Maybe a lot of you won’t know the name Laurette Taylor. That’s okay – I didn’t either – until I became friends with a dogmatic and brilliant theatre director back in the early 1990s who was so horrified that I did not know who she was that he yelled at me in a late-night coffee shop after rehearsal. (“SHEila,” he boomed, “YOU, of all PEOPle, should know who Laurette Taylor is!!”)
But, in actuality, I DID know who she was. I just didn’t know that I knew.
She had a long (and rather checkered) stage career – Broadway and regional – starting in 1909 – a career where her really big hit, the thing she was known for (besides being an on-again off-again drunkard) was Peg o’ my Heart in 1912. Peg o’ my Heart was such a success, and she became the toast of New York. She was basically still a kid. Success came very early – and then faded almost just as quickly. But she kept going, she kept trying, kept trying to find the next Peg o’ my Heart. They did a revival of that show, years later, and she was in it … but she was still only grasping at a long-ago glory. Nobody cared anymore.
Her beloved husband died in 1928 – and she went on a 10-year bender. By the end of the bender, her entire fortune was gone, and everybody who had loved her, who had thought she was going to be the next biggest star, assumed that she must have died.
She was a wild-woman, a fall-down drunk, and one of the most quotable people I have ever encountered.
My favorite Laurette Taylor anecdote (or one of them) is this:
Taylor was in the midst of doing a play, a play which was not a success. Nobody was showing up, it was universally panned. After one of the performances, Taylor went to a party, where I am sure she began to imbibe. She struck up a conversation with a young man, also at the party. They talked for a bit, and then he left, to go mingle. Taylor immediately turned to the hostess and said, “That man walked out on me tonight at the theatre!!”
The hostess, disbelieving, said, “Are you sure? How do you know?”
Taylor snapped, “I sometimes forget a face, but I never forget a back!”
Taylor also described the 10-year drinking binge after the death of her husband as “the longest wake in history.”
She was a tough cookie, this one. And yet people talked (and still talk, oh my GOD, do they still talk) about her gift on the stage.
However – after Peg o’ My Heart, in 1912, she went on and on and on … doing bit parts, living in hotel rooms, doing Merchant of Venice in Toledo … blah blah. A bleak life. Everyone kept thinking she was “making a comeback” – but the expectations were too high. There were many disappointments. This was a woman with a ton of demons. And none of the parts she got really exploited that tormented side of her, that beautiful poetic tragedy she had.
I can’t find a picture of her online at the moment – although I’ve searched a bit just now – but if you see what she actually LOOKS like, you will understand why it might have been a challenge for her to find the role that would really let her shine.
(Update: Here is a picture of her. And another one. Look at the expression in her eyes in that one. And this one. Thank you SO MUCH to Carrie, who sent me a veritable archive. Laurette Taylor was also the one, very very early on, who bemoaned the stereotyping of Irish people on stage. She said, and I paraphrase, “Someday, the full tragedy and the full humor of the Irish people will be portrayed, without resorting to flirty Colleens and drunken paddies.” Thank you, Carrie, for tracking those photos down. Isn’t she beautiful?)
She has an impish babyish face, she looks like a grinning mischievous cherub. This look was perfect for when she was a young vaudevillian, tap dancing her way through life … but as she grew older, as she became middle-aged, as her soul became darker, her looks did not fit her psyche.
Also – and this is just a theory of mine – American theatre had not yet caught up with her. Her gift was wayyyyyyyy ahead of its time. NOW, there are so many venues for weird quirky actors – cable TV, independent film, whatever. But then – there was only Broadway and Hollywood. Laurette Taylor did not fit in.
She was a vaudeville baby. And yet – and yet – there was a genius there. A genius. But throughout the 20s and 30s, Broadway was only producing drawing-room comedies, Philip Barry stuff – Kaufman & Hart stuff – all wonderful funny plays – but very very WASP-y, very upper-crust stuff. Laurette Taylor, with her blowsy curls, her blasted-open smile, her snarky wise-cracking mouth, did not fit in with the style of the times.
But all it took was one playwright.
One playwright to, first of all, usher in a new age in American theatre. But also – to write the role, THE role, that Laurette Taylor had been waiting for … for almost FORTY YEARS.
The script by the unknown playwright was sent to her, she stayed up all night reading it, and the next morning called her assistant Eloise who had sent it to her, and Taylor was completely jubiliant: “I’ve found it, Eloise! I’ve found the play I’ve been waiting for!”
That playwright was Tennessee Williams, and the role was Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie – in its inaugural production in 1946.
My acting teacher saw that original production and still talks about it. Nobody who saw it ever forgot it.
People changed the courses of their lives, after seeing Laurette Taylor playing Amanda Wingfield. Jose Quintero, a young kid, who eventually would become one of the most successful theatre directors of his day (and would direct many of Tennessee Williams’ plays years later, although he was mainly known as the interpreter of Eugene O’Neill) – saw the first production, when it opened in Chicago, and it made him realize, finally, that he had to go into the theatre.
He says, “I walked all night long. I knew then something had made me feel whole.”
God, how I wish I could have seen that performance. It is a watershed, a landmark. But I know that I don’t even HAVE to have seen it to undertstand that I am affected by it, to know that it has, to some degree, created the entire landscape of my profession.
None of us stand alone, none of us re-discover the wheel.
We all stand on the shoulders of giants. And Laurette Taylor was one of the biggest giants the American theatre has ever had.
It must have been something else – to see her in that part.
Amanda Wingfield would be her final role. The play ran from March 31, 1945 – August 3, 1946.
And Laurette Taylor died on December 7, 1946.