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Strange, Michael (1890–1950)

Strange, Michael (1890–1950)

American poet, playwright and actress. Name variations: Blanche Marie Louise Oelrichs; Blanche Oelrichs Thomas Barrymore Tweed. Born Blanche Marie Louise Oelrichs on October 1, 1890, in New York City; died of leukemia on November 5, 1950, in Boston, Massachusetts; daughter of Blanche (de Loosey) Oelrichs and Charles May Oelrichs (owner of a seat on the New York Stock Exchange); attended the Brearley School in New York, the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Manhattanville, and completed her education under private tutors; married Leonard Moorhead Thomas (a first secretary of the American legation to Madrid), in January 1910 (divorced 1919); married John Barrymore (the actor), in August 1920 (divorced 1928); married Harrison Tweed (a lawyer and yachtsman), in May 1929 (divorced 1942); children: (first marriage) sons Leonard Moorhead Thomas, Jr. (b. 1911) and Robin May Thomas (1915–1944); (second marriage) daughter Diana Barrymore (1921–1960).

Selected writings:

Miscellaneous Poems (1916); Redemption (play, 1918); Poems (1919); Resurrecting Life (1921); Claire de Lune (play, 1921); Selected Poems (1928); Who Tells Me True (autobiography, 1940).

Michael Strange was the stage name and literary pseudonym of Blanche Oelrichs, who was born into a prominent New York City family on October 1, 1890. The Oelrichs moved in the social circles of New York, Paris, and Newport, Rhode Island, and many years later she would note that while young she had been unaware of "how desperately at odds I had always been with my environment." Blanche's mischievous temperament was not well suited to a formal, Catholic-school education, and she was expelled from two schools before finally settling down with private tutors to complete her education. Her beauty and social rank made her one of the most sought-after debutantes in Newport prior to her marriage to Yale graduate and diplomat Leonard Moorhead Thomas in 1910. They would have two sons, Leonard, Jr., and Robin. They also traveled frequently, and on a trip to England in the first few years after her marriage Strange saw police mistreatment of women suffragists, some of whom were engaged in a campaign of civil disobedience in their fight for the vote. Converted to the cause, upon her return to America she bobbed her hair (long before most women did, and much to the consternation of her social peers) and worked actively for enfranchisement of women. In 1915, she marched in a women's suffrage parade up New York City's Fifth Avenue.

A more significant change had come with her literary awakening in 1914, when she began to write poetry. One of her efforts was printed in the New York Sun, and shortly thereafter her collection Miscellaneous Poems (1916) was published under the name Michael Strange. She would continue to use this pseudonym for the rest of her life, in both her literary and her stage careers. In 1918, she wrote the play Redemption, an adaptation of Tolstoy's The Living Corpse, which had a successful run on Broadway that year starring famed actor John Barrymore.

Strange's newfound creativity and her artistic circle of friends caused problems in her marriage, and she and her husband divorced in 1919. That year, she also published her second collection of poetry, Poems, and embarked on an affair with Barrymore. They were married the following year. Their daughter Diana Barrymore was born in March 1921; she would suffer an unhappy childhood and grow up to become an actress before committing suicide at age 38. The month after her birth, John and his sister Ethel Barrymore took the lead roles in Strange's play Claire de Lune, which received mixed reviews. Resurrecting Life, another volume of her poems, was published later that year. Increasingly intrigued with acting, in 1925 Strange performed in summer stock in Salem, Massachusetts, to gain practical experience. She received numerous offers from theater owners hoping to capitalize on the celebrity of the society woman who wrote poetry, dressed in men's shirts and ties, and was married to the hugely popular Barrymore. While Strange rejected most of these requests, over the course of the next two years she appeared in Strindberg's Easter, Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, Sophocles' Electra, and on Broadway in Rostand's L'Aiglon. Aside from scattered roles, however, little more came of her acting career after that. During these years, her marriage to Barrymore was falling apart, plagued as it was with jealousies, conflict, long separations and his heavy drinking. They divorced in 1928. A year later, she entered into her third and last marriage, to lawyer Harrison Tweed. This too would end in divorce, in 1942.

Though finished with both acting and her actor-husband, Strange was not yet done with the stage. With the encouragement and practical assistance of her friend Elisabeth Marbury, she turned her attention to touring on the lecture circuit, presenting to audiences poetry readings set to music. Town Hall in New York City was the site of her first recital, given in 1935; she read her own poems and those of other prominent poets such as Edgar Allan Poe and Dorothy Parker to the music of a live harpist. Soon she expanded her program to radio, and by 1947 was using a full orchestra for her performances, which grew to include excerpts from such disparate writings as the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, the novels of Thomas Wolfe and The Communist Manifesto. Having published an autobiography, Who Tells Me True, in 1940, Strange died of leukemia in November 1950, in Boston, Massachusetts.

sources:

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Helga P. McCue , freelance writer, Waterford, Connecticut

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