Design for Living: Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne

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.

More Reviews

  • Hugh Jackman 39th Brit Awards, Show,

    Concert Review: Hugh Jackman Sparkles and Shines at the Hollywood Bowl

    Hugh Jackman is out to prove he truly is the greatest showman. On Friday and Saturday night, Jackman’s “The Man. The Music. The Show.” world tour stopped in Los Angeles for a sold-out two nights at the Hollywood Bowl. Ten years ago, Jackman hosted the 2009 Oscars just a few blocks south of the venue at [...]

  • Adam Lambert Queen

    Concert Review: Queen and Adam Lambert Capitalize on 'Bohemian Rhapsody'

    About half way through Queen and Adam Lambert’s Saturday night show at the Forum in Inglewood, guitarist Brian May took the stage solo to perform a few numbers. He began by acknowledging that day’s 50th anniversary of the first manned moon landing, as the video screen behind him streamed a real-time replay of the Apollo [...]

  • A Faithful Man

    Film Review: 'A Faithful Man'

    French actor Louis Garrel has been married twice, first to Iranian talent Golshifteh Farahani, and now to model-cum-actress Laetitia Casta. He has also directed two features, the first a free-wheeling love-triangle comedy called “Two Friends” in which Garrel plays the cad who comes between his best friend and the object of his obsession (played by [...]

  • Because of Winn Dixie review

    Regional Theater Review: 'Because of Winn Dixie,' the Musical

    Watching the musical “Because of Winn Dixie” at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Conn., it’s hard not to think of another show that premiered in the same regional theater 43 years ago. It, too, featured a scruffy stray dog, a lonely-but-enterprising young girl and a closed-off daddy who finally opens up. But “Winn Dixie,” based [...]

  • Above the Shadows

    Film Review: ‘Above the Shadows’

    Grief-fueled romantic fantasies can be tricky for filmmakers not named Wim Wenders. Everyone aspires to make “Wings of Desire” with its stirring immediacy, beautiful imagery and pressing poignancy, but most wind up delivering something closer to its decent but dreary American remake, “City of Angels” — which could also be said for writer-director Claudia Myers’ [...]

  • The Lion King The Gift

    Album Review: Beyoncé’s 'The Lion King: The Gift'

    Before touching down on what Beyoncé has called her “love letter to Africa,” it’s important to see what may have brought her to the mother of mankind, with its wide vistas and sonic planes, for “The Gift” in the first place — beyond, of course, voicing Nala in the film and whatever international marketing tie-ins [...]


    Off Broadway Review: 'Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow'

    There’s something about Anton Chekhov’s whiny sisters that invites comic sendups of “Three Sisters” like the one Halley Feiffer wrote on commission for the Williamstown Theater Festival. Transferred to MCC Theater’s new Off Broadway space and playing in the round in a black box with limited seating capacity, the crafty show feels intimate and familiar. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content