Whitty, May (1865–1948)

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Whitty, May (1865–1948)

English actress who was celebrated for her skill both on stage and, later, on screen during a career that spanned over half a century . Name variations: Dame May Whitty. Born Mary Louise Whitty in Liverpool, England, on June 19, 1865; died in Hollywood, California, on May 29, 1948; youngest of three children (a boy and two girls) of Alfred Whitty (a newspaper editor) and Mary (Ashton) Whitty; privately educated; married Benjamin Webster (a lawyer turned actor), in August 1892; children: son (b. 1903 and died soon after); Margaret Webster (1905–1972, an actress and noted Shakespearean director).

Selected theater:

made stage debut in the chorus of The Mountain Sylph (Liverpool, 1881), and London debut as Fillippa in Boccaccio (Comedy Theater, 1882); appeared as Graham in A Scrap of Paper (St. James's, 1883), Suzanne in The Ironmaster (St. James's, 1884); toured as Lady Teazle, Kate Hardcastle, Lydia Languish, and Lady Gay Spanker (1885); toured as Dora Vane in The Harbour Lights and Ruth Herrick in In the Ranks (c. 1886 or 1887); appeared in The Monk's Room, Prince Karl, She Stoops to Conquer, and The School for Scandal (Globe Theater, 1888); appeared as Mary Melrose in Our Boys (Vaudeville, 1892), Mrs. Amhearst in Flight (Terry's, 1893); toured with Forbes-Robertson as the Comtesse Zicka in Diplomacy and Irene in The Profligate (1894); appeared as Kitty in A Loving Legacy and Grace Dormer in Fanny (Strand, 1895); joined the Lyceum Company (June 1895) and played Marie in Louis XI, Julie in The Lyons Mail, Emilie in The Corsican Brothers, and the Gentlewoman in Macbeth; toured in America with Lyceum Company (1895–96); appeared as Edith Varney in Secret Service (Court, London, 1898), Mrs. Grace Tyrrell in The Heather Field (Terry's, 1899), Katherine Blake in The Last Chapter (Strand, 1899), Susan Throssell in Quality Street (Vaudeville, 1903), Carrie Hardinge in Irene Wycherley (in New York, 1907), Dame Dresden in The Sentimentalists and Mrs. Trafalgar Gower in Trelawny of the Wells (Duke of York's, London, 1910), Mrs. Daly in The Home Coming (Aldwych, 1910); Peg Woffington in The First Actress (Kingsway, 1911), Mrs. John Tyler in Ready Money (New, 1912), Mrs. Channing in A Matter of Money (Little, 1913), Lay Cluffe in Open Windows (St. James's, 1913), Comtesse Malise in The Grand Seigneur (Savoy, 1913), Mrs. Talcot in The Impossible Woman (Haymarket, 1914), Mrs. Kesteven and Mrs. Luckman in Forked Lightning (Lyceum, Edinburgh, 1915), Mary Cumbers in Iris Intervenes (Kingsway, 1915), Madame Vagret in The Arm of the Law (His Majesty's, 1916), Mrs. Sharp in The Passing of the Third Floor Back (Playhouse, 1917); toured as Lady Marden in Mr. Pim Passes By (1920); appeared as Mrs. Corsellis in The Enchanted Cottage (Duke of York's, 1922), Lady Raunds in Life's a Game (Kingsway, 1922), Mrs. Henry Gilliam in The Fool (Apollo, 1924), Mrs. Janet Rodney in March Hares (Little, 1925), Mrs. Ebley in The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (St. James's, 1925), Mrs. Considine in Sylvia (Vaudeville, 1927), Lady Alethea Zaidner in Come With Me (New, 1928); toured in South Africa with Zena Dare (1928–29); appeared as Lady Byfleet in Sybarites and Lady Blakeney in Gentlemen of the Jury (Arts, 1929), Mrs. Coade in Dear Brutus (Playhouse, 1929), Mrs. Mabley Jones in A Business Marriage (Court, 1930), Florence in There's Always Juliet (Apollo, 1931, and Empire, New York, 1932), Dame Frances Evers in Behold We Live (St. James's, London, 1932), Mildred Surrege in The Lake (Arts and Westminster, 1933), Mary Railton in Man Proposes (Wyndham's, 1933), Mrs. Voysey in The Voysey Inheritance (Sadler's Wells and Shaftesbury, 1934), Mrs. Crowborough in Meeting at Night (Globe, 1934), Mrs. May Maitland in The Maitlands (Wyndham's, 1934), Mrs. Sloane in It Happened to Adam (Duke of York's, 1934), Mrs. West in Ringmaster (Shaftesbury, 1935), Mrs. Bramson in Night Must Fall (Duchess, London, 1935, and Barrymore, New York, 1936), Mrs. Hesketh in Grand Slam ("Q", London, 1939), the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet(51st Street, New York, 1940), Madame Raquin in Thérèse (Biltmore, New York, 1945).

Selected filmography:

Enoch Arden (1915); Night Must Fall (1937); The 13th Chair (1937); Conquest (1937); I Met My Love Again (1938); The Lady Vanishes (UK, 1938); Raffles (1940); A Bill of Divorcement (1940); One Night in Lisbon (1941); Suspicion (1941); Mrs. Miniver (1942); Thunder Birds (1942); Forever and a Day (1943); Slightly Dangerous (1943); Crash Dive (1943); Stage Door Canteen (1943); The Constant Nymph (1943); Lassie Come Home (1943); Flesh and Fantasy (1943);Madame Curie (1943); The White Cliffs of Dover (1944); Gaslight (1944); My Name is Julia Ross (1945); Devotion (1946); Green Dolphin Street (1947); This Time for Keeps (1947); If Winter Comes (1948); The Sign of the Ram (1948); The Return of October (1948).

"The first time [my mother] was ever taken to the theater she was so terrified that she screamed loudly till she was carried out," wrote Margaret Webster , Dame May Whitty's daughter, in a memoir of her parents, The Same Only Different. "The piece was a pantomime called The Three Bears," she added. "Further visits to other pantomimes taught her that everything always came right in the end, and terror was replaced by enchantment." In good turn, May Whitty became the purveyor of the magic, delighting audiences in England and America with a wide range of stage and screen characterizations. In 1945, just three years before her death, the actress celebrated the 65th anniversary of her distinguished career on the stage. Whitty also had the distinction of being the first actress ever to be created a dame, receiving her DBE in 1918, both for her work in the theater and for her charity work during World War I.

May Whitty was born in Liverpool, England, on June 19, 1865, the youngest of three children of Alfred Whitty and Mary Ashton Whitty . Her paternal grandfather, Michael James Whitty, owned and edited the Liverpool Journal and later founded the Liverpool Daily Post, Great Britain's first penny daily. Whitty's father Alfred also worked for the Post until Michael sold it and brought in a new editor. Mary and her children were then deposited with her father, while Alfred went to seek his fortune in London. When May was ten, Alfred died of pneumonia, leaving Mary to support and educate the three Whitty children. She did so by opening a modest school for girls. It never prospered and eventually closed, but it was the only formal education May ever had.

At age 15, through her mother's friendship withMadge Kendal , May received a note of introduction to the manager of the Court Theater in Liverpool, where in 1881 she made her first stage appearance, in The Mountain Sylph, an adaptation of the ballet Les Sylphides. A year later, she debuted in London as Fillippa in the comic opera Boccaccio, after which she moved to the St. James's Theater to work under the management of John Hare and William Kendal (husband of Madge). There, she served as understudy to Annie Webster ("Booey"), the actress sister of Ben Webster, a young law student who would give up the bar in 1887 and become an actor.

Whitty spent the time between meeting Ben and their marriage in August 1892 honing her craft and gaining experience. After leaving the St. James, she joined a touring stock company. "My mother played fourteen parts in two weeks, with one rehearsal for each—parts such as Lydia Languish and Kate Hardcastle, plus some meaty old melodramas and a farce or two," recalled daughter Margaret. "Between rehearsals and performances she made her own costumes." Whitty also toured briefly with Ben Greet's original Shakespearean company and with the Forbes-Robertson touring company. In addition to touring, she appeared in two or three plays a year, usually melodramas, which she later recalled had some extravagant scenic effects for the time. "In Harbor Lights the hero climbed down over the cliff to rescue the heroine. Hoodman Blind was about twin sisters, and I played both of them. One was good and the other bad, the bad one throwing herself over the Thames embankment."

During the first few years of their marriage, Whitty and her husband were frequently separated by their work. In June 1895, Whitty joined the Lyceum Company, then under the management of Sir Henry Irving and Ellen Terry , whom she called "the kindest and grandest woman I have ever known." Her roles with the Lyceum Company included Marie in Louis XI, Julie in The Lyons Mail, Emilie in The Corsican Brothers, the daughter in The Bells, and the Gentlewoman in Macbeth. Together with her husband, she toured America with the company from 1895 to 1896.

Shortly after returning to England, Whitty left the Lyceum Company, unhappy with the quality of the roles she was assigned. She subsequently won some good notices for her portrayal of Susan Throssell in Quality Street (1902), then toured in the role. On Christmas Day, 1903, the couple's first child, a son, was born and died, at which time Whitty was warned that she should not have any more children. However, by the following summer, she was pregnant again, causing Ben great concern. During her confinement, she accompanied her husband to America, where daughter Margaret was born prematurely on March 15, 1905. May remained in New York for several years while Ben toured, and in 1907, she returned to the stage as Carrie Hardinge in Irene Wycherly, playing the role in Baltimore and New York.

In 1910, back in London, she played Amelia in The Madras House, the first of the character roles that would dominate the second half of her career. It was also her first experience with director H. Granville Barker, who was quite different in approach from the actor-managers with whom she had previously worked. Margaret Webster recalled that Granville-Barker gave her mother "a long dissertation on the history, habits, idiosyncrasies and antecedents of a character in The Madras House, all of which she was to convey to the audience by the significance with which she said her first line. The line was 'Good afternoon.'" Whitty also had a harrowing experience with Arthur Wing Pinero, who directed her in Trelawny of the Wells, also in 1910. Pinero, wrote Webster, was a "martinet who drilled his actors in every detail of movement and inflection. Sometimes … imposed mannerisms supposed to indicate character. I remember my mother sedulously practicing a high screech demanded by Pinero, half giggle and half snort, till people on the streets turned round to stare, and the cook gave notice."

During World War I, Whitty juggled her performance schedule with charitable war work. As a member of the Actresses Franchise League, she helped organize the Women's Emergency Corps (WEC), which drafted women to replace men in jobs that had never been open to them before, in hospitals, offices, factories, and farms. In conjunction with the WEC, she also mounted several successful fund-raising campaigns for the Star and Garter Home for Disabled Sailors, Soldiers and Airman. Along with her war work, Whitty was also active in getting the British Actors' Equity Association established as a trade union.

In 1921, Whitty undertook the management of the Florence Etlinger Dramatic School, a post

she held until 1926. During this period, she also appeared as Mrs. Corsellis in The Enchanted Cottage (1922), as Mrs. Henry Gilliam in The Fool (1924), and as Mrs. Ebley in The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1925), among other varied roles. As she grew older, Whitty showed no signed of slowing down, and in fact gave some of her finest performances late in her career.

In 1935, the actress scored a major triumph as Mrs. Bramson in Emyln Williams' thriller Night Must Fall, which was brought to New York in 1936, after a year's run in London. "Her performance might give many a younger and more languid actress pause," wrote the critic for the New York Herald Tribune. "The scene in the last act where she finally rises from the wheel chair she has occupied all evening, strides vigorously around the stage and then bursts into wild hysterics, amazes those who know she is seventy-two years old." While admitting that the scene left her a bit "gaspy," Whitty said that the play was not otherwise stressful, even on her vocal chords. "I never even had a touch of laryngitis," she said.

A reprise of the role also launched Whitty's film career in 1937, although she had played in the silent film Enoch Arden as early as 1915. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her work in Night Must Fall and again for her portrayal of Lady Belden in Mrs. Miniver (1942). She was also memorable in the title role in Alfred Hitchcock's suspense film The Lady Vanishes (1938). "In a sense films are an unnatural medium, from the stage's point of view of logical development," Whitty said about acting in the new medium. "It surprised me that I could step in after a lifetime of stage training, and have so little difficulty in portraying a character."

In 1940, Whitty appeared with her husband in a New York production of Romeo and Juliet, and in 1945 she appeared with Eva Le Gallienne and Victor Jory in Thérèse, an adaptation of Emile Zola's Thérèse Raquin, directed by her daughter. The critics, while not enthusiastic about the play, had nothing but praise for Whitty. "Her performance makes this contemporary version of a theatrical antique something more than a clever and entertaining stunt," wrote Howard Barnes in the New York Herald Tribune. "No matter what convolutions the plot takes in relating dark deeds, remorse and confession, she towers through the production with all the serenity she might have had in playing a great classic or modern tragedy. She quickens every scene of Thérèse with dramatic overtones which are not always discernible in the script." "She is so wonderful," gushed critic Burton Roscoe, "that tears of gratitude came into my eyes that I was privileged to see such art."

For many years Whitty and her husband resided in a flat in Covent Garden which also served as a meeting place and refuge for both English and American actors. No one in need was ever turned away from the couple's doorstep. From 1939 on, they lived in Hollywood, where Whitty served as chair of the British Actors' Orphanage and as vice-president of the Los Angeles Branch of British War Relief. The couple's 55-year marriage ended with Ben's death in 1947, at age 82. Lewis Casson recalled that almost to the time of his death, Ben continued the nightly ritual of brushing his wife's hair. Dame May Whitty died a year later, on May 29, 1948, in Hollywood. A memorial plaque in St. Paul's Church, Covent Garden (the Actors' Church), pays homage to the couple. "They were lovely and pleasant in their lives," it reads, "and in their death they were not divided."


Current Biography 1945. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1945.

Johns, Eric. Dames of the Theatre. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1974.

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

Webster, Margaret. The Same Only Different. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts