They ruled the American theater from 1924 through 1958, the year of their final joint triumph in Friedrich Durrenmat's mordant satire, "The Visit." Making good use of quotes from the chatty duo and many a show-biz memoir, veteran biographer Margot Peters colorfully evokes the Lunts' dramatic personalities and tireless dedication to their craft.

They ruled the American theater from 1924, when their dazzling partnership debuted with Ferenc Molnar’s witty two-hander, “The Guardsman,” through 1958, the year of their final joint triumph in Friedrich Durrenmat’s mordant satire, “The Visit.” Their careers flourished in those bygone days when stars routinely made national tours and successful actors worked exclusively year-round on the stage. Their friends included other glamorous theater folk like Noel Coward and Laurence Olivier. Making good use of quotes from the chatty duo, contemporary journalism, and many a show-biz memoir, veteran biographer Margot Peters colorfully evokes the Lunts’ dramatic personalities, stylish amusements, and tireless dedication to their craft.

No one ever questioned their lifelong devotion, though insiders assumed that the offstage union of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne was a “white marriage” between a gay man and a bisexual woman. Peters seems to agree, though she never comes right out and says so, respecting the reticence of a more discreet age.

On occasion, especially when goaded by best buddy Coward, the couple would teasingly hint that their private lives might not play in Peoria: their scandalous 1933 hit, “Design for Living,” allowed the playwright/performer and his costars to romp through a threesome implying the sexual involvement of two men. That production showcased the flawless comic gifts for which the Lunts were particularly admired, but they also had a serious side, highlighted in Robert E. Sherwood’s brooding 1936 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. But they seldom stayed long; the theater was their true home. Both were relentless perfectionists who refined their performances long after opening night, though in the 1950s critics began to carp that they were squandering their talents in trivial vehicles.

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. Yet the author obviously adores her subjects and vividly conveys their sophisticated panache.

As poor young marrieds, “they ate off an orange crate, siting on Biedermeier chairs.” After Lunt’s death, Fontanne toasted him with a glass of champagne, saying simply, “To Alfred.” We will not see their like again.

Design for Living: Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne

Knopf; 400 pgs.; $30

Production

by Margot Peters

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