A Mind for Biography: Norman Corwin, “Ann Rutledge,” and Joan Fontaine

Yesterday, Joan Fontaine celebrated her 91st birthday. Now, I have no idea how the Academy Award winner marked the occasion; but I’ve got a suspicion that, on the twenty-seventh return of the day, Ms. Fontaine was perusing a script. Not such a startling surmise, I suppose, given that the star was particularly busy back in 1944, what with the release of Frenchman’s Creek (directed by the aforementioned Mitchell Leisen and last remarked upon in connection to my trip to Cornwall) and the work on her upcoming picture The Affairs of Susan (1945).

The script that would have been foremost on her mind, though, was not a scenario. It was what used to be called a radario: a dramatic script for radio. Not just any old script, mind you, but one written by the best in the business—the indefatigable Norman Corwin (now 98).

On this day, 23 October, in 1944, Joan Fontaine was heard on the Cavalcade of America program in Corwin’s “Ann Rutledge,” a gentle love story that historians tend to dismiss in a footnote. There is some doubt whether Ann Rutledge was indeed “The Girl Lincoln Loved,” which is the alternative title of Corwin’s biographical play. In his notes on the published script, the playwright remarked that, when commissioned to dramatize the romance between Rutledge and the man who would be President, he

decided to make it as simple as the story of the girl herself. [His] decision was influenced by the fact that not enough is known about Ann to get a writer into complications anyway.

What is known is that she was the daughter of a tavern-keeper in New Salem, that she had several brothers and sisters, and that she was in love with one John McNeil before she took notice of Abe Lincoln.

Unable to rely on Carl Sandburg, who does not furnish his readers with further insights, Corwin needed to approach history with the open mind of the poet. He rejected the adaptation of Abe Lincoln in Illinois, since it insisted that Rutledge never loved anyone but McNeil.

Acknowledging this lack of ocular proof and inspired by the gaps it leaves for us to fill with meaning, Corwin’s biography of Ann Rutledge does not so much reconstruct the young woman’s story as it conjures continuations and alternate endings in the listener’s mind. The scripted and the spoken are merely the skeleton key that gives us access to a maze of passageways.

According to Corwin, the cast of the original production, which gathered exactly four years earlier, on 23 October 1940, was very much moved during the reading of the script, so much so that the great radio wit wondered whether we “was a tragedian and didn’t know it.”

Death is not tragic, of course, unless one ponders the opportunities that are lost along with the life. What might have become of Rutledge with Lincoln at her side? What might have become of Lincoln with Rutledge at his? And how might Lincoln’s character have been influenced by this loving companionship? It is a play that invites speculations about First Ladies, lasting impressions . . . and Joan Fontaine.

“Ann is no easy role,” Corwin commented, giving much credit to Jeanette Nolan for reviving her during the first production. Joan Fontaine certainly achieves nothing less. Hers is a spirited performance, rather than the once-over lightly attitude with which many a star deigned to lower herself to the microphone.

So, if I were a biographer with nothing else but “Ann Rutledge” to go on, I would guess that Joan Fontaine spent her twenty-seventh birthday with a woman in mind who did not live to see twenty-three.

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