Maude Adams: The 'First' Peter Pan
The Cenacle Retreat Center lies in one of the most serene areas of Long Island. It is run by the Sisters of the Cenacle, a French religious order founded by St. Therese Couderec who died in 1885. Located just north of the Long Island Expressway in Ronkonkoma, the Retreat Center provides retreats, spiritual direction and human development programs for the laity. It is also the site where Maude Adams lies buried.
Maude Adams? The Maude Adams of PETER PAN fame? Wasn’t she a Morman? What is she doing buried among Catholic nuns?
Sister Madeline Birmingham of the Cenacle Sisters resides at the Ronkonkoma Center and has done an enormous amount of research on Maude Adams, having read book after book about the actress and has plowed through tomes of material about her. Meeting with Sr. Madeline and Jim Rennert, the Province Director of Development for the Sisters, on a dreary Monday afternoon proved to be very enlightening. Sitting in the very comfortable “Maude Adams Room” of the newly re-constructed and eco-friendly building:--a building that has a clear view of the nearby home that Maude Adams lived in-- Sr. Madeline proved to be a veritable font of information about the Broadway Legend.
The actress was born in 1872 to a mother who was an actress. Sr. Madeleine explains: “It was her mother who urged her to become involved with acting, although she probably would have become successful in her own right because she was a very talented lady. The youngster Maude was standing with her mother offstage during some play and there was a baby onstage in one of the scenes. The baby suddenly burst into uncontrollable screams and was immediately pulled off but couldn’t be quieted. The stage manager was running around like mad wondering what he was going to do. He saw Maude and picked her up and put her on a tray (it was a farcical comedy) and sent her into the scene. The audience screamed with laughter because the howling child who was taken off the stage, and Maude--who hurriedly replaced her were remarkably different in size. The original child was an infant and Maude was nine months old. Maude reacted with sheer delight and the climax was that the infant lost the part and Maude replaced her."
James Henry Kiskadden, her father, was not favorably inclined toward his daughter's becoming an actressbut bowed to Maude who was the proverbial "apple of his eye." Mr. Kisdadden died when Maude was about 11 years old. She grieved his death but then felt much freer to pursue her desire which became the passion of her life. She toured the country (a difficult and arduous life in those days) and performed in over two dozen Broadway productions.
Adams starred in THE LITTLE MINISTER written by James M. Barrie and the author was so taken by her that he re-wrote some of the scenes specifically for her talents. In the course of rehearsals for THE LITTLE MINISTER, Barrie decided that she would be his Peter Pan. Sr. Madeline is quick to point out that Maude Adams was not the first actress to play the role of Peter. “There was another actress who originated the role in London for about a year. It was thought that Americans would never understand PETER PAN and felt it was a foolish idea to bring the play to New York. Barrie, however, re-wrote much of it with Maude Adams in mind.” The show played an out-of-town try-out in Washington DC where it received a critical drubbing. Once it moved to New York, it became very successful and Adams played the part on Broadway and on tour for about 3,000 performances. Needless to say, it is the role that she is most closely associated with, although she did play Shakespeare’s Juliet and Saint Joan to audience acclaim.
One of the most famous scenes in PETER PAN is when Tinker Bell is dying. Maude Adams was the one who added the bit where the audience is asked to clap if they believe in fairies—thus bringing Tinkerbell back to life. “It wasn’t in the original script,” explains Sr. Madeline, “It was something added by Maude. It just occurred to her and it was added to the production at her suggestion.” That scene has remained in every production of PETER PAN ever since.
At some point in her life Maude Adams had a breakdown. “Historians can’t decide whether it was a physical breakdown or a mental one,” says Sr. Madeleine. “I think it was physical”. She was in Paris at the time and she asked her secretary, Louise Boynton, to see if someone could find a place for her to stay. She mentioned an Augustinian convent because she’d heard about it. She went there and stayed a few months. She lived the life of a nun in that she ate with them and slept in one of their cells. For the time she was there she lived a staid, quiet life. She was so taken with the Sisters that when she came back to the States and was starting to feel pulled down again, she asked if they could find her a place. What happened at the end was that Boynton went to the Cenacle at St. Regis in New York City and asked if they could put her up. The Sisters agreed. Other convents had turned her down because she was an actress and women on the stage were not considered acceptable.”
Eventually Maude Adams established herself at the convent and it was open to her at all times. “She had her own room there,” explains Sr. Madeline. “She was able to come and go as she pleased. When she was there she pretty much observed a vow of silence. She would talk to people but conversation was kept to a bare minimum.” Perhaps it was at this point that Ethel Barrymore began referring to her as “the original ‘I Want To Be Alone’ woman”.
In one of her short conversations with the nuns, Adams learned that they were looking for a piece of property further out in the country because they wanted to start a novitiate or training school for the young Sisters. “It was at that point the actress asked her secretary why the nuns hadn’t looked at Ronkonkoma? The subject was mentioned to the Sisters and a group of them came out here. They found it to be delightful and they fell madly in love with it, of course. At that time it was 450 plus acres. The Sisters couldn’t possibly afford such property. When the star learned they couldn’t afford it she replied, ’I didn’t intend to sell it to them. I want to give it to them.’ “Sister Madeline laughs when she explains that they still have the deed. “It’s very plain,” she chuckles. “The sale was made for one dollar. Her signature--which I love to see--reads ‘Maude Adams Kiskadden’ with a flourish.”
Adams lived on the Ronkokoma property for a time. Her house presently serves as the residence of several nuns and is also used from time-to-time for special programs and conferences. The interior of the house is charming, with low ceilings, numerous fireplaces and a breathtaking view of a pond that Rennert explains the Sisters often ice skated upon when it frozen. Sr. Madeline continues: “There was a smaller house nearby where her mother and grandmother lived and she would sometimes come down and visit with them.” Much of the estate was originally farmland and Adams maintained it that way. There were horses, goats and dogs; a big farm. “She rode on the estate,” Sr. Madeline continues. “She had several horses and she loved to ride them. All of this was while she was still acting.”
As a result of her being one of the highest paid actresses on Broadway at the time, Maude Adams owned a railroad car that was specially designed for her at a cost of $30,000. She would invite friends to join her and after her last weekend performance, the railroad car would be prepared for her and her friends so they could travel out to Ronkonkoma in style. They would enjoy the countryside and Adams’ hospitality before returning to the city for her next weekday shows.
To clarify the rumor that Maude Adams was a Morman: she was born into a Mormon family. Her mother, Asaneth Ann Adams, was a Mormon but she married James Henry Kiskadden who was a Scot and most definitely not particularly religious. Their daughter didn’t have any real religious affiliation. “She never converted to Catholicism despite her close affiliation with the Sisters. Did she need to convert? She was a fantastic person who was generous to others and was known for giving money to total strangers who looked like they were tired and needed a good vacation.” Sr. Madeline adds, “One thing she did do from time to time was join the Sisters for Benediction. That seems to be the only time she went into the chapel.”
Sister Madeline is forthright in bringing up the rumors that arode about Maude Adams being a Lesbian. “She didn’t date men. She didn’t date women, either. “There is much more speculation about her sexuality these days and it’s a bit clouded,” says the Sister. “Some people say this and other people say that. All of this stems from the fact that she always had a female companion. In her day, Maude followed a pattern of her culture: Single unmarried women often hired another 'spinster' to be a companion; paying for a life of service.Often two women would live together solely for companionship, sharing equally their financial resources and a life that otherwise might be sterile and lonely. This does not answer the question and is not intended to. She was a good woman who was very kind and generous. I think that’s what really counts in the eyes of God. My own personal opinion is that she was married to the theatre.” The fact remains, though, that Adams and Louise Boynton share the same gravesite on the Ronkonkoma property.
Maude Adams’ last performance was in A KISS FOR CINDERELLA in 1916. Shortly after that play, her mother passed away as did Charles Frohman, who was her long time producer. She taught college for a while and then did something that one would not immediately associate an actress with: she became fascinated by stage lighting. In fact, she invented stage lighting as we know it today. Sr. Madeleine explains: “She worked for three years in Schenectedy , NY with the GE Company. Although she did plenty of work on the project, they got the patent because she wasn’t interested in that. She was just satisfied that it had come into being. She really could have been a wealthy, wealthy lady.”
The Sister continues, “She was interested in mechanical things since she was a little girl. She’d go on stage and wanted to see how everything worked. She became very interested in lighting. As she grew up she’d even make some experiments in the way lights were hung to improve their effectiveness. It wasn’t until she was retired that she became fully involved in the project. They’re still using her basic electrical system, which has been improved upon but is really based on her concepts.” Some people say that Adams’ involvement in lighting stems from the fact that she really wanted to do a color movie version of PETER PAN and that would have required stronger and more effective lighting than was available at the time. That never happened and Maude Adams never appeared in any film.
The actress had yet another estate and that was Caddam Hill, located in Tannersville, NY. It was there, on July 17, 1953, that Maude Adams died at the age of 80. Her remains were brought back to Ronkonkoma for burial. The Tannersville property was also donated to The Sisters of the Cenacle.
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