Lynn Fontanne

Lynn Fontanne (/fɒnˈtæn/;[1] 6 December 1887 – 30 July 1983) was a British actress for over 40 years. She teamed with her husband, Alfred Lunt. Lunt and Fontanne were given special Tony Awards in 1970. They both won Emmy Awards in 1965, and Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre was named for them. Fontanne is regarded as one of the American theater's great leading ladies of the 20th century.[2]

Lynn Fontanne
Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1932
Lillie Louise Fontanne

(1887-12-06)6 December 1887
Woodford, London, England, UK
Died30 July 1983(1983-07-30) (aged 95)
Other namesLynn Lunt
Years active1921–1983
Spouse(s)Alfred Lunt (1922–1977; his death)

Early life

Born Lillie Louise Fontanne in Woodford, London, of French and Irish descent, her parents were Jules Fontanne and Frances Ellen Thornley. She had two sisters, one of whom later lived in England; the other lived in New Zealand.[3]


She drew acclaim in 1921 playing the title role in the George S. Kaufman-Marc Connelly farce, Dulcy. Dorothy Parker memorialized her performance in verse:

Dulcy, take our gratitude,
All your words are gold ones.
Mistress of the platitude,
Queen of all the old ones.
You, at last, are something new
'Neath the theatre's dome. I'd
Mention to the cosmos, you
Swing a wicked bromide. ...[4]

She soon became celebrated for her skill as an actress in high comedy, excelling in witty roles written for her by Noël Coward, S.N. Behrman, and Robert Sherwood. However, she enjoyed one of the greatest critical successes of her career as Nina Leeds, the desperate heroine of Eugene O'Neill's controversial nine-act drama Strange Interlude. From the late 1920s on, Fontanne acted exclusively in vehicles also starring her husband. Among their greatest theater triumphs were Design for Living (1933), The Taming of the Shrew (1935–36), Idiot's Delight (1936), There Shall Be No Night (1940), and Quadrille (1952). Design for Living, which Coward wrote expressly for himself and the Lunts, was so risqué, with its theme of bisexuality and a ménage à trois, that Coward premiered it in New York, knowing it would not survive the censor in London. The duo remained active onstage until retiring from stage performances in 1958.[5] Fontanne was nominated for a Tony Award for one of her last stage roles, in The Visit (1959).[6]

Fontanne and Lunt worked together in 27 productions.[7] Of her acting style with Lunt, British broadcasting personality Arthur Marshall - having seen her in Caprice St James's Theatre (1929) - observed: "In the plays of the period, actors waited to speak until somebody else had finished; the Lunts turned all that upside down. They threw away lines, they trod on each others words, they gabbled, they spoke at the same time. They spoke, in fact, as people do in ordinary life."[8]

Fontanne made only four films but nevertheless was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1931 for The Guardsman, losing to Helen Hayes. She also appeared in the silent films Second Youth (1924) and The Man Who Found Himself (1925). She and husband Alfred also were in Hollywood Canteen (1944) in which they had cameos as themselves. The Lunts starred in four television productions in the 1950s and 1960s with both Lunt and Fontanne winning Emmy Awards in 1965 for The Magnificent Yankee,[7] becoming the first married couple to win the award for playing a married couple. Fontanne narrated the 1960 television production of Peter Pan starring Mary Martin and received a second Emmy nomination for playing Grand Duchess Marie in the Hallmark Hall of Fame telecast of Anastasia in 1967, two of the few productions in which she appeared without her husband. The Lunts also starred in several radio dramas in the 1940s, notably on the Theatre Guild programme. Many of these broadcasts still survive.[9]

On 5 May 1958, the former Globe Theatre, at Broadway and 46th Street, originally opened in 1910 and later turned into a motion picture venue after the Stock Market Crash of 1929, was reopened after a massive gut renovation and renamed the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. On that day the Lunts opened their new house with, The Visit, by Dürrenmatt. After 189 performances, The Visit would be their last appearance on Broadway.[10]

Twenty years later, on 5 May 1978, Lynn Fontanne, aged ninety, was honored at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, during a revival performance of Hello, Dolly!, by its star Carol Channing.[11] A reminiscence of that evening, "An Evening with Lynn Fontanne", was published on-line by Martha Rofheart, a former protégée of Fontanne.[12][13]

In 1964, Lunt and Fontanne were presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-President Lyndon Johnson.[7]

Like Lunt, Fontanne was a member of the American Theatre Hall of Fame.[14] Fontanne was also a Kennedy Center honoree in 1980.

Some of her costumes are curated in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Mount Mary University (formerly known as Mount Mary College) Historic Costume Collection.[15]

Personal life

Fontanne married Alfred Lunt in 1922. The union was childless.[16] The couple lived for many years at "Ten Chimneys" in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin. They were married for 55 years and were inseparable both on and off the stage.

Fontanne went to great lengths to avoid divulging her true age. Her husband reportedly died believing she was five years younger than he (as she had told him).[17] She was, in fact, five years older, but continued to deny, long after Lunt's death, that she was born in 1887.[17]

Pronunciation of surname

Asked once how to pronounce her surname, she told the Literary Digest she preferred the French way, but "If the French is too difficult for American consumption, both syllables should be equally accented, and the a should be more or less broad": fon-tahn.[18]


Lynn Fontanne died in 1983, aged 95, from pneumonia, at "Ten Chimneys" in Genesee Depot and was interred next to her husband at Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.[7]

Selected Broadway appearances

Radio performances

Lunt and Fontanne made multiple performances on the 1940s and '50s radio anthology series Theater Guild on the Air (also known as "United States Steel Hour"). These programmes were hour-long adaptations of famous plays. The couple performed together eight times on the programme, and each appeared three times without the other. Recordings of most of these episodes still exist unless noted.



  1. "Fontanne". Retrieved 14 July 2016.
  2. Helen Hayes Remembrance
  3. Great Stars of the American Stage Profile #94 c.1954 2nd. Edition by Daniel Blum
  4. Parker, Dorothy. "Lynn Fontanne." Life. 24 November 1921. p. 3; Silverstein, Stuart Y., ed. (1996) [paperback 2001]. Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker. New York: Scribner. p. 100. ISBN 0-7432-1148-0.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  5. ""Lunt and Fontanne," Encyclopædia Britannica".
  6. Grange, William (2009). Historical Dictionary of Postwar German Literature. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press. p. 62. ISBN 0810867710.
  7. "Lynn Fontanne is Dead at 95; A Star with Lunt for 37 Years", The New York Times, 31 July 1983. Retrieved 17 April 2014.
  8. Marshall, Arthur. Life's Rich Pageant, BBC Radio Collection, 1988.
  9. Lynn Fontanne on IMDb
  10. "The Lunt-Fontanne Theater". Archived from the original on 29 April 2014. Retrieved 28 April 2014.
  11. Klemesrud, Judy (24 April 1978). "Lynn Fontanne, at 90, Talks of Love". New York Times. p. C17. Retrieved 15 January 2015.(subscription required)
  12. Rofheart, Martha. "An Evening With Lynn Fontanne". Chorus Gypsy. Hodes. Retrieved 29 September 2017.
  13. Kuhn, Eric (21 June 1990). "M Rofheart Obituary". The East Hampton Star. The East Hampton Star. Retrieved 29 September 2017.
  14. "Theater Hall of Fame members".
  15. "Lynn Fontanne 'look' lives on." Milwaukee Sentinel. 10 October 1983. Retrieved 27 October 2014.
  16. Harbin, Billy J. (ed.) (2007). "LUNT, Alfred". The Gay & Lesbian Theatrical Legacy: A Biographical Dictionary of Major Figures in American Stage History in the Pre-Stonewall Era. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. pp. 260–264. ISBN 978-0-472-06858-6.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  17. Ware, Susan and Stacy Braukman (2005). Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary, Volume 5: Completing the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. p. 217. ISBN 978-0674014886.
  18. Charles Earle Funk. What's the Name, Please?, Funk & Wagnalls, 1936.

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