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Lunt, Alfred (1892-1977), and Lynn Fontanne (1887-1983)  
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Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne delighted Broadway audiences with their masterful stagecraft. They became known as the first family of the American theater, but theirs was a lavender marriage (that is, a marriage of a gay man and a lesbian designed to create and sustain the illusion of heterosexuality), and their presentation of themselves as the ideal American couple may have been their most skillful performance.

The public was enchanted by what seemed to be a storybook tale--romance, Broadway stardom, and a marriage of over fifty years for a farm boy from Wisconsin and a delicate English beauty.

Lunt's Early Years

Alfred David Lunt, Jr. did not actually grow up on a farm. He was born in Milwaukee on August 12, 1892. His father, Alfred David Lunt, a lumberman and land agent, died when the younger Lunt was only two. Five years later his widow, Harriet Washburn Briggs Lunt, married Carl Sederholm, a doctor.

Lunt was educated at the private Milwaukee Academy and then at the Carroll College Academy in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Upon graduation, he enrolled at Carroll College. He considered studying set design or architecture but soon realized that theater performance was his true calling. He became a member of the Carroll Players under the direction of May Rankin, whom Lunt consistently praised in later years for the excellence of her teaching and for her encouragement of her students.

While at the Carroll Academy, Lunt became friends with Ray and Andrew Weaver, fellow students who boarded for three years at his mother and stepfather's house. The three wrote a play, The Greater Love, which they hoped to have staged at the college, but the work was never produced.

Lunt and Ray Weaver remained close even after their students days. The exact nature of their relationship is unknown, but in letters Lunt called Weaver "honey" and "my hero of delight."

Jared Brown, whose biography of Lunt and Fontanne portrays them as strictly heterosexual, acknowledges that such effusiveness was inconsistent with Lunt's usual writing style but attempts to explain it away as "a florid rhetorical style typical of the period." As Sam Abel states, however, such was not the way that young men generally addressed each other in 1914.

After two years at Carroll College, Lunt transferred to Emerson College in Boston, but he attended only briefly before joining the repertory company of the Castle Square Theatre. He made his professional debut in their production of A. Baldwin Stone and Frederic Ranken's The Gingerbread Man.

Lunt toured for a few years in theater and vaudeville. Along the way his talent caught the attention of George C. Tyler, and Lunt subsequently became a member of his company. It was in a 1919 Tyler production of Richard Washburn Child's Made of Money that Lunt first worked with Fontanne.

Fontanne's Early Years

Fontanne was named Lillie Louise when she was born in Woodford in the English county of Essex on December 6, 1887. Her mother, Frances Ellen Thornley Barnett Fontanne, quickly decided that she disliked the choice, and began calling her Lynn.

Fontanne's father, Jules Pierre Antoine Fontanne, was a type designer and ran a printing factory that he had inherited from his father. An inept businessman, Jules Fontanne eventually lost the factory, and his family faced hard times. Each of the couple's four daughters was taken out of school at around the age of fifteen so that the girls could find jobs and bring in much-needed money.

Lynn Fontanne, however, had long dreamed of becoming a professional actress. She talked a family friend into writing her a letter of introduction to the legendary actress Ellen Terry so that she could audition to be her student. Fontanne's rendition of Portia's "quality of mercy" speech from The Merchant of Venice impressed Terry, who trained her for two years.

Fontanne began her professional career in 1905 at the age of eighteen. She found some roles in London and, as a member of Weedon Grossmith's company, toured in England. Grossmith took his troupe to North America, and they performed at Alla Nazimova's 39th Street Theater in New York. The play, R. C. Carton's Mr. Preedy and the Countess, was poorly received, however, and the production soon closed.

Although Fontanne had had some good notices, she was discouraged because she was acting mostly minor parts in forgettable plays. Even after success in a leading role in Arnold Bennett and Edward Knobloch's Milestones, her career languished until she met American stage star Laurette Taylor and her husband, English playwright J. Hartley Manners.

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Alfred Lunt (top) and Lynn Fontanne (above) in costume for The Guardsman (1924).
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