Ina Claire was among the first of Carl Van Vechten’s subjects when he began taking portraits in 1932. The following year, Town and Country published four Van Vechten portraits of famous women: actress Judith Anderson, writer Fannie Hurst, Ona Munson, the wife of painter Eugène Berman, and Ina Claire.1
Born in 1892, Claire began her show business career in vaudeville at the age of thirteen. She eventually appeared in several musical comedies and in the Ziegfeld Follies. Her 1917 appearance in Polly with a Past established her as one of America’s best comediennes. Claire also made several films; her most memorable roles include Grand Duchess Swana in Ninotchka (1939), and Ethel Barrymore in The Royal Family (1930).
Claire established herself as a star from her first appearances on the stage. Her 1911 performance in The Quaker Girl garnered her immediate attention, including from a young schoolboy, F. Scott Fitzgerald. In later years, he stated that he felt a “melancholy love” for her and Gertrude Bryan, who were intertwined in his mind as “the girl,” a symbol for New York and romance.2 When Fitzgerald decided to write a film treatment of Tender Is the Night in 1934, he dreamed of casting Claire as Baby Warren.3
During her lifetime, Claire was regarded as one of the finest comic performers on the American stage. In his review of S.N. Behrman’s Biography, Brooks Atkinson wrote in the New York Times on December 13, 1932, “Miss Claire plays with dignity, wit, poise and dexterity,” calling her performance “radiant [and] heady.” In the New York Post of the same date, John Mason Brown stated, “Miss Claire is the ablest comedienne our theatre knows. . . . Her playing has about it the brilliance of a diamond. It is all sparkle and light.”
Claire was known for a style that combined carefully planned stage movements with flexibility and spontaneity. She took her comic technique seriously, stating, “There is not a minute that a comedienne may rest. If she halts for a second something seems to come over the footlights to tell her that the mood is not going across. Then she must do something.”4