The Fabulous Lunts: A Biography of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne Studs Terkel has given way to a similar work that has been gathering dust on my shelf for awhile: a hefty biography of the Lunts.
I should probably put this confession right out there: I have something of a Lunt-adoration complex. When Ten Chimneys (their Genesee Depot, WI home, not far from where I grew up) opened to the public for tours in 2003, I went for a visit. The docents told stories of Noel Coward relaxing in the pool and Katharine Hepburn driving up WI-83 (I picture her in a convertible with a scarf around her hair, big sunglasses, and a smile). They showed us Alfred's kitchen, Lynn's solitaire table, and the studio building where they drank a bottle's worth of champagne toasts to Coward during one night of particularly intense air raids over London. I fell in love in a day, vowing to leave pencil marks on my walls when decorating (because one cannot see such marks on stage sets, from the audience); to hold theatrical retreats at Ten Chimneys to soak up the karma; and most importantly to marry an attractive and ridiculously talented young actor who shared my Lunt-transformation aspirations.
Of course much of the allure for me is the urbane glamour of the stage combined with the rural farm life of Wisconsin. That was the Lunts. Spend the year on Broadway, in London or touring the country -- and then relax all summer - cooking gourmet food from one's own garden - in the Midwest? Yes, please!
My obsessions and future plans aside, this biography has been a great read. Mr Brown does his best to discuss their craft, finesse and superb technical skill; and being a young artist myself I particularly enjoyed the chapters about their early years, their struggles and successes and dreaming big dreams over dinner from the deli downstairs.
But I have been most struck by the account of their time during World War II. Having remained adamantly apolitical prior to 1940, during the war years that position completely reversed. They volunteered tirelessly at the American Theatre Wing's Stage Door Canteen in New York, providing free food and entertainment to over 3,000 enlisted service members every night; made numerous donations and contributions, including weeks of box office grosses, to any number of war relief funds; gave speeches and radio addresses; ran a Pulitzer-prize-winning, strongly anti-war play on Broadway, across the country and internationally; and finally emigrated, in 1943, to London to perform there and at Allied bases on the continent, for the duration of the war.
I will share this anecdote from when There Shall Be No Night toured to Canada (file it under Why We Do Theater, Reason #783):
The Lunts were invited to visit with the speaker of the Canadian House of Commons, were given a reception by the lieutenant governor and, most rewarding of all, Premier MacKenzie King told them privately that the production of There Shall Be No Night marked a turning point in Canadian-American relations. The play had given him the courage to initiate a serious dialogue with Washington concerning the likelihood of war, he said. In Fontanne's words, "He wanted to say exactly what he thought about how [the United States and Canada] could cooperate in the crisis. But he was using the guarded terms of diplomacy which means so little or so much according to what one wishes to make of them. When he saw There Shall Be No Night he decided to give up these phrases and come down to the statements that anybody could understand. He told us this himself."
Times have changed; the theater has changed; stage actors no longer enjoy the same fame or following they once did. But the artist's impulse remains the same. The Lunts are an inspiration not only for the life they created for themselves, but for their unmatched dedication to their craft, their never-ending pursuit of excellence, and - most importantly - their unflagging service to their art and their fellow man.