Cora Witherspoon (January 5, 1890 – November 17, 1957) was an American stage and film character actress whose career spanned nearly half a century. She began in theatre where she remained rooted even after entering motion pictures in the early 1930s. As Witherspoon’s career progressed, she carved a niche playing haughty society women or harridan housewives such as Princess Lina in Ferenc Molnár's 1928 play Olympia, or Agatha Sousè, W.C. Fields’ domineering spouse in the 1940 film The Bank Dick. John Springer and Jack Hamilton, authors of They Had Faces Then: Super Stars, Stars, and Starlets of the 1930's (1974), wrote that "Witherspoon was blessed with a face that might have been drawn by one of those cartoonists who specialize in dealing with the war between men and women."
As Gypsy in Dangerous Number (1937)
|Born||January 5, 1890|
New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.
|Died||November 17, 1957 67) (aged|
Las Cruces, New Mexico, U.S.
|Resting place||Metairie Cemetery|
She was born in New Orleans, to Cora S. Bell and Henry Edgeworth Witherspoon. Her father was an assistant surgeon with the Confederate Army during the American Civil War while her mother was an aunt of the civil rights advocate Judge John Minor Wisdom. Witherspoon was orphaned by age 10 and raised at least in part by her older sister, Maud, who, while still in her teens founded the Maud Witherspoon Rag Doll Manufacturing Company. Witherspoon's ancestors had reportedly once owned Ellington Plantation in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana.
Witherspoon made her professional stage debut in 1905 with a New Orleans stock company. She first appeared in New York at the Belasco Theatre in the 1910 hit comedy The Concert, which was Leo Ditrichstein's adaptation of the stage play, in which the 20-year-old actress portrayed the 76-year-old Edith Gordon. Witherspoon appeared with Ditrichstein in September 1913 for a four-month run at the Belasco and briefly the Theatre Republic playing Fanny Lamont in The Temperamental Journey, from the comedy Pour Vivre Heureux by Andre Rivoire and Yves Mirandeis. From September 1914 into the following May at the Gaiety Theatre, she played Sally McBride in Jean Webster’s comedy Daddy Long Legs.
Witherspoon had a long run between November 1915 and June 1916 at the Longacre Theatre as Mrs. Van Ness in The Great Lover, another play by Ditrichstein, written in collaboration with Fanny and Frederic Hatton. She remained active on stage for another three decades often in long-running Broadway plays, such as:
- Miss Risdon in Three Faces East by Anthony Paul Kelly (1918/19)
- Gertrude Ainlee in Lilies of the Field by William J. Hurlbut (1921/22)
- Josephine Trent in The Awful Truth by Arthur Richman (1922/23)
- Marianne Regnault in Grounds for Divorce by Guy Bolton and Ernest Vajda (1924/25)
- Martha Culver in The Constant Wife by W. Somerset Maugham (1926/27)
- Mrs. Oliver in Philip Goes Forth by George Kelly (1931)
- Mrs. Paula La Salle in Forsaking All Others by Edward Roberts and Frank Cavett (1933)
- Isabel Cobb in A Touch of Brimstone by Frank Craven (1935)
- Mame Phillips in Ramshackle Inn by George Batson (1944)
- Mrs. Grant in The Front Page (revival) by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (1946)
Her first film appearance was a small role in the 1931 motion picture Tarnished Lady starring Tallulah Bankhead. She played supporting roles in Hollywood films for nearly 25 years. Witherspoon played Mrs. Burns Norville in Libeled Lady with Jean Harlow and William Powell; Nesta Pett in Piccadilly Jim; Nora in Madame X; Patty in Quality Street; Countess de Noailles in Marie Antoinette; Carrie in Dark Victory; Mrs. Van Adams in The Women; Susie Watson in Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise; and Mrs. Williamson in The Mating Season. Her last film role was in It Should Happen to You (1954).
Television and radio
In his 1975 autobiography, Tennessee Williams: Memoirs, Williams told of his time in 1941 as a night shift elevator operator at the San Jacinto Hotel in Manhattan. Among the hotel’s guest at the time was Witherspoon who, according to Williams, employed him or the hotel’s telephone operator, a budding poet, to pick up her morphine prescription from an all-night pharmacy.
She used to rap with me and the poet till nearly day break in the San Jacinto lobby. Her “fix” would never wear itself out till first cock’s crow. Then the poet and I would sort of lift her into the lift, the poet would open her bedroom door and I would get her to the edge of her bed and let her drop on it. "What would I do without you boys?" she’d murmured with that sweet sad wisdom of the old who knows “all will pass.”
- The Play. The New York Times, October 17, 1928, p. 26
- Hémard, Ned – New Orleans Nostalgia Retrieved August 26, 2013
- Nissen, Axel - Actresses of a Certain Character, 2006, p. 213 Retrieved August 26, 2013
- Freidman. Champion of Civil Rights: Judge John Minor Wisdom 2009, p. 4 retrieved August 24, 2013
- In the Realm of Women.The Indiana Weekly, Volume 11, Issue 21, September 7, 1901, p. 5 Retrieved December 13, 2013
- Troy Daily Times, "Women's World", column 2, January 22, 1902; retrieved August 24, 2013.
- Cora Witherspoon, Actress, 67, Is Dead; Performer 50 Years Made Bow at 15. New York Times, November 19, 1957, p. 33.
- Seebold, Herman de Bachelle - Old Louisiana Plantation Homes And Family Trees 2004, p. 104; retrieved August 26, 2013
- Internet Broadway Database profile; retrieved August 25, 2013.
- Witherspoon - Internet Movie Database profile; retrieved August 25, 2013.
- Williams, Tennessee - Tennessee Williams: Memoirs, 1975, p.70 Retrieved August 26, 2013
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