Special 5 Questions: Lizzie Borden Interviews Nance O’Neil


Nance O’Neil, who lived to 90 and died in 1965, is a footnote figure in the annals of the American stage and screen. She wasn’t so much a New York top-star personality as someone who make a living appearing in new plays as well as those of the likes of Ibsen and Shakespeare, and toured, toured, toured. By the 1910s she was breaking through to the silents and then she even managed to transition to the talkies, which sets her apart from your average footnote figure by several degrees of accomplishment.

The notorious Lizzie Borden.

Still, were it not for one other peculiar, particular element in O’Neil’s biography, we wouldn’t even think of her. She was close friends, and very possibly lovers, with the infamous Lizzie Borden. Yes, that’s right, Lizzie Borden of 40-whacks-to-her-father-and-stepmother fame.

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The year is 1904, and O’Neil arrives in Boston with a suitcase full of repertory characters — tragic heroines like Camille, Hedda Gabler and Lady Macbeth. Borden, who was acquitted of whacking her father and stepmother with an axe 12 years earlier, became intimates — Borden was a huge devotee of the theater and, indeed, quickly became a devotee of O’Neil as well. The question is what the true nature of their relationship was, or could have been. After all, the women’s passionate attachment became the talk of Boston and especially Fall River — Borden’s hometown and the site of the brutal murders that had cast a shadow over her life.

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O’Neil was married from 1916 to 1931. But this is some years beforehand — and while Borden was well-to-do, O’Neil certainly was not. Conclude anything you like. The point is that the “romance” faded as such things must, but the basic question remains: what happened between them?

To be sure, there have been several examinations of the O’Neil-Borden relationship before; many people are aware of Evan Hunter’s book Lizzie, which poses the idea that there was something between the ladies more significant than tea and biscuits. Now, here comes Nance O’Neil, a new play by David Foley, directed by Gary Schrader and produced by the ever-intrepid Blue Coyote Theater Group. Rachel Brown, better known as the burlesque performer Sapphire Jones, plays O’Neil; Jonna McElrath portrays the bad-girl Borden. Frank Anderson is suiting up as McKee Rankin, a showbiz impresario and O’Neil’s manager, while Jane Titus completes the cast in the role of Borden’s sister, Emma.

Now, you’ll never guess what happened. Lizzie Borden contacted me from the great beyond, right here at the Clyde Fitch Report. You see, it’s entirely possible that O’Neil and Fitch knew each other, and certainly Fitch knew of dear Lizzie. Borden told me directly that with Foley’s play coming up, she had seized the initiative and was scheduled to meet up with O’Neil at a “spectral wine bar” and would interview her.

I said I’d be honored to publish such a piece, so that’s what you’ll be reading below.

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Nance O’Neil begins previews Sept. 8, opens Sept. 15 and runs through Oct. 9 at the Access Theater (380 Broadway, north of White St.). For more information and tickets, call 212-868-4444 or visit www.smarttix.com.

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And now, a Special 5 Questions, including Borden’s specially-provided introduction, in which Lizzie Borden interviews Nance O’Neil:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?

The beautiful Nance O'Neil

I would like, if I may, to combine the first two questions into one, since I think the most idiotic question I’ve ever been asked was also, in its way, the most perceptive. One night as I was leaving the theater after a particularly grueling performance of Hedda Gabler, a woman at the stage door thrust her program at me. She gave me a very silly grin, as if she’d caught me doing something naughty, and said, “Confess! You are Hedda Gabler, aren’t you?” As I say, I was drained, and I’m afraid the smile I gave her as I signed her program was not very warm. Certainly, I ignored the question. It struck me as just the kind of idiotic mistake people are always making about acting. They cannot separate the artifice from the reality. Theatre is illusion. Acting is illusion. I am no more Hedda Gabler than I am your Aunt Sally (or perhaps I should say your sister Emma). One might as well say that Ibsen was Hedda Gabler because he wrote her! But, of course, even idiotic questions can nag at one, and I did think about it later. I wondered in what way it might be true. Hedda is a thwarted artist, after all. “Do it beautifully,” she tells Eilert Lovborg. The power of the artist lies in his ability to create something beautiful, but in Hedda it’s a destructive power. I wondered if there’s always this destructive side to art. And I wondered if great acts of destruction could also be great works of art. It’s a disturbing question, but I did begin to see something of Hedda in myself. There’s a recklessness to art. Art doesn’t care what damage it does as long as it achieves beauty. I wondered to what extent this might be true of me. Or indeed Ibsen. Perhaps he was Hedda Gabler after all.

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3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
A reporter once asked me if you — Lizzie Borden — had made me a better actress. I thought it a very strange question. Of course, if one is an artist, one hopes that all one’s experience feeds one’s art. But why people should obsess over my friendship with you is beyond me. We knew each other a very short time, a time during which, I might add, I knew a great many other people as well. Nobody ever asks me if this or that person of my acquaintance made me a better actress. I suppose it’s your notoriety that makes it so fascinating to them. But it fascinates them, not me. I asked the reporter what he meant by such a question, but he had no answer. “It was just an idea I had,” he said, and smiled rather mysteriously. It obviously wasn’t a question at all. It was a provocation. This question I did not think about afterwards. It upset me very much, if you must know.

4) In 1920, you wrote an essay in which you said you always played the “unloved woman.” Were you thinking about me when you wrote it? Was I an “unloved woman”?
Really, Lizbeth, I believe that is now the weirdest question anyone has ever asked me. Surely, you are in a better position than I to say whether you were unloved or not. As for that essay, I wrote it 15 years after we knew each other. I can honestly say you never crossed my mind during its composition. For your readers who might not be familiar with the essay, I was addressing an interesting point that someone had raised. This person had said that I always played the unloved woman on the stage, the woman crucified by convention, the woman whose very soul is betrayed, crushed, by circumstance. Hedda, Magda, Lady Macbeth. My point was that, in these roles, I saw something essential to the fate of women everywhere. How often women are chained by circumstance! How fierce, sometimes, is their struggle to free themselves! And how great is the cost of that struggle! And, yes, I suppose, if you think about it (you’re forcing me to recall the words I wrote), one or two of my descriptions could conceivably apply to you. I believe I talked about “women who live out their destinies in the small places into which they have been driven.” I told you this myself. I asked you why you continued to live in Fall River — a small enough place! certainly small-minded! — when you had the whole world at your disposal. And if you care to consider that your failure to leave Fall River as a kind of tragedy, I cannot argue with you. Now, I remember that I also said something about the woman who ultimately rebels: “Some day the storm that has been brewing in her silent, patient soul bursts, uproots the commonplace things in her life, and leaves a barren waste about her.” Again, whether or not these words apply to you is a question only you can answer. As I’ve already said, I had no thought of you when I wrote them.

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5) You’ve spoken frequently about the destiny of women and the importance of women’s freedom, and yet you yourself seemed always to be under the thumb of some man: McKee Rankin, David Belasco, Alfred Hickman. Do I spot a contradiction?
No one knows better than you, Lizbeth, how hard it can be to get out from under the thumb of a domineering man. Sometimes extreme measures are called for, and rare is the woman who has the courage to take them. I disagree, however, that I was always under the thumb of some man. I was fortunate to work with brilliant men who taught me much and helped me to navigate my career. No actress can hope to devote herself to her art and at the same time deal with details of business, contracts, decisions about where to play and when, who needs to be flattered, who ignored. One side or the other must suffer, and I always chose art and had men to take care of the business. But I was always my own woman. Nobody owned me. This requires vigilance. You must always be wary of the person — man or woman — who seeks to get a hold over you, who wants to curtail your freedom. That is my one rule. Never give up your freedom for anyone!

Bonus Question:

6) In 2010, the quickest way to fame is either to be notorious or to know someone notorious. Do you think you were ahead of your time?
As I’ve said more than once, I don’t believe that calculations of any kind should enter into human relationships. Any thought of advantage or usefulness is poison to the true intercourse of human souls. I reject it utterly. As for notoriety, it’s a double-edged sword. I lived from 1872 to 1965 — 93 years! But Google my name and the first thing you’ll find is the name of a woman I knew briefly when I was barely 30. How many Web surfers continue their search from there to learn about my career: that I toured all over the world, that I interpreted some of the greatest tragic roles in dramatic literature, that I was compared to Bernhardt and Duse, that I acted in both sound and silent films? And yet, if my name were not associated with yours, would anyone remember me at all? Perhaps they only know about my career — those that do — because you bring me to their attention. It’s a curious question. Perhaps I could turn it around on you, Lizbeth. Given the choice, would you rather be forgotten by history or would you rather be Lizzie Borden?