http://www.glbtq.com), their presentation of themselves as the “ideal American couple” for over 50 years may have been their most skillful performance. Nevertheless, they became the theatrical legend known as The Lunts.
*A marriage between a gay man and a lesbian to create the illusion of heterosexuality.
Alfred overcame childhood scarlet fever and loss of a kidney to pursue acting. After two years at Carroll College in Wisconsin, Lunt briefly attended Emerson College in Boston before joining the Castle Square Theatre repertory company, where he made his professional debut. Subsequently, Lunt first worked with Lynn Fontanne in a 1919 George Tyler summer stock production in Washington DC.
Fontanne, born to working-class English parents, was taken out of school at age fifteen in order to earn much-needed family money as a result of her father’s financial difficulties. Lynn, who dreamed of becoming a professional actress, was rescued from this fate by being taken under wing by legendary actress Ellen Terry, who honed her dramatic skills. Fontanne began her professional career at the age of eighteen, playing small roles in forgettable plays. Her career languished until she met American stage star Laurette Taylor, whose marriage to English playwright J. Hartley Manners was itself a “business arrangement.” Laurette Taylor offered Lynn a role in one of her husband’s plays, and Laurette soon became a close friend and influential advisor of Fontanne. Lynn spent weekends at Laurette’s home, and it is widely assumed that they had a romantic and physical relationship. Manners did not object to his wife’s extramarital lesbian affairs, which included a relationship with Alla Nazimova. Although Laurette "stage-managed" Fontanne's romance with Alfred Lunt, she eventually became jealous of their relationship and began to exhibit vindictive behavior toward Lynn. Not surprisingly, Alfred and Lynn soon excluded Laurette from their social circle.
After establishing themselves as stars on Broadway, Lunt and Fontanne entered into a marriage of convenience in 1922. In 1924 they joined the Theater Guild, which produced plays of greater literary merit than those in which they had been appearing. The Lunts became established as an acting team upon the favorable public and critical reception of their very first Theater Guild production, Ferenc Molnár's The Guardsman* (1924); their success was so great that they repeated their roles in the 1931 movie version. They soon favored and developed controversial techniques such as overlapping dialogues, turning their backs on the audience and passionately touching each other on stage.
From that time on, they always performed on stage together, with a single exception – when Lynn appeared without Alfred in 1928 in Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude, at Alfred’s urging. Alfred called O’Neill’s play "a six-day bisexual race." Fontanne enjoyed one of the greatest critical successes of her career as Nina Leeds, the desperate heroine of that controversial nine-act drama.
*The Guardsman is being revived at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC (May 25-Jun. 23, 2013) in a brand new production of this comedy about the sexual games of a married acting couple.
In the early years of their marriage Lunt and Fontanne lived in a NYC theatrical boarding house, where unconventional living arrangements were the norm. Over the years, their circle came to include gay playwright/actor/composer Noël Coward, gay photographer Carl Van Vechten, and the sexually ambiguous critic Alexander Woollcott.
In 1933 an item titled "Stage Stars in Queer Action" published in the tabloid Broadway Brevities targeted (without naming) the Lunts in an item that stated, "This little fact concerns two of the greatest stars of the legitimate theatre and who are supposed to be happily married. The pair, however, are as queer as a couple of bugs. He is a pansy who is conducting an affair with his male secretary, while she is a lesbian and has several girls acting as her lovers. Cute, eh?" Their marriage, fortunately, shielded their reputations, and the gossip was not taken up by the mainstream press, which would have ended their acting careers.
Audiences adored their on-stage smooching, slapping, spanking, rolling about on the floor, and even (while aged 59 and 54 respectively) lying on a couch while Lady Lynn felt up Lord Alfred's trouser leg – scandalous fare for those times. However, Lynn Fontaine commented later that Alfred’s decision to commit himself to a team prevented him from achieving full recognition of his stature as an actor.
The wit and vivacity of their stage roles carried over into their business dealings. For example, the famous couple once sent a telegram to a movie mogul, turning down a studio contract worth a fortune: “We can be bought, my dear Mr. Laemmle, but we can’t be bored.”
However, the couple began to favor less controversial roles by the late 1930s, when NYC cracked down on the visibility of the city’s burgeoning gay community in preparation for hosting the 1939 World's Fair. In 1940 they appeared in Robert Sherwood's There Shall Be No Night as the middle-aged parents of a man portrayed by Montgomery Clift. The Lunts took Clift, who was engaged in a homosexual relationship at the time, into their home and coached him in acting. They also suggested that Clift enter into a lavender marriage such as their own, in order to protect his career.
During the 1940s the Lunts started an over-the-top campaign to promote themselves as the ideal American couple. They appeared in magazines such as the Ladies' Home Journal as subjects of photographs depicting domestic bliss. In one such example they were shown jointly carrying a basket of vegetables on the grounds of their Wisconsin farm, where in reality Alfred gave full vent to his penchant for cooking and redecorating, endeavors traditionally pursued by the female partner in a marriage. About this time they negotiated an unusual contract clause that ensured that they never perform during the summer months.
Their stage careers were embellished by performances on radio and television, and they both went on to win Emmy Awards. On July 4, 1964, Lunt and Fontanne were given Presidential Medals of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson. Six years later, both received special Tony Awards for lifetime contributions to the theater.
Lunt and Fontanne did not retire until 1970. Alfred Lunt died in 1977, nine days shy of his 85th birthday, and Lynn Fontanne passed away at age ninety-five in 1983. The inscription on their tombstone states that they "were universally regarded as the greatest acting team in the history of the English speaking theater" and that "they were married for 55 years and were inseparable both on and off the stage."
But now you know the rest of the story.
• Lunt and Fontanne were honored with a 33-cent United States postage stamp in 1999.
• The Lunt-Fontanne Theatre at 205 W. 46th St., NYC, was named in honor of the legendary acting team. The original 1910 theatre, called The Globe, had subsequently been converted to a movie house. It was gutted and rebuilt in its present configuration as a legitimate Broadway theatre in 1958 and renamed in honor of America's foremost husband/wife acting couple, who had starred in its first production, The Visit. Theatre-goers today may view a selection of photographs from their private collection on display throughout the lobby areas.
• Ten Chimneys, Alfred and Lynn's estate in Genesee Depot, located in Waukesha County, Wisconsin, is now a house museum and resource center for theater.
• Although she lived in the United States for more than 60 years, Lynn Fontanne never relinquished her British citizenship.
Role models of greatness.
Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.