- Laurette Taylor, American Stage Legend
Lynn Kear does not pretend to have written the definitive biography of Laurette Taylor, leaving that distinction to Laurette: The Intimate Biography of Laurette Taylor, which was published by Taylor’s daughter Marguerite Courtney in the 1950s. Kear instead explains that her purpose “is to discover how Laurette Taylor became an acting genius” (2). [End Page 311] To achieve this end, she traces the arc of Taylor’s development as a performer, as well as the emergence of her legend from birth to The Glass Menagerie and beyond. Kear does not, however, resort to technical discussions of theatrical craft; rather, she opens the door to Taylor as a personality by relying almost wholly upon eyewitness accounts. In addition to performance reviews, Kear has sifted through the autobiographies and memoirs of those who knew Taylor in an effort to piece together the appeal of this enigmatic star. The voices from the past that Kear relies upon most include a who’s who of the American stage: Ethel Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Guthrie McClintic, Lynn Fontanne, Robert Lewis, Gertrude Lawrence, and King Vidor, to name just a few. Taken together, their assessments of Taylor’s craft, personal charm, and charisma, both positive and negative, reveal the flowering of her abilities across time.
Kear organizes her book in the spirit of Taylor’s remark that all of her performances were “working up to one big play” (85)—Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, which premiered in 1944. Chapter 1 thus begins with family lore of how Taylor enjoyed imitating family members, particularly her grandmother, as a child. This early proclivity toward mimicry, the author notes, helped to foster creative development and set the stage for Taylor’s eventual career. Chapter 2 delves into Taylor’s first major break: her association with and later brief marriage to theatre producer Charles Taylor. Contrary to previous scholars who contend that Laurette wasted her early career investing in her husband’s cheap, shallow melodramas, Kear argues that these years were vital to her development. The author explains that every day, seven days a week, Taylor was rehearsing or performing, and that every play, regardless of its quality, presented her with an invaluable learning experience. Without this experience, Kear contends, Taylor could not have achieved her later success.
Chapter 3 moves the reader from one husband to another, focusing on the beginning of Taylor’s relationship with J. Hartley Manners. This chapter is somewhat weaker than the previous two. Kear notes some important facts, such as Taylor’s habit, while not onstage, of observing audience reactions through peepholes in the scenery in order to assess which techniques worked best. However, at one point, the author veers from her narrative about Taylor’s development as an actor to speculate on whether or not she was a lesbian or ever had lesbian relations. While these questions might be useful for a scholar interested in exploring Taylor’s sexuality or her representations of female relationships onstage, they do not sufficiently contribute to the author’s stated purpose.
Chapter 4 improves significantly by exploring Taylor’s reputation, during the colossal success of Peg o’ My Heart (1912), as a ham rather than an actress with significant skills. Chapter 5 centers on Taylor’s Shakespearean debacle in 1918, demonstrating her clumsiness with classical acting. Chapter 6 moves the reader into Taylor’s Hollywood years from 1922 to 1924. Kear notes Taylor’s struggle to adapt to the medium of film, as well as her habit of viewing the film version of Peg o’ My Heart repeatedly with a critical eye toward her performance. This incessant self-study was key, Kear argues, in Taylor’s development of a more nuanced style of acting. The author supports this idea by citing the critical reaction to Taylor’s first post-Hollywood play, Humoresque (1922); although the play itself was a failure, the critics were, for the first time, united in their assessment of Taylor as an actress of great subtlety. Chapters 7 and 8 provide views of Taylor’s battle with...