Born in Germany and raised in Buffalo, New York, Katharine Cornell became interested in the theater as a child after seeing a production of Peter Pan. Her father, a doctor turned theater owner and manager, discouraged her interest in acting; however, he sent her to boarding school where, as luck would have it, Cornell participated in theater groups and was encouraged to explore all aspects of theatrical production—from acting, to directing, to script writing, even set design and construction. After graduation, Katharine Cornell moved to New York City to pursue a career in professional theater.
In 1919, after working for a few years with the Washington Square Players in New York and Jessie Bonstelle’s company in Detroit and Buffalo, Cornell received one of her first major roles: she took the part of Jo in a London production of Little Women. Upon returning to the United States, Cornell met and fell in love with a young director named Guthrie McClintic; they were married in 1921. Later the same year, Cornell acted the role of Sydney in Clemence Dane’s A Bill of Divorcement. This show won her the attention of the New York theater community and she was soon receiving challenging roles and brilliant notices. Of her 1924 performance in Dorothy Brandon’s The Outsider, John Corbin described her performance as “nearly perfect.” He went on to say:
Miss Cornell’s method is of the simplest and is always under perfect control. Every mood is adequately voiced and no note is unduly stressed. That is all to the good; but an effect so direct and heart-searching cannot be achieved without more than a touch of histrionic genius.1
In 1931, Cornell and her husband founded the Cornell-McClintic Corporation and began producing plays. Their first venture, Rudolph Besier’s The Barretts of Wimpole Street, was a phenomenal success. Cornell played Elizabeth Moulton-Barrett to great acclaim; the role became a signature character for Cornell, and she played in successful revivals of the play throughout her career, including a frontline production for United States troops during World War II and a television performance in the 1950s.
Their considerable success in New York encouraged Cornell and McClintic to take their company on a tour of nearly one hundred cities. With a repertory that included the The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Shaw’s Candida, and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the nationwide tour solidified Cornell’s fame; she was thought to be one of the most talented actresses in the country. When the company performed Romeo and Juliet in New York City at the tour’s end in 1934, Cornell’s production and her portrayal of Juliet earned her best reviews to date. “Miss Cornell has hung another jewel on the cheek of the theater’s nights” Brooks Atkinson wrote of the production, “her Romeo and Juliet . . . is on the high plane of modern magnificence.” 2
Cornell continued to perform regularly until her husband died in 1961, after which she retired from her work as actress and producer and moved to her home on Martha’s Vineyard. Throughout her career, Cornell’s talent and drive earned her awards, honorary degrees, and other distinctions, including the dedication of the Katharine Cornell–Guthrie McClintic Room at the New York Public Library’s Performing Arts research center at Lincoln Center.