TB: Let’s begin with you telling me a little bit about your book “Eva Le Gallienne: a Biography.” How you came to write it and what drew you to your subject.
has worked in the theatre, written about the theatre and taught theatre for three decades. She is the author of three biographies and a textbook,All About Theatre
(1981). Her biography of theatre pioneer Margo Jones, Margo: The Life and Theatre of Margo Jones
, (SMU Press 1989) was released in paperback with a new introduction by Emily Mann in 2005. The New York Times Book Review
selected Sheehy’s biography Eva Le Gallienne
(Knopf 1996), about another pioneer of 20th
century theatre, as one of its notable books of 1996. Sheehy’s biography of the first modern actor, Eleonora Duse: A Biography (
Knopf 2003), was also selected by the New York Times Book Review
as a notable book. In 2005, Mondadori published an Italian translation of the biography,Eleonora Duse: La Donna, Le Passioni, La Leggenda.
Sheehy is a member of PEN and the Author’s Guild. She recently completed SPARKS, a novel.
SHEEHY: When I finished my first biography, Margo: The Life and Theatre of Margo Jones, I looked around for another subject. Margo had single-handedly pioneered the resident theatre movement in this country – her legacy lives in the hundreds of non-profit theatres from coast to coast. So when I finished the book, I looked for another subject – another pioneer who had been forgotten by the textbooks and who changed the culture. I found Eva Le Gallienne.
TB: Tell us something about who she was.
SHEEHY: She was born on January 11, 1899, the daughter of a Danish feminist and an English poet. She was a huge Broadway star before she was 21, and turned her back on the commercial theatre in the 1920s to devote herself to non-commercial theatre.
TB: And you actually met her didn’t you?
Yes. In 1984, before I had any thought of writing theatre biographies, I met Miss Le Gallienne. At the time I worked as a dramaturg for Mark Lamos at the Hartford Stage Company, and I had interviewed her for our HSC magazine because we were doing Chekhov’s Three Sisters
in a new translation by Lanford Wilson. Le Gallienne, at her Civic Repertory Theater in New York, had done the first American production of Three Sisters
. At first my reception was quite chilly. She raised an eyebrow and demanded in her cello voice, “Why aren’t you doing my translation?” I had no answer since I didn’t know at the time that she even had a translation –later I learned that not only had she translated Chekhov she also had translated Ibsen’s plays. Gradually, Le Gallienne warmed to me, and she took my hand and gave me a tour of her “Blue Room” Library at her home in Weston, Connecticut. A fire blazed in the fireplace, a sleek white cat posed in a bay window, and everywhere there were books, thousands of books.
As she guided me around the room, she paused to take down her hand-copied manuscripts of Sarah Bernhardt’s Memoirs and read the inscription that Sarah had written to her. She touched Eleonora Duse’s photograph, pointed out Edwin Booth’s framed autograph, and ran her fingers along the spines of dozens of biographies of theatre people. She’s introducing me to her old friends, I realized.
TB: And you have also had fairly privileged access to her papers haven’t you?
SHEEHY: In 1991, when I began work on Le Gallienne’s biography, her executor Eloise Armen gave me access to over sixty years of diaries; dozens of unpublished manuscripts; thousands of letters; and countless scraps of paper filled with Le Gallienne’s musings, recollections, and thoughts—a detailed, accurate, unsparing account of her personal as well as her public life. She didn’t leave out the struggles she had with her “demons”—vanity, alcohol, lust, pride, fear of aging. I read her diaries, tried on her Fortuny evening gown, worn Eau de Verviene, her signature cologne, examined every letter of hers I could find, listened to her voice, studied photographs and videotapes of her, walked the ground that she walked and interviewed more than 150 people who knew her.
TB: I was talking to Robert Matzen about how bare facts can only take you so far in the process of understanding a subject’s life and that no biographer can really do their job without that ingredient of intuition and interpretation that comes from “inhabiting” that person’s space. I sense very much that, in addition to all your research, you have you have communed with the “essence” of ELG in that essential and indefinable way.
SHEEHY: Yes! Robert Matzen is exactly right. Bare facts can only take you so far. You need to walk the ground your subject walked and inhabit her mind and thoughts. It helps enormously to have diaries and letters that take you inside, but sometimes what is unsaid can also be important. And here’s the wonderful John Gardner, writing about fiction, but I think his words apply to non-fiction writing as well. “All writing requires at least some measure of trancelike state,” he said. “The writer must summon out of nonexistence some character, some scene…until the imaginary becomes real.” In working on Le Gallienne’s life, I was struck by how much the art of the actor shares with the writer’s art. A biographer is an interpreter of a life just as an actor is an interpreter of a character. I’ll go even further. Writers are also actors. My first training was as an actor and that training has been invaluable in writing biography. Using imagination, sense memory, empathy, and research, just as an actor imagines a character and makes her come to life, so the biographer takes the raw material of letters, notes, interviews, newspaper clippings, reviews, books read, places lived–never inventing facts but freely imagining and choosing the form those facts will take–the biographer breathes life into her character. And, as all actors know, properties and settings can speaks as eloquently as pages of prose. In the same way, I treasure objects touched by Le Gallienne. Above my desk hangs a framed motto written in pencil by Eleonora Duse. It hung by Le Gallienne’s bed for 40 years. “The soul’s joy lies in doing,” it says. And that saying and the example of Le Gallienne’s life and her friendship with Duse inspired my biography of Eleonora Duse.
TB:Your book talks about Le Gallienne’s relationship with Basil Rathbone. Their liaison was both professional and romantic. Let’s talk about the former first. How did they come to work together for the first time?
SHEEHY: Le Gallienne had just had a huge hit on Broadway playing Julie in Ferenc Molnar’s Liliom (which later became the musical Carousel). Molnar asked her to play Princess Alexandra, the title role in his new play, The Swan, in its American premiere on Broadway. Playing an elegant, lovely princess was quite a contrast from the stoop-shouldered waif Julie, and Le Gallienne accepted. Basil Rathbone played the role of royal tutor to the prince.
TB: Was the play a success?
SHEEHY: A huge success despite the fact it opened on October 23 in a rain storm. Le Gallienne played with a “freedom I had never before experienced on the stage.” When the play ended, the company received a standing ovation and was called back again and again. Rathbone saw the critic Alexander Woollcott throw his hat in the air. The play was a tremendous critical and commercial hit and broke box-office records.
TB: And it was The Swan that established Rathbone on Broadway. Did Eva enjoy the experience of working with him?
Le Gallienne told her mother that she liked Rathbone “better than any man I have ever played with. He is entirely charming—very gentle and nice to me—and wonderful to play with (he is the first leading man I have ever had who is earnest and deeply sincere about his work—who never cheats or in any way shirks his end of things.).
He likes me too—and we both hope we may do many things together in the future.”
TB: And in fact she chose Rathbone to be in another play with her almost immediately?
SHEEHY: Yes. Although she played eight performances a week in The Swan, she produced and played the title role in three matinee performances of Gerhart Hauptmann’s play The Assumption of Hannele at the Cort Theatre. For the dual role of the Schoolmaster and the Christ like Stranger, she chose Rathbone.
TB: But they weren’t as yet romantically involved?
SHEEHY: No, she wrote her mother on Jan. 6, 1924, “I am glad to say that as far as his emotions are concerned, they are deeply engaged elsewhere–so I haven’t that situation to cope with either–all of which is quite delightful.”
TB:And the woman with whom Basil’s feelings were “deeply engaged,” was Ouida Bergere?
Rathbone & Ouida Bergere
TB: But despite this “engagement,” Le Gallienne and Rathbone did in fact begin a sexual relationship didn’t they, when was this?
SHEEHY:I can’t say for sure, but it appears that their physical affair began in Chicago in the fall of 1924 when The Swan company began a national tour. At this time, Le Gallienne was distancing herself from her lover, Mercedes de Acosta.
TB: And this was after he had spent the summer in England with Ouida. So, unless seeing other people was agreed between them he was to some extent “cheating” on her with Eva.
TB: Tell me more about their relationship, professionally and romantically.
SHEEHY:Oh, Neve, I wish I knew everything about Le Gallienne’s relationship with the man she called “my Basil.” Most of what I do know comes from Le Gallienne’s letters and diaries and an interview with her former lover, actress Josephine Hutchinson. Le Gallienne and Rathbone had a fascinating relationship – a work affair and a love affair. Much of their attraction was undoubtedly propinquity. Still, it was rare for a man to excite Le Gallienne’s ardor.
TB: Is it true Rathbone was her only recorded heterosexual relationship?
SHEEHY: Le Gallienne also had a close relationship with Joseph Schildkraut, her costar in Molnar’s play LILIOM, which was her first big Broadway success. When Basil died, Le Gallienne wrote in her diary on July 22, 1967: “So both my fellows have gone on.” Schildkraut had died a few years earlier.
TB: What was the nature of the attraction to Basil?
SHEEHY:She was attracted to Rathbone on every level—sexually, artistically, and spiritually. She adored his “long aristocratic legs,” his gentle nature, and they were both schooled in European and English theatre, loved the classics and shared artistic aspirations. They talked of a production of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, playing the doomed lovers Rebekka and Rosmer. At one point, Le Gallienne told Mercedes that she thought of marrying Basil and having his child.
Then in late October Ouida Bergere joined Basil in Chicago while they were playing The Swan there, and Le Gallienne had to compete for his time. I want to “pry Basil away from Ouida,” she wrote.
TB:Do we know when and why their sexual relationship ended?
SHEEHY: Not precisely. According to people close to her, their physical relationship ended when Le Gallienne overheard Rathbone telling other members of the company that he was sleeping with her. But Eva herself left no direct record of this. Since The Swan closed in late April of 1925, their affair probably ended sometime during the winding down of the run -winter or early Spring 1924-25. Remember that one of the reasons Le Gallienne was interested in Rathbone was because of work.
TB:What happened after The Swan closed?
SHEEHY:Le Gallienne moved on to other work and other lovers, but she wrote her mother on September 15, 1925 that “my” Basil was back in New York, and she had heard that he had married Ouida [she was wrong]. “I still call him ‘my’ Basil,” she wrote, “because I know that he really is. I miss him—but most particularly in Work I miss him (because after all, that must be most vital to me)…Thank God I can write like this to you—for you understand & know. He must still be with Ouida otherwise he surely would have called me up.”
TB: And was that the end of it?
SHEEHY Later that month, Le Gallienne ran into Rathbone at an opening of a new play, and he asked to come and see her. “He will come Thursday after his rehearsal,” she told her mother. “It’s all very strange.” What happened at that meeting, if it happened, is not known.
TB: The following year Rathbone married Ouida and in 1930 he went to Hollywood to become a leading man. He was only intermittently to return to the stage for the next sixteen years . And despite their sympathy and mutual goals, and their terrific onstage chemistry he and Eva Le Gallienne didn’t work together again for nearly thirty years.
SHEEHY No. Although Le Gallienne and Rathbone were the two brightest and most beautiful young stars in the American theatre, no producer had the good sense to team them again.
TB: And it wasn’t until April 1953 they worked together again.
SHEEHY:To raise money for a proposed American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, director Margaret Webster and Le Gallienne put together a troupe of actors from the theatre and from Hollywood to perform Shakespeare scenes. Le Gallienne and Rathbone played scenes from Henry VIII and Macbeth. It was a joy for her to act with Basil again, she recalled, since “we are so completely in rhythm physically–always were–and that makes it all so easy.”
TB: Do you think theatre missed out on a potentially legendary onstage pairing?
Yes. Neve, can you imagine what a Romeo and Juliet they would have made? Two young actors at the height of their powers with all their physical grace and beauty—it would have been, as Le Gallienne liked to say, “frightfully thrilling!”
TB: Indeed. And that’s an excellent image to leave us with. Helen, thank you.
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