5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Clyde Fitch and Elsie De Wolfe
Something extraordinary happened the other day and none of you will believe it. Clyde Fitch, the namesake of this blog, returned from the dead and visited with the CFR Staff. And with him he brought none other than the great Elsie de Wolfe — and together they looked divine for individuals cremated decades ago. Fitch’s sudden appearance here at CFR headquarters was punctuated by the late playwright continually brushing off bits of ash from his fey grey fur collar — an odd sartorial choice for September, to be sure.
De Wolfe, who began her career as a Broadway actress, spent a goodly number of years as the romantic and professional companion to Elizabeth Marbury, one of the first great American theatrical literary agents, having introduced the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde to these shores, and certainly among the very first women to occupy such a powerful position on the American stage. Later, no doubt inspired by the woman she called “Bessie,” de Wolfe emerged in her own right as a producer. Standing before us, she was put together as if from heaven — intricate white lace and a very high collar accented a smile so coy, so thin-lipped and so deliriously mischievous that it occurred to us immediately that this woman could probably run a red light in the middle of Manhattan and that smile would get her out of a ticket. Which de Wolfe, of course, would cherish as a moment of irony, for she was one of the first stage celebrities of the fin de siecle to motor around town in an automobile. And that fact inevitably leads us to the story of how Fitch, directing her in his 1903 play The Way of the World (not to be confused with the William Congreve play), grew weary of observing de Wolfe waving to her friends and fans in the audience upon entering the stage. True, de Wolfe had formed her own production company to mount the play, but Fitch was Fitch — such breaks in character were insupportable. And so, thinking smartly, Fitch commanded de Wolfe to drive from one end of the stage to the other at the top of the play. Such are the ways of great stories about the theater.
Meanwhile, as we found ourselves staring at Fitch, still more ash coming off his fey grey fur collar, and as we marveled at de Wolfe, so angelic in white, Fitch reminded us of the real reason we remember de Wolfe today: she was, bar none, the iconic founding mother of American interior design. (Her marriage to Lord Mendl came later.) To which de Wolfe merely nodded in our direction and smiled that coy smile yet again.
Fitch then explained to us that the reason for their sudden materialization at CFR headquarters was the mounting buzz surrounding The Bachelors’ Tea Party, a new play that was first presented late last spring by the Stolen Chair Theatre Company. The play is poised, it seems, to become the most successful work in the nearly decade-long history of the endlessly inventive and scrappy troupe. Written by resident scribe Kiran Rikhye and staged by resident director Jon Stancato, the trick, if you will, is that the play is performing at Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon, the elegant and transporting adjunct to the tony Inn at Irving Place. And while The Bachelors’ Tea Party references the famous friendship and professional relationship between Fitch and de Wolfe, the play is really about the relationship between de Wolfe and Marbury. And how, as Rikhye pictures it, the dynamic between those dames wasn’t always as dainty as afternoon tea.
Speaking of which, much like the magical materialization of Fitch and de Wolfe before our disbelieving eyes, the play’s tone is distinctly surreal and absurdly comedic, particularly as it unfolds during the superb five-course service offered by the Tea Salon. Each “act” is brief, but illuminating. And in addition to the actresses portraying Marbury and de Wolfe (Liz Eckert and Jody Flader or Amanda Sykes and Natalie Hegg, depending on the performance), two characters, including Fitch, are played by porcelain dolls.
Fitch was famously consumed by aesthetic pleasure in life. And there was no reason, he said, for him to slack off in death. He was clear, he added, that Rikhye’s play pivots on a provocative and moving truth: a lesbian power couple existed 100 years ago and the two women, both individually and together, achieved extraordinary things at a time when the mere existence of such a relationship was, societally, beyond verboten.
At the same time, Fitch jealously guards his legacy — and flicked off his person still more ash — and said that he felt that the staff of the CFR ought to give him an opportunity to interview de Wolfe about the play.
And then he looked at our laptop and spoke to it directly as if it was a person. In his trademark high-pitched voice, he intoned:
If all of you dear readers don’t high-tail it to The Bachelors’ Tea Party, which performs every Sunday at 5pm (and costs $55 — $15 for the ticket, $40 for the tea service), I will personally materialize in your home or your workplace and lecture you remorselessly on the virtues of rococo and chintz.
We were terrified.
And so, here are 5 questions — well, more than five — asked by Clyde Fitch of Elsie de Wolfe, with a little help from Rikhye and Stancato:
Elsie de Wolfe: Hello, Clyde, dear! Thank you so very much for bringing us here and asking all of these lovely questions you’re about to ask. But as I am, at this point, really just a fictional character, I’m going to let the charming boy from Stolen Chair, Jon Stancato, answer your first three questions and then you and I can have an intimate chat about your other delicious queries. Jon, can you handle that?
Jon Stancato: Thanks, Elsie. I’ll do my best, though admittedly I lack your flair.
Clyde: All right then. What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Jon: “Do Elsie and Bessie think the dolls (including one Mr. Clyde Fitch!) who come to take tea with them are real or are they part of an elaborate game between them?” We love watching people grapple with this over the course of the play. We, obviously, as the play’s creators, needed to answer this for ourselves in the rehearsal process, but we’d rather you develop your own pet theory as the show unfolds.
Clyde: What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Jon: “Why is there a high tea served with the show?” (The play is accompanied by Lady Mendl’s extraordinary five-course high tea because a) it’s delightful, b) it immerses the audience in the world of the play, c) it transforms the play into an intimate social experience wherein the audience members can engage each other in the same soul-searching and silly discussions that Elsie and Bessie engage in on stage, and d) it’s delightful.)
Clyde: What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Jon: “Can I get a picture of myself taken with the dolls?” Yes, yes you can. But you should post it on Instagramatwitterbook so that more people come and tea party with us! For what it’s worth, Clyde, your porcelain counterpart is quite popular come photo time.
Clyde: And now, Elsie, it’s your turn.
Elsie: Indeed, it is! Ask me anything. Well, almost anything.
Clyde: How does it feel to be immortalized in a play most critics call “absurd”? No one ever says that about any of my plays. And thinking back, what was so absurd about the years you spent living and working with Bessie Marbury — or starring in my plays? If there is one thing Kiran should have included in her play but didn’t (for reasons of time or style or whatnot), what would it have been?
Elsie: Ugh! She has me sitting in a chair for nearly the entire play! You know as well as I do that I only sat in a chair long enough to straighten my petticoats after a handspring. At least she lets me do one headstand! But really! And the costume that Julie Schworm designed for me is wonderful but — you did note the singular there, yes? Costume! I’m not sure if it was budgetary restraints or poor judgment, but when I was on Broadway I was in a different dress every third line I spoke. Truthfully, dear Clyde, I think it’s a shame that the audience only sees me for one year of my life. What about the period of my life when I invented the art and business of interior decoration? What about when I nursed all of those French soldiers back to health in the Great War? What about when I became Lady Mendl? What about when I met Mr. Mussolini? And, as for the absurdity, I must admit I’m quite pleased. To live a life anything less than absurd is to be asleep.
Clyde: Can you describe what you and Bessie liked, loved and loathed about each other most? And if, from the Great Beyond, you could pose one question or one statement to Bessie, what would it be and why?
Elsie: What a woman Bessie was! She could lecture you, close a five-figure deal and tell a dirty joke in the same breath. She was a marvelous companion for the many years we reigned over Irving Place as “The Bachelors” (not to mention our many summers at Versailles!), but let’s see…what did I loathe? Well, while I certainly know without her I would have taken up with some average financier and lived a life of middle-class drudgery, her sense of practicality sometimes outran my sense of fun.
Clyde: Elsie, dear, Bessie has responded from the Great Beyond! Telepathically she is asking me: “What do you think of the state of women in the world of business today, over a hundred years after you and I blazed trails and started our own businesses?”
Elsie: I imagine she’d say something extraordinarily snide, and for that I miss her tremendously.
Clyde: Of course, I am currently represented in The Bachelors’ Tea Party by, of all things, a porcelain doll. I know I was fair skinned when I was alive, but that is, frankly, beyond the pale. Could you, Elsie, tell the playwright Kiran why Clyde Fitch was so much more vivacious in person? And could you tell her that you, Elsie, would make a far more fabulous porcelain doll?
Elsie: Oh, dear Clyde, are you really that upset that they turned you into a doll? You see, it would have been very difficult on Stolen Chair’s budget, or so Jon tells me, to find an actor capable of resurrecting your energy, joie de vivre, and, dare I say, flamboyance.
Jon: I mean, Clyde, very difficult.
Elsie: I think you’d much rather see yourself as a dapper doll and let the audience imagine your fabulous vivacity than see some hack of a thespian fail to embody all that you were. As for me as a porcelain doll, I don’t think that’s a very good idea at all. I’d certainly be shattered by the end of the day, and do you really think I’m the sort of girl who just waits on a shelf until someone decides to play with her? I suppose having those porcelain features would be nice, though, as I simply don’t think I’m nearly as good-looking as I should be.
Clyde: If I were to suggest we attend the theatre this evening, what would you like to see most and why?
Elsie: How I wish, wish, wish they made plays these days like the ones that you and I made, Clyde.
Clyde: Darling, I made them. You played them.
Elsie: Nevertheless, Clyde, my point is that Miss Saigon “flew” a helicopter on stage, but you and I were driving automobiles onto the stage during in the first decade of the last century! And Spider-Man? Your arch rival, J.M. Barrie, was flying his little green imp Peter Pan over a hundred years ago! No, I think it’s simply better for us to take tea at Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon on Sunday at 5pm and let us celebrate the good old days.
Jon: Nice plug, Elsie.
Elsie: Of course, Jon. This is so much more delightful than being dead.