Searching for Katharine Cornell


Once among the world’s most famous stage actresses, on the Vineyard she was simply an Islander.

I recently found myself fixating on Katharine Cornell’s head. I was in the Katharine Cornell Theater, on Spring Street in Vineyard Haven, listening to a talk, when I started wondering about the bronze bust mounted on a nondescript wooden stand near the stage. She is always there, inconspicuously presiding over the proceedings. Her eyes are closed; her lips full and lush, cheekbones pronounced, and eyebrows arched. It occurred to me that Katharine Cornell has, arguably, greater name recognition than any other deceased celebrity on the Island, and yet, somehow, I know very little about her. I could recall that she was a great actress of stage and screen. Wait, maybe not. Did Katharine Cornell appear in movies? And what was her connection to the Vineyard, anyway?

After the quick fix of an Internet search, I made a few phone calls. Katharine Cornell, or Kit, as her friends knew her, died in 1974. Since most of her contemporaries have also died, piecing together the stories of her life on the Vineyard is a bit of an archival dig. The people I suspected had known her hadn’t, or if they had, age had stolen away any stories they once possessed, so I hit the library and took out her 1938 memoir, and a biography of Cornell written by Tad Mosel with Gertrude Macy, and put sticky notes on all the pages that mention the Vineyard. I also grabbed Tom Dresser’s book “Women on Martha’s Vineyard,” and made a field trip to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, which has a file with newspaper clippings, and other artifacts, on Cornell.

Rose Styron, whom I have known since I was a child, led me to television producer Doug Cramer, who currently owns one of the two houses Cornell lived in here. Cramer gave me a detailed description of the house, and shared stories about the show business luminaries who visited when Cornell was in residence; Stan Murphy’s son David sent me copies of the incredible letters his father wrote to Cornell. And oral historian Linsey Lee shared excerpts from interviews she’s conducted. Slowly, Katharine Cornell’s Vineyard story started emerging.

The stories I found share the themes of humility and philanthropy. Cornell blended in, and yet dazzled. She often brought marquee names and other bright lights to the Vineyard as her guests, but never acted the diva. If called upon, as she once was, she’d help out at Bang’s, a local grocery store. Vineyarders like to lay claim to a certain style of celebrity — someone who shies away from the Island’s spotlight, unless it’s to raise money for a local charity; someone who does their own shopping so we can gossip about having seen them in the grocery store; and someone who loves the Vineyard for all the same reasons the nonfamous people here do. Katharine Cornell was this kind of celebrity, our kind of celebrity. In fact, she may have bushwhacked the trail for the other famous names to follow.


So why was she famous?

She was known as “the First Lady of the Theater.” News of the Tony awardwinning actress’s death appeared on the front page of The New York Times on June 10, 1974: “Katharine Cornell, one of the great actresses of the American theater, died of pneumonia early yesterday at her home in Vineyard Haven, Mass., on Martha’s Vineyard. She was 81 years old.” Alden Whitman, who wrote the obituary for the Times, went on to call her “an actress without peer in emotional, romantic roles, and one, moreover, who took her plays to the byways and crossroads of America, thereby helping to shape the country’s cultural tastes.

For 40 years, Cornell and her husband, director Guthrie McClintic, produced plays that McClintic directed and Cornell starred in. The phenomenal success of their productions, on and off Broadway, allowed them an unprecedented level of control over Cornell’s career as an actress. Cornell felt it was important to take their shows on the road, and she toured tirelessly. “Touring on a grand scale was absolutely pioneering at that time. Except for a few key cities — mostly in the East — the road was dead,” she wrote in her memoir. She certainly helped bring it to life with productions of “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Barretts of Wimpole Street,” the play for which she became best-known.

Cornell turned down the opportunity to star in the film version of Barretts — Norma Shearer, who took the role even though she was nervous about doing so, since the part was so closely associated with Cornell, won an Academy Award for the part. Cornell reportedly was reluctant to act in films, writing in her memoir, “Producers were always amazed at anyone who liked moving pictures but preferred the stage, and didn’t want to do both; felt there must be something else you were holding out for.” In spite of numerous offers over the years, she appeared in only one feature film, which was Stage Door Canteen, and in it she played the actress Katharine Cornell. (See a clip here:

Without a significant celluloid, or tabloid, record, name recognition for actors fades fast. Think about Mae West, who was born the same year as Cornell, and left behind a trail of films and scandals. We remember Mae West for what she did, or at least what she said.


The Vineyard

Cornell visited the Vineyard as a child when she vacationed with her parents at the grand Innisfail Hotel on the Lagoon in Tisbury. Her father, Peter, had given up a career as a doctor in Buffalo, N.Y., to manage a theater company, so it’s not surprising they would find their way to The Innisfail, which was a popular destination for singers, musicians, and bohemians until it burned down in 1906.

Some three decades after that visit, Cornell purchased 18 acres of land on the Vineyard; biographers Tad Mosel and Gertrude Macy would describe the land as “a tiny peninsula trying to be an isthmus and falling short by several hundred feet, a spit of land with water on three sides and a primitive path down the middle.” (Mosel and Macy have an arresting way of turning a phrase, and I can’t resist calling out a few of their idiosyncratic metaphors. About Cornell as a child, they wrote, “She had no neck, and when at the age of 4 she was photographed in a stiff white dress, her head seems to have arrived late and been placed hurriedly on top of her shoulders until some more satisfactory arrangement could be worked out.” Even more metaphorically preposterous was their description of her father, Peter: “Smoothly rounded at the corners, tightly contained in his skin like a sausage, and bounding to get out.”)

Cornell named her new property Chip Chop, and hired architect Eric Gugler, whom President Franklin D. Roosevelt had previously enlisted to renovate the White House and design a new Oval Office. Construction began in 1937, and Cornell began staying there. But the house almost didn’t survive the hurricane of 1938: The bridge to Chip Chop was washed away, and Cornell, along with her elderly houseguest and four dogs, had to be rescued.

In an interview with oral historian Linsey Lee, Betty Honey read a letter her mother wrote about the event:

The house stood, but was filled with water and sand. They barricaded the walls with mattresses and thought they were caught like rats in a trap. She could have gotten away by swimming, but couldn’t leave the old lady and the barking dogs, and rushing wind and water made pandemonium.

During the war years, construction on the house stalled. Cornell bought the piece of property next to hers to start a victory garden. She farmed vegetables, and got cows, pigs, and chickens. The property had a rundown barn on it. (Years later she would sell Chip Chop, renovate the barn, move an abandoned lighthouse to the property, and move in.)

Chip Chop was finally completed in 1945. The house is sited unusually close to the water, and the kitchen has no windows, only skylights, so that McClintic, an avid skinny-dipper, and other guests could graze the grounds garmentless without the prying eyes of domestic helpers.

There is show-biz gossip from her years there. McClintic and Cornell would invite actors to the Island for readings of their new plays before they were produced. One story has it that Vivien Leigh once arrived at Chip Chop in a distraught state. Leigh dashed out of the house, running toward the water in hysterics. Cornell coaxed her inside, set up a camera, and they acted out Ophelia’s mad scene from “Hamlet.”

Other show business legends who visited include playwright Noël Coward, actors Lord Laurence Olivier, Mary Martin, Gregory Peck, and Rex Harrison, composer Cole Porter, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. James Cagney, who had a place on the Vineyard, and Lillian Hellman apparently had a poker game. (This must have been sometime after McClintic died, and before Cornell and Hellman had a falling-out).

The opera singer Kirsten Flagstad, once known as “the voice of the [20th] century,” rehearsed one summer for her upcoming season in Cornell’s backyard. Linsey Lee’s grandmother lived nearby. “Cornell would throw a birthday party for her nephew [Lee was pretty sure it was her nephew, but wasn’t absolutely certain] and invite the neighborhood kids. They were wonderful parties with themes. I loved frogs, so I remember one of the parties had a frog theme, and Kirsten Flagstad, the opera singer, sang The Frog Prince,” Lee recalled. She added that she remembered Cornell as being “gracious and loving. She was a people person. She loved to talk and find out about your life, without being nosy.”

“She was quite different from any other notable I encountered,” grocer Stuart Bangs told Linsey Lee. “She was a real person. Whenever she had a guest down, and she frequently had them, and they were always somebody pretty famous, she’d bring them in and introduce them to us: ‘You’ve got to see my grocer.’”

Bangs recalled that once when Cornell was in the store, “somebody called up, and my father had to do something right away and he was alone. He handed her a pad and a pencil, and said, ‘You’re in charge. If the phone rings, answer it.’ So she did! She took down two or three orders, and the people calling had no idea that Katharine Cornell had taken their order on the phone!”

Bruce Blackwell and Brandy Wight, who owned the Flea Market in Vineyard Haven until they opened the Granary Gallery, told Linsey Lee, “Every time Kit would come into town, she’d park Guthrie McClintic, her husband, over in our shop, tell him to go read his mail while she went to Cronig’s and did her green grocery shopping. And he’d sit there and I’d give him a couple of beers, and he’d drink that and look at his mail. She’d come back into the gallery, with her guests — whether it was Mary Martin, Noël Coward, Vivian Leigh, Laurence Olivier, or whoever — come into the shop and station herself at one end and let them wander. Then she’d holler across the shop, ‘Oh, Noël, Noël Coward, I’m in now, I’m Kit, here I am,” so everybody in the shop would know, and then on her way out she’d say, ‘That’s good business.’ She was so cute.”


Stan Murphy

In 1949, a industrious young painter named Stanley Murphy knocked on Katharine Cornell’s door to ask if she would commission him to do a painting of her house. Cornell accepted this invitation. When Murphy sent her the painting, he included a typewritten letter apologizing that the project had taken him longer to do than anticipated. “Things didn’t go at all the way I expected they would over the summer, so I’ve more or less given up painting as a full-time activity, and have been doing other work,” he wrote. A later letter, after Cornell had taken an interest in the talented artist, reveals a decidedly different tone. “These have been very, very happy days for me, to be working full-time on this thing,” he wrote. “This painting represents the first complete realization of any of my ideas, and I feel as if it were my own flesh and blood. I consider it to be my very beginning of an artist to be reckoned with.”

A friendship seeped in patronage and great affection was born. “Dear, dearest Kit,” Murphy began a letter in 1958. “Just a few words here to tell you how much you are in my heart, how I melt when I think of you, how I love you.”

“She was very generous, kind and generous,” Stan’s son David recalls. Laura Murphy, Stan’s daughter, remembers the times Cornell would come to their house for dinner. “Our house was the opposite of where they lived. We had a creaky old farmhouse with a lot of dog hair in it, and my mother would spend days cleaning and redoing stuff before their visit.”

In Where Magic Wears a Red Hat: The Art of Stanley Murphy, there’s a timeline detailing highlights of Murphy’s life, in which Katharine Cornell is mentioned time and again.

1951: “She becomes a patron and introduces his work to New York philanthropist Adele Levy. Levy later supports the artist for a two-year period, allowing him to devote his time exclusively to painting for a period. Daughter Katharine is born (named after Cornell).”

1953: “Murphy wishes to apply to an open show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but needs backing to take time off for the project. Cornell ‘pre-buys’ a painting from him to enable him to create a work in encaustic, Dukes County Agricultural Fair; it becomes one of 400 works chosen.”

1971: “Receives commission (endowed by Cornell) to paint four canvas murals that are installed on the wall of the Katharine Cornell Theater.”


After McClintic dies

Guthrie McClintic died in 1961. After his death, Cornell’s interest in acting waned. During the following years, she spent more time on the Vineyard. She sold Chip Chop in 1968, and moved in with Nancy Hamilton, a director and producer and Cornell’s partner for the rest of her life, at The Barn, the property she had originally purchased for her victory garden. Cornell and Hamilton had a cadre of close friends on the Island, and collaborated on two projects of note to Vineyarders. The first was a documentary about Helen Keller that Hamilton directed, and for which she won an Academy Award. This is notable because Helen Keller became a visitor to the Island, and made her own mark here. Cornell and Hamilton also made the film “This Is Our Island,” which was a portrait of Vineyard life.

While Cornell was game to help out Island charities and Vineyarders in need, the Katharine Cornell Theater was her enduring gift to the Vineyard. In the early 1970s, Katharine Cornell provided funding for the restoration of what was then called Association Hall, which would include building a theater on the second floor, what we now call the Katharine Cornell Theater. As part of this restoration, she commissioned Stan Murphy to create four large-scale murals depicting Island life.

Remembering Cornell in a front-page obituary in the Vineyard Gazette, Henry Beetle Hough wrote, “Though she worked on plays and rehearsed at Chip Chop and entertained many of the great figures of the theater there, she kept the Vineyard apart in her life for its own values, which she cherished deeply and warmly.”

Katharine Cornell was an actress, a philanthropist, a friend, and a patron of the arts. She traveled the world, but she found her true home, here, on Martha’s Vineyard. In writing this story, I got to know Katharine Cornell. I found what I was looking for. And, it turns out, so did she.  “I saw my new – and I hope permanent – Summer home on Martha’s Vineyard. I knew sometime I would find the place I wanted to be, here in America!” Cornell once wrote.

This is how I will remember her.

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