(b. 30 August 1898 in New York City; d. 16 October 1992 in Chatham, Massachusetts), stage, film, and television actress known for her character parts, whose work won a number of awards, including Tonys, Emmys, and an Academy Award.
Booth was born Thelma Booth Ford, one of two daughters to Albert James Ford, an executive with International Business Machines Corporation, and Virginia Wright, a home-maker. Shortly after her birth, the family moved from Manhattan to the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, New York. Her first public appearance was at age three when she sang “In the Good Old Summertime” in a Sunday school show. In Public School 152 in Brooklyn she amused her classmates with her imitations of the teacher. When her composition “Autobiography of a Thanksgiving Turkey” was chosen for her to read aloud to the student body, the shy child rose to the occasion.
When Booth was seven, the family moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where they lived at a residential hotel. Another resident, J. Hammond Daly, an actor employed by a local stock company, befriended the family. Some years later after the family had moved to Hartford, Connecticut, they met again. Daly was still playing in stock and Booth asked him if there were any parts for her. Although Mr. Ford disapproved of acting and his daughter’s interest in the stage, he agreed that Daly would introduce his daughter to the company manager. Booth suffered no stage fright, only, as expressed in her Life magazine interview with Robert Coughlan, “delight and a sense of freedom.”
After a summer of playing stock, she returned home but the following summer rejoined the stock company. Finally, against her father’s wishes she moved to New York City, seeking a stage career. She was not fourteen, as she claimed, but twenty-three when she got a job as an ingenue, for $35 a week, with the Poli stock company and was assigned to a unit playing in New Haven, Connecticut. Her father forbade her to use his name, so she changed her name from Thelma, which she had never liked, to Shirley, and dropped the Ford. For the next ten years she traveled with Poli and other stock companies, alternating stock with occasional New York runs, most of them brief. Stock was her “bread and butter.” She worked in more than 600 different plays, ranging from The Wild Duck to Little Old New York, in a variety of roles. Her favorite part was Sadie Thompson in Rain. Booth learned to memorize quickly because there was a new play every week, a new musical every fourth week, and four to five matinees and six evening performances each week. Booth also became a close observer of people, learning a variety of gestures, expressions, and mannerisms to flesh out the characters she was playing.
In 1925 she debuted on Broadway as the ingenue in Hell’s Bells, playing opposite another future star, Humphrey Bogart. The play ran for four months. Other short runs on Broadway followed, including Buy, Buy Baby (1926), High Gear (1927), and The War Song (1928).
On 23 November 1929 Booth married Eddie Poggen-burg, who changed his name to Gardner. Gardner produced a show, starring Booth, of skits based on the short stories of Dorothy Parker. In 1934 the director George Abbott saw Booth in a performance and when he was casting for Three Men on a Horse (1935), he remembered her as being perfect for the part of Mabel, a gangster’s “moll” with a horribly “refined” Brooklyn accent. This substantial part served as Booth’s big break and established her as an up-and-coming actress.
The play ran two years and Booth got excellent reviews. She left stock and devoted herself to Broadway. Her next role was in Excursion (1937). A string of long-playing hits followed, including Too Many Heroes (1937) and The Philadelphia Story (1939). Booth’s portrayal of Liz Imbrie, the photographer in The Philadelphia Story, earned praise from the critics and the star, Katharine Hepburn. The following year she played a writer in My Sister Eileen (1940). Reluctant to be typecast as a comedian, Booth turned down a comedy part to try out for the serious anti-Nazi drama Tomorrow the World (1943). The producer, Theron Bamberger, was concerned that the public would associate her with comedy and laugh. Booth said, as recalled in a 1953 Time magazine article, “Don’t worry. Getting laughs isn’t quite that easy.” In the play, costarring Ralph Bellamy, Booth portrayed a teacher combating fascism. It ran for two years with 499 performances and was a notable financial success.
Booth was not only starring on Broadway, she was also on radio, playing the part of Miss Duffy on Duffy’s Tavern. The show was created by her husband, who played Archie, the manager. Gardner wrote the part of Miss Duffy, a sharp-tongued woman with a classic Brooklyn accent, for Booth who played it from 1941 to 1943. When she and Gardner divorced in 1942, she finished the season. Her departure was a serious loss to the show, and Gardner mounted a nationwide search for her replacement. In a number of guest appearances on other radio shows, Booth used her “Miss Duffy” voice, playing different characters.
Booth married William H. Baker, Jr., formerly an investment broker, on 24 September 1943. Following World War II, they moved to a dairy farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and Booth temporarily retired from the theater. Baker died in 1951. There were no children from either marriage.
Booth’s first musical was Hollywood Pinafore (1945), playing the part of a gossip columnist named Louhedda Hopsons (a sly reference to Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons). One of her songs was “Little Miss Butter-up,” George Kaufman’s version of the Gilbert and Sullivan “Buttercup” classic. In 1949 Booth received her first Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for best feminine supporting role in Goodbye, My Fancy. Living on her farm in Pennsylvania, she commuted to Broadway to play the acidtongued congresswoman’s secretary. She invariably got more laughs than the star, played by Madeleine Carroll.
However, the role that most people associate with Shirley Booth is that of Lola Delaney, the frumpy housewife of an alcoholic husband in William Inge’s domestic tragedy Come Back, Little Sheba (1950). Initially, Booth did not want the part. When Lawrence Langner of the Theatre Guild showed her a draft of the play, she read it and liked it, but said it wasn’t for her. She wanted something “lighter.” Langner persisted, and persuaded her to try the part. The play opened 15 February 1950 on Broadway. From this moment, after 3,500 performances in twenty-two different Broadway plays, Booth was finally a major star. After the final curtain went down opening night, Booth made the traditional visit to Sardi’s restaurant to await the reviews. When she walked in the crowd gave her a standing ovation, and the unsuspecting Booth looked behind her, curious to see who was being applauded. Her performance, opposite Sidney Blackmer as Doc, resulted in a Tony for best actress and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award.
Following her favorite dictum—“An actress should make you forget everything she has done before”—Booth took a secondary role in her next play, the musical A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1951). Her husband died suddenly while the show was in production, but Booth only missed two rehearsals and went back to work in the best tradition of the theater: the show must go on. When A Tree Grows in Brooklyn opened, Booth, playing the free-spirited Aunt Sissy, stopped the show with her rowdy number “Love Is the Reason.” Critic John Mason Brown in the Saturday Review of Literature (1951) said Booth woke up the show and “her Sissy is among the best things she has done.” She won Billboard’s award for the best female performance in a musical.
After much speculation as to who would play Lola in the film version of Come Back, Little Sheba (1952), the assignment was given to Booth. She did not expect the role, since she had previously been passed over for the film versions of Three Men on a Horse, My Sister Eileen, and The Philadelphia Story, and filmmakers were reportedly suggesting Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, or Judy Holliday. Playing Lola on film required some changes of Booth, to keep her in tune with the younger Doc of Burt Lancaster. The film was shot in one month, and her performance earned a number of awards, including an Academy Award and the best actress honors from the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the Cannes International Film Festival.
Booth returned to Broadway, starring as Leona Samish, the lonely spinster in Arthur Laurents’s The Time of the Cuckoo (1952). For the first time her name stood alone on the marquee of the theatre. The title of the play was not there; the marquee of the Empire Theatre simply said Shirley Booth. She won another Tony for this role, although she was never happy with the part of a woman who felt sorry for herself. In an interview in Cosmopolitan she remarked, “I had to fight myself to play her.” Self-pity was never her style. When Hollywood offered her the role for the film, which became Summertime (1955), Booth turned down the part, and Katharine Hepburn took it. From 1953 to 1961 Booth played a number of roles to high critical praise, although the plays themselves were not so well regarded. Although Booth never saw herself as a Hollywood star, she did other films, including About Mrs. Leslie (1954) with Robert Ryan, Hot Spell (1958), and The Matchmaker (1958), playing Dolly Levi. In 1961 she disappointed many of her peers by “defecting” to television, signing a five year contract to play a housemaid, Hazel Burke, on a weekly show of the same name. Hazel was based on the Saturday Evening Post cartoon character created by Ted Key. The character was outspoken and sassy. Booth added the elements of warmth and lightheartedness to the character. Almost from the start it topped the Nielsen ratings. For this show (1961–1966), she received a number of awards, including Emmys in 1962 and 1963.
When the series ended, Booth starred in a television adaptation of The Glass Menagerie (1966), winning another Emmy for her portrayal of Amanda Wingfield. By 1970 she was back on Broadway in the musical Look to the Lilies and a revival of Noël Coward’s Hay Fever. Neither play was a financial or a critical success. In the spring of 1973 Booth shot a half season of episodes for a television comedy A Touch of Grace, playing a perky widow who had moved in with her daughter and son-in-law, but the show was cancelled. She retired after the series folded to her 1810 home on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, living the rest of her life in relative seclusion. Always a private person, Booth once said, “I save my exuberance for the stage.” Booth died in her home from a stroke.
Although Booth acted in film and on television, most of her professional life was devoted to the stage. She appeared in more than forty Broadway plays, equally at home in drama and comedy. Critics continually remarked on her versatility. During the 1950s she was described as the “Queen of the American Theatre,” and in 1953 she appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Booth brought to her roles enormous talent, great technique, warmth, and honesty.
Booth’s scrapbooks and photographs are in the Museum of the City of New York. A lengthy article by Katherine Laris is in Notable Women in the American Theatre: A Biographical Dictionary (1989). Periodical articles include John Mason Brown, “Shirley Booth in the Rescue,” Saturday Review of Literature (5 May 1951): 23-24; “Actress,” The New Yorker (19 May 1951); Harry Gilroy, “Hollywood Can’t Change Shirley Booth,” New York Times Magazine (27 Apr. 1952); Robert Coughlan, “New Queen of the Drama,” Life (1 Dec. 1952); Jay Kaye, “Shirley Booth: Broadway’s Choice,” Coronet (Dec. 1953): 48-51; “The Trooper,” Time (10 Aug. 1953); Jon Whitcomb, “Shirley Booth,” Cosmopolitan (Sept. 1958); and Thomas Congdon, “At Home with ‘Hazel’,” Saturday Evening Post (22 Sept. 1962). Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times (both 21 Oct. 1992), and London Independent (22 Oct. 1992). A tribute, “Maid to Order,” is in People Weekly (2 Nov. 1992).
Marcia B. Dinneen