find her: "She had climbed out of the window and was down the road where she had crept into the theatre to watch the performance." Taken to the Lyceum Theatre to see Henry Irving and Ellen Terry in The Merchant of Venice, Lynn stood up in the gallery and loudly recited the "quality of mercy" speech right along with London's reigning actress. Taken to The Worst Man in London, a thriller, she hid her face in her sister's lap, crying, "I never shall go on the stage-don't let me go on the stage!"
It was perhaps on that visit that she saw Queen Victoria riding in a carriage. There was a sudden stir in the crowd and shouting and she rushed forward. A bobby caught her arm; she stared as the Queen rode by, and the Queen's great blue eyes stared straight ahead: a performer, just what Lynn wanted to be.
"I was a very noisy, happy, and exuberant child until I was eight," Lynn told Maurice Zolotow, the Lunts' first biographer, "and it was then my mother scolded me for being clumsy and I got to be self-conscious and lost all confidence."
When Lynn was in her teens, Jules Fontanne was called to the side of a dying French aunt. She left him some money; he promptly celebrated by taking his family to Paris. Strolling in the Bois de Boulogne, Antoinette complained that a man was following them. Jules accosted the stranger: "I demand to know, sir, why you are hounding my daughters!" The man explained that he was Wilfred de Glehn, an artist and a member of the British Royal Academy. He was struck by the girls' beauty. He begged permission to paint them.
Great luck for Lynn. All three girls had to work to support themselves (Jules spent his inheritance at a rapid clip); but though Antoinette was the raving beauty, Lynn became the favorite model of de Glehn and his wife, Jane. As Jane de Glehn's girl in The Blue Coat and Wilfred de Glehn's señorita in The Spanish Mantilla, Lynn hung in the Royal Academy. The money she earned modeling kept her in tea and buns while searching for acting jobs. More important, the de Glehn connection led to an introduction to the great Ellen Terry.
It was a September afternoon in 1905 when Lynn called at the small Georgian house at 215 King's Road, Chelsea. Ellen Terry was fifty-eight, three years parted from Henry Irving and the Lyceum Theatre (Irving would die that October), depressed about her failing memory and poor eyesight. Yet she still encouraged aspiring actresses who flocked to her: "her little circle of girls," Lady Duff Gordon described them, who "would gladly have laid down their lives for her sake."
Lynn was shown upstairs. Ellen was lying in bed wrapped in shawls, untidy fair hair falling about her shoulders. She gazed at the thin dark girl with the turned-in toes, gestured her forward. As Lynn knelt at the side of the low bed, Ellen put her hands on her shoulders and impulsively kissed her.
"Do something!" she commanded in a husky voice as the maid brought breakfast on a tray. Lynn took a deep breath. "The quality of mercy . . ." she began-Terry's most famous speech. Ellen laughed but she listened.
"I will give you lessons. I don't know exactly when or what hours, or how often, but mind, when I call for you, you must come at once. You must make no other engagements, not even in the evenings, for I may want you to work in the evenings."
Lynn had to receive Ellen's messages through a neighboring plumber in Down Street, where she lived in a shabby-chic room with no water but fan windows and an Adam fireplace. The lessons were sporadic, though one session working from Ellen's own annotated script of King Lear deeply impressed her. "Oh, my dear father," said Lynn as Cordelia. Ellen interrupted: "No, don't say it like that. You love him. You must say 'Oh, my deeeere father.' Now, no more instruction for Cordelia, for the whole understanding of the part lies in this line." She also gave her pupil a key that unlocked the spontaneous technique Lynn used all her life: "Think of the meaning of what you are saying and let the words pour out of your mouth."
Ellen got Lynn a job in the chorus for the Christmas pantomime Cinderella at Drury Lane. She paid Lynn to read to her afternoons. She let Lynn take baths at King's Road. She invited her to her Elizabethan country house in Kent, paid her for odd jobs around the house, coached her in stage deportment. She pinned a bedsheet to the front of Lynn's dress and one to the back, then made her walk gracefully among the tangles. "Must get Lynn more money," Ellen reminded herself in her diary. "It's wicked. She is so intelligent."
But Ellen's attention was distracted by rehearsals of Shaw's Captain Brassbound's Conversion, where she fell impulsively in love with the thirty-three-year-old actor James Carew. She managed to get Lynn a walk-on in July 1906 at the Savoy, and before she took Brassbound to America she gave Lynn a miniature boxed set of Shakespeare as a keepsake and a letter of introduction to the actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree. "That's all I'm going to be able to do for you," she told Lynn, kissing her. "If I helped you any more, it wouldn't be good for your character, for each one runs his own race."
In 1907 Lynn got another walk-on, in Booth Tarkington's Monsieur Beaucaire at the Lyric, under the name Viva Fontanne. Perhaps she thought calling herself "Viva" would boost confidence, for when not acting she was painfully shy. "I thought to myself, 'Why are you so shy? What makes you stiffen up as soon as you meet anyone?' " She answered herself: "It is because you are wondering what it is they think about you. Now, don't think that any more. Wonder what it is you think about them. And when you go into a restaurant, instead of dying when you go in, just . . . have a look, Lynnie, and see who's there instead of bothering whether they're looking at you." Slowly she began to gain more poise.
That fall of 1907 she used Ellen's letter of introduction to Beerbohm Tree, who was looking for schoolgirl types for his staging of Dickens's Edwin Drood. Rather hard of the great Tree to demand experience for a mere walk-on, and Lynn, with her new confidence, rebelled. "But how will you find girls this young with experience? And how will I get experience if you don't give me work?" Delighted, the eccentric Tree hired her, cautioning her to give her address to future managers not as unfashionable Pimlico, but as Belgravia.
Like many shy people, Lynn was a comic. Antoinette took her to parties where she "kept these men in their thirties in fits of laughter." When Tony was invited to dinner by three men one evening, she asked Lynn along for protection. Immediately attracted to the apprentice lawyer Edmund "Teddy" Byrne, Lynn launched into comic impersonations and wild tales of life backstage. Teddy laughed. When they found themselves alone in a cab together, he kissed her and Lynn kicked him in the shins. He was impressed. "Oh, he had a beautiful baritone voice," said Lynn, "and he stole my heart away."
Lynn was still sitting for artists like the de Glehns. "He'd be waiting for me to finish modeling in some Chelsea studio. He was tall and quite slim and he had a raincoat draped over his shoulders and he'd be leaning on the Battersea bridge, waiting, looking down into the river." Teddy would take her to her flat, where she'd change into an evening dress she'd made herself, then on the town to the Cafe Royal, the Savoy Grill, Rules, or Hatchetts. It was all glamorous and glorious and she wanted to marry Teddy, but her career came first.
She longed for a London tour de force but, as Mrs. Patrick Campbell quipped, was forced to tour. In 1909-1910 she played a small role in Somerset Maugham's Lady Frederick, returned to London in Where Children Rule at the Garrick, set out for the provinces again as the maid Harriet Budgeon in Mr. Preedy and the Countess. In June 1910 she was back in London in lodgings at 37 Lambs Conduit Street in Holborn and writing to her mentor, who, now married to James Carew, had been reduced to lecturing on Shakespeare:
Dear Miss Terry,
You will be pleased I am sure to hear that I have secured another engagement this time in London in Billy's Bargain at the Garrick to open on Thurs. the 23rd. It is only a tiny part in the first act-but I have never played in London before, so I am very delighted and excited about it. . . .
Lynn. P.S. Let me come & do something for you.
Lynn had appeared in London before, but Lady Mulberry was her first speaking part. She shook so badly she kept repeating, "I'm on the stage, I'm on the stage, I'm on the stage" to calm herself.
Brother of George Grossmith, the famous Gilbert and Sullivan patter singer, Weedon Grossmith had directed Mr. Preedy and the Countess, hired Lynn again for Billy's Bargain, and now engaged her as Harriet Budgeon for a North American tour that played in Montreal, Washington, and came into New York at Nazimova's 39th Street Theater, where it died after twenty-four performances. In February 1911 Lynn was back in London playing in a one-act curtain raiser at the Criterion, again directed by Grossmith. In January 1912 he cast her in A Storm in a Tea-Shop, another curtain raiser, then engaged her on tour as an understudy. It was their last association, but Lynn learned much from this multitalented man, even though-frustratingly-she'd still gained no real recognition in London.
Though Teddy Byrne doubted Lynn could really act, in 1912 he introduced her to Lady Higson, whose at-homes attracted prominent theater people. There she met the producer J. E. Vedrenne and the actor-manager Dennis Eadie. Currently their London hit Milestones was the hottest ticket in town. They gave Lynn the part of the old maid Gertrude Rhead in their third touring company, which played villages not even on the map. She set off with the White Company in November 1912.
"Oh, places with only one train a day and you lived in cheap theatrical digs and ate awful food and it was all one-night stands, and I loved it, I loved it, I loved every moment of it, for experience was what I needed." She toured in Milestones six months, feeling at last that she was really acting. In three acts Gertrude Rhead ages from twenty-one to eighty: a great part for an actress of twenty-five to pull off. She could tell that audiences believed in her. When skeptical Teddy came to a performance in the Midlands he said in awe: "But you were good!"
Arnold Bennett and Edward Knoblock wrote Milestones, and Lynn went on to act in three other plays by Knoblock: A War Committee, How to Get On, and My Lady's Dress, with Gladys Cooper and Edith Evans. (John Gielgud believed Lynn and Edith Evans never got on: "Both belles laides.") Most important, she played Gertrude Rhead in a fall 1914 London revival of Milestones. It was her first significant London part.
Teddy, who had avoided introducing her to his family, now took her to meet his parents in Walthamstow. They got engaged; they might have married, but on June 28, 1914, Archduke Francis Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo; major powers in Europe armed; England declared war against Germany in August. Lynn and Teddy decided to postpone marriage. She would also have to postpone fame. Though she was noticed in the Times ("Lynn Fontanne, who takes up the old-maid part . . . achieves the miracle of making as beautiful a thing of it as her predecessor"), London was focused on the coming conflict.
Ellen Terry had given Lynn a start, but an American actress propelled her directly to success. Laurette Taylor ("Greatest of them all!" said theater manager George C. Tyler) became an instant London celebrity in Peg o' My Heart. The Marchioness of Townsend gave Laurette a tea to which Lynn, courtesy of Lady Higson, was invited, still murmuring as she entered the room, "Don't worry what they're thinking about you, concentrate on what you think of them!" A crush of guests waited to meet the new star. Lady Higson urged her forward. Prim in a little hat with two velvet streamers down her back, Lynn recoiled. Instead she slipped into a chair, sipped a cup of tea. She was about to leave when miraculously the crowd around Laurette Taylor dissolved and their eyes locked across the room. "Why, she's as shy as I am!" thought Lynn. Impulsively she crossed the room and sat down next to the celebrity, teacup rattling in her hand.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Design for Living by Margot Peters. Copyright © 2003 by Margot Peters. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.