Who Was Clyde Fitch?

The unapologetic dandy.

Eighteen days after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in a box inside of Ford’s Theatre — the date was May 2, 1865 — William Clyde Fitch was born in Elmira, New York. The child of a Union army officer and a gregarious, exuberant southern belle, Clyde Fitch’s destiny was the theatre, too — hundreds of them. By his death on Sept. 4, 1909, he was one of the most successful, popular, prolific and controversial playwrights of the late-19th and early-20th century. Like the creative artists of our own era, Fitch lived in a transitional moment of social and political transition and upheaval. His work surely reflected the dramatic tastes of his day, but with only one foot planted in Victorian and Edwardian aesthetics, in the melodramatic mode. Fitch was also looking to naturalism, to realism and toward the oncoming, onrushing American century.

During the 19-year period that began in 1890, Fitch authored at least 62 plays — 36 original scripts, 21 adaptations and five dramatizations of novels. On two occasions, he had four plays running on Broadway; on one occasion, he had five. He constructed plays for all the stars of the gilded fin de siecle — from his first play, Beau Brummell, commissioned by the narcissistic actor Richard Mansfield; to his breakthrough play, Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, which crowned 21-year-old Ethel Barrymore the queen of Rialto; to The City, his final play, produced triumphantly after his death. Fitch’s style and influence defies understatement. Maude Adams (before achieving her own vast fame as the first Peter Pan), John Barrymore (in his Broadway debut), Helena Mojeska (in national tours), Herbert Beerbohm-Tree (direct from London) were but some of the luminaries in the Fitchean constellation.

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The man without a biography

There are scores of scholarly and journalistic essays about, and reminiscences of, Clyde Fitch and more than a dozen doctoral dissertations. There was published, in 1915, a sumptuous four-volume anthology of Fitch’s collected plays, and, in 1924, a selective anthology of his mountainous correspondence. Yet no non-academic biography has been written of a man whose work and achievement in the theatre is only matched by the colossus that was his personality. Critically, Fitch was maligned as often as he was mocked, yet he lived in his life in the midst of irony, having been made extraordinarily rich by the audiences who worshiped him.

A caricature from Sunday World Magazine.

Fitch was gay. And it wasn’t much of a secret. For example, there are tales of his legendary sartorial flamboyance, full of bold colors, unusual patterns and cuts that marked him a dandy and a “sissy.” His effeminacy was his calling card. One school chum who later became a critic, fondly recalled how the “motive power” in Fitch’s hips resembled a “gay sidewheel excursion steamer,” with the port and starboard wheels moving in turn instead of together, and the voice of a “hysterical woman who just missed the train.”

The voluminous accounts of Fitch’s life and work rarely confront the man’s sexuality, yet he stood at the center of an energetic and colorful coterie of gay- and gay-friendly friends and colleagues. We may anchor Fitch’s personal life first by his letters to Oscar Wilde and evidence that Fitch had an affair — certainly sex — with the Irish playwright, and further evidence that Wilde brushed Fitch aside when Lord Alfred Douglas entered the scene.

In a period when playwrights rarely worked with literary agents, Fitch’s agent was a lesbian of great historical note named Elizabeth Marbury; it was Marbury, for example, who brought the plays of Shaw and Wilde to America. Fitch’s main producer, Charles Frohman, was a master Broadway showman and homosexual who died on the Lusitania. To really fathom Fitch the playwright, however, one must acknowledge how manfully he hid his sexuality in plain sight. One writer of a 1903 magazine profile gushed exhaustively over Fitch’s splendid townhouse on East 40th Street — including the male nude statuary positioned in the hallways.

Another Fitch anecdote, also from 1903, illustrates one of the many ways in which he was distinct from other dramatists of his time. Fitch, who directed most of his own plays starting around 1900, cast as the leading lady in The Way of the World (not the Restoration comedy by Congreve) a tall and angular woman named Elsie de Wolfe. She was Marbury’s partner and another member of the aforementioned coterie. As an actress, de Wolfe could be maddening — that is, maddeningly limited in her range. And the exacting Fitch was most distressed by de Wolfe’s habit of waving to fans and friends in the audience when she made her entrance. Yet rather than to scold de Wolfe for continually breaching her character, Fitch rethought the scene, finally instructing de Wolfe not to enter the stage on foot but instead to drive a car across the stage, from which place waving would seem perfectly natural. Long after Fitch’s death, long after leaving Marbury’s arms, de Wolfe gained more lasting fame as the founding mother of American interior design, and shocking polite society by marrying Lord Mendl.

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The muse of the leisure class

Fitch’s signature from 1905.

From early on, Fitch established himself as a playwright and chronicler of the leisure class, be it nobility, the rising nouveau riche or high society. The plays he wrote during the first half of his career covered histories of theme and character (Beau Brummell, Frederick Lemaitre, His Grace de Grammont); simple tales of well-to-do families in suspenseful distress (Pamela’s Prodigy, April Weather, A Superfluous Husband); romances occurring in European drawing rooms and New York’s gilded manses (The Masked Ball, The Social Swim, An American Duchess); and very free adaptations from fiction (Bohemia, taken from the same source, La Vie de Boheme, as the opera by Puccini).

Moreover, while Fitch’s decision to install de Wolfe in a car and have her drive it across a Broadway stage was inspired, it was not surprising, given the playwright’s penchant for spectacular settings. There was a Wild West play (The Cowboy and the Lady); a play that began with a funeral and ended with a wedding (The Climbers);  a play of the Civil War (Barbara Frietchie) and two of the Revolutionary War (Nathan Hale, Major Andre); a play on the deck of an ocean liner (The Stubbornness of Geraldine). And who designed them? Fitch, of course, with impeccable attention as well to costuming. lighting and stage properties.

While Fitch’s visuals could astonish, he clearly aspired to write the kind of realistic, psychology-driven dramas then associated with the likes of Ibsen, Shaw and Rostand — the latter, author of Cyrano de Bergerac, being his personal favorite. While he died too young and was far too prolix for history to record whether he was as gifted and as innovative as those writers, Fitch did comprehend that even a frisson of psychological authenticity can greatly please an audience — witness the unrestrained jealousy of Fitch’s Jinny Austin in his The Girl with the Green Eyes; observe Becky Warder’s habitual lying in Fitch’s masterful The Truth. But at the same time that Fitch was striving toward a more meaningful and modern theatre, he was also a business. He wanted to please his audience by whatever means were available to him. His lifestyle — one wag said “he lived like a sultan” — pretty much demanded it. The annual income from Fitch’s plays was put at $250,000 a year by his death. And that was in the era before income tax, and equivalent to as much as $20 million annually today.

Relative to Fitch’s 62 scripts, the number of them that are easily revivable today is probably low; in New York, a few productions have been mounted since the turn of the 21st century but nothing farther afield. Most of Fitch’s most successful plays were filmed during the silent era, but perhaps the best known version is Beau Brummell, released in 1954 starring the dashing Farley Granger.

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No stranger to controversy

Fitch’s plays sparked legal fires. His Sapho, adapted from an Alphonse Daudet novel, led to a noted First Amendment case involving an English-born actress named Olga Nethersole. After playing a scene in a diaphanous gown, the play’s hero whisked Nethersole offstage, leaving the audience reasonably sure that her virtue would soon blow away in the wind. She was soon arrested on stage along with her costar, charged with indecent conduct. As Nethersole was as much a press monger as a tragedienne, her trial became a national story and the play’s fortunes soared — much to the consternation of Fitch, who fled for Europe.

Fitch’s plays sparked moral fires. In The City, Fitch wished to reply to the many critics who claimed his plays limned women characters too superbly — that Fitch, for all his fame, could not write a “man’s play.” The playwright’s audacious use of one word in The City — “goddamn,” uttered by an actor at top voice — marked the first time an expletive was uttered at a Broadway performance.

The opening-night audience supposedly fainted.

Fitch himself attracted drama. The Truth did poorly on Broadway but proved a huge hit in London. Fitch’s close friend, actress Clara Bloodgood — for whom he wrote parts in three different plays, including the lead role in The Truth — came to feel that Fitch preferred the acting of Marie Tempest, the British star of The Truth, to her own. So she committed suicide with a pistol moments before a performance in Baltimore.

In a memoir called The Clyde Fitch I Knew, author Archie Bell offers a recollection that hints at Fitch as something of a literary lion:

Several years ago, when it had come to the ears of Giacomo Puccini, the composer, that Fitch was a gifted poet, he sought him out during an automobile tour around Florence and asked him to write the libretto for an American opera which Puccini said he was anxious to compose…Fitch viewed the matter from various angles, and for a time was enthusiastic concerning the project…he later decided that when he wrote lyrical lines for the stage, it would be for his own drama, his masterpiece, which he hoped to give the American public.

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Critics: love and hate

Like many artists, Fitch hungered for critical praise, but in his case, he grew skin thick enough to disavow its importance. Indeed, he befriended most of the critics who took him to task. The first and most crucial of these relationships was with Edward A. Dithmar, chief drama critic of the New York Times from 1884 until 1901. It was Dithmar who suggested to Mansfield that he hire Fitch to write Beau Brummell. The second critic was William Winter, whose reign at the New York Tribune precisely covered the span of Fitch’s life (1865-1909) and who publicly accused Fitch of stealing the idea for Beau Brummell from himself and his friend Mansfield. The third critic was Dithmar’s successor at the Times, John Corbin, a Shakespeare scholar who noted Fitch’s potential for greatness, who valued Fitch’s friendship, and who grew impatient with the unevenness of Fitch’s output. The fourth critic was the colorful and divisive Alfred J. Cohen, whose pen name was Alan Dale, first of the New York Evening World, then of the Journal-American. (This meant he worked for Joseph Pulitzer and then he worked for William Randolph Hearst.) Dale was no friend of Fitch; it is not even certain that they were acquainted. But Dale wrote A Marriage Below Zero, considered the first English novel to depict a male homosexual relationship. In it, the central character dies.

Dithmar, Winter, Corbin and Dale had their views on Fitch the playwright and Fitch the man, but few views were as pointed as those of James Huneker of the New York Sun. Huneker also sensed the potential for greatness in Fitch but finally wearied of the playwright’s inability to fulfill it:

Go to Switzerland, Mr. Fitch. Forget all about your promises to Charles Frohman, your promises to your bankers, and think only of the artistic future of Mr. Clyde Fitch. You have one foot in the stirrup. Get both. And then gallop on to a hazard of new fortune and fame that shall be permanent.

But the opposite is what proved true. When Fitch died (in Chalons-sur-Marne, France, of appendicitis), he left no will. It took three years for his elderly parents to dispense with his estate — not just hundreds of priceless antiques collected during annual jaunts to Europe, but sprawling properties in Greenwich, Connecticut and Katonah, New York (literally called “The Other Place”). Copyrights to his plays were bequeathed to the Actors’ Fund after the death of his father, in 1916, and his mother, in 1918.

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Mysteries remain

So many questions remain about Clyde Fitch. For example, what accounts for the total collapse of his stature in the American theatre since his death?

Other questions may be easier to answer. How did Frohman persuade Fitch to work with Edith Wharton on her ill-fated stage adaptation of The House of Mirth? Just who was that deranged chorine who called herself “Vera Fitch” and shot herself in the Hotel Astor, claiming distress over the death of “Uncle Clyde”? How is it that Alice Cooper bought the remains of Fitch’s Connecticut estate and burned it down in the 1970s?

Let’s not end Fitch’s story with images from newspaper articles of singing nuns beside his body in a candle-lit French church — or of his mother’s long, lonely, brokenhearted voyage across the Atlantic to collect the body of her son. Let’s end Fitch’s story by underscoring that the phrase “American playwright” was all but unimportant when the playwright’s career began — and the stuff of legend when it ended.