Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Peter Lenihan's Daughter

Winifred Lenihan, publicity shot, 1928

When the labor organizer Peter Lenihan died unexpectedly in February 1914, his wife Martha was 8-1/2 months pregnant with their only son.   Of course she named him after his father.  Then she moved her family – four young daughters along with the baby– to the borough of Queens where she became a janitress in an apartment building.

Peter Lenihan had been an electrician who was very active in his union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.  The IBEW may have provided some money to the widow, but it would not have stretched far.

Yet fortune smiled on Martha.  Her eldest daughter, Winifred, became a rather acclaimed actress during her early 20s.  Later, Winifred explained that she had grown up in a Brooklyn family that had no interest in the theater, but she developed a passion for the stage and started a drama club at her high school.

Winifred was admitted to Smith College and planned to leave the theater behind.  Then she had second thoughts.  She decided to stay in New York and try out for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.  Her family opposed her decision, she once told an interviewer, but she followed her heart. 

In 1919, Winifred made her debut in a minor production of The Blue Bird, a fairy tale by Maurice Maeterlinck.  Alas, the critic for Theatre Magazine, who wrote under the pseudonym “Mr. Hornblow,” did not take note of Winifred in his review.  Of the production, he remarked tortuously: “the flashes of brilliancy are rarely intermittent.”  

The Blue Bird 
(Winifred Lenihan is second from left)

Next, Winifred performed in three plays lost to history – The Betrothal, The Dover Road and The Failures – and received favorable attention, as they say.  More importantly, the reviews led the board of the Theatre Guild to cast her in the plum role of Joan in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, which opened in December 1923.

Saint Joan would launch Winifred’s career, although a few critics sniped at her.  In The American Mercury, H.L. Mencken growled that she was “unequal to the heroic demands of Joan.”  The first editor of Vanity Fair and a star of cafĂ© society, a man named Frank Crowninshield, wrote:

Here is Winifred Lenihan, the Saint Joan of Uncle George Shaw’s newest play, making an impassioned appeal to the warriors of France.  Or can it be that Miss Lenihan, with the Theatre Guild at heart, is offering (at a benefit performance) the last two seats in the house to some frenzied bidder?

He couldn't help himself.

In the meantime, Winifred’s sisters became a telephone operator, a clerk, and a teacher.  Peter, Jr. appears to have died young, like his father.  By 1925 the mother, Martha, had stopped working.  In 1928 she took her first vacation, in Bermuda.    

During the 1930s, Winifred lost interest in acting and began to teach and direct.  She met her husband, Frank Wheeler, a vice president of what was then called the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, while working on radio sketches sponsored by the company.  During her tenure on the governing council of Actors' Equity, she authored an anti-Communist, anti-fascist resolution.

It’s such an old story, often an immigrant’s story: the astonishing way that a generation leaps so far ahead of the previous one.  The same stage lights that shone on Winifred might have been manufactured in a dingy Bronx shop where her father had once labored.


Winifred Lenihan pictured in Theatre World, 1950s

See posts: May 16 + June 13, 2018

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