Lynn Fontanne (//; 6 December 1887 – 30 July 1983) was a British-born American-based actress and major stage star in the United States for over 40 years. She teamed with her husband, Alfred Lunt. Lunt and Fontanne shared a special Tony Award in 1970. They both won Emmy Awardsin 1965, and Fontanne was a Kennedy Center honoree in 1980.
Born Lillie Louise Fontanne in Woodford, London of French and Irish descent, she drew acclaim in 1921 playing the title role in the George S. Kaufman-Marc Connelly's farce, Dulcy. Dorothy Parker memorialized her performance in verse:
Dulcy, take our gratitude,/All your words are golden 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. ...
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 andRobert 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 Noël 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 in 1960. Fontanne was nominated for a Best Actress Tony for one of her last stage roles, in The Visit (1959).
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."
Fontanne made only three 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). 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, becoming the first married couple to win the award for playing a married couple. Fontanne narrated the classic 1960 television production of Peter Pan starring Mary Martinand 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 rare productions in which she appeared without her husband. The Lunts also starred in several radio dramas in the 1940s, notably on the Theatre Guildprogramme. Many of these broadcasts still survive.
In 1964, Lunt and Fontanne were presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by US President, Lyndon Johnson.
Fontanne married Alfred Lunt in 1922. The union was childless. The couple lived for many years at "Ten Chimneys" in Genesee Depot, Waukesha County, Wisconsin.
Lunt and Fontanne in 1950.
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). She was, in fact, five years older, but continued to deny, long after Lunt's death, that she was born in 1887. TheSocial Security Death Index reports her birth as December 6, 1893.
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.
Lynn Fontanne died in 1983, aged 95, from pneumonia. She was interred next to her husband, Alfred Lunt at Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.