JACKI LYDEN, host:
This is ALL THING CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. When I was growing up in rural Wisconsin, there was a story that an old British actress, once famous on Broadway, was living alone after the death of her actor husband, out in the woods less than 10 miles away. It was a romantic picture.
Who was she, I asked my mother. Lynn Fontanne, she said. Lynn Fontanne. Her husband was Alfred Lunt. For four decades, from the early '20s to 1960, they were the king and queen of the American stage.
Critics called them the Fabulous Lunts, the Magical Lunts, the Lustrous Lunts, the Incomparable Lunts. Laurence Olivier called them the Celestials and the Glorious Beloved Supremes. Olivier said that at his very best, he was only imitating Alfred Lunt. Helen Hayes said that of all the lucky things that had happened to her in the theater, meeting the Lunts was the luckiest.
But with their deaths, first Alfred's in 1977 and then Lynn's in 1983, the Celestial Lunts seemed to vanish into the mist of legend. They were the stars of a darkened stage, not the lasting icons of celluloid.
(Soundbite of movie "The Guardsman")
(Soundbite of bell ringing)
Mr. ALFRED LUNT (Actor): (As character): Five o'clock, exactly five o'clock. His Majesty the Tsar could not be more on time.
LYDEN: In 1931, the Lunts made their one and only talkie for Hollywood, The Guardsman, a delightful tale of romantic deception. Alfred Lunt plays a Shakespearean actor who tests his wife's fidelity by wooing her in the guise of a Russian guard.
(Soundbite of movie "The Guardsman")
Mr. LUNT: (As character) Have you prayed tonight, Desdemona?
LYDEN: These were the kinds of roles the Lunts had already played to acclaim on stage: witty, sexy, elegant. In The Guardsmen, the actress wife succumbs to seduction but archly denies she's been duped.
(Soundbite of movie "The Guardsman")
Ms. LYNN FONTANNE (Actor): (As character) My dear.
Mr. LUNT: (As character) What?
Ms. FONTANNE: (As character) Your kiss. Aaaah. You couldn't disguise your kiss. It was so, so, ohhhh, so entirely your own. It was impossible not to recognize it.
Mr. LUNT: (As character) Yes, I was afraid of my kiss. (unintelligible)
Ms. FONTANNE: (As character) Yes.
(Soundbite of music)
LYDEN: The Lunts never again made a Hollywood film. Lynn Fontanne reputedly said we can be bought, but we can't be bored. But if the stage was the dominant force of their lives, they were stage managers when they retreated each summer to their home in Genesee Depot in southeastern Wisconsin, where Alfred grew up.
Genesee Depot was just a whistle-stop. It still is. And the Lunts sometimes called it Genesee Quoi? But the citizens of Genesee Depot gave the Lunts and their friends privacy and stability, and so the friends came: writer Edna Ferber, critic Alexander Woollcott, Laurence Olivier, Katharine Hepburn, Helen Hayes, so many; and of course Noel Coward, the playwright and songwriter who was their closest friend. And if I only heard tales about Ten Chimneys, other Wisconsin kids got a lot closer.
Mr. MARTIN DABLE (Former Genesee Depot Paperboy): I'd walk down that long beautiful driveway, and one memory is the snowflakes we had here as big as your hand, and walking there and actually thinking, oh my God, is this beautiful, oh, is this beautiful.
LYDEN: Martin Dable was a 12-year-old paperboy walking that half-mile of drive off the main road through the maples and birches to Ten Chimneys. It's like a very large elves' cottage, a white nook-and-cranny house that Lunt built almost room by room.
Alfred had picnicked in Genesee Depot as a boy. He drew on his family's Scandinavian background, adding Swedish stoves and fireplaces. There was color everywhere. Green shutters were at each window. Guests might be stars or the paperboy. Martin Dable was a paperboy and was led upstairs by Jules, Alfred's valet.
Mr. DABLE: Jules Johnson would meet me at his door, take me to his apartment, up to the kitchen, and, oh my goodness, I'm going to be taken to the drawing room, and this magnificent drawing room with Alfred and Lynn sitting in one of the two old chairs from Wisconsin Avenue, and Noel Coward was there at one time.
LYDEN: They did turn heads, of course. Tom Snyder of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin got a glimpse, and Karen Rosecky lived down the road.
Mr. TOM SNYDER (Oconomowoc Resident): We were all star-bound and they were the stars that we could touch and see.
Mr. KAREN ROSECKY (Neighbor of the Lunts): We had a party line. We always knew who was coming and we'd see Helen Hayes at church. We'd go to the grocery store. I'd see Van Johnson, and he did have the proverbial red socks on.
LYDEN: Karen Rosecky grew up in Genessee Depot. One day she rode on horseback to fetch her brother, who was working at Ten Chimneys, when she saw a tall, handsome women who spoke in a British accent.
Ms. ROSECKY: And I saw this woman and it turned out to be Lynn. And she said, you have pretty shiny hair. And I said to her, we go to church and every Saturday night we get our hair washed. My oldest sister puts vinegar in. And I said, she always says it shines. And today, in thinking back, I wonder - Lynn became known as the Fontanne of youth, that maybe that was a trick that would have caught her eye.
LYDEN: Martin Dable is now a docent to Ten Chimneys.
Mr. DABLE: I still get a lump in my throat when I walk into the drawing room, I come down the steps to the drawing room, that picture in memory as I walk down the steps that Alfred, Lynn and Noel are there. I don't have to close my eyes. I see that almost every time I walk in there.
(Soundbite of music)
LYDEN: Ten Chimneys has only been open to the public since 2003. For 20 years after the passing of Lynn Fontanne, it sat in jeopardy, nearly falling to a wrecking ball, but with all its contents. Joseph Garton, a Madison area restaurant owner bought it. Out of that grew Ten Chimneys Foundation and a loving, almost $7 million restoration.
(Soundbite of music)
LYDEN: Now once again the property looks as if Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were just upstairs changing into evening clothes.
(Soundbite of music)
LYDEN: The home is a testament to their need for theater at all times. On the entryway halls, painted lords and ladies offer the traveler refreshments with tea and biscuits at hand. They're painted biscuits, of course, warming on the real life radiator. Upstairs, Sean Malone, president of Ten Chimneys Foundation, leads us to a room that access another private stage.
Mr. SEAN MALONE (President, Ten Chimneys Foundation): Well, we go this way into the flirtation room.
LYDEN: The flirtation room? Now there's a room after my own heart.
Mr. MALONE: Indeed. Well, this is - this really is one of my favorite rooms. It is this tiny little room, and yet this very small little room has six entrances and exits.
LYDEN: What, you've got - this goes into the dining room, the drawing room, the staircase...
Mr. MALONE: The bedroom suites, the sitting room, or the Belasco room, and then one more set of double doors out to the balcony.
LYDEN: Oh, it's wonderful.
Mr. MALONE: I just love this setting because you imagine it as the entire set of a French farce, and everything is happening between all the major rooms, you know, and you see people running in and running out and that sort of thing. And...
LYDEN: Oh, absolutely.
Mr. MALONE: ...the Lunts even, you know, brought in staffiture then that was images of arrival and departure. I mean they really played up that theme in this room.
LYDEN: This is a great room for gossip.
Mr. MALONE: Oh, yeah.
LYDEN: So I think we should escape unseen...
Mr. MALONE: All right.
LYDEN: ...through one of these doors. Which way shall we go?
Mr. MALONE: Why don't we go this way into the drawing room?
LYDEN: Very good. Now, why is this on a different level?
Mr. MALONE: Well, the Lunts built levels into Ten Chimneys for no other reason than it makes for great entrances. Alfred did - when somebody asked why he'd put so many stairs in the house, said, stairs are perfect for two things, making great entrances and making love on. I say we take the entrance.
LYDEN: All right. That's great. Oh, this room is just beautiful. In the drawing room, biblical murals enliven each wall. The murals in the house were painted by set designer Claggett Wilson, who came for a month and stayed, by some accounts, for two years.
Mr. MALONE: I do love in particular that all of the stories on the wall sort of flow onto the ceiling. And so sometimes it's clouds flowing from the top of the wall onto the ceiling, it's - or the smoke from the burning bush or Jacob's ladder. Wherever you look, the manna from heaven starts on the wall but goes all the way onto the ceiling. And then if you look straight up, you see a whole bunch of cherubs, all of which have Alfred's face.
LYDEN: Alfred himself helped paint, measure and trim. Once a stage - that is, a room - was set, it stayed that way. In the drawing room is a Steinway piano painted white with vines running over it, where Noel Coward used to entertain. Itching to hear it ourselves, we asked pianist Jamie Johns, accompanied by singer Gary Briggle, to play a Coward favorite.
Mr. GARY BRIGGLE (Singer): Don't put your daughter on the stage, Mrs. Worthington. Don't put your daughter on the stage. The profession is overcrowded and the struggles pretty tough. And admitting the fact she burning to act, that isn't quite enough. She has nice hands to give the wretched girl her due. But don't you think her bust is too developed for her age? I repeat, Mrs. Worthington, sweet Mrs. Worthington, don't put your daughter on the stage.
LYDEN: Noel Coward, like Lynn, was English. He'd known Lynn a bit in their adolescence and met her again in New York before she and Alfred were married. It was love at first sight for all three of them. And it never ended. Much later, Coward got the bedroom at Ten Chimneys with the white chenille pom-poms. But almost from the first months of their friendship, there was a pact, says Sean Malone. Lynn and Alfred would get married and act only together. They would become hugely successful. And Noel?
Mr. MALONE: Noel Coward would become hugely successful as well, and all three of them would become the biggest stars in theater. And then once all of them had reached that pinnacle to have their own following, then Noel would write a play for the three of them to star in and they would, as I believe Noel Coward put it, create a new theatrical cosmos.
LYDEN: The play he wrote was called, aptly, Design for Living, written in 1932. We asked three prominent Milwaukee actors to help us out with the lovers Otto and Gilda.
Unidentified Man #1: (As Otto) Good morning, darling. I never kissed you good morning.
Unidentified Woman: (As Gilda) Never mind about that now. Go on or he'll have gone out. You don't want to miss him.
Unidentified Man #1: (As Leo) Good morning, darling.
Unidentified Woman: (As Gilda) Dearest.
LYDEN: And their best friend Leo, with whom they form a tormented love triangle.
Unidentified Man #1: (As Leo) It's nice being human beings, isn't it? I'm sure God's angels must envy us.
Unidentified Woman: (As Gilda) Whom do you love best, Otto or me?
Unidentified Man #1: (As Leo) Oh, silly question.
Unidentified Woman: (As Gilda) Answer me anyhow.
Unidentified Man #1: (As Leo) How can I? Be sensible. In any case what does it matter?
Unidentified Woman: (As Gilda) It's important to me.
Unidentified Man #1: (As Leo) No, it isn't, not really. We all love each other a lot - far too much. And we've made a bloody mess of it. It should be easy, you know? The actual facts are so simple. I love you. You love me. You love Otto. I love Otto. Otto loves you. Otto loves me. There now. Start to unravel from there.
LYDEN: The Lunts made a point of supporting living playwrights like Noel Coward. And everyone wanted to write for them - Robert Sherwood, S.N. Berhman, Pearl Buck, Edna Ferber, Maxwell Anderson. The Lunts broke new theatrical ground. With a slump of his shoulders, Alfred proved that an actor could turn his back to an audience and still express his character. He and Lynn perfected a quick back and forth speaking style that was both witty and natural. Before them, says their friend, Carol Channing, stage actors sounded much more stilted.
Ms. CAROL CHANNING (Actress): You see, they used to have great stentorian tones, great wonderful Shakespearean actors, and all that. And they each waited for one another to finish the sentence completely and then they would go into this marvelous tone. And it was so phony.
LYDEN: Whereas the Lunts were rapid fire.
Ms. CHANNING: And it broke a whole barrier of theater that doesn't sound like normal conversation. And they made it sound absolutely normal.
LYDEN: And to make it sound normal they rehearsed incessantly, even when they got home. One night their friend Carol Channing discovered just how compulsive they were about rehearsals. Searching for a late night snack, Channing tripped the Ten Chimneys burglar alarm. She says Lynn emerged at the top of the stairs like Lady Macbeth in a pointed nightcap and flannel nightgown.
Ms. CHANNING: So she was standing there and said, Alfred, to your post. And then she said, chauffeur to your post, in clarion tones, and cook, to your post. So they were to go to their post. They had rehearsals on this for 50 years.
LYDEN: Perhaps the tale got better with each telling.
Ms. CHANNING: They came up the hill with firearms, marching up the hill. And I said, oh my gosh. And everybody in Genessee Depot came up to save the president and the first lady of Wisconsin.
LYDEN: In 1977, Alfred Lunt passed away. He'd been ailing. Helen Hayes told a biographer that she remembers Alfred calling her and saying, I called because I can't see anymore. I can't watch the television. I can't read. So I just sit and remember. And I had a long session of remembering you. I laughed for a good hour or two just remembering and remembering. After he died, Lynn Fontanne sat in a chair in the library by the fire and spent hours gazing up at a pencil drawing of young Alfred. She missed him deeply, she said, every single day. You can feel her ache at Ten Chimneys, but that's just part of what you feel there. It was also a home that nurtured creativity, love and friendship. Yet today, Sean Malone says, three quarters of the visitors to Ten Chimneys have never heard of their famous hosts.
If they have been by some people forgotten or undiscovered, this does bring them to life. Nothing could bring them more to life...
Mr. MALONE: Right.
LYDEN: ...than this house.
Mr. MALONE: I think that Ten Chimneys is like a diary. It's as personal as a diary, and when you look around you do know who they were. It's not just a book of their playbills. Who they were was certainly extraordinary artists, and you get that walking through too, but who they were was extraordinary people.
LYDEN: When Lynn died, a Milwaukee newspaper drew a cartoon of Lynn Fontanne grandly making her final entrance through the pearly gates; above her a marquis is emblazoned: Lunt Fontanne together again. An admiring angel looks up from a copy of Variety and yells, break a leg, Ms. Fontanne.
(Soundbite of music)
LYDEN: We'll see them out with this Noel Coward tune.
Mr. BRIGGLE: (Singing) I'll see you again whenever spring breaks through again. Time may lie heavy between but what has been is past forgetting. This sweet memory across the years will come to me. Our world may go awry in my heart we'll ever lie. Just the echo of a sigh, goodbye.
LYDEN: Our visit to Ten Chimneys was produced by Kate Davidson and recorded by Johnny Vince Evans. You can visit us for pictures of Ten Chimneys at npr.org. Special thanks to pianist Jamie Johns, singer Gary Briggle and the actors James Pickering, Richard Halverson, and Angela Younoni(ph). Thanks also to the biographers Jared Brown and Margot Peters, as well as Ten Chimneys Foundation. For tonight, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.