Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Clyde Fitch: Schenectady's Playwright

This post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff.

Photo of Clyde Fitch from the Fitch Family Photo File at the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives
When word reached Schenectady that Clyde Fitch had died in France, there was sadness among his friends and acquaintances. Although he hadn’t lived in Schenectady since he left for college in the early 1880’s, he always considered Schenectady his home and used many of his childhood memories of its people and places in his plays. At the time of his death in 1909 Fitch was only 44 years old and one of the best-known playwrights in the world. He still holds a record for having four plays running concurrently on Broadway.

Even the events leading to his birth in Elmira New York was fodder for one of his plays. The son of a Captain in the Union Army and a daughter of the Confederacy, he was born William Clyde Fitch on May 12, 1865. His father, William Goodwin Fitch was a graduate of West Point and his mother, Alice Clarke, was a member of an old Hagerstown Maryland family. The courtship and marriage of the Union officer and much younger, charming and high spirited Southern belle inspired the love story in his play Barbara Frietchie. After his father retired from the army, the family moved to Schenectady where he took a job in insurance, eventually owning his own agency. Young Clyde was about two at the time and the family settled into Number 22 Washington Avenue.

Signature of Clyde Fitch from April 12th, 1877, likely from an autograph book. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives.
Clyde attended the private school of Miss Alice Wood on Front Street. He was a favorite student and often said that he owed a great deal of his success to the instruction he received from Miss Wood, especially having “poetry pounded into my head”. He later attended Union School in Schenectady and then the Holderness School, a boarding school in New Hampshire.

A young Clyde Fitch with Mary Jackson, one of Fitch's childhood friends. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library & Archives
An article about his death appearing in the Schenectady Gazette contained interviews with some of his childhood friends. Schenectady attorney and childhood friend, Edwin C. Angle remembered Clyde to be “different than other boys, quiet and well-liked by his chums”. Another lifelong friend, Mrs. John Paige of 17 Washington Ave., said “Clyde was an only child and you might say – feminine. He was very timid, not athletic and enjoyed girls games, seldom playing with boys”. He was “very sensitive and was true and loyal to his friends”. Most of his friends were neighborhood girls about his age who adored and defended him, one saying even a walk down the street with him was an adventure. A boy he idolized was his next-door neighbor, Ned Watkins. He wanted to be and dress like the older boy.

His mother was worried about young Clyde leaving the house to visit Ned so had a door put into a shared wall to connect the two homes. By the time he was 13 years old, Clyde was already interested in theater and staged a successful production of “Pinafore” at the residence of Judge Samuel W. Jackson, a Washington Avenue neighbor. He painted scenery, found costumes, managed rehearsals and directed all aspects of production. Assumed to be a “dandy” in boarding school, Clyde knew he was considered a sissy by the other boys but said “I would rather be misunderstood than lose my independence”. He had a unique style, considered somewhat flamboyant and would often write his parents requesting specific articles of clothing for upcoming events and activities. Even though he was teased and sometimes tormented by his schoolmates, once even thrown out a window, Clyde never conformed and remained true to himself. One school chum who later became a critic, fondly recalled how the “motive power in Fitch’s hips resembled a gay sidewheel excursion steamer,” with the port and starboard wheels moving in turn instead of together, and his voice that of a “hysterical woman who just missed the train.”

Clyde attended Amherst College in Massachusetts where he was known as "Billy". He was a member of Chi Psi Fraternity and the “AC” (Amateur Club), a dramatic group where he was well known for playing female roles and “dazzled his fellow students with his flair for dress and his virtuosity as an amateur actor”. Upon graduation in 1886, he considered becoming an architect, his father’s choice for him, but wanted to try his hand at writing. His mother, who also dabbled in writing, encouraged his literary pursuits and his father agreed to support him for three years while he tried his hand at writing. They had an understanding if he wasn’t successful at the end of that time he would return home to Hartford Connecticut, where his parents had moved in 1885, to launch a career in architecture or business.

The cast of The Rivals at Amherst College, 1885. Fitch was known for playing female characters and is seated on the far right. Courtesy of the Archives & Special Collections blog at Amherst College.
After graduation, Clyde wrote a novel and several plays. Most were failures and despite persistent criticism, Clyde would just shrug his shoulders and say, “The World is a Funny Place” and soldier on. Near the end of the three years trial period, he wrote a one act play, Betty’s Finish, which ran for two months at the Boston Museum. The production attracted the attention of the well-known dramatic critic, Edward A. Dithmar who liked it and recommended him to the famous actor Richard Mansfield. Mansfield was looking for a playwright to write a play for him based on the English Regency dandy and fashion icon Beau Brummell. Clyde agreed and wrote the play which was first produced in 1890. It was an instant success for both him and Mansfield who played the role for the rest of his life.

Caricature of Clyde Fitch courtesy of the Archives & Special Collections blog at Amherst College.
Following the success of Beau Brummell, Clyde went abroad to France to study the French stage continuing to write plays in rapid succession. It wasn't long before the famed Broadway producer Charles Frohman took notice of the rising young playwright. They formed a collaboration that lasted until Clyde's death. Within two years, the most famous Broadway actors including Maud Adams, John Drew, Jr. and Lily Langtry were staring in his plays. Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines made a star of Ethel Barrymore and another of Clyde's plays provided her brother John with his Broadway debut. He returned to Europe often and mounted many of his plays successfully in London, Paris, Rome and Berlin.

Clyde wrote at least 62 plays, 36 of them original stories ranging from social satire to historical drama. He was especially known for his plays chronicling the lives of the leisure class. During the nineteen-year period he was actively writing, he was the most popular writer for the Broadway stage of his time. Beau Brummell was followed by Nathan Hale, The Cowboy and the Lady, The Moth and the Flame, The Girl with the Green Eyes and The Truth to great success. He was actively involved in the production of all his plays, directing most of them. He was well known for his staging and spectacular sets also giving impeccable attention to costuming, lighting and props. His plays were wildly popular with audiences but found mixed reviews with critics who said they lacked substance, focused too much on women's roles and storylines and relied too much on spectacle. Nevertheless, almost all of them were box office smashes. Many of his plays were made into silent films, the most popular being Beau Brummell.

Clyde's writing not only brought him fame but also enormous wealth. The annual income from his plays was put at about $250,000 a year, the equivalent of over $7 million in today’s dollars, this before the time of income tax when the average worker earned about $1 a day. His lifestyle was lavish. He built a townhouse at 113 East 40th Street in New York City with cupids overlooking the street and the interior adorned with fountains and nude male statuary. During his travels he amassed valuable artwork and antiques from Europe to furnish the townhouse as well as in his summer home in Greenwich CT. Clyde generously entertained and was a popular host and raconteur. Invitations to his parties and country weekends were highly coveted. His inner circle was a colorful group of gay and gay-friendly friends and colleagues who adored him. He had discreet affairs with well-known men most notably Oscar Wilde. Despite his opulent lifestyle, Clyde never stopped working. One friend said, "he lived like a sultan but worked like a dray horse". He even wrote lyrics, most notably to the popular song "Love Makes the World Go Round" for the show Bohemia with a musical arrangement by William Furst.

Not all his collaborations were successful. In 1906, Charles Frohman teamed him with Edith Wharton to write a theatrical adaptation of her novel House of Mirth. It was a difficult story to turn into a play, but they persevered, often working at Wharton’s home The Mount in Lenox Massachusetts. Neither thought the play was going to work but each continued working on it not wanting to disappoint the other. They eventually realized that Frohman had told each of them that the other wanted to work together on the project. They did finish the play and it was as unsuccessful as both feared but they became fast friends.

Advertisement of Clyde Fitch's "Girls" which debuted at the Van Curler Opera House in Schenectady. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives.
Clyde often told his friend Mrs. Paige that he wanted to premiere one of his plays in Schenectady. Finally, in January of 1909, that came to fruition. He traveled from New York City to Schenectady with Charles Frohman to oversee the premiere of The Happy Marriage, a comedy of errors about a young couple. The Schenectady Gazette reported that Schenectady's society, dressed to the nines, filled the Van Curler Opera House. The audience was delighted by the play, responding with tumultuous applause and numerous curtain calls. Shouts for the author drove Clyde from the audience to the stage where he thanked the crowd and said that more than ever before he felt like a "Schenectady boy". He lamented not being born here but said he and no control of that event. He spoke at length about how much Schenectady meant to him saying "the happiest period of my life, my boyhood, was spent here". He went on to say that he traveled to the most beautiful cities in the world but although he "walked on wide boulevards, none of them seemed to me like the State Street of my boyhood. I have seen many rivers but not one has seemed as wide as the Mohawk at the foot of Washington Avenue when I was a boy and played on and in its banks. I have seen many steeples but not one has ever seemed as tall as the old St. George's when I was a lad". Producer Charles Frohman was impressed with the reception of the play, the Van Curler Opera House and how easy it was to bring the show to Schenectady. He enjoyed his dinner with Clyde and some of his Schenectady friends at the Mohawk Club and promised to bring more first productions to the city.

Unfortunately, Clyde was unable to bring another of his plays to Schenectady. He began suffering from attacks of appendicitis and was advised to have surgery. He decided to travel to France instead for an alternative treatment against his doctors wishes. He spent a few months in Chalons-sur-Marne where he suffered an acute attack. He underwent emergency surgery by a local doctor but never rallied. Clyde died a few days later, September 4, 1909, after developing blood poisoning. Charles Frohman died on the Lusitania in 1915 ending Schenectady's hopes of more first productions.

Fitch's library was recreated in the Clyde Fitch Memorial Room at Amherst College. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives. 
There were newspaper reports of singing nuns holding vigil beside Clyde's body in a candle-lit French church until his heartbroken mother arrived from a trans-Atlantic crossing to collect the body of her only child. His body was entombed for a time in the crypt of a friend until his parents completed an elaborate monument in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, designed by the architectural firm of Hunt and Hunt. When the monument was finished in 1910, his body was cremated and entombed in the sarcophagus where the ashes of his parents joined his after their deaths. Following his death, it took his parents three years to dispense of his estate, including his antiques, artwork, and properties. Copyrights of his plays were bequeathed to the Actors Fund after the deaths of his parents. His estate in Connecticut was purchased by Alice Cooper who burned it down in the 1970's.

Fitch's grave in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx is a testament to his wealth and lifestyle.
Unfortunately, Clyde Fitch's plays did not withstand the test of time. The Happy Marriage was the last play he saw produced. One other, The Girls, opened to great fanfare soon after his death but after a few years, his plays were rarely produced. Since his death he has fallen into obscurity although occasionally some of his plays have been revived in repertory theater. His alma mater, Amherst College, holds a large collection of his paper and the "Clyde Fitch Memorial Room" in Converse Hall at Amherst was a gift to the College from his mother. It contained many of the furnishings and most of the books that were in his study in New York City.