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Spring 2012

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 Katharine Cornell in “Flowers of the Forest,” 1935

Leading Lady

Surprising package from a UB graduate spurs reflections on the life of actress Katharine Cornell

Story by Ann Whitcher-Gentzke; Archival photos courtesy University Libraries

Mike Jankowski in his office with Katharine Cornell materials.Photo: Douglas Levere, BA ’89

An unexpected email brought a surprising request. A New York City company had instructions to ship valuable Katharine Cornell materials to Mike Jankowski at his UB office. The memorabilia and other items associated with the famous stage actress from Buffalo belonged to Jankowski’s friend Elizabeth (“Liz”) Dribben, BA ’58, a New York television and radio producer who died in January 2011. Did Jankowski want them? “I said ‘sure,’” says Jankowski, associate director of alumni relations. “However, it was kind of nebulous in terms of what I was supposed to do with them. So I didn’t ask that question.” But when two boxes arrived with Cornell’s life mask, autographed play programs, production photos and other treasures, Jankowski wanted to verify he was the intended recipient. “I called up the company representative and asked her, ‘Are you just giving these to me? Was it Liz’s wish that they go to the university and then be given to the proper department?’”

The answer was yes, so Jankowski made inquiries about where the materials should ideally be housed on campus. Meanwhile, the boxes sat in his Center for Tomorrow office until arrangements could be made for their eventual placement in the Special Collections unit of the University Libraries. A bit stunned to find himself temporary curator of a small but significant Katharine Cornell collection, Jankowski reflected on the actress’ illustrious stage career and his friendship with Dribben, who assembled the Cornell materials with the hope of producing a Cornell documentary someday. “Having all this material come in here actually gave me a significant appreciation of Katharine Cornell that I didn’t have before,” Jankowski says. “When you read about Cornell’s history and accomplishments, it’s really eye-opening. Then you see and hold these items of memorabilia, and realize they have been entrusted to you.”

Opening the boxes, Jankowski was delighted to find production photographs of Cornell as Jo in “Little Woman,” as Cleopatra in “Antony and Cleopatra,” and in many other roles in her career of nearly 40 Broadway productions and frequent national tours. The playbills include one from the 1947 production of “Antony and Cleopatra,” autographed by a young Charlton Heston in the role of Proculeius.

The boxes also reveal fascinating objects from Cornell’s childhood and personal life—a framed baby photo; a bust of the actress as Cleopatra; and a small, beautiful wallet inscribed to “Kit” (Cornell’s lifelong nickname) from A. Conger Goodyear (1877-1964), the industrialist, art collector and fellow Buffalonian. Goodyear was president of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Cornell’s close friend and frequent backer.

Liz Dribben, BA ’58

Like Cornell, Dribben had multiple connections to the university. Her mother, Clara Franklin Dribben, was the first woman to receive both a BA and law degree from UB. Two aunts and an uncle also graduated from UB Law, and her grandparents took night classes at the university. A UB speech and drama major, Dribben worked at WBFO-FM before moving to Buffalo’s WKBW-TV as the region’s first female television newscaster. After relocating to New York City, Dribben became a well-known producer at CBS radio and television, and later a freelance producer and adjunct faculty member at the Columbia Journalism School. In 2001, she was inducted into the Buffalo Broadcasting Hall of Fame.

Recently acquired holdings include a framed portrait of the actress as a young girl; a fragile life mask and a compact with inscription to “Kit” from A. Conger Goodyear.

Pride in Buffalo

Jankowski recalls how his friendship with Dribben began. In 2006, while serving as interim associate vice president for alumni relations, he received a call from Dribben, whose producing credits included “The CBS Evening News,” “Dan Rather Reporting” and “Mike Wallace at Large.” “She wanted to get involved with alumni activities, and asked some questions about UB and the New York City chapter,” Jankowski recalls. “Ever since that point, we would exchange emails or speak on the phone almost weekly.” Dribben began attending New York City chapter events, and would often incorporate university functions when in town to attend a reunion of her classmates at Buffalo’s Lafayette High School.

“She had a lot of pride at being a Buffalonian,” Jankowski states. “She would talk about the late Michael Bennett of ‘A Chorus Line’ fame and also Harold Arlen, the Buffalo-born composer who wrote ‘Over the Rainbow’ and countless other songs, as much as she spoke about Katharine Cornell. And she would ask me to send her things that appeared in Buffalo media, not necessarily about Katharine Cornell, but about goings-on at UB. She was computer-literate but liked to have that hard copy in her hands as well.”

Through these conversations and in correspondence found in the boxes, Jankowski learned of Dribben’s impassioned efforts in the late 1980s to produce a Cornell documentary in collaboration with the university and other funding agencies. The project never materialized. According to Jankowski, Dribben wanted to bring Cornell’s life and career to new audiences, a task made more challenging by the actress’s reluctance to embark on a film career. According to correspondence in the collection, Dribben lamented that contemporary audiences had almost no way to appreciate Cornell’s voice and inflections, her haunting stage presence or her sure-fire acting techniques.

Throughout her career, Cornell turned down opportunities to act in movies, with the exception of the 1943 film “Stage Door Canteen” made to encourage U.S. troops. Today the film clip—in which Cornell recites part of a speech from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” to an awestruck GI—can be seen on YouTube.

Her few television appearances included a Hallmark production of “The Barretts of Wimpole Street,” Rudolf Besier’s 1930 play about Elizabeth Barrett Browning, her romance with Robert Browning and the opposition the couple faced from Barrett’s tyrannical father. Cornell’s portrayal of Barrett Browning became one of her signature roles, one that she memorably performed for U.S. troops during a wartime tour of 19 cities in Italy, France and the Netherlands. Most of Cornell’s stage productions were directed by her husband and business partner, Guthrie McClintic, with whom she had a long-lasting “lavender marriage,” meaning both partners were gay. So close was the couple’s professional collaboration that Cornell retired from the stage after her husband died in 1961.

Although Cornell’s career was centered on Broadway, she was intent on touring and bringing stage art and the classical repertoire to a wider audience. This was particularly true during the Depression era. In 1933-34, for instance, Cornell toured in repertory with “Romeo and Juliet,” Shaw’s “Candida” and “The Barretts of Wimpole Street.” The actress’ records for that year revealed an astounding 225 performances across 16,853 miles and a collective audience of half a million people, Dribben reported. “She was a great stage actress, but it wasn’t enough,” Dribben wrote in her documentary proposal. “She wanted to set a tone, bring culture to the people, participate in enlightenment in a dark, depressive time.”

Also in the collection are Cornell’s baby photo, a bust depicting her role as Cleopatra, and the program for 1947 production of “Antony and Cleopatra.”

Audience Draw

In the proposed 28-minute documentary titled “Katharine Cornell: A Lady of the American Theatre,” Dribben sought to capture the memories of celebrated actors like Helen Hayes, Eli Wallach and Christopher Plummer, all of whom had worked with Cornell at one time or another. As an actress, Cornell “compelled an audience to come and see her because she was Katharine Cornell,” Dribben wrote. “On tour, there was no second company. She was the draw for herself and herself alone. … She was a living event of her time.”

Even with her national stature, Cornell never lost her connection with Buffalo, where she grew up after the family moved back from Berlin, where Cornell was born in 1893. In his book, “Leading Lady,” Tad Mosel writes how the actress would frequently arrange to have her touring plays open at Buffalo’s Erlanger Theatre, which once stood on Delaware Avenue across from the Statler Hilton. Her father, Peter Cornell, was an 1888 graduate of the UB medical school who left medicine to concentrate on a career as manager of the city’s Star Theatre (1888-1919). In 1935, the university recognized Katharine Cornell with the Chancellor Charles P. Norton Medal, UB’s highest honor, marking the first time the award had gone to a woman and to an artist as well. When UB’s Ellicott Complex opened in 1974, its Katharine Cornell Theatre was named in her honor.

The Katharine Cornell materials Jankowski received will join a more extensive, preexisting collection of Cornell materials maintained in the Libraries’ Special Collections, located on the fourth floor of Capen Hall. Many of these holdings date to 1955, when Goodyear, the businessman and collector, donated materials he had been gathering for some time. This earlier collection includes scrapbooks, correspondence, photographs, programs and other materials documenting Cornell’s life and career. In 1962, Goodyear gave the university Salvador Dalì’s portrait of Cornell, which is also housed in the Libraries’ Special Collections.

According to Nancy Nuzzo, MA ’99, director of the Music Library and Special Collections, Dribben’s donation allows UB to strengthen its Cornell collection as a whole, eventually making it a rich resource for scholars near and far. “The acquisition of this new cache of materials prompted us to review the existing collection, assess its condition and identify preservation opportunities; house the materials in modern archival containers; and create a detailed inventory of the entire body of materials to facilitate scholarly use,” she says.

Cornell materials at UB don’t have the scope of major Cornell holdings at the New York Public Library. Still “researchers studying Katharine Cornell and her circle will now be able to find a substantial body of primary source materials at UB,” Nuzzo points out. The Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts today holds the largest collection of Cornell materials—“202 linear feet compared to our 60 linear feet,” says Nuzzo. Furthermore, UB’s materials are similar in nature to those held by the New York Public Library. Smith College, another repository of Cornell materials, has less than one linear foot by comparison.

Curators at Work

Inventorying the Cornell collection is an important step toward fully processing the memorabilia and other holdings. “Our efforts have focused on properly housing the collection and compiling an inventory of items in preparation for the creation of a detailed finding aid,” Nuzzo explains. “Until the collection is fully processed, the inventory and a brief online finding aid will alert researchers to the presence of this collection at UB so that it is accessible for scholarly use.”

Today, of course, fewer people know of Katharine Cornell than was the case when Dribben pursued her documentary project in the late 1980s. Still, the actress continues to fascinate. A 2010 article in Opera News, for instance, described how “people who saw her in her heyday still speak of how these moments penetrated their consciousness and remain glowingly present decades later.” “The Grand Manner,” a play about Cornell by Buffalo-born playwright A.R. Gurney, opened in 2010 at Lincoln Center and provided yet another avenue for modern appreciation of the legendary actress. Even so, occasional contemporary tributes like these cannot convey Cornell’s fame at its height.

Cornell was known to give “struggling actors their first break,” Dribben writes. “She was also known for communicating to her fellow actors some of her personal artistic philosophy—that the audience out there was important and deserved the best of performances. She exercised quality control over her performances and her productions, and as manager she was able to assure herself and her company that quality and discipline were necessary for professional satisfaction and success.”

“Looking at her papers, you really see the passion that Liz felt for this project,” says Jankowski. “You feel sadness, a poignancy that it wasn’t realized, although she went on to do a lot of different things. It’s heartening to think that the materials she collected for the project will now join other important Katharine Cornell holdings at the university, thereby reinforcing and enriching the cultural legacy of both Buffalo and UB.”

Ann Whitcher-Gentzke is editor of UB Today.

Dali's View of Cornell

UB owns Salvador Dalì’s 1951 painting, “Portrait of Katharina Cornell,” a gift from A. Conger Goodyear, a Buffalonian and president of the Museum of Modern Art.

Cornell on Youtube

In 1943 film clip, the actress recites part of a speech from “Romeo and Juliet” to awestruck GI >watch

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