Winsor French, Cleveland Legend, to Come Alive at the Beck, 8/23-24
On Friday, August 23 and Saturday, August 24, WINSOR! A FEISTY CABARET, will be produced by The Musical Theatre Project and performed at the Studio Theater in the Beck Center for the Arts. The cabaret, with the performers seated on stools, will star Scott Plate and be directed by Victoria Bussert. The topic of the cabaret will be Winsor French.
Who is Winsor French? From the early 1930s until the late 1960s, Winsor French, an about-town columnist for the Cleveland News and later the Cleveland Press, and founder of PARADE magazine, was the darling of Cleveland society.
French was friends with the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard, Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham, Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne and John Steinbeck. He was a constant house guest of Cole and Linda Porter. He travelled with them, and wrote articles about his world adventures, and the people he hobnobbed with, in the local newspapers.
The person most influential in getting French accepted by Cleveland's elite was Leonard Hanna, Junior. Hanna was a philanthropist, art collector, theatergoer, patron of the arts, director of the M. A. Hanna Company, and one of the most powerful movers and shakers in Cleveland until his death in 1957.
Hanna, like French, was gay, but not as openly out. French often stayed at the Hanna farm in Mentor, accompanied by Roger Stearns, a well-known local pianist, his long time companion.
In a time rampant against homosexuality, French was liked and respected. He had good looks, a remarkable ability to tell stories in his resonant Baritone voice, most commonly starting his oral tales with his column's opening phrase, "You won't believe this . . . ".
French, though not a member of their religious faith, was "in" with the "Jewish Jolly Set," the most influential Jews in Cleveland. It was that group which is credited with showing French the value of philanthropy. Here was another instance that, in an era of strong anti-Semitism, French was able to breach the gap, hold his influential position, espouse Jewish causes due to his connections not only with Hanna, but with Cleveland Indian's owner Bill Veeck.
In an era of racism, French often wrote about local Black night clubs and, in the age of prohibition, told about illegal speakeasies, and even commented on the cost of their booze.
French was born in Saratoga Springs, NY. His father, a military man, died when he was five. His mother remarried and Winsor became the step-son of Joseph O. Eaton, founder of Cleveland's Eaton Corporation. He was, for a short time, married to Margaret Frueauff, whose stage name was Margaret Perry. The Tony Awards, given for professional theatrical merit, are named after her mother, Antoinette Perry, who was the co-founder of the Theatre Wing, which originated the awards.
The bon vivant French will long be remembered, not only for his writing about "'sepia' entertainers, Jewish socialites, school children in wheelchairs, and men who found males more exciting than females," but for tooling around the city in a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud.
How did James Wood, the author of four books on the social history of Cleveland, and a long time CLEVELAND MAGAZINE columnist, come to write a book about French?
He credits the idea for OUT AND ABOUT WITH WINSOR FRENCH to "Margaret Halle Sherwin, who loved Winsor French and for a short time-not more than an hour or two-was engaged to marry this remarkable man."
As Wood related in a conference call interview, "long time friend, Margaret, met me for lunch." She said, "After you finish the Halle book [HALLE'S: MEMOIRS OF A FAMILY DEPARTMENT STORE] you need to do Winsor French. She kept after me. The task was daunting. There appeared to be no correspondence and archival materials. One of his sisters eventually produced a letter file." Wood then related that he went back into the many years of columns and found a treasure-trove of information. He realized that what he had was information about "a clever guy, writing with gay subtext." He was fascinated by "what French could do when, as a homosexual man he should have been in the closet."
Though the suggestion for the book came in 1985, it took Wood until 2011 to get it published.
How did the staged version come into existence? While Wood was interviewing Winsor's sister, Martha Hickox, she said, "I wish you were writing a play, rather than a book. An actor could portray Winsor better than a biographer."
"Eventually, I gave a list of Winsor's favorite songs to Bill Rudman, contemporary Cleveland's connoisseur of musical theatre and cabaret. I asked him if he thought they might be the basis for a show. He said, 'Maybe, if you would write the script.'"
Though there are no definite plans for anything other than the local staged readings, Wood, who will be in attendance at all three performances, and available for post-production talk backs, is interested in hearing how audiences react. After that, he states, "Who knows?"
Only time will tell whether Wood, Rudman, Bussert and Plate will "fulfill Martha's observation and give life to Winsor through a live theatrical performance of his favorite music."
You can be part of history by attending one of the performances. For $22 tickets call 216-245-8687 or visit musicaltheaterproject.org.