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21 21 1 modern cosmopolitan: otto h. kahn and the american stage Theresa M. Collins A millionaire many times over and one of America’s leading financiers, Otto H. Kahn (1867–1934) was no ordinary theater patron. He is impossible for theater people to overlook because, from the early twentieth century until the onset of the Great Depression, Kahn’s wallet and wisdom seemed available for every art theater in New York, every major theatrical import from Europe, and the Metropolitan Opera. A complete roster of his patronage could be mistaken for an index to Theatre Arts magazine. The American premieres of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier of Jacques Copeau, and Max Reinhardt’s Miracle were all due to Kahn’s sponsorship. He helped to put Stanislavsky’s Moscow Theatre before American audiences, and he backed the Actors Theatre, the Civic Repertory, the Theatre Guild, and the New Playwrights Theatre, among other companies.1 For Kahn, the theater never stood outside life. The spectacle sprawled into lobbies, rehearsal studios, ritzy hotels, bohemian hangouts, and highlife nightclubs. It played out in Kahn’s mansions, at his business offices, on 22 theresa m. collins his yachts, in his hotel suites.There always seemed to be a coterie of publishers , playwrights, producers, composers, and other talents prepared to try a pitch on him. Whether their careers were rising, stalling, fading, or shining, they looked to Kahn for money, advice, referrals, and recognition. Alexander Woollcott once described a common sense among stage talents, “Whenever the zanies of the theatre gather together the conversation is bound sooner or later to reach the phrase: ‘Now, If I were Otto Kahn—’ and they’re off.”2 In one way or another, Otto Kahn’s support of operas, plays, films, ballets, and music—all arts with theatrical potential— defined a long era of opportunities for theatrical talent and initiatives. In 1932, as Lee Simonson looked back over the years, he acknowledged that Kahn was “the best friend the modern theatre has ever had in this country.”3 Less than a decade earlier, Kenneth Macgowan had made a nearly identical remark, when Kahn guaranteed the financial resources to resuscitate the Provincetown Players.4 In as fine a tribute as any, Jack Poggi evaluated the robust theatrical activity of New York in the 1920s and concluded, “One wonders if the noncommercial theater could have existed in New York without Mr. Kahn.”5 In my own reading of Kahn’s life, his patronage was all the more important because it secured a legacy of transatlantic modernism that prefigures globalism and still challenges us to think as much about cosmopolitanism as about nationalism and localism in modern histories.6 The son of a merchant banker, Kahn began his lifelong involvement with cultural initiatives in Mannheim, Germany, where he was born on February 21, 1867. A former palace town with rich musical traditions, Mannheim became an important harbor and industrial city during the nineteenth century, yet it managed to balance commercial prosperity with cultural prominence. Its National theater played a major role in Kahn’s upbringing because his parents, aunts, and uncles were among its most studied, steady patrons.7 Growing up smart and rich among cosmopolitan , theatergoing, and salon-hosting Jews, Kahn grasped the Wagnerian ideal of Gesamtkunstwerk and understood the German word of greatest importance to be Bildung—an ideal of fulfillment as citizens of cultural distinction.8 In later years, when Kahn described himself as “a business man who has tried not to degenerate into a mere business machine,” he attributed it to the “‘all around Bildung’” of his schooling and home influences .9 But what others appreciated as his “scholar’s taste for good drama, 23 modern cosmopolitan [and] patiently smiling contempt for bad”10 was additionally attributable to five starstruck years that Kahn spent among London’s sophisticates before he came to New York in 1893. Introduced into the circles of his newly aristocratic aunt, Elizabeth Lady Lewis (one of London’s leading hostesses and friends of the theater), Otto Kahn was better than ten years ahead of the most advanced New Yorkers in breathing the social and artistic sensibilities of the newly modern “smart set.”11 He did not burst upon New York’s cultural scene immediately, in part because the social barriers to Germans and Jews were stiffer in New York than in London, but also because, except for its concert halls and opera Otto H. Kahn, circa 1927. From...


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