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Theater Arts of the Allies in the Great War (March 2013): Biographies of Theater Artists

By Felicia Hardison Londré

Biographies of Theater Artists

Numerous celebrities were involved in the war effort, and some wrote meaningful accounts of the war.  Befitting her star status as perhaps the most renowned actress of all time, Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) is the subject of numerous biographies.  Robert Gottlieb’s life of the actress, Sarah, devotes a chapter to her war-related activities.  Mention must be made of the great wealth of books in French, awaiting translation, by and about Bernhardt and other theater artists who contributed to the war effort.  These include Guillaume Apollinaire, André Breton, Maurice Chevalier, Béatrix Dussane, and Pierre Dux.

Noteworthy biographies of American theater artists who got involved in war work include Vernon and Irene Castle’s Ragtime Revolution by Eve Golden.  The Castles had just hit their stride as nightclub ballroom dancers when the war began; Vernon Castle soon earned a pilot’s license and saw action in France.  Golden’s compelling treatment of the Castles encompasses anecdotes of James Reese Europe and many other great performing artists of the era.  Play agent Elisabeth Marbury and designer Elsie de Wolfe appear in Golden’s book and are the subjects of several other books.  Marbury and deWolfe had jointly purchased and begun refurbishing Villa Trianon at Versailles when the war sent their lives in unexpected directions—the dream house being used as a Red Cross Hospital, Marbury touring Army camps under the sponsorship of the Knights of Columbus, and de Wolfe raising money in New York to buy ambulances for France and serving as a nurse with an Ambrine unit.  Books covering these efforts include Nina Campbell and Meredith Etherington-Smith’s Elsie de Wolfe: A Decorative Life; Jane Smith’s Elsie de Wolfe: A Life in the High Style; and Alfred Allan Lewis’s Ladies and Not-So-Gentle Women.  The last includes Anne Morgan (a close friend of Marbury and de Wolfe), whose war work is a feature of the bilingual (French/English) book American Women in Picardy: Rebuilding Devastated France, 1917-1924.

Rachel Crothers put her career as a commercially successful Broadway playwright on hold as soon as the United States entered the war, and she threw herself into organizing the Stage Women’s War Relief, of which she became president.[1]  The only book-length biography of her to date, Lois Gottlieb’s Rachel Crothers, stints on her remarkable wartime service, but still provides useful context.  American actress-librettist Dorothy Donnelly contributed to the war effort both over here and over there, as detailed in Lorraine Arnal McLean’s Dorothy Donnelly: A Life in the Theatre.  While serving as vice president of the Stage Women’s War Relief, she rolled up her sleeves to work alongside other volunteers, rolling bandages and packing cartons for shipment abroad.  Donnelly then traveled to France to work with the YMCA, and she played a significant role in upgrading the entertainment offered for the troops.  Donnelly appears also in Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley by Jeffrey Spivak.  In a chapter titled “In Formation,” Spivak details how Donnelly got Berkeley, a young second lieutenant serving in France in 1918, his appointment as an entertainment director for the United States’ Third Army of Occupation in Coblenz.

Banker-philanthropist Otto Kahn’s artistic taste and drive were as important as his money during the war years and afterward as he supported American work like that of the Metropolitan Opera and Paul Robeson, and introduced American audiences to the work of Jacques Copeau, Max Reinhardt, the Moscow Art Theatre, and the Ballets Russes.  Those efforts are chronicled extensively in biographies of Kahn: Theresa Collins’s Otto Kahn: Art, Money, and Modern Time, John Kobler’s Otto, the Magnificent, and Mary Jane Phillips-Matz’s The Many Lives of Otto Kahn.

[1] The Stage Women’s War Relief was an organization that supported the war effort by establishing sewing workrooms; collection centers for food and clothing; and a canteen on Broadway for servicemen.  It also sent troupes of performers oversees and trained people to sell Liberty Bonds.

Works Cited