Sunday, July 15, 2007

Green-Wood Cemetery Thespians

There are four well-known actors buried in Green-Wood Cemetery. One is Laura Keene, who starred in “Our American Cousin,” and was onstage at Ford’s Theatre when Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth. Another is Kate Claxton, who was onstage when the Great Brooklyn Theatre Fire broke out.

The most famous actor that we’ve all seen (he was in a lot of movies) buried in Green-Wood is Frank Morgan. Born Francis Wupperman in New York City, he was one of eleven children. His family were the distributors of Agostura Bitters, which must have been how they could afford to have eleven children. Morgan is best known for playing the Wizard in “The Wizard of Oz.” But I think he’s even better in Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Shop Around the Corner” where he plays the owner, Mr. Matuschek.

The famous actor that none of us have seen now resting in Green-Wood is Lola Montez. I spent a year or two trying to write a screenplay about her. I have never been sure if I abandoned it because she was such a slippery character, or because I was working on it when my sister-in-law called to tell me that the World Trade Center had been hit. Or as my brother put it: “Somebody bombed your back yard.” Which is exactly what it felt like. My work on Lola is still sitting in my file cabinet.

Born in Ireland to an unmarried milliner, as a young woman she invented herself as Lola Montez, a widowed Spanish countess who had to perform for a living because her husband left her penniless. Her biggest hit was the erotic “Spider Dance,” where she would sweep off her dress imaginary, strategically placed tarantulas. Men loved it- Lola was the toast of Europe. She had an affair with the Tsar, and she brought Bavaria to the brink of civil war, because King Ludwig I couldn’t live without her. He abdicated, and Lola went off to greener pastures- New York City.

In the States, Lola wrote two plays about her life, in which she played herself (who else could?). She ran them in New York multiple times, and toured up and down the Mississippi. When the Gold Rush broke out, Lola got on a boat and sailed to California, where she entertained the miners. Then she went to Australia and performed there. Behind her, Lola left a succession of husbands (she never actually bothered to divorce the first one), and a few neglected children. By the time she made it back to New York, she was broke, and had a stroke. In the winter of 1861, she died in a rooming house on the west side of Manhattan. Lola Montez was 42 years old. She is buried in Green-Wood under her real name, Eliza Gilbert. There was a very good biography of her- “Lola Montez: A Life” by Bruce Seymour.

No comments: