DESIGN FOR LIVING by Margot Peters


Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne
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Veteran biographer Peters (May Sarton, 1997, etc.) limns the glamorous life of the American theater’s most successful acting team.

Alfred Lunt (1892–1977) and Lynn Fontanne (1887–1983) were a couple offstage as well as on, though persistent rumors peg it as a sexless marriage between a gay man and a bisexual woman. Their biographer seems to accept this judgment, though she never comes right out and says so: more important, she correctly assumes, was their lifelong devotion and the astonishing partnership that began in 1924 with Ferenc Molnár’s witty two-hander, The Guardsman, and continued through Friedrich Dürrenmat’s mordant satire, The Visit, in 1958. The Lunts were particularly admired for their flawless comic gifts, highlighted to scandalous effect in pal Noël Coward’s smash Design for Living, which had Coward and his costars romping through a threesome that implied—as much as you could in 1933—the two men’s sexual involvement. But they had a serious side, highlighted in Robert E. Sherwood’s brooding prewar allegory Idiot’s Delight and his patriotic drama There Shall Be No Night, which they played amidst bombs falling over Fontanne’s native England in 1943. When relaxing, they retreated in high style to their country manor in Lunt’s home state, Wisconsin, where he could cook and redecorate to his heart’s content while she sewed her ultra-chic clothes. Capably following their busy career and social life—friends included Alexander Woollcott, Helen Hayes, and Laurence Olivier—Peters hews to the accepted wisdom that Fontanne was a brilliant technician, Lunt a truly great actor who slightly limited himself after 1928 by working only with her. Both were relentless perfectionists who refined their performances long after the Broadway premieres, in the vanished days when stars routinely made national tours and successful actors worked exclusively year-round on the stage. Peters’s footnotes are spotty, and she stoops at least once to inventing a conversation, but she colorfully evokes her subjects’ theatrical personalities and stylish amusements nonetheless.

An appealing portrait of the attractive Lunts and of Broadway in its heyday.

Pub Date: Oct. 23rd, 2003
ISBN: 0-375-41117-8
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 2003