Renée Harris (1876-1969), professionally known as Mrs. Henry B. Harris, escaped the Titanic disaster to become Broadway’s first woman producer during the Jazz Age. One of the best-known survivors of the 1912 sinking, her life and work have never been examined until now with the publication of Broadway Dame by Randy Bigham and Gregg Jasper.
When her impresario husband was lost in the tragedy, Renée Harris inherited his empire of Broadway plays and playhouses, becoming the first woman producing manager in the United States. She introduced some of the most popular – and, at times, most controversial – shows on the New York stage, discovered talents like playwright Moss Hart and actress Barbara Stanwyck, stood up for the rights of underpaid, overworked performers, opposed censorship, and backed the first overseas entertainments for troops in WWI.
Some of the greatest names in the entertainment world enjoyed early successes in productions staged during her ownership of the Hudson and Harris theaters or under her lease of the Fulton Theatre: Helen Hayes, Louis Armstrong, Cecil B. de Mille, Hedda Hopper, Theda Bara, Edward G. Robinson.
Renée hit her stride in the 1920s, presenting as many as 11 plays a season, sometimes risking all on young, untried authors and actors. When the Great Depression threatened to wipe her out, she lost the Hudson in foreclosure. But Renée’s energy and sense of humor remained with her through hardship and ill health, and she lived to age 93 in 1969, optimistic and irreverent to the end.
Renée Harris was named Irene Wallach when she was born into a large family in Washington D.C. on June 15, 1876. Her father died when she was 13 and her mother eventually moved to New York City in 1899, taking her younger children with her. Renée also decided to leave D.C. and seek out opportunities in New York, joining her mother there. At the time, Renée was working for a Manhattan law office with aspirations of becoming an attorney. All that changed when she met and married the love of her life, the up-and-coming Broadway producer Henry B. “Harry” Harris. Harry eventually bought the Hudson Theatre and Hackett (which he renamed the Harris after his father) and had the Folies Bergère built, patterning it after its Parisian namesake. The experiment was a financial flop, but many future stars appeared in its first two – and only – shows including Mae West and Nina Payne.
When her husband went down with the Titanic, Renée didn’t just become the first woman to produce plays on Broadway; she was — for the 20 years she was active in the business — the only woman theater owner and manager in New York. She was interviewed and photographed in the press, lived and traveled luxuriously, collected husbands and let them go. Warm and witty, Renée was one of the great personalities of the Jazz Age and made a fortune out of her knack for spotting a hit. Yet today, she’s all but forgotten.
Broadway Dame by Randy Bryan Bigham and Gregg Jasper seeks to change that. The first biography of the theatrical pioneer, the book explores the triumphs, struggles, and losses of Renée’s trailblazing career, her friendships and love affairs, her liberal social and political views in a less than egalitarian world, and finally the heroic attitude to life that sustained her and inspired those around her. The book is available only at Lulu.com.
As an exclusive to The Jazz Age Club, an excerpt from chapter 4 of Broadway Dame follows:
The mark Renée made on Broadway as a producer was matched by her influence as a shrewd agent and promoter. Her insightful choice of plays and expert management of her Hudson, Harris, and Fulton theaters provided stellar opportunities for actors, playwrights, and other performers. Renée managed some of the most sought-after leading men on the American stage –– Robert Edeson, Richard Bennett, Clifton Crawford, Holbrook Blinn –– as well as a number of the younger generation of actresses –– Rose Stahl, Helen Ware, Ann Murdock, Pauline Lord, and Margaret Anglin.
Dancer Ruth St. Denis, who rose to prominence under Harry’s management, maintained her allegiance to Renée personally, despite no longer being represented by the Estate of Henry B. Harris.
In articles, interviews, and curtain calls, St. Denis never failed to credit her stardom to Harry, and her loyalty earned her a permanent place in Renée’s affections. In her autobiography, An UnfinishedLife, Ruth recalled the “cheerfulness” and “efficiency” of working with Harry, and praised Renée, too, as “an appreciative admirer.” The women remained lifelong friends, and as late as 1961, at a Museum of the City of New York retrospective featuring St. Denis, Renée was introduced as her guest of honor. Like Renée, Ruth has been largely forgotten, but she played an important part in the evolution of modern dance. Adding popular steps for the first time to the traditional concert performance, it was she who trained Martha Graham.
Two other stars Harry launched, Elsie Ferguson and Ina Claire, continued only briefly under Renée’s management. Ferguson was known for having a demanding nature, which Harry reluctantly endured. His wife refused to tolerate the actress’ bad behavior and “dropped the contract” with her. Renée gave no specific reason for dismissing Ferguson: “I’ll just say she made Harry very unhappy with her temperament, and let it go at that.” Ina Claire was even more difficult. During the run of The Quaker Girl in 1912, Claire constantly argued with the Park Theatre’s stage manager, once screaming expletives so foul it shocked her boyfriend of the moment, young Vincent Astor, who used to meet her backstage after the show. Claire’s incivility continued when the play went on tour, and after complaints at stops in St. Louis, Renée fired her in early 1913.
It was a tough decision and one she made only after traveling unannounced to a stop on the tour and seeing Ina’s antics for herself. Renée had believed in Ina’s abilities; in fact, she had signed a contract for her to appear in London in a special production of the Harris version of The Quaker Girl, giving her maximum exposure in her popular role. But Renée could not permit such rude behavior to continue on the part of a star under her management and, soon after Claire had returned from her London engagement at His Majesty’s Theatre, Renée let her go.
Of the talented artists whose careers she personally molded, Barbara Stanwyck was the best known. She may also have been the most unappreciative. After making her dramatic debut in The Noose in a role Renée handcrafted for her, the former dancer was taken under the producer’s aegis. “I put Barbara under the usual five-year contract,” Renée said, “and her salary jumped to a healthy figure, but when I had no play for her, I loaned her to Arthur Hopkins, her name appearing in the program “through courtesy of Mrs. Henry B. Harris” in a play called Burlesque.”
The show was a whopping success and, when Barbara received offers from Hollywood, Renée released her from her contract and wished her well. Yet “from that time until the present,” the producer wrote in her memoir, “I have never had a word from her nor has she ever mentioned my name, but on many occasions, she has said she owes her success to Willard Mack.” Renée wasn’t surprised by Stanwyck’s ingratitude. “She does not typify the theatre,” she clarified to Gregg Jasper, a friend in her later years. “She was a cabaret girl.”
The distance between Barbara and Renée is curious. There’s no known conflict between the pair, but it’s possible a falling-out of some kind opened a rift that neither producer nor star ever mentioned publicly. It’s on record that Stanwyck had an affair with Rex Cherryman, her leading man in TheNoose, and that she was briefly engaged to him before his early death. Like most managers then, Renée was particular about the sexual morality of her stars and had no qualms warning them against dalliances that, if gossiped about, could hinder their careers. Did Renée offend Barbara by expressing herself on this point? There’s no conclusive proof, although a later incident may suggest something along these lines.
There was plenty of gratitude on the part of the author of The Noose, H. H. Van Loan, who told a reporter the experience of seeing his story on Broadway was second to none: “To have your first stage plot dramatized by Willard Mack and produced by Mrs. Henry B. Harris is enough to make any fellow feel nervous.”
An important star for whom she acted as agent was more than thankful for Renée’s support. Dame Judith Anderson, who later won acclaim in John Gielgud’s Hamlet (1936) and made her London stage debut opposite Laurence Olivier in Macbeth (1937), was discovered by Renée in a bit part in an off-Broadway comedy. “I sent for her,” Renée said, “and she played the lead in a play called The Crooked Square. She was so wonderful in the part that Iplaced her under contract, paying her $250 a week, which in 1924 was a big salary.”
Renée advised her to appear next in Cobra. The play attracted the attention of David Belasco who wrote Anderson, offering her the lead in his next show, The Dove. Renée was livid over Belasco’s attempt to make a deal without consulting her and sent a letter to him asking if he “could read English” or had any respect for “the ethics of the theatre.” Renée’s rival called her to apologize and asked for an appointment to discuss acquiring Anderson. Renée negotiated a $500 a week pact for Judith before releasing her to Belasco’s management.
“I did not take the difference in the salary she obtained under Belasco’s management but allowed her to keep it,” Renée recalled. Anderson never forgot her manager’s support and savvy deal-making. “Thereafter, whenever I would see or hear from her,” Renée said, “she called me Mrs. Angel.” Yet Anderson is best remembered today, not for her stage work but her success as a character actress in Hollywood –– her strongest performance was that of the eerie Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca(1940), for which she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
The successes Renée had with Anderson and Stanwyck came when she was feeling disenchanted with Broadway. In 1923, Judith in The Crooked Square gave Renée a much needed hit after a string of duds. And three years later, the state of popular plays in New York was such that Renée was on the brink of leaving the field of production. Explicit shows like Mae West’s Sex had become the norm, and Renée wasn’t for it. She was not a prude, but she felt that scandal for the sake of it didn’t make a good play. She may also have been miffed that a star like West, whom Harry had launched in his Folies Bergère in 1911, had become such a brazen exponent of the tide of “immoral plays”; Mae even got arrested for writing and starring in Sex, charged with corrupting “the morals of youth.”
Until Willard Mack’s The Noose came along in 1926, in which she placed Barbara in a lead role, Renée was ready to quit Broadway. “I had finally decided to produce no more plays,” she admitted. “I was through for good unless the public taste changed. I have never produced an unclean play and never intend to, so I was settling down, sticking to my guns.” The Noose lured her back to the fold, and with it, she had one of her biggest hits.