Cornell, Katharine (1893–1974)

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Cornell, Katharine (1893–1974)

American actress of extraordinary range who competed for the title "First Lady of the American Theater" and helped create its Golden Age, a period dominated almost exclusively by great actresses. Name variations: first name Katharine is often misspelled Katherine. Born Katharine Cornell in Berlin, Germany, on February 16, 1893 (and not in 1898 as she had previously claimed); died of pneumonia at her home in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts, on June 9, 1974; daughter of Peter C. Cornell (a physician who at one time managed the Majestic Theater in Buffalo, New York) and Alice Gardner Plimpton Cornell; educated in Buffalo schools and at Oakmere School in Mamaroneck, New York; married Guthrie McClintic, on September 8, 1921; no children.


Chancellor's Medal University of Buffalo (1935); Drama League Award for her performance as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (1935); gold medal of the National Achievement Award (1937); Jane Addams Medal Award, Rockford College (1950); Doctorate of Letters, Wisconsin University (1936), Elmira College, Hobart College, and the University of Pennsylvania (1937–39); Doctorate in Humane Letters, Smith College (1937); Doctorate in Literature, Cornell University (1937); Doctorate in Fine Arts, Clark University (1941), Ithaca College (1947), Princeton University (1948); Doctorate in Humane Letters, Middlebury College (1955).

Theater (unless otherwise noted, all appearances were in New York City): made debut with Washington Square Players in Bushido (November 13, 1916), also in The Death of Tintagiles, Plots and Playwrights, The Life of Man (1916–18); with the Jessie Bonstelle Stock Company in Buffalo and Detroit, appeared in The Gypsy Trail, Daybreak, Broken Threads, Fanny's First Play, Captain Kidd, Jr., Lilac Time, Cheating Cheaters (1918); toured in The Man Who Came Back (1918–19); made London debut as Jo in Little Women (November 10, 1919); appeared as Eileen Baxter-Jones in Nice People, as Sydney Fairfield in A Bill of Divorcement (1921), as Mary Fitton in Will Shakespeare (1923), as Laura Pennington in The Enchanted Cottage (1923), as Henriette in Casanova (1923), as Shirley Pride in The Way Things Happen (1924), as Lalage Sturdee in The Outsider (1924), as Suzanne Chaumont in Tiger Cats (1924); played the title role in Candida (1924), Iris Fenwick in The Green Hat (1925), Leslie Crosbie in The Letter (1927), Ellen Olenska in The Age of Innocence (1928), Madeline Carey in Dishonored Lady, Elizabeth Barrett Browning in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1931); appeared in the title role in Lucrece, as Elsa Brandt in Alien Corn (1933); toured as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (1933–34); appeared as Juliet in New York (December 1934); revived The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1935); appeared as Joan of Arc in Saint Joan (1936), as Oparre in Wingless Victory (1936), as Mariamne in Herod and Mariamne (1938), as Linda Easterbrook in No Time for Comedy (1939), as Jennifer Dubedat in The Doctor's Dilemma (1941), as Masha in The Three Sisters (1942), as Stella Boswell in Lovers and Friends (1943); toured overseas in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1944), ending tour in New York (March 1945); appeared in title role in Antigone (1946), as Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra (1947), as Anna de Mendoza in That Lady (1949); toured as Smilja Darde in Captain Carvallo (1950); appeared as Constance Middleton in The Constant Wife (1951), as Mary Prescott in The Prescott Proposals (1953), as The Countess Rosmarin in The Dark is Light Enough (1955), as Mrs. Patrick Campbell in Dear Liar (1959–60); retired (1961).

Katharine Cornell was born on February 16, 1893, in Berlin, Germany, where her father Peter Cortelyou Cornell was a post-graduate medical student studying surgery. Her mother Alice Cornell , a depressed alcoholic, died when Katharine was 22. A few years after returning to

the U.S., Peter Cornell became part owner and manager of the Star Theater in Buffalo, New York, where Katharine grew up. Her childhood appears to have been a somewhat unhappy one, and in later years she admitted to being shy, introverted, and essentially fearful, very much afraid of being hurt. Nevertheless, the theatrical world to which she was introduced through her father's second profession fascinated her from her earliest years, and she found refuge in the production of amateur theatricals and school plays. At her father's theater, she was able to see the greatest stars of the day, and, by her own account, it was from watching a performance of Maude Adams as Peter Pan, that she decided that the theater was to be her life.

The First Lady of the American Theater.

—Alexander Woolcott

At age 15, Katharine Cornell was sent to Miss Merrill's School in Mamaroneck, New York, where she studied dramatic arts, returning there to teach for the school year 1915–16. On one occasion, Edward Goodman of the Washington Square Players, a semi-professional theatrical company staging plays in Greenwich Village, came up to Mamaroneck from New York City to help in the direction of a play that Cornell had written, and he suggested that she audition for the Players on her next trip to the city. Unfortunately, Cornell's mother died shortly before her scheduled tryout, and Cornell was so overwhelmed with stage fright that she virtually lost her voice and failed to make an impression. A few months later, however, she was given one line ("My son, my son") as a mother in a Japanese Noh drama entitled Bushido. Thereafter, Katharine Cornell remained with the Washington Square Players for two years earning the pathetic sum of $40 throughout that time, otherwise supporting herself with the income from a small estate left by her mother. In 1917, she was given a part in the play Plots and Playwrights for which she obtained her first notice, a critic observing "there is a new girl who stands out—Katharine Cornell. … A tall girl with a fine strong head, broadly spread eyes and full mouth—mentality, physical control and simplicity." From the Washington Square players, Cornell went on to the Jessie Bonstelle Stock Company in Chicago, where she honed her craft in a variety of roles in widely different productions. She then toured with The Man Who Came Back, which was taken to London. This vehicle turned out to be Cornell's London debut and farewell performance at one and the same time, for, even though she regularly vacationed in Europe, she never performed there again.

The decisive point in Cornell's career came in 1921, when the young casting director, Guthrie McClintic, saw her during the casting of Rachel Crother 's play, Nice People, and wrote in his notebook: "Interesting. Monotonous. Watch." On September 8th, the two were married and remained so until his death 40 years later. From the time of their marriage onwards, McClintic took charge of his wife's career, aiding her in her selection of vehicles, directing her in all of them from The Green Hat onwards, and encouraging her to reach greater heights as an actress. On her part, Cornell never hesitated to give her husband full credit for all that she had achieved:

If not for Guthrie, I think that I would have continued just drifting. … He wanted to be an actor and my career was a sublimation of his desire, because he could pour his talents through me and that was a great advantage to me. … I continued in the theater buoyed up mostly by his enthusiasm for it. He was one of those people who fascinated you always. You were never bored; sometimes upset, but never bored.

Though less than a Svengali, McClintic dominated his wife's professional life, and it seems certain that their marriage was an unusual one, perhaps even asexual. McClintic was known to be bisexual, and, in his book The Sewing Circle, Axel Madsen openly cites Cornell as being gay. Nevertheless, there seems to be no doubt that the two were devoted to one another. Early in their marriage they rented, then purchased, a large house in Manhattan on Beekman Place, which they gradually furnished largely with pieces selected from the productions in which Cornell appeared. Vastly different in both temperament and habits, Cornell arranged for the third floor of their home to be exclusively hers; the fourth, exclusively her husband's, the lower floors open to both. An unusual arrangement for an unusual marriage but for the McClintics it worked for those 40 years. Later they acquired a summer home at Vineyard Haven on Martha's Vineyard Island, Massachusetts. When Guthrie McClintic died, Katharine Cornell, unwilling to continue her career without him, simply retired.

A few weeks after their marriage, Katharine Cornell opened in New York in A Bill of Divorcement, a play by the British author Clemence Dane that made her a star and that, adapted as a film in 1931, would do the same for Katharine Hepburn . Alexander Woolcott, drama critic for The New York Times, was highly laudatory about the play and called Cornell's performance "superb." It was his review that largely guaranteed the success of the production, which thus gave Cornell a lengthy run and time to impress the public. A Bill of Divorcement was followed by Will Shakespeare, another play by Dane, with Otto Kruger in the title role, Haidée Wright as Queen Elizabeth, and Cornell as the "Dark Lady of the Sonnets." Though less successful than A Bill of Divorcement, once again, her reviews were excellent. The same year, she opened in The Enchanted Cottage, a sentimental melodrama by the veteran English playwright Arthur Wing Pinero. Cornell then appeared as Henriette in Casanova. John Corbin's review of her performance in The New York Times was typical of the notices that Cornell was now receiving as a matter of course: "Katharine Cornell suffuses her scenes with the lure of feminine sensibility and courageous adventure." Kenneth Macgowan wrote in Vogue: "Miss Cornell's is a finished art, characteristic of everything she has ever done and filled with rich potentialities of the future."

In January 1924, Cornell appeared in her first play produced by McClintic, The Way Things Happen, again, a work by Dane. Critic Burns Mantle wrote in the New York News: "Katharine Cornell seems to have the certain subtle something that makes great actresses. … [E]xternally, at least, she is not at all the actressy type. And yet she has more of the Duse quality than any of the other younger women of the stage." The Way Things Happen was followed by The Outsider and Tiger Cats, but it was not until she appeared in the title role of George Bernard Shaw's Candida, with Pedro de Cordoba and Clare Eames , that Cornell experienced her first theatrical triumph. Typical was the review of H.T. Parker in the Boston Transcript: "Candida was Miss Katharine Cornell, who achieved the part by mental and spiritual sensibility, gave it limpid outlet; poeticized along the way; filled it with a nervous or a tranquil beauty. Beyond Mr. Shaw was it transfigured." Even Shaw himself was captivated, if only by Cornell's original kind of beauty:

Your success in Candida and something blonde and expansive about your name, had created an ideal suburban British Candida in my imagination. Fancy my feeling on seeing in the photograph a gorgeous dark lady from the cradle of the human race! … If you look like that, it doesn't matter a rap whether you can act or not. Can you? Yours, breath-bereaved,—G. Bernard Shaw.

On September 15, 1925, Cornell opened as Iris March in the New York production of Michael Arlen's The Green Hat, a play that had been a sensation in London where Tallulah Bankhead had created the role. Essentially a shallow depiction of a "modern" young woman of the day and her various difficulties, the play captured the imagination of the public, being a clear expression of the spirit of the era. For the first time, at age 32, Katharine Cornell saw her name up on the marquee.

Katharine Cornell's triumph in The Green Hat was followed by her success as Leslie Crosbie in Somerset Maugham's The Letter, a play that Gladys Cooper had made a success in London and which would be one of the roles confirming Bette Davis as a serious actress when she starred in the film version in 1940. Cornell then appeared in a dramatization of Edith Wharton 's 1919 novel of the New York high society of her youth, The Age of Innocence, with a young Franchot Tone as the hero Newland Archer, and then in Dishonored Lady (1930), another critical and popular success.

From 1931 onwards, Katharine Cornell appeared only under her own management. That year, with the Great Depression in full swing, she and McClintic established their own production association called "Katharine Cornell Presents." Disliking the star system, so ubiquitous in the theater of her youth and still somewhat entrenched in the 1930s, Cornell was content to have her name in the heading as presenter and otherwise placed her name at the bottom of the cast list in the program and other advertisements for the play. The McClintic's first joint production turned out to be one of Cornell's greatest successes, The Barretts of Wimpole Street by Rudolf Besier, which opened at the old Empire Theater on February 9, 1931. On its surface, the drama seems less than arresting. The story details how poet Robert Browning entered into a correspondence with poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and, upon meeting her, discovers a 39-year-old unmarried invalid dominated by her father. The two fall in love, and Robert convinces Elizabeth to shake off her father's yoke and run away with him to Italy. As played by Cornell and her co-star Brian Aherne, however, the play took on a far richer texture and a deeper meaning. In his review of the play, Brooks Atkinson, drama critic for The New York Times and a lifelong admirer of Cornell's work, wrote:

[This play] introduces us to Katharine Cornell as an actress of the first order. Here the disciplined fury that she has been squandering on catch-penny plays becomes the vibrant beauty of finely-wrought character. By the crescendo of her playing, by the wild sensitivity that lurks behind her ardent gestures and her piercing stares across the footlights she charges the drama with a meaning beyond the facts it records. Her acting is quite as remarkable for the carefulness of its design as for the fire of her presence.

The Barretts of Wimpole Street ran for a year on Broadway after which Cornell followed with Lucrece, a translation of a French drama set in ancient Rome, in which she appeared with Pedro de Cordoba, Brian Aherne and Blanche Yurka ; and next with Alien Corn, with Luther Adler. It was then that she undertook her famous and near legendary touring production of The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1933–34). Gathering a company of first-rate actors, including Basil Rathbone and an 18-year-old Orson Welles, and alternating the play with Candida and Romeo and Juliet, Cornell embarked on a grand tour of America, traveling 20,853 miles across the country and giving 225 performances in 77 cities. On this tour, in spite of the Depression, the competition from radio, and the increasingly sophisticated talking films, Cornell played to packed theaters and showed that the "road" was still a viable theatrical medium.

Returning to New York in December 1934, Katharine Cornell assayed the role of Juliet, thereby attempting to rank herself among the great classical actresses of her day, Ellen Terry, Sybil Thorndike, Edith Evans , and Peggy Ashcroft . The great problem of portraying this most beautiful and poignant of Shakespeare's heroines has always been that by the time an actress becomes mature enough in her craft to attempt it, she is usually too old to play the role convincingly. This is what defeated Ethel Barrymore in 1919, and it was her relative youth that enabled Jane Cowl to enjoy a greater success in the part the same year. Yet, Katharine Cornell, at 41, had not only reached the stage of her career when she could master the role, but was one of those rare actresses who was able to capture the youthfulness of the part in a thoroughly convincing manner. In the words of critic John Mason Brown:

Of all the Juliets we have seen, Cornell's is the only one that satisfactorily embodies the descriptions of Juliet's movements as given in the script. Her "fair daughter of rich Capulet" may be adult in form but she is young in motion and in heart. She literally runs … with her arms outstretched to love. As she glides, free-limbed and lovely, across the stage, one feels instinctively the young girl Shakespeare saw in his Poet's mind come to life.

The Cornell Juliet was followed by Flowers of the Forest, a modern play by John Van Druten that was one of Cornell's few unqualified failures; it ran but five weeks. She returned, however, to critical acclaim with a revival of Romeo and Juliet followed by her success in St. Joan by George Bernard Shaw, which opened at the Martin Beck Theater on March 9, 1936. Directed, as usual, by McClintic, it became one of Cornell's greatest triumphs. Once again, she was credited for her remarkable ability to portray the innocence and vibrancy of youth as easily as if they were costumes to be donned or doffed with each performance of the play. Presenting the very blend of modesty and assurance that Shaw's text required, she was a radiant village girl at the opening of the play but one who matures, scene by scene, to the brink of sainthood at the drama's close. Shaw's play, perhaps his best work, was wonderfully served in this production.

In the years that followed, Katharine Cornell continued to add to her list of great performances, appearing successfully in Maxwell Anderson's Wingless Victory, which ran for 108 performances (1936–37), a revival of Candida (1937), Clemence Dane's adaptation of a German play Herod and Mariamne (1937), S.N. Behrman's No Time For Comedy (1939), which she performed for 24 weeks in New York and on a tour of 56 cities for the rest of the season of 1940. Returning to New York, she next starred in a revival of Shaw's comedy The Doctor's Dilemma. Now at the height of her career, Katharine Cornell sallied forth into Chekhov with her famous all-star production of The Three Sisters (December 1942), with herself as Masha and Judith Anderson as Olga. After a brief appearance as Stella Boswell in Lovers and Friends (November 1943), she went on an overseas tour, daring to entertain soldiers with The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1944)—and succeeding—on a trip that did not end until her return to New York in March 1945. After the war, she appeared in the title role of Jean Anouilh's Antigone (1946), an adaptation of Sophocles' Greek tragedy staged in modern dress as it had been in Paris during the war, where Antigone's struggle against the tyrant was read (as its author intended) as the struggle of the French against the German occupation. This was followed by another revival of Candida again in April of the same year, with a young Marlon Brando as Marchbanks.

In 1947, Cornell returned to Shakespeare—at age 54—boldly attempting the part of Shakespeare's Cleopatra VII in Antony and Cleopatra, a role that had sunk Tallulah Bankhead a decade before, and in which both Julia Marlowe and Jane Cowl were widely considered to have failed. A rambling and disjointed piece of dramaturgy, far-ranging in scope and uncannily varied in mood, it is a devilishly difficult play to interpret on the stage but one which, as magnificent in conception as it is in its verse, has consistently drawn great actresses to its challenge. Under McClintic's direction, Cornell achieved yet another triumph. Again, in the words of John Mason Brown:

No actress playing Cleopatra can hope to realize in every scene the various Cleopatras that Shakespeare wrote. To be wanton and witty, lustful and regal, mischievous and sublime as the part demands that Cleopatra must be, is to ask the impossible away from the printed page. Yet Cornell succeeds in being all these things to an amazing degree. … Vocally and in her person, she captures nearly all the changing moods of the chameleon. … [S]he looks her loveliest. She walks with a panther's grace. And she dies magnificently.

Cornell's production of Antony and Cleopatra broke all previous records for the run of the play. It was followed by Cornell's appearance as Anna de Mendoza in That Lady (1949); and on tour as Smilja Darde in Captain Carvallo (1950).

In 1951, Cornell opened in a notable revival of Somerset Maugham's 1928 comedy The Constant Wife with George Brent as her co-star and with the role of her mother played by the esteemed Grace George , who had been one of the great beauties of the New York stage at the turn of the century. Cornell then appeared as Mary Prescott in The Prescott Proposals (1953) and as the Countess Rosmarin in Christopher Fry's The Dark is Light Enough (1955). In 1959 and 1960, Cornell starred as Mrs. Patrick Campbell both on tour and in New York, in Dear Liar, a dramatization of the platonic affair between the English actress Stella Campbell and the Anglo-Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. This was Cornell's last appearance on the stage.

A dedicated actress, Katharine Cornell, alone among her contemporaries, took the responsibilities of "the road" seriously and did more than any other actress to raise the standards of provincial audiences across America, in an era when theater had largely given way to the motion picture everywhere outside of the very largest cities in the country. Audiences, for their part, responded with the same warmth to her personality as to her presentations. Once, in Seattle, when her train was delayed due to flood conditions, a capacity audience waited for her arrival until the curtain finally rose at 1:05 am.

As an artist, Katharine Cornell had the utmost respect of her peers: "She elevated theater throughout the world," claimed The American National Theater and Academy. Far from surrounding herself with mediocrities in order to enhance her own impression on an audience—a not uncommon practice among stage stars of an earlier era and some of her own—Cornell sought only the finest players for her productions and never had trouble inducing them to work with her. Thus, during the 30 years under her own management, she appeared with most of the significant actors of the New York and London stages: Aherne, Judith Anderson, Dudley Digges, Clare Eames, Edith Evans, Maurice Evans, Grace George, Margalo Gilmore, Ruth Gordon , Edmund Gwenn, Ann Harding , Cedric Hardwicke, Leslie Howard, Raymond Massey, Burgess Meredith, Philip Merivale, Mildred Natwick , Laurence Olivier, Tyrone Power, Basil Rathbone, Florence Reed , Ralph Richardson, Franchot Tone, and Orson Welles—a veritable who's who of the theater of the period. Critics, too, held her in the highest regard: "Something electric happened when she stepped on stage," wrote Atkinson.

A lady of the theater to her fingertips, Katharine Cornell never made a motion picture, save for a brief appearance as herself in the all-star Stage Door Canteen, asserting that nothing could replace the intimacy of a theater audience, a decision that ultimately deprived her of the international recognition that she assuredly deserved. She did, however, appear on radio from time to time, where she was able to utilize the richness of her deep voice to full advantage. Again, despite her success in London as early as 1919, Cornell never returned to the English stage, so that of all the great American actresses of her day, she was the least known to British audiences.

In her appearance, Katharine Cornell was a woman of unusual features and, as a child, considered herself to be "terribly ugly" to the point that she avoided contact with children of her own age. Her cheekbones were high and protruding, her mouth overly large and full, and her eyes too big for her face and set far apart. Yet, while not a beauty in the conventional sense, she was nevertheless a remarkably handsome woman and, like all great actresses, could command beauty when the part required it. Over and over again, critics cited her striking looks and how they never failed to enrich her interpretation of a role. An athletic woman, she played tennis and golf and enjoyed traveling and vacationing in Europe, but her off-stage personality, like that of many performing artists (e.g. Greta Garbo , with whom she was often compared) tended to be rather bland, and she was always difficult to write about. In the words of her biographer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tad Mosel, "There were no anecdotes, no funny stories, no crazy peccadillos, no Bohemian whims … and those who bore grudges against her could not be found." Her greatest fault was perhaps a lack of real ambition. That she became one of the first ladies of the American theater is certain, but that she ever intended this to be the case is far less so. If she assayed many great roles—Candida, Juliet, Cleopatra, for example—there were just as many that she never approached and should have—Lady Macbeth, Hedda Gabler, and Nora in A Doll's House. Towards the end of her career, she tended to repeat herself in earlier triumphs, and her last plays were unworthy of her genius.

In her later years, the career of Katharine Cornell faltered. Something seemed to have gone out of her acting, and audiences found her performances less magnetic. Her last three productions were received with reservation, and after the death of her husband in 1961, she ceased to perform. Her natural shyness, her stage fright, and the burdens of managing her own career appeared too daunting for her without McClintic by her side. Thereafter, she spent the last 13 years of her life in retirement at her summer home on Martha's Vineyard or in a small house that she kept in New York. Katharine Cornell died of pneumonia at her home in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts, at age 81, and was cremated in Boston. A memorial service was held in the 300-year-old Association Hall, the former Vineyard Haven Town Hall that she had helped restore.


Brown, John Mason. Dramatis Personae. NY: Viking Press, 1963.

Cornell, Katharine. I Wanted to Be an Actress. 2nd ed. NY: Random House, 1941.

Herbert, Ian, ed. Who's Who in the Theater. 16th ed. NY: Pitman.

Madsen, Axel. The Sewing Circle. NY: Birchlane Press, 1995.

Mosel, Tad, with Gertrude Macy. The World and Theater of Katharine Cornell. Boston, MA: Atlantic-Little Brown, 1978.

suggested reading:

Cornell, Katharine. Curtain Going Up. New York, 1943.

McClintic, Guthrie. Me and Kit. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1955.

Robert H. Hewsen , Professor of History, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey

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Cornell, Katharine (1893–1974)

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