Nesbitt, Cathleen (1888–1982)

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Nesbitt, Cathleen (1888–1982)

British-born actress. Born Cathleen Mary Nesbitt on November 24, 1888, in Cheshire, England; died on August 2, 1982, at her home in London; only daughter and one of the four children of Thomas Nesbitt (a captain in the Royal Navy) and Mary Catherine (Parry) Nesbitt; Queen's University, Belfast, Ireland, B.A.; also studied at Lisieux and at the Sorbonne, Paris; married Cecil Beresford Ramage (a lawyer), in November 1922; children: son Mark and daughter Jennifer.

Selected theater:

made London debut as Angele in The Cabinet Minister (1910); joined the Irish Players (1911); made New York debut as Molly Byrne in The Well of the Saints (with the Irish Players, December 1911); appeared as Deirdre in Deirdre of the Sorrows (London, 1913), Phoebe Throssell in Quality Street (London, 1913), in the title role in Duchess of Malfi (1919), as Belvidera in Venice Preserv'd (1920), Mona in Spring Cleaning (1925), Margaret Fairfield in A Bill of Divorcement (1929), Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew (1935), Thérèse Raquin in Thou Shalt Not…(1938), Queen Gertrude in Hamlet, Queen of France in Henry V, and Lady Loddon in Libel (all on tour with the Old Vic, 1939), Goneril in King Lear (1940), Julia Shuttlethwaite in The Cocktail Party (New York, 1950), Countess Gemini in Portrait of a Lady (1954), Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady (New York, 1956), the Grand Duchess in The Sleeping Prince (New York, 1956), Lady Headleigh in The Claimant (London, 1964), Madame Voynitsky in Uncle Vanya (New York, 1973).

Selected filmography:

The Frightened Lady (Criminal at Large, 1932); The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935); The Beloved Vagabond (1936); Gaslight (Angel Street, 1940); Fanny by Gaslight (Man of Evil, 1940); The Agitator (1945); Jassy (1947); Nicholas Nickleby (1947); Madness of the Heart (1949); So Long at the Fair (1950); Three Coins in the Fountain (1954); Black Widow (1954); Desiree (1954); An Affair to Remember (1957); Separate Tables (1958); The Parent Trap (1961); Promise Her Anything (1966); The Trygon Factor (1967); Staircase (1969); Villain (1971); French Connection II (1975); Family Plot (1976); Full Circle (1977); Julia (1977).

In a career that spanned seven decades, British-born actress Cathleen Nesbitt delighted audiences in England and America in hundreds of plays, ranging from the classics to musicals, and including both serious and comic roles. She played with the prestigious Irish Players, the Abbey Theater, and the Old Vic, and appeared in films and on American television. Blessed with a strong constitution that allowed her to work well past retirement age, Nesbitt reprised her role as Mrs. Higgins in a revival of My Fair Lady when she was in her 90s.

Nesbitt was born in 1888 in Cheshire, England, the only girl in a family of boys. (One of her brothers, Thomas Nesbitt, was also an actor; her other two brothers would be killed during World War I.) Nesbitt was well educated, receiving her B.A. at Queen's University in Belfast and also studying at the Sorbonne in Paris. She was encouraged in her dramatic studies by both Sarah Bernhardt and by the Irish playwright Lady Augusta Gregory , who invited her to join the Irish Players not long after Nesbitt had made her London debut in The Cabinet Minister (1910). It was with the Irish Players that Nesbitt first came to New York, debuting on Broadway as Molly Byrne in The Well of the Saints (1911). She also appeared in the American première of John Millington Synge's bitter Irish comedy The Playboy of the Western World (1911), during which a group of Irish patriots rioted, hurling fruits and vegetables at the actors.

Returning to Dublin, Nesbitt enjoyed a busy but less violent stint with the Abbey Theater, and in 1913 acted six leading roles on the London stage, including Deirdre in Deirdre of the Sorrows and Phoebe Throssell in Quality Street. In 1916, she was back on Broadway playing Ruth Honeywill in Justice, opposite John Barrymore, one of her most successful roles.

During World War I, Nesbitt served as a censor and an interpreter while continuing to perform. Following a crammed 1917–18 theatrical season in London, she toured the United States in General Post, then returned to Broadway to appear in The Saving Grace. Her career continued to hum along during the decades of the 1920s and 1930s, although following her marriage to lawyer Cecil Beresford Ramage in 1922, and the arrival of two children, her appearances in America tapered off.

After an absence of over 20 years, Nesbitt returned to Broadway in 1950, in T.S. Eliot's verse drama The Cocktail Party. While the critics found her portrayal of the meddlesome guest Julia Shuttlethwaite delightful, Nesbitt told interviewers that she did not understand the character at all, a confidence she also shared with the playwright. Always gracious, however, she was quick to add that she enjoyed the role "as a technical exercise." Nesbitt stayed on in New York for the 1951–52 season, playing the worldly-wise great-aunt in Gigi (1951), opposite Audrey Hepburn , and the Long Island society matron in Sabrina Fair, with Margaret Sullavan and Joseph Cotten. Her performance garnered more praise from The New York Times' critic, Brooks Atkinson: "Cathleen Nesbitt plays the rich mother of the Larrabee boys with a graciousness that is never formal and a humor that is kindly and urbane."

In the winter of 1954, Nesbitt played the acerbic Countess Gemini in the ill-fated Portrait of a Lady, William Archibald's dramatization of the Henry James novel. "Whenever Miss Nesbitt…appeared, the play suddenly came to unexpected, though brief life," wrote Richard Watts, Jr. in the New York Post. Walter Kerr of the Herald Tribune also credited Nesbitt with providing the play's high points, calling her "the only performer to bring any sense of wit, or of pointed social meaning, to the well-intentioned venture." Nesbitt enjoyed a longer run when she joined the cast of My Fair Lady (1956) as Professor Higgins' mother, a role that Atkinson noted she carried off with "grace and elegance," words frequently used to characterize the actress herself.

Cathleen Nesbitt made occasional appearances in both British and English films, beginning in 1932 with a role in The Frightened Lady (Criminal at Large). She also appeared on television, receiving particular acclaim for her performances in two original plays: "The Primary Colors" on "Goodyear Playhouse" and "Sister" on the "Alcoa Hour," both in 1956. Later, she appeared on "The Farmer's Daughter" and "Upstairs, Downstairs." In her later years, Nesbitt wrote an autobiography, A Little Love and Good Companions, published in 1973. The actress died in 1982.


Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1956.

Hartnoll, Phyllis, and Peter Found. The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theater. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts