The Books: “Laurette. The Intimate Biography of Laurette Taylor By Her Daughter” (Marguerite Courtney)

Daily Book Excerpt: Entertainment Biography/Memoir

Laurette: The Intimate Biography of Laurette Taylor, by Marguerite Courtney

Laurette Taylor 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 was Peg o’ my Heart in 1912. It had been a personal triumph. Peg o’ my Heart was such a success she became the toast of New York. She was 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 only grasping at a long-ago glory. Nobody cared anymore.

There is a sadness in Laurette Taylor’s face, a wistful longing for … something … not fame, not that exactly … perhaps it was comfort, or respect, or finding a place in the theatre she could call home. She was a heartbreaking character, much beloved and revered … with demons that took her over from time to time (she was a falling-down black-out drunk), and a certain amount of poetry and mischief that elevated her when she needed it. Or no, not when she needed it. There were decades in there where she could not access her own essence – the thing she needed to bring to the stage … What she needed was a role. What she needed was THE role to help bring her back to life.

Enter young Tennessee Williams with this new play he had written called The Glass Menagerie.

At the time he entered her life, she was not in good shape. She was forgotten. A lush. A 60-year-old recluse drunk.

Her beloved second husband J. Hartley Manners (who had written Peg o’ My Heart) died in 1928 – and she went on what was, for all intents and purposes, a 10-year bender. By the end of that decade, 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, and one of the most quotable of people. I love reading about her. She sounds like a hoot. I feel like I would have loved to know her.


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 and 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.

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. She was not beautiful or tall and slim. She was not a leading lady. She was dumpy, a bit plain – but with eyes that glimmered, huge tragic eyes. In her own way, she is stunning, but she was hard to cast. Her “hit” had capitalized on her lilting fresh humorous youth, and when that was gone, she was adrift. Laurette Taylor, a person of Irish descent, was also the one, very very early on, who bemoaned the stereotyping of Irish people on stage. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

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 shows, making people laugh … 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 did a couple of silent films, and footage of one of her screen tests does survive … but again: she needed the role. This was not a generic actress. I mean, no actor is generic, at least no good actor – but she, more than most, needed a role to illuminate her genius. That role was a long time coming.

Throughout the 20s and 30s, Broadway was producing mainly 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.

It is one of the greatest theatrical comebacks of all time.

The script by the unknown playwright was sent to her, and 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 the 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.


There is no record of what she did. But it’s like descriptions from theatregoers centuries ago, telling about David Garrick’s Hamlet or his Macbeth. I don’t have to have actually seen him act, to know that he was extraordinary, and to love him. Laurette Taylor’s work in The Glass Menagerie really means something to me – means something to a lot of people. Great actress.

Lyle Leverich wrote the first half of a biography of Tennessee Williams called Tom: The Unknown Tennesse Williams. Sadly for those of us who were waiting with baited breath for the second volume, Leverich died before completing it. But the first volume is enough to whet your whistle for all time. The book ends with The Glass Menagerie opening on Broadway, to stunning success, after its amazing trial run in Chicago. This was back when regional theatre really made a difference in this country. There are still regional theatres out there that are important – Steppenwolf, Trinity – but it is a completely different business now.

Here are some excerpts from Leverich’s extraordinary book – about the rehearsal process, about Laurette Taylor in rehearsal. She had not worked in a long time. She was still remembered, by those people who remembered her success in Peg o’ my Heart, but she had a bad reputation and everyone was nervous she would fall off the rails before the show opened. During rehearsals, she worried everybody for the first few weeks because she didn’t seem to be DOING anything. She wasn’t learning her lines – she held her script in her hands – she mumbled, fumbled, and seemed to not project anything, and she certainly wasn’t up to par with the rest of the cast in terms of the performance-level. What was she doing? When would she START? They didn’t understand her genius. She was percolating, that’s all. She was letting the script work on her, rather than working on the script, imagining herself into the dreamspace in her head that was reserved for Amanda Wingfield. She wasn’t obedient. Geniuses never are. She followed her own process. And while this is all well and good, it gave the cast and crew of the show some pretty bad moments, because how do you say to someone, “Could you please start ACTING?”

But let me back up a bit.

The cast gathers in New York, and travels together by train to Chicago – to begin rehearsals for Tennessee Williams (or Tom’s) new play The Glass Menagerie.

Lyle Leverich writes:

On a cold Saturday, December 16, the company gathered at Pennsylvania Station. Tom and Donald came together. Jane Smith, who shortly before had returned to New York, picked up Margo at her hotel. Eddie Dowling was already at the station with Louis Singer…

On the following bitterly cold morning, the troupe disgorged from the train into Chicago’s barnlike Union Station. The impression was hardly that of a winning team. With scarcely a nod at one another they scattered in all directions. Laurette’s daughter described the occasion, saying Dowling and Singer went off arm in arm, ignoring their tiny star [Laurette Taylor], who stood hesitant and alone on the platform. “Julie, hatless and pinched-looking, flitted by as insubstantial as a puff of steam from any of the locomotives. Tony Ross, a six foot three protest against the cold and early hour, passed somnambulistically. The anxious author, who had forgotten something, dove back into the car and emerged again to feel the bleakness of the station like an unfriendly slap – a dismal portent of his play’s reception. Desperately he longed for the sight of a familiar figure and at last saw one.” Tennessee recalled the event: ” ‘Laurette!’ I called her name and she turned and cried out mine. Then and there we joined forces.” Together they went in search of a taxi. “It was Laurette who hailed it with an imperious wave of her ungloved hand, hesitation all gone as she sprang like a tiger out of her cloud of softness: such a light spring, but such an amazingly far one.”

After this inauspicious beginning, rehearsals begin. From the start, they do not go well. Laurette Taylor, who I mentioned earlier, had not been in anything substantial for years. She was a serious drunk – who apparently WASN’T drinking at that moment – but everyone was terrified she would start. She wasn’t interested in learning her lines, or trying to get scenes right, she barely had any interest (it seemed) in ACTING. People watched her rehearse, and suddenly everyone started getting very very scared.

Tom may have become aware of the hidden tiger in Laurette, but, like everyone else in the company, he was puzzled by her odd behavior at rehearsal. Using a large magnifying glass, she hovered over her script, peering at it and mumbling her lines – this, while the other actors had memorized their dialogue and were following Dowling’s direction. At one point, Eddie was heard to mutter, “That woman is crucifying me,” and the nervous Mr. Singer, looking in on one of the rehearsals, cried out, “Eddie! Eddie! You’re ruining me!” Laurette’s daughter wrote that her mother was simply “up to her old trick of watching the others, seemingly much more interested in them than her own part, neither learning her lines nor her business.”

Tennessee remembered that Laurette appeared to know only a fraction of her lines, and these she was delivering in “a Southern accent which she had acquired from some long-ago black domestic.” He was even more disconcerted when she said she was modeling her accent after his! Tom wrote to Donald Windham, complaining that Laurette was ad-libbing many of her speeches and that the play was beginning to sound more like the Aunt Jemima Pancake hour.

To him, Laurette’s “bright-eyed attentiveness to the other performances seemed a symptom of lunacy, and so did the rapturous manner of dear Julie.” He was witnessing a characteristic of many of the theatre’s great actors who were quick studies but painfully deliberate in their approach to a role. As Laurette’s daughter explained, “She seemed blandly unconscious of the discomfort of the others … Amanda [the role] fascinated her. She could see whole facets of the woman’s life before the action of the play and after it was over.” This is what her husband had taught her was the test of a good part. “The outer aspect of this inner search concerned her not at all.”

But Laurette did not explain herself, she did not say to Dowling the director or Tennessee, “Listen, this is just my process – it’s how I work – don’t worry, I’ll get it, I’ll get it.” She was a genius and you cannot expect geniuses to behave rationally. Finally Tennessee blows up.

Tom told Donald that he finally lost his temper when Laurette made some trifling changes. He said he screamed, “My God, what corn!” She railed that he was a fool, that she had been a star for forty years and had made a living as a writer which in her opinion was more than he had done. After they had returned from lunch, she “suddenly began giving a real acting performance – so good that Julie and I, the sentimental element in the company, wept.”

The rehearsals stumble to a close – many problems with the set design, integration of the music, etc. And Laurette starts to drink, after rehearsals, as the pressure grows. Everybody is grim, scared.

Paul Bowles, the composer, flew out to Chicago to view the dress rehearsal, which was, by all accounts, a complete disaster.

Integrating the scenery changes with Mielziner’s light and Paul Bowles’s music cues was difficult enough, but, as Bowles recalled, the dress rehearsal was a nightmare. “I flew out to Chicago [and] arrived in a terrible blizzard, I remember. It was horrible. A traumatic experience. And the auditorium was cold. Laurette Taylor was on the bottle, unfortunately. Back on it, really. She had got off it with the first part of the rehearsals but suddenly the dress rehearsal coming up was too much.” Laurette was nowhere to be found. Finally she was discovered by the janitor, “unconscious, down behind the furnace in the basement. And there was gloom, I can tell you, all over the theatre because no one thought she would be able to go on the next night.”

Tennesee’s mother, Edwina, on whom Amanda was based, flies into Chicago for the opening night. Which was December 26, 1944.

Still – on December 26 – things were not set, people were running around like lunatics, a doom-laden atmosphere.

The following is one of my favorite Laurette Taylor stories. I do not know why it touches me so deeply, and brings tears to my eyes, but it does.

On opening night, December 26, Laurette had disappeared again. They were forty minutes from curtain. While Dowling checked with her hotel and restrained Singer from calling the police, Jo Mielziner [the lighting designer] decided to try the basement, as Paul Bowles had. He recalled:

“Far down a passage I saw a light and heard the sound of running water. There, in a sort of janitor’s storage and washroom, was Laurette Taylor, dressed in a rather soiled old dressing-gown with the sleeves rolled up, bending over a washtub, wringing out the dress that she was to wear in the second act. Her hands and arms were dripping with lavendar dye. I said, ‘Laurette, can’t somebody do this for you? You should be resting in your room or getting made up.’ Her great, tragic, beautiful eyes smiled at me and she said, ‘No, it’s all done.’ The dress was an important costume, a much-talked-about party frock. Early in the production I had assumed that the management would have something specifically designed; but pennies were being pinched to such an extent that the dress had been ‘bought off the pile.’ At the dress parade the day before, Tennessee Williams had commented that it was far from right, and so Laurette Taylor, on her own, had bought some dye and was trying to remedy matters.”

She thrust the soggy clump of costume into Randy Echols’ [the production stage manager] hands with the command, “Here, dry this.” He met the challenge. “The sweating Echols constructed a dryer of bits and pieces backstage, played lights on it, fanned it, blew on it, went quietly mad.”

I love Randy Echols.

And so – curtain-time approaches.

Before the curtain’s rise, a small storm-buffeted audience had made it to the theatre, including Chicago’s two most formidable critics, Claudia Cassidy and Ashton Stevens. Edwina [Williams] recalled that “everything seemed against the play, even the weather. The streets were so ice-laden we could not find a taxi to take us to the Civic Theatre and had to walk. The gale blowing off Lake Michigan literally hurled us through the theatre door.” Too nervous to sit and wait for the curtain, Tom went backstage, only to find the cast and crew even more gripped with fear than he was. Donald Windham arrived and sat next to Edwina…

Donald not only recognized Laurette Taylor’s Southern accent as Tennessee’s but he also felt that she had co-opted a good deal more and had modeled her performance on her careful observation of Tom. “Her sideways, suspicious glances at her children when she was displeased; her silences that spoke more than words; her bright obliviousness to the reality before her eyes when she was determined to show that she, at least, was agreeable, and her childish pleasure in the chance to charm and show off her best features…”

Edwina had not realized that Tom had written a play about HER, about his family, about his torment in regards to his sister who was mad, and eventually lobotomized. Laura is based on his sister Rose.

What Edwina was witnessing was in no real sense an autobiographical account of Tom’s family life in St. Louis. It was a transmutation created by the artist who had taken refuge in the identity of Tennessee Williams – for it is true, as critic Frank Rich has said, that “anyone can write an autobiography, but only an artist knows how to remake his past so completely, by refracting it through a different aesthetic lens.” For Edwina, the play was more dream than memory – a flux of disordered images of “loss, loss, loss.” There could be no avoiding the similarities between Amanda Wingfield’s travail and her own … And there was the pain she had to feel in response to the reminders of Rose on that Christmas night, imprisoned in an asylum, with Laura’s malformation acting as a metaphor for her daughter’s enveloping madness. Then there was Tom’s hope of escape – Tennessee’s lifelong illusion – in pursuit of a father in love with long distances.

On one occasion, Tennessee said he could not remember his mother’s reaction to the play; then on another he said that, as she sat listening to Laurette Taylor reciting her own utterances and aphorisms, “Mother began to sit up stiffer and stiffer. She looked like a horse eating briars. She was touching her throat and clasping her hands and quite unable to look at me.” He thought that “what made it particularly hard for Mother to hear is that she is a tiny, delicate woman with great dignity and always managed to be extremely chic in dress, while Laurette Taylor invested the part with that blowzy, powerful quality of hers – and thank God she did, for it made the play.”

That night, after the show, the cast and crew sat around waiting for the reviews to come in. Tennessee wanted to go to church, there was a midnight service down the street, but the weather was insane, freezing, a huge storm. And then – one by one, the reviews started coming in – “each more superlative than the last.”

Claudia Cassidy said that the play “holds in its shadowed fragility the stamina of success” and she added “If it is your play, as it is mine, it reaches out tentacles, first tentative, then gripping, and you are caught in its spell.” Ashton Stevens of the Herald-American called Menagerie “a lovely thing and an original thing. It has the courage of true poetry couched in colloquial prose. It is eerie and earthy in the same breath.” He added that fifty years of first-nighting had provided him with few jolts so “miraculously electrical” as Laurette’s portrayal and that he had not been so moved “since Eleanora Duse gave her last performance on this planet.”

But still – the audience wasn’t coming. The houses were small. Cassidy and Stevens began evangelists for the production.

…Claudia Cassidy … returned for three successive performances … Ashton Stevens virtually moved into the theatre. Everyone was faced with one of the most heartrending experiences in the theatre: helplessly watching a beautiful, highly praised production slowly expire because of the lack of public response.

This was about the time that theatre-people in New York started to make the trek out to Chicago to see what was going on.

Great playwright William Inge (who was unknown at this point, but a friend of Tennessee’s) came out to see it. He describes his response:

“I sat in a half-filled theatre but I watched the most thrilling performance of the most beautiful American play I felt I had ever seen. I had the feeling at the time that what I was seeing would become an American classic…I was expecting a good play, yes, but I didn’t know that I was going to encounter a work of genius … The play itself was written so beautifully, like carved crystal and so it was a stunning experience for me and it shocked me alittle, too, to suddenly see this great work emerge from a person that I had come to know so casually.”

Laurette Taylor’s performance was being hailed as one of the most extraordinary pieces of acting the world had ever seen. But, as is typical with all great actors, she had huge humility and felt she could not take complete credit.

Laurette Taylor never lost an opportunity to divert the praise that was being heaped upon her to that “nice little guy,” Tennessee Williams. She was always quick to remind her admirers that it was he, not she, who had written the lines that gave The Glass Menagerie its special power and beauty. And she told Tennessee, “It’s a beautiful – a wonderful – a great play!”

For his part, Tennessee Williams always said that, as much as he regarded Laurette Taylor a personal friend, he never ceased to be in awe of her. “She had such a creative mind,” he once remarked. “Something magical happened with Laurette. I used to stand backstage. There was a little peephole in the scenery, and I could be just about three feet from her, and when the lights hit her face, suddenly twenty years would drop off. An incandescent thing would happen in her face; it was really supernatural.”

What was perhaps most extraordinary about The Glass Menagerie as a theatrical event was the meeting of these two great artists, one ending her career and the other beginning his. On that cold night of December 26, 1944, the convergence of two enormous theatre talents made theatre history. The performance itself became legendary, and the play became a classic in the literature of the American theatre.

The show continues its run in Chicago. Laurette Taylor has become the toast of the town. New York bigwigs fly in to see this new extraordinary show, and to see her performance, in particular. It is unclear at first, whether or not it will move on to New York. New York is the center of the universe. “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere…” Being a huge success in Chicago was wonderful and gratifying, for this sixty-year-old actress whom everyone had given up on for years. But she knew that … Manhattan and the theatre audience and theatre critics in Manhattan were other animals altogether. Her anxiety grows.

As much as she was being lionized in Chicago and was enjoying it, Laurette knew the fawning for what it was: skittering leaves in the Windy City. Offstage now, she was becoming bored and edgy and more and more in need of a drink. Tom [Tennessee Williams] felt that what she actually needed was the seclusion of her own apartment and the protection of her young actress friend, Eloise. One who could understand Laurette’s quicksilver disposition was Helen Hayes, then in Chicago playing in Harriet. She remembered Laurette saying over and over like an incantation, ” ‘I’m going to break this witch’s curse.’ ”

Hayes said that Laurette was one of her idols and that they had been friends for a long time. “Harriet was closed on Sunday nights, and that was when I saw The Glass Menagerie. The play and Laurette were simply superb. Most nights after work, I would join her and Tennessee (they were very close) and Tony Ross, too, and we would go to their favorite bar. Laurette would order a double scotch, and when she saw my eyes widen, she reassured me that if she ordered a second drink, her deceased husband, Hartley, would come down and gently tap her on the shoulder. Being Irish, she believed that to be perfectly true.”

Hayes remembered that Laurette’s career had nose-dived and that hers was “a daring comeback attempt at age sixty … One night the phone was ringing when I returned to my suite at the Ambassador. It was Laurette. ‘I can’t go on tomorrow,’ she said in despair. ‘My throat hurts, and I’m losing my voice. If I don’t go on, everyone will think I’m drunk. If they say I’m drunk, I will get drunk and stay drunk till I die.’ Her cry for help galvanized me.” Hayes said that she always carried an electric steam kettle when she went on tour, to which she could add medicine. ‘It had been helpful when I came down with bronchitis or laryngitis. I told Laurette I would come right away with the kettle … I taxied downtown to the Sherman House. I stayed with her through most of the night, making sure she was breathing properly … the next evening she gave a magnificent performance.”

That image kills me. Helen Hayes steaming Laurette Taylor. Jesus.

The buzz around the show grew.

The word had spread to Broadway and Hollywood, and the wagers were on: Would she or would she not make it back? Everyone in the Chicago company was now, by mid-February, plainly nervous. The more Laurette was surrounded by flattery and the excitement of prominent visitors, the greater was the strain on her to keep from joining in the carouse around her. The marvelously witty and stylish actress Ina Claire was in the audience every night, and Tom wrote Audrey: “Everybody stops off here between Hollywood and New York, so our social life is terrific. We’ve had Helen Hayes, Ruth Gordon, Katherine Helpburn, Terry Helburn, Maxwell Anderson, Mary Chase, Guthrie McClintic Lindsay and Crouse, Raymond Massey, Gregory Peck, Luther Adler and God knows what all! Everybody has been favorable except Maxwell Anderson. He didn’t like it.”…

Katherine Hepburn’s enthusiasm for The Glass Menagerie, on the other hand, was such that she went straightway to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Louis B. Mayer, saying that the studio should buy the play, assign George Cukor to direct, cast her as Laura and Spencer Tracy as the gentleman caller, and, above all, to capture on film Laurette’s incomparable performance. She was to say later that Amanda Wingfield was Tennessee’s “most tenderly observed, the most accessible woman he has ever created.”

But the project never came about, and so we will never know what Taylor’s performance actually looked like. We can only take the words of all of the people who saw it as truth.

The play finally moves to New York. They uproot from Chicago, the glorious snowy town which had put Tennessee Williams on the map, made him a star, the town that catapulted Laurette Taylor, now a 60 year old woman, back into the limelight, after 40 years.

The pressure on the company is enormous. The show is going to be done at the Playhouse Theatre.


Laurette was well aware that both her disgrace in Alice and her comeback in Outward Bound had taken place on this same Playhouse stage. Across the street was the Cort Theatre, where her career had begun in the title role of Peg O’ My Heart. She had much to look back upon, but the present confronting her was virtually unendurable. Back in her apartment, she found that her impulse was not to leave it and to seek escape in alcohol, but she also recognized this as an enemy that could bring upon her a terrible, final disagrace. In the hours before the curtain was to rise, she was under the watchful care of Eloise Sheldon, who had taken time off from her role in Harvey to be close to her.

The Glass Menagerie was scheduled to open on Saturday, March 31, Easter eve – a week after Tom’s thirty-fourth birthday … and the day before Laurette’s sixty-first. Born a few weeks before Easter and reared in the symbolism of the Christian church, Tom saw this season as a special one, and he used the passage from crucifixion to resurrection as a constant theme in his work.

And so, opening night arrives. Everyone who is anyone showed up. It was a star-studded evening. Every powerhouse in town was in the audience.


That afternoon, there had been a technical run-through and the usual chaotic dress rehearsal. Audrey wrote:

I don’t remember where the author was that last afternoon but I shan’t ever forget sitting in an unairconditioned Playhouse Theatre. There was a frenetic veiling over everything – and everybody. The actors paced nervously before the run-through began. The light technicians tinkered with never-ending light cues and most of them came out just a little bit wrong. Having played their roles for months in Chicago meant absolutely nothing. This was the day of the New York opening. This was it. I kept remembering Liebling’s remark, “You’re only as good as the night they catch you.”

Audrey recalled that when Laurette began her opening scene, she seemed under control “but after a few words in recognizable anguish she said, ‘I’m sorry, I have to leave the stage. I’m going to be sick.’ And sick she was offstage and then returned to try once more, a little whiter.” The illness continued all afternoon.

The star of the show throwing up in between scenes was not the only problem during the technical run-through. “Tech”s are long and monotonous, and notoriously very tense. They are 10 hour days. At the end of the day, you do what is known as a “cue to cue”. Which is self-explanatory. You run the couple of lines before a music or a light cue, the light cue is then executed, either correctly or not correctly, and then you run it again. Or you move on, if there are no mistakes. There are always mistakes. The actors have had three weeks to perfect their performances. The tech team has to do it in one day.

So The Glass Menagerie, with its musical cues, its projections on a screen in the back, its delicate light cues, was what is known as a “tech-heavy” show. The play relies upon these cues being executed in a sensitive intuitive way – it’s PART of the show. It’s how Tennessee wrote it. David Mamet’s plays, by contrast, are pretty much: ‘Lights up. Play happens. Lights out.” Very different sensibility. And easier “techs”.

Back to the disastrous “tech” on Easter Eve, 1946.

Paul Bowles’s sensitive incidental score roared out when it should have sounded

(another quote from Audrey Wood) like circus music, away off in the distance of memory. Julie Haydon was trying to keep a stiff upper lip, but her concern for Miss Taylor was considerable. The two men, Eddie Dowling and Tony Ross, may have been scared to death, but they made a brave attempt at pretending they didn’t care a damn what day it was.

The coproducer, Louis Singer, felt his way over to my side of the otherwise dark, empty auditorium where I was crouched down in my seat. Peering at me through the darkness, he said, ‘Tell me – you are supposed to know a great deal about the theatre – is this or is it not the worst dress rehearsal you’ve ever seen in your life?’ I nodded ‘Yes.’ I was too frightened to try and open my mouth.

During the rehearsal, Randy Echols had placed a bucket in the wings and, except for the two hours that Amanda was onstage, Laurette was leaning over it. Tony Ross later said, “It seemed incredible to us that by curtain time Laurette would have the strength left to give a performance. We went home for a few hours for supper, but Eloise told me Laurette could eat nothing.”

In her dressing room, Laurette had placed in front of her a large framed photograph of her [long-deceased] husband, Harley Manners.

Now we are into the final stretch. Curtain time is moments away. The description of what followed is so moving to me that tears blur my eyes as I type it out.

Eloise had [Laurette] dressed by the time of Randy’s summons, “Curtain, Miss Taylor!” Tony Ross said that Mary Jean Copeland and Julie had to hlep her to her place onstage. “As the lights dimmed on Dowling at the end of his opening narration and began going up on the dining-room table we could hear Laurette’s voice, ‘Honey, don’t push with your fingers … And chew — chew!’ It seemed thin and uncertain. Slowly the lights came up full, and as she continued to speak, her voice gained strength. The audience didn’t recognize her at first, and by the time they did she was well into her speech, and kept on going right through the applause. They soon quieted down.” The bucket stayed in the wings, and “the few minutes she had between scenes, she was leaning over it retching horribly. There was nothing left inside her, poor thing, but onstage – good God! – what a performance she gave!”

In the final tableau of the play, with Tom departed, Amanda hovers protectively over a broken, deeply disturbed Laura, symbolizing what Tennessee Williams saw in his own mother: “Now that we cannot hear the mother’s speech, her silliness is gone and she has dignity and tragic beauty.”

At the end, the audience roared its approval. There were twenty-four curtain calls. As Laurette took her bows, tears streaked down her cheeks and she smiled somewhat tentatively while she held out the pleated frills of her worn blue party dress and curtsied. Her daughter said that she had the look of “a great ruin of a child gazing timorously upon a world she found to be infinitely pleasing.”

At length, there were shouts of “Author! Author!” Eddie Dowling came down to the edge of the stage and beckoned Tom to come forward and take his place with the company. The young man who rose from the fourth row, his hair in a crew cut, his suit button missing, looked more like a junior in college than an eminent playwright. Standing in the aisle, he turned toward the stage and made a deep bow to the actors, his posterior in full view of the audience.

From this moment on, there was no turning back for Tom Williams. His prayers and those of his mother had been answered. Now he could give Edwina [his mother] financial independence and freedom from the bondage of her unhappy marriage. To his father’s dismay, the little boy who could not put his blocks back in the box exactly as he had found them had become the artist who would rearrange them in a lasting architecture. And now there was no escape save into himself, and no place in the world he could go where he would not be known.

He had become Tennessee Williams.

I think my favorite part of that anecdote is that, in the moment he became a celebrity, in the moment Tom left Tom behind, to become Tennessee, his first act – the first thing he did – was bow to the ACTORS. Not to the audience who had been cheering for him, but to the company of actors who had made this success possible.

Now that is a class act.

Amanda Wingfield would be Laurette Taylor’s final role. The play ran from March 31, 1945 – August 3, 1946.

Laurette Taylor died on December 7, 1946.

David Mermelstein writes:

Though she earned stardom playing the title role in “Peg o’ My Heart” (1912), Taylor earned immortality much later as Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” (1945). To hear those who saw her tell it, and there are still many who can, Taylor was a supreme conjurer, a mistress of the art that concealed art. Her unaffected portrayal of a struggling matron deludedly soldiering on has been described with awe as something so seemingly ordinary as to defy belief. “It could have been your mother” or “It was as if some woman off the street had stumbled into the theater.” Alas, no film or recording of her performance exists. Only the legend survives — of an old trouper giving what many consider the greatest dramatic performance of the 20th century, just before vanishing.


Martin Landau saw her in Glass Menagerie in New York and said that she “was almost like this woman had found her way into the theatre, through the stage door, and was sort of wandering around the kitchen.” It was that real. (People say that about Marlon Brando’s performance in Truckline Cafe – his debut. He came down the stairs in his first entrance, eating an apple, and Charles Durning, who saw the show, actually thought it was a stagehand who had wandered onstage, his behavior was so natural and real).

In the great documentary Broadway: The Golden Age (my post on it here) ranks and ranks of people talk about Laurette Taylor’s performance as Amanda. It was over 50 years ago now, almost 60 years, and the memory blazes bright and vivid. Nobody ever forgot it.

From a review of the documentary:

“Rise and shine! Rise and shine!”

I can hear it now, and in her voice, and so all his life could Tom Wingfield, also known as Thomas Lanier Williams, a/k/a Tennessee Williams, and so, as they talk to Rick McKay, can Gena Rowlands, Uta Hagen, Ben Gazzara, Fred Ebb, Charles Durning, and dozens of others.

Durning says it best: “I thought they’d pulled her in off the street.”

He is talking about, they are talking about, we are talking here about Laurette Taylor (1884-1946), whose performance as Amanda Wingfield. Tom’s mother, Laura’s mother, in the 1945 New York premiere of “The Glass Menagerie” at the Royale Theater on Broadway is and will always remain the American high-water mark of acting that goes beyond acting to be (that is, to seem) no acting at all.

“I saw her five times in ‘The Glass Menagerie,’ ” says the also great Uta Hagen whom we lost only some months ago, “and ten times in ‘Outward Bound.’ ”

“Cabaret” lyricist Fred Ebb saw “The Glass Menagerie” SEVEN times. In one instant that Ebb still carries in his gizzards, Laurette Taylor “turned around and pulled down her girdle, and I have never been so affected by a stage action in my whole life. It made me weep.”

“She could have been my mother,” says Ben Gazzara, speaking of the telephone scene in which a desperate Amanda Wingfield tries to get a female acquaintance to renew a magazine subscription at 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning. “It makes you laugh and cry in the same breath. How do you do that?” says Gazzara. “Only PEOPLE do that. I think we’ve all been striving to be her, one way or another.”

In 2005, Jesse Green wrote in the New York Times:

People, especially actors, who saw Laurette Taylor play Amanda Wingfield in the original production of “The Glass Menagerie” in 1945 typically say it was the best performance ever offered on the American stage. Tennessee Williams compared her radiance in the role (which he had based on his mother) to the “greatest lines of poetry” and mourned that her reputation would be limited to the “testimony and inspiration” of those who saw her. That’s mostly true; Taylor appeared in only three films, all silent, and died shortly after leaving the road company of “Menagerie” in 1946. But something of what made her Amanda so memorable was captured by Eileen Darby (1916-2004), a photographer who worked Broadway from 1940 to 1964, producing some of the signal theatrical images of the period: Marlon Brando menacing a thrilled but terrified Jessica Tandy in “A Streetcar Named Desire”; Carol Channing, framed by a halo of hair and feathers, at the top of the Harmonia Gardens stairs in “Hello, Dolly!”

Some 250 of these images are featured in “Stars on Stage: Eileen Darby and Broadway’s Golden Age,” to be published by Bulfinch Press this month; many are included in an exhibition of Darby’s work that opened Tuesday at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. None is more valuable and unexpected than this series of 12 frames of Taylor in “Menagerie” – a “key sheet” from which the show’s press agent might choose a publicity shot. It records one of Amanda’s efforts to earn extra money by selling renewal subscriptions to a “magazine for matrons” called The Home-maker’s Companion. The action, caught at about one shot every five seconds, is so legibly written on Taylor’s face that it can be matched nearly frame by frame to the Scene 3 monologue. Frame 2: “Ida Scott? … We missed you at the D.A.R. last Monday!” Frame 4: “You’re a Christian martyr, yes, that’s what you are.” Frame 7: “That wonderful new serial by Bessie Mae Hopper is getting off to such an exciting start.” Frame 9: “Go take a look in the oven and I’ll hold the wire!” Frame 11: “I think she’s hung up!” And then, in Frame 12, a fleeting look of betrayal and confusion aimed at the telephone itself: a reminder that Amanda’s runaway husband was a telephone man who “fell in love with long-distance.”

After Taylor’s own husband (her second) died in 1928, she went on a 10-year bender she later called “the longest wake in history.” That’s on her face, too, and one of the things Darby’s photographs so memorably record is a time when Amanda could be played (indeed, could only be played) by a plain, 61-year-old warhorse whose suffering, far from being a disfigurement requiring erasure, was the essence of the gift she brought to the stage.


Laurette Taylor, before she passed away, wrote an essay about acting that is precious to me. It’s not often that an actor can actually talk about he or she does, without sounding precious or like they want to be congratulated for their cleverness. But in Taylor’s essay, she comes close to actually expressing magic, and yet at the same time, this lady was Irish Catholic, okay? She couldn’t be airy-fairy if she tried. I know of what I speak. James Joyce said, “In Ireland Catholicism is black magic.” Laurette Taylor here sounds practical, yet full of black magic. It is that very interesting mix that seems to me very particular to the Irish sensibility – the Irish artistic sensibility is what I mean. Laurette Taylor, in her long career, experienced the ups and downs, lows and highs, at a more intense frequency than most. She was not a cynical woman. She didn’t have a “well, that’s the way life is” bone in her body. She was not a realist. Her fantasies and dreams and hopes are part and parcel of why she turned to the bottle. Reality was too much for her. Reality is too much for a lot of geniuses. But when she was able to harness all of that light and fire and hope and loss … nobody could touch her. How many performances have you seen where you remember the blocking 60 years later? Not too many. That was what Laurette Taylor did in Glass Menagerie. The gestures revealed the subtext. So often gestures are belabored or planned-out by the actor. “If I take off my hat on this line, this will show what I am really feeling …” That’s good stage-craft, I don’t mean to knock it … but then there are the geniuses … who cannot HELP but reveal the subtext. The subtext is not some intellectual bit of playwriting – it is IN them, they have embodied it, they have used the rehearsal time to step into that deep pool and LIVE there, so no matter what they do: pick up the phone, pour someone a drink, fix their makeup – it reveals the subtext. My acting teacher in college always used to talk to us actors about finding “the pulse of the playwright”. We must always be close to that pulse when we act. Because the job of the actor is twofold: give a good performance and also reveal the play.

Without Laurette Taylor’s performance as Amanda, the actual play of Glass Menagerie might not have been revealed. She WAS Tennessee Williams up there. And she didn’t plan on that, or tackle it intellectually … it was just how she worked. She didn’t know any other way.

Here is Laurette Taylor’s essay about the art of acting:

The Quality Most Needed – by Laurette Taylor

I have been asked to discuss, for the benefit of those who may go on the stage, the qualities which are most important as elements of success. If merely the financial or popular success of a woman star is meant, I should say that beauty is more essential than magnetism. But if by success you mean all that is implied by the magical word Art – success in the sense of Bernhardt, Duse and Ellen Terry are successes – I should say most emphatically the reverse. And I should add that imagination is more important than either.

Mere beauty is unimportant; in many cases it proves a genuine handicap. Beautiful women seldom want to act. They are afraid of emotion and they do not try to extract anything from a character that they are portraying, because in expressing emotion they may encourage crow’s feet and laughing wrinkles. They avoid anything that will disturb their placidity of countenance, for placidity of countenance insures a smooth skin.

Beauty is not all-important as an asset, even when the star is not anxious to achieve true greatness. Many of our most charming comediennes are not pretty women. Rather, they are women of great charm and personality. I cannot for the moment recall a single great actress who is a beauty. At least not in the popularly accepted idea of what constitutes beauty.

Personality is more important than beauty, but imagination is more important than both of them.

Beauty as I understand it does not mean simple prettiness, but stands for something allusive and subtle. The obvious seldom charms after one has had to live close to it for any length of time. Being all on the surface, there is nothing left to exhilarate, once the surface has been explored. On the other hand, the beauty which emanates from within becomes more enchanting upon close acquaintance. It is constantly revealing itself in some new guise and becomes a continual source of joy to the fortunate persons who have the privilege of meeting it frequently.

That is beauty of the imagination, and that beauty all the really great actresses have.

The case of [Sarah] Bernhardt is as good an example as one would wish. In her youth, especially, she was the very apotheosis of ugliness; still, through the power of her rich imagination that glorified her every thought and act, she held her audiences in the hollow of her hand. It is the strength and richness of her wonderful creative mind tha tmakes it possible for her to present the amazing illusion of youth which she does even today.

It isn’t beauty or personality or magnetism that makes a really great actress. It is imagination, though these other qualities are useful.

You see a queer little child sitting in the middle of a mud puddle. She attracts you and holds your interest. You even smile in sympathy. Why? Simply because that child is exercising her creative imagination. She is attributing to mud pies the delicious qualities of the pies which mother makes in the kitchen. You may not stop to realize that this is what is going on in the child’s mind, but unconsciously it is communicated to you. It is the quality of imagination that has held your attention …

We create in the imagination the character we wish to express. If it is real and vital to us in imagination we will be able to express it with freedom and surety. But we must conceive it as a whole before we begin to express it.

There will be those who will disagree with me and say that magnetism presupposes imagination. This is a mistake. Many magnetic actresses are wholly lacking in imagination, their hold upon the public resting chiefly upon personality and charm and beauty. Have you ever gone to a tea party where you met some very magnetic woman who radiated charm, who not only held your attention but exhilarated you until you became impatient to see this scintillating creature on the stage, where you might realize the fullness of her wonder? And have you not felt, when your opportunity came and you saw her on the stage at last, the disappointment of realizing a wooden lady with a beautiful mask for a face, speaking faultlessly articulated lines – an actress who rose desperately to the big moments of her part, and who never for a moment let you forget that it was she, that actress, whom you saw, not the character whom she was portraying? There may have been splendid acting but you were conscious of the fact that it was acting. There was no illusion. She was conscious at the big climax that she was acting this part and that she must reach this climax. She was acting as much to herself as to you.

That is not the art of the great actress.

The imaginative actress builds a picture, using all her heart and soul and brain. She builds this picture not alone for the people out in front but for herself. She believes in it and she makes the people across the footlights believe in it. Unless she has done this she has failed. She must stimulate the imagination of the audience. An actress should not only be able to play a part; she should be able to play with it. Above all, she should not allow anything to stand between her and the thing she is expressing.

How often does an actress play a part so as to leave you with the feeling that you have so intimate a knowledge of the character that you could imagine its conduct in any position, aside from the situations involved in the action of the play? Unless this happens, you feel that after all you have seen a limited portrayal of the character and you realize that though the acting was practically flawless there was something missing. And, in nine cases out of ten, that is because the woman playing the part did not use any imagination. She was entirely bound by the tradition of the theatre. She did everything just as it would have been done by anyone else on the stage. This is fatal.

You feel untouched by the play because it was not made real to you.

The artist looks for the unusual. She watches everyone, always searching for the unusual in clothes, in manner, in gesture. The imaginative actress will even remember that the French have characteristics other than the shrug!

Think of the number of times that there have been Irish plays, of the number of times that the Irish character has been used in the working out of a plot. Yet never, to my knowledge, has an Irishman been played on the stage. (This excepts, of course, Lady Gregory’s players and Guy Standing’s rendition of a current Irish-American role.) Real Irishmen have never been played. The Irish can be the most melancholy people on the face of the earth, yet the traditional stage Irish have been lilting colleens and joking Paddies.

The most interesting thing to me in acting is the working out of the character itself, the finding of what which is uncommon and the small, seemingly insignificant trait which will unconsciously make an appeal to the audience and establish the human appeal. Too much importance is laid on clothes. In the main, I think that all clothes hamper unless they express the character. Personally, I detest ‘straight’ parts for that reason. They necessitate the clothes that make me self-conscious – or, rather “clothes conscious”.

I want to get right inside the character and act from the heart as well as from the head. That is impossible unless one is free from outside interference.

I think actresses pay too much attention to the tradition of acting. That is a great mistake. It cramps creative instinct. I received a good deal of criticism for my walk in The Bird of Paradise. Some of the critics said I should be taught how to walk across the stage. Of course I paid no attention to that. My walk was the walk of the barefoot Italians who carry loads on their heads, and I had learned it from them. It was certainly not the traditional stage walk, but we are living in a time when simplicity and truth are the watchwords of the theatre. The traditional stage walk would not have fitted the character I played.

The stage has come to a period of simplicity. A few years ago the direct attitude adopted by the younger actresses of today toward their roles would have been considered ridiculous. The changes have been positive but subtle, and the actress without concentration has been unable to discern them. They are the ones who are still sparring for time in their emotional scenes, using the traditional tricks to express grief, joy, surprise, chagrin; and they wonder why they are sitting at home without engagements. They cannot comprehend that the very little basket of tricks which made them the idols of a few years ago fails utterly to get results today …

The time has come when we may as well realize that we can no longer give a filmy portrayal of emotion and pad it out wiht stereotyped pieces of “business”. The younger actresses of today express the elemental emotions as the elemental person would express them in real life. There is no such thing as a compromise in the logical development of a character in order to make a theatrical effect …

Too few actresses follow their instinct. I think instinct is the direct connection with truth.

It is not enough to know just what you are to do yourself in the action of a piece; you must know also the exact relation you must bear to every other character in the play.

For instance, take the business of dying. You must in your imagination realize not only the fact that you are dying but the effect which your death will have on every character related to your part. You know that you are not dying and the audience knows it, but in your imagination you must really believe you are. The business of dying becomes actual to you; also, you compel the audience to believe in you by the very sincerity of your attitude.

This trait is really remarkable in Maude Adams. Recall her work in Chantecler. Without her tremendous imagination to gild her impersonation, this frail little woman would have been hopeless in the part. Yet through her marvelous richness of imagination she produced the illusion of bigness that many women better fitted physically could not have done.

One would never say that Maude Adams is beautiful, in the sense that she is pretty or has a beautiful physique; but she has charm, magnetism and imagination. These three make a beauty that transcends mere beauty.

Beauty, personality, and magnetism are not important in the equipment of a star, when compared to the creative faculty of imagination. The first three qualities are valuable adjuncts, and no one should sneeze at them. But you might get along without the slightest beauty and little or no personal magnetism if you were generously endowed with the imaginative mind.


I haven’t even talked about the book! Her daughter Marguerite Courtney wrote this life of her mother, and I consider it to be essential reading. Not only does it detail Laurette Taylor’s journey (with honesty, freshness, and specificity) – but it gives a snapshot of an American theatre scene that no longer exists. Courtney obviously loves her mother, but this is not the ravings of a fangirl. She tells it like it is. Wonderful book. Since my post has been all about Glass Menagerie, I will choose an excerpt from when she was playing in Peg o’ My Heart and had become a star. The great stage actress Sarah Bernhardt was her idol – and this excerpt has to do with the two of them meeting.

I find Bernhardt’s first-impression assessment of Laurette Taylor fascinating and quite prophetic. She saw in Taylor, who was, at that time, playing in a comedy – known for how funny she was – a “tragique actress”. She saw. She saw the sadness – and basically saw Amanda Wingfield in her, although Amanda would not come into Taylor’s life for another 40 years. Fascinating. Very intuitive of Bernhardt. And her prophecy that Taylor would be “the foremost actress” of America was right on – only her timeline was off by 35 years.

Great book.

EXCERPT FROM Laurette: The Intimate Biography of Laurette Taylor, by Marguerite Courtney

By November, 1913, Laurette had broken the record for continuous performances. Maude Adams was the previous title-holder with three hundred performances as Lady Babbie in “The Little Minister” in 1897. Laurette was growing restive. Peg was “all right for a starter” she said but she hadn’t worked all these years for success to have it imprison her forever in one role. She was, as Burns Mantle put it, “threatened with the curse of popularity”.

She would as soon have joined the waxwork figures of Eden Musee as let her fame rest with “Peg”. Her admiration was for the innovators, like Alla Nazimova who introduced Ibsen’s plays to New York. “There was courage,” said Laurette, “courage of one who was willing and able to tread unknown paths.” Sarah Bernhardt was her idol. Playing a young man in “L’Aiglon” at the age of fifty-five with astounding success, triumphing in a dozen roles of every variety. “I studied Bernhardt,” said Lauette; “no, not studied her, I drank her in.”

There was no question in Laurette’s mind which course she was going to pursue in the theatre.

Laurette’s first meeting with the great French tragedienne was unpropitious. Bernhardt was playing scenes from her successes at the Palace Theatre in the spring of 1913. As a publicity stunt a high-powered press agent sought three prominent Broadway actresses to walk on with her in a scene from “Phedre”. Only Laurette and Marguerite Clark, then starring in “Prunella” accepted. A stenographer in the agent’s office was recruited at the last minute as the third “prominent actress”. The three women were pinned into ill-fitting robes over once-pink tights; wreathes of enormous pink roses were placed on their heads, and on their feet shapeless gilt sandals. Then they were taken to the great one’s dressing room. The ailing Bernhardt apparently had not even bothered to inquire as to the identity of the two young actresses or what they were playing in New York, but on meeting Laurette a spark of interest lit for a moment behind the curiously slanted, catlike eyes.

“Tragic actress?” she asked in English.

“No, madame. Comedienne.”

Bernhardt looked puzzled, muttered something in French, then swept her hand across Laurette’s eyes. “Non – non!” she said emphatically. “Tragique actress!”

The brief appearance of Phedre’s handmaidens was as near farcical as the costumes, but Laurette remembered only the matchless thrill of “walking on” with Bernhardt, the weight of those “divine bones” leaning on her arm as the procession slowly made its way to Phedre’s throne.

A week later Bernhardt sent word to the Cort that she would like to see Laurette’s play. Because of Madame’s daily matinees a special performance of “Peg” was arranged for eleven o’clock in the morning. A souvenir program was printed in French, an armchair placed in the aisle. At the sight of the chair Bernhardt had a tantrum, insisting on sitting in an aisle seat; there, bright-eyed and eager as a child she waited for the curtain to rise. Thus, for the immortal Sarah, Laurette played her immortal “Peg”.

At Bernhardt’s specific request not a line of publicity was given to the event. Over her signature had been issued a bewildering number of statements on everything from the health value of lemon juice before breakfast to the plight of the immigrant. Witnessing Laurette’s Peg the French actress seemed to touch bedrock in publicity quicksands. She wrote in an article syndicated all over the country:

One young artist in New York has not allowed herself to be blinded. She has worked hard and is still working, although she is already a very agreeable comedienne, possessing humor, emotion, and a rare thing for her age – power. I speak of Laurette Taylor who will become within five years the foremost actress of this country … All aspirants for the stage should take this young actress as their model.

Three years later, on another farewell tour, Bernhardt again asked to see Laurette play. This time she was grievously ill and, because of the ailing leg, forced to use a wheel chair. To permit her to retire backstage between acts, the two sets of “The Harp of Life” were moved from the Globe to the Empire where she was playing. The performance was given at one p.m. This time there was no embargo on press or public and the audience came by special invitation. It was one of the most brilliant professional assemblages in New York theatre history.

Due to difficulties in getting Madame’s wheel chair in and out of the box, prolonged retirements backstage to sip hot milk and rest, the second act was not finished until almost six o’clock. Bernhardt stayed in her place until the audience had left, then asked the company to play the last act. But there wasn’t time. She thanked the cast, patted Laurette’s cheek, and was wheeled off to prepare for her evening performance.

Asked what it was like to play for Bernhardt, Laurette said, “It was like playing to royalty and a little child.”

Bernhardt was Laurette’s lodestar, the great inspiration of her acting life. “But I could never be a Bernhardt,” she once said. “There just isn’t enough of me.”

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17 Responses to The Books: “Laurette. The Intimate Biography of Laurette Taylor By Her Daughter” (Marguerite Courtney)

  1. MrG says:

    Different era, different media, but possible shades of Mickey Rourke in the general story – if he manages a “comeback.” Which makes me think of this question for you – If Mickey Rourke was a stage actor and you could pick a play (pretending it was new)for his “comeback,” what would you choose?

    Its been a long time since I’ve seen Mickey Rourke’s work in any movies but all your posts about him made me think about it. I share you thoughts about his talent, his gift, for acting, but my recollection is that a “character attitude” always dominated “situation and circumstance,” leaving his work a little too general and/or lacking the specific, definite kind of action you might find in Brando’s work for example. I think about Brando saying a particular line for example, and there is a sound, a use of the language itself, complete with its own rythm, precise in its intention and implication. The attitude, or at times “coolness,” of the character was secondary, or just there. The action popped out in a way that was sharp. Whereas with Rourke, again that attitude or coolness seemed the prevalent driving force of his behavior, his speech was less specific, less active for example(or so I remember it as such). I could be completely wrong of course as I’m sure I watched those movies back then with a diffent eye than I might now. And you might be able to point me to some specific moments of his work that would completely change my thoughts on this. His personality and charisma always jumped out from the screen for sure. I just don’t recall the definite moments of “all my life in this single, simple, action” from him.

    Now how all this Mickey Rourke stuff just got placed under your post about Laurette, I just dont know. By the way, as usual, you told her story wonderfully and it would have been great to see that performance of Glass. All the Amanda Wingfields I’ve ever seen have been so “put on.”

  2. red says:

    MrG – yeah, I’ve seen a couple of Amandas and they are always weepy and self-pitying – which I think would have driven Tennessee nuts. If anyone is a survivor, it’s that woman – even with all her pretensions and delusions!!

    About Rourke – I think the “attitude” you speak of came about when he started getting lazy and bored with acting. The early 90s. But before that, I find him to be startlingly specific – in a way that only Brando was. There’s that great moment in Streetcar when Stanley is riffling through Blanche’s bag and bitching to Stella about what a scamartist Blanche is – and the two are having an argument. A less imaginative actor would have just played the bully, the put-upon tough guy – and yeah, Brando is playing that – but in the middle of that scene, Brando notices a little stray piece of fluff on Stella’s sweater, and impulsively, he reaches out and plucks it off, turning it around in his fingers … He doesn’t “make a moment” out of it – it’s just behavior … and it is SO REVEALING as to who Stanley is – and one of the reasons why Stella stayed with him. The gentleness of that gesture, the almost husbandly concern … It’s amazing – so many actors would never allow such a gentle moment in the middle of playing Stanley, know what I mean?

    I think Rourke in his work in the films in the 80s has that. Directors who work with him all give him the props for some of his best moments. There’s a moment in Angel Heart where he stands in the doorway of Charlotte Rampling’s apartment – she’s a psychic and he’s investigating a missing person … these two people do not know each other, but there’s a palpable sense of almost sexual tension between them. And he’s talking to her in the doorway, and it’s clear from her stance that it is time for him to go – but as he talks to her, he can’t help himself, he reaches out and moves a strand of her hair out of her eyes. It’s strangely intimate – disarming – I listened to the commentary on the DVD and Parker says, “That was all Rourke – I never told him to do anything …”

    I think he is able to get a lot of subtlety in what is, in general, a limited persona. I think most great actors are “limited”. Not everyone can play everything. John Wayne is great. The amount of versatility he is able to put into that set persona is amazing. Rourke is like that.

    Obviously I would love to see him play Stanley – he, of any actor working today, should play that part. I can see why he would stay away from it … but still, I would love to see it.

    I think he may be poised on the edge of the SECOND greatest theatrical comeback of all time (second only to Ms. Laurette!).

    Thanks, as always, for reading and commenting! What role would you like to see Rourke play?

    I’m thinking of Dr. John from Summer and Smoke, too … for some reason (maybe because of Laurette Taylor) my mind is going to Tennessee right now … I think Rourke would be a brilliant Dr. John.

  3. red says:

    Or Sam Shepard – I think he’d be great in a new Sam Shepard play.

  4. red says:

    He needs to play macho and tough, and he needs to play wounded. Not too many modern playwrights write material like that anymore.

  5. MrG says:

    Not that I’m crazy about the play but I could see him in Glengarry Glen Ross. Something by O’Neill…Moon for the Misbegotten? That would make me want to direct. Dr John would be interesting and probably as you say brilliant.
    In the right scenario I could even see him in a Chekhov. That could surprise people.

    I love your discription about the scene with Brando’s Stanley. I used to always go around saying “I have a friend who works in this business and I’m gonna have him make an appraisal of this.” (never knew the exact line I don’t think).

  6. red says:

    Wow, O’Neill – hadn’t thought of that. He has that whole Irish thing going on as well. In about 10 years, he could be a stupendous James Tyrone. The wounded patriarch, the failed actor, in denial about his pain.

    I want that to happen so bad all of a sudden!!

  7. MrG says:

    lol. You need to start raising the money for the production and get him onboard!

  8. red says:

    I know the bar where he hangs out.

    Let the stalking commence.

  9. MrG says:

    There you go! (And you might have to add a link to that comment from that new post about celebrity crushes!) Anyway, don’t be nervous when you appoach him…and keep a whisp of hair on your forehead, in your eyes…and you just happen to be carrying a copy of the script…it might work, it might work. We are all depending on you now!

  10. red says:

    I’m crazy enough that I might attempt this.

    Stay tuned.

  11. mary shelley carroll says:

    I stumbled upon your website, Sheila, and I was delighted to read your lengthy, loving essay on Laurette Taylor. Her daughter’s biography is one of my treasured reading experiences. I’ve lost count over the years. On December 26, 1944 I was 16 days old, having been born in Swedish Covenant Hospital in Chicago during a snow storm. I treasure that slim connection to the opening of the great “Glass Menagerie.” I wanted to mention something you write early on in your post about Laurette not being the typical, svelte, cosmoplitan sort of actress so in vogue in the 1920’s. Yet I remember reading, and I think it must be in the Courtenay bio, that Noel Coward modeled the family in “Hay Fever” on Laurette and Hartley’s famous weekend parties in their house on Riverside Drive. Coward was a frequent guest when he was in town, and took in all the shenanigans, including Laurette trying to pass off the young Margaret (daughter) as her younger sister, and that only if somehow the children came into view.

    Like so many actors, I too wish that I had seen her onstage. I loved reading about her early days, trooping around the country in those awful melodramas, playing Hawaiian girls being thrown into volcanos and such stuff. She honed her craft on these forgotten plays. I have seen a couple of productions of “Peg o’My Heart” and can only imagine what she must have brought to the role.

    Thank you, Ms. Sheila, for your wonderful website. I will be dipping in more and more.

  12. Patrick Shea says:

    I am curious whether Marguerite Taylor Courtney or Dwight Taylor’s offspring–

    the children of Laurette Taylor–ever respond about their famous grandmother

    or comment about their parents. I know Dwight Taylor lived to a very old age.

    What about Marguerite? Did any of the grandchildren see Laurette in ‘Menagerie’?

  13. sheila says:

    Patrick – I have not heard anything like that, but granted, I haven’t been looking. I’ll see if I can dig anything up.

  14. Patrick Shea says:

    I just saw that Miss Taylor’s great-grandaughter is an actress in LA.

    That was via Google.

    Also, in the fall of 2010, McFarland will publish “Laurette Taylor, American

    Stage Legend’ by Lynn Kear. Is it presumably the first biography since

    1955’s ‘Laurette’ by her daughter Marguerite Taylor Courtney?

  15. sheila says:

    Yes, I have corresponded a bit with Ms. Kear and am very much looking forward to the book.

  16. Greg LaLonde says:

    Hi Sheila. It’s 2015. Are you still interested in the history of Laurette Taylor?

    If so, I may have something(s) to add for you. Please let me know. Thanks.

  17. JArmen says:

    Eloise Sheldon was my mother-in-law. I asked her once if she could describe what made Laurette Taylor such a terrific actress. “She could BE anyone she wanted,” Eloise replied, her eyes lighting up. “It was magic.”

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