- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 8, 2003


By Margot Peters

Knopf, $30, 394 pages


There have been many great actors and actresses, but fewer great acting couples, and at the apogee of this select class reign Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, generally referred to as the Lunts. From the 1920s to the 1960s, this Anglo-American pair (he an American from Wisconsin, she an Englishwoman) occupied a pretty well unassailable position on Broadway and in London’s West End. In “Design for Living” their biographer Margot Peters, a University of Wisconsin English professor, quotes the typical reaction of critic Dan H. Laurence: “Sitting in a theatre watching and listening to the Lunts was the nearest I’ve ever come to knowing what heaven will be like. Their performing was synchronized to perfection, blending her regal nature with his loose-limbed amble. Most people remember them for their vocal delivery, which both in pitch and timbre and the tempo of delivery, was unforgettable; but it is the eyes that I found most thrilling and dramatically effective: startlingly wide at one moment, directly in communication, then side-glanced unexpectedly, narrowing to unblinking slits.”

Indeed, such was the Lunts’ iconic status and star quality that even as hard a sell as J.D. Salinger’s scornful teenager, Holden Caulfield, could not help being somewhat impressed by them when dragged to one of their performances by his pretentious girlfriend. I was younger and considerably less jaded than Holden when, thanks to my prescient mother, who guessed correctly that the Lunts were making their farewell to the stage at London’s Royalty Theatre in the autumn of 1960, I saw one of their last performances.

Fortunately for me, my mother was sufficiently broad-minded to decide that the benefits of being exposed to the Lunts outweighed any negative effects of the play, Friedrich Durrenmatt’s “The Visit,” on my developing psyche. Although the redoubtable impresario Binkie Beaumont had advertised “The Visit” as a light comedy on its original opening night (Christmas Eve, no less!), outraged parents who had thought they were bringing their children to a suitable holiday treat were instead confronted by a story of cupidity and vindictive revenge.

My precocious 11-year-old self took it pretty much in stride — besides, nothing in Durrenmatt’s play scared me as much as Bill Sikes’ murder of Nancy in the musical “Oliver,” considered quite suitable for children. Of that night I remember chiefly the huge impression Fontanne made on me, the power of her acting and, although I did not know the phrase then, her stage presence: she seemed to eclipse everything else in that theater. I found Alfred Lunt by contrast to be rather wooden (which goes to show I wasn’t quite as sophisticated at 11 as I thought I was).

If there is one thing the author demonstrates over and over again in her biography of the celebrated couple, it is that Lunt was a master craftsman able to endow even the smallest gesture or shortest speech with myriad nuances unique to him, all of which could illuminate character and situation in a way that few other actors, if any, have done. From Molnar’s “The Guardsman” in 1924 through the heydays of Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan to “The Visit,” the Lunts complemented each other’s talents and spurred each other on to greater heights of achievement. They were more effective together than either could have been alone.

Which is perhaps why once they found each other, they did not care to perform separately, and why ultimately the retirement of one meant that of the other. Together they were a formidable force of nature. As their longtime collaborator and close friend Coward observed, “The Lunts are the greatest monsters in the history of show business because they demand from everyone a degree above perfection that only they could achieve.”

This biography is packed with excellent quotes from sources close to the couple, famous and otherwise, and provides a vivid portrait of the Lunts’ life. Understandably, we are told a lot more about Alfred’s early years with his oddball family, whose lives intertwined with the acting couple’s, than about Lynn’s less colorful counterparts. There are many delightful, mouthwatering passages about Alfred’s brilliant accomplishments as a cook, which leave me in no doubt that had I been privileged to try them, even at age 11, they — unlike the subtleties of his acting — would have immediately thrilled me.

Perhaps it is inevitable that a biography of such a prominent couple will focus on their public life rather than the essence of their interiority. But even though they did not star in Coward’s masterpiece “Private Lives,” they did have their own, and these are slighted perhaps more than is necessary.

I applaud the author’s avowed policy of refusing to indulge in speculation where there is no real evidence, notably on the subject of the rumors of homosexuality that hovered over the Lunts all their lives. But it is a pity that she is unable on occasion to follow her own strictures and cannot resist repeating spiteful servants’ gossip, even making the odd prurient suggestion herself: “Rattigan…Gielgud, Novello, Noel…were homosexual. Being intimate with such a circle of artistic peers was surely central to Alfred and Lynn’s happy experience in England. They had much more social life than they had in America. As Marlene Dietrich famously remarked, ‘In Europe it doesn’t matter what you are, it only matters if you’re charming.’ In England, even in wartime, the Lunts could relax more completely than they could at home.”

There is also a touch of state chauvinism about the author that appears to have led her to dwell overmuch on the Lunts’ life at their Wisconsin retreat, Ten Chimneys. Readers whose interest in the Lunts stems after all from their work in the theater might perhaps have welcomed more attention to their London and New York lives, to say nothing of their experiences in the many cities they toured.

The best biographies give readers a sense of mastery not only of the subjects themselves, but also of the various milieus they inhabited. Unfortunately, the author does not seem particularly sure-footed when she steps outside the world of the theater, and even there her tone can be unpleasantly flip, as in her characterization of Terence Rattigan: “Rattigan was enchanted by Alfred and Lynn, who stood for everything in the theatre he most admired, including success.”

And although the Lunts were generally apolitical, Alfred’s telling description of a visit to the Soviet Union — “‘Moscow has completely ruined us,’” Alfred wrote Aleck [Woollcott]: the incomparable artists, the opera, the ballet, the vodka, the caviar… .’It’s bleak and it’s dark and it’s strange. God knows but we loved it.’” — surely calls for their biographer to put it in the context of the terror and starvation being suffered at that particular time and place by millions of people! And after all, the Lunts’ blithe indifference to everything outside their privileged little bubble in Moscow indicates something about them that a more searching biographer might have explored.

Coward was a match for the Lunts (and almost everyone else) in being actorish and ultra-theatrical, but it is inconceivable that he could have visited any totalitarian country without delivering himself of a few choice words — and epithets — about its society. The absence of critical and comparative insights along these lines is one reason why this biography, for all the pleasures offered by its perusal, leaves this reader with a feeling of less than complete satisfaction.

But to Margot Peters’ credit, she knew at the outset that she was attempting a near-impossible task. Perhaps to inoculate herself against failure, she cites Coward, with his unique knowledge of her subjects, at the end of her book’s prologue: “Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne could not be captured in print. They were too strange, too possessed, too unlikely, to be nailed down by the written word.” A nimble biographer, she has at least partially brought to life these actors who were more unforgettable than the characters they portrayed, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

Martin Rubin is a writer in Pasadena, California.

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