In Memory of Laurette Taylor

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.

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10 Responses to In Memory of Laurette Taylor

  1. Carrie says:

    Photos here (1933) (scroll down to her name)

  2. red says:

    Carrie –

    It is hard to describe how moved I am right now. By you, and those photos.

    This woman means so much to me … and she is very nearly forgotten.

    Thank you so so much for tracking those down.

  3. Carrie says:

    They are very strong photographs, aren’t they? Laid bare she is in them. Print out your favorite on nice paper and frame it :-)

  4. Bobby says:

    Hi Sheila,

    Dogmatic!!!!!!! Brilliant (well, ok). What a wonderful post. I must have been drunk that night as I have no memory of ever discussing the unforgetable Laurette Taylor with you all those years ago. I was lucky in that Bobby Lewis had a recording of Taylor doing Peg O’ Heart that he played for me. She was stunningly real. She was surrounded on the recording by old fashioned pseudo-English Broadway actors and yet she was as alive and fresh as today. Charm radiated out of the recording — something like Judy Garland maybe. Her voice was pure liquid gold — warm and enveloping. I have never forgotten that recording.
    So many people shared their memories of Taylor with me over the years as I was always asking, “What was she like.” No one could ever answer. Norris Houghton and Day Tuttle both penned wonderful memoirs of their time with Taylor in the old Theatre Arts Magazine — long detailed articles. Harold Clurman wrote an essay on Taylor after her death that illuminates the life of a middle age actress in America — it wasn’t just booze or roles but being a woman of a certain age. The forthcoming documentary BROADWAY: THE GOLDEN YEARS has a long section on Taylor and shows the film clip of her screen test for George Cukor. Taylor was the inspiration for the entire generation of young actors who created the Actors Studio — Page, Harris, Stanley, Stapleton, Van Fleet, Hagen, etc… all formed their ideal of acting on Taylor’s genius — just as Duse’s acting in the 20’s had been the inspiration for the generation that formed the Theatre Guild and the Group Theatre.
    Sadly, Taylor is not the only genius of acting forgotten in America. Besides the more contemporary Geraldine Page and the unforgettable Kim Stanley, there is Pauline Lord — Laurette Taylor’s peer. Lord even took Menegerie on the road while Taylor played it in NYC. Horton Foote feels that Lord was even better in the part than Taylor as the actions and intentions in Lord’s relationships with her character’s children were more specific and character driven that Taylor’s. Foote saw both. Lord was ever bit the genius of inner life Taylor was but she did not have a late 1940’s “great’ NYC role. She did her work in the 20’s and 30’s in O’Neill. I saw her one film and she was a revelation. Here was a major Broadway star actor from Broadway’s most glamorous era and she was utterly real as the poor, uneducated mother in the film. A scene with her child in a hospital was heartbreaking in its depth and simplicity.
    Then we must never forget Jeanne Eagels and Jacob Ben Ami. America has an acting royality, only we lack a theatre culture conscious enough and wise enough to understand and embrace tradition. It would rather flatter itself with the re-invention of the wheel every 25 years.

    Love,
    Bobby

  5. Bobby says:

    Hi Sheila,

    Oh, I forgot, there is Taylor’s own wonderful analysis of what makes an actor “The Quality Most Needed”. It used to be in editions of ACTORS ON ACTING but was taken out. Look for an old edition 1948 to 1958. Taylor had a wonderful understanding of the union of imagination and sesne memory.
    And after 10 years, I am starting a new studio — as a path to a new theatre. We shall see. I am also contracted to do a book on Lee Strasberg for Routledge. “Yoda” is back :-).

    Bobby

  6. red says:

    Bobby –

    JESUS, it is good to hear from you, you dogmatic brilliant bastard!!

    I mean dogmatic in the best way.

    I remember at a Golden Boy rehearsal you were giving someone a direction – Kenny or Michael – and they were arguing with you, and you finally said, “Let me be right so that you can be better!”

    I cannot tell you how many times I have thought of that advice, over the years in my own career, when I have fought directors, or acting teachers, thinking I knew best.

    I will remind myself: “Let them be right so that you can be better.”

    I am so excited about your studio and your Strasberg book! If you ever need an actress for something – give me a holler!

    And I actually have that old edition of Actors on Acting – I will have to check out Laurette’s words.

    Thank you so much, Bobby – for everything. Even for yelling at me in that coffee shop. It changed my life!!

  7. red says:

    Oh, and Bobby – if you want to – read this:

    http://www.sheilaomalley.com/archives/000424.html

    Scroll all the way down to the bottom – I describe the infamous night when William Hurt came to see Golden Boy. A night I will never forget. I’m sure he won’t either!

  8. Max Ember says:

    Helen Hayes said: she had a voice “like banjos.”

    Uta Hagen said: “Laurette’s Southern accent was totally inauthentic. But everyone believed it toally — because SHE believed it totally.”

    Of all performances ever given on an American stage, surely, Laurette Taylor’s Amanda is the one we all wish we could have seen.

    As it is? If all the old-timers who claimed they saw her ACTUALLY saw her? The show would still be running today.

    In truth? On some stage or other? It actually is.
    And I suspect, in each performance — whether on a rep stage or in some high school gymnasium — Laurette is always there.

  9. red says:

    I like the thought of Laurette Taylor hovering over a performance in a high school gym. That’s how I envision her as well.

  10. Dale says:

    Sheila, I really appreciate your tribute to Laurette Taylor. I’m an actor in my early fifties and I grew up hearing and reading stories about her acting, the art that covered itself. And, indeed, in the recent film documentary BROADWAY: THE GOLDEN AGE, there she is, in one of her screen tests that never resulted in a role for her in sound films. If I didn’t know first hand (as so many actors do)what a terrible business acting can be, it would be more unfathomable why this woman never made a film with a soundtrack. PEG O’MY HEART is still shown at the MOMA film collection on occasion.
    Taylor’s daughter wrote a wonderful book about her mother in the mid-fifties, that is sold on Amazon. It may be out of print, I’m not sure. But used copies are also available in used bookstores.
    I did want to point out that Taylor’s early career had more successes than PEG O’MY HEART. The plays, written for her by her husband J. Hartley Manners, were not as well received as her performances. Largely forgotten, most of the plays she starred in were considered beneath her.
    Her start in vaudville was extremely limited and unsuccessful. She was fifteen or sixteen and her act was considered quite bad.
    The only time she played in Shakespeare’s MERCHANT OF VENICE was when she did special matinees of scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. Though she had been urged by critics to attempt his plays, she was thoroughly critized for the results of her efforts but praised for trying.

    It was after her first comeback performance in OUTWARD BOUND in 1938 (the year of the screen test seen in BROADWAY:THE GOLDEN AGE)that she longed to find a great play. Offered a production, a director tried to entice her with, “You’ll make the play Laurette!” “I’m tired of making the play,” she shot back. “This time, I want the play to make me.”