Of all the so-called first ladies of the American theater, it is probable that Eva Le Gallienne (1899-1991) has become the least known to the public at large. This may be partly because she spent many years in noncommercial theater and she did not make her few films until she was well into middle age. She was in some ways the most significant, however, because of her founding of the Civic Repertory Company, the first important American repertory theater group.
Openly lesbian at a time when public mores were much stricter, Le Gallienne led a generally unconventional life, in large measure because of her equally unconventional parents. The only offspring of an activist Danish mother and English poet father, whom she really never knew, she was reared and educated in Europe where she learned to speak several languages. There she came to know great stage actresses such as Sarah Bernhardt, and eventually worked with many other legendary ones such as Maxine Elliot, Alla Nazimova, and Ethel Barrymore.
Eva Le Gallienne was always precocious beyond her years and reached Broadway stardom at the age of twenty-two in Ferenc Molnar’s LILIOM. She was physically endowed to play the great romantic leading roles, being strikingly pretty and possessed of a fine contralto speaking voice. She also was singleminded and possessed of the vision that American theater should be more than the commercial sell-out she considered Broadway.
Le Gallienne’s repertory company flourished during the 1920’s when she presented plays by Henrik Ibsen, William Shakespeare, and the other great classical authors but it could not withstand the Depression and was forced to disband. She thereupon returned to Broadway where she continued to distinguish herself in a long series of plays until the 1980’s. She also wrote two autobiographies and played supporting roles in three films. Her last, RESURRECTION (1979) garnered her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
Sheehy was fortunate to have had access to many of Eva Le Gallienne’s fellow actors, friends and lovers as well as to a treasure trove of letters and other documents. The book is literally packed with detail and thus is possibly more than the reader will ever want to know about the actress. Yet she has successfully captured the complexities of the woman as well, and that is what makes this the undoubted definitive biography. A stageography would have been a welcome addition.