Richard’s First American Friends
Ed. Note: This document is presented in loving memory of Alexander Clark, who died on September 30, 1995 at the age of 94. The New York Times printed a moving article celebrating his life and work on October 1, 1995.
Laurence Olivier (left) and Alexander Clark (right) at the Waldorf Astoria’s Peacock Alley in December 1955 shortly before an NBC radio interview on the forthcoming release of Olivier’s film version of Richard III. Photo courtesy Frances Tannehill Clark
One night about forty years ago, three props of the New York stage got to talking about Richard III. Actor Alexander Clark, together with producer Richard Aldrich (widower of the late Gertrude Lawrence) and Don Seawell, Tallulah Bankhead’s lawyer, glumly contemplated Richard’s posthumous fate over after-dinner drinks at the The Players in New York City.
As it was reported some months later by The World-Telegram “Something ought to be done for poor old Richard,’ said Mr. Aldrich. ‘Righto,’ said Mr. Seawell and Mr. Clark, virtually in unison.” And thus was launched the first American organization devoted to the vindication of Richard III.
Alexander Clark, who was the guiding light of the organization, was an actor by right of birth. As one of the New York papers reported, as an aside to his appearance in The Dark Tower in 1934, “A notable monument now graces the place where Alexander Clark …first saw the light of day. It is the Paramount Theatre, at Forty-Third Street and Broadway, in New York City.” At the time of his birth in 1901, though, the building on the site was Mrs. Green’s Boarding Home for Actors. His father, Alexander Clark, Sr., was a popular stage comedian while his mother, Amy Ashmore Clark, was a composer and writer of note.
Ask Alexander Clark when he first realized that the historical Richard was nothing like the Shakespearean character, and he will tell you that he’s known that all his life. His interest in Richard comes partly from his ancestry: descended from George, Duke of Clarence, Clark sees Richard as a kind of distant relative. And, as he recently reminisced, all actors who came and went at Mrs. Green’s during his early years were very much aware of the discrepancy between history and Shakespeare, perhaps as a result of the scholarly clash of the historian Gairdner and the explorer Markham over Richard’s reputation in England about that time. Since Richard’s innocence was a frequent topic around the house, Clark simply grew up with the knowledge.
Finally, a press release promoting a 1937 tour appearance suggests another of the prerequisites for a Ricardian obsession: Clark, it seems, was an avid murder mystery fan. His pedigree, his profession, and his predilection for literary mayhem combined to make his position at the epicenter of American Ricardianism almost inevitable. Clark made his New York acting debut, in 1921, as Charlie Mason in The Golden Days with Helen Hayes; and his prolific career on stage and screen spanned half a century. Photographs, playbills, and other memorabilia covering the walls of the New York apartment he shares with his wife Frances (who has had an extensive theatrical career in her own right, including an appearance on Broadway with Paul Robeson in Othello among other accomplishments) are testimony to their wide range of co-stars and acquaintances within the New York theatrical and literary community.His career included a long run on tour as Prince Ernst in Victoria Regina with Helen Hayes … and the title role in an ELT production of Richard III in 1948. His list of acting credits fills two columns in Who’s Who in American Theatre.
Launching The Friends
Following the Players epiphany, the founding triumvirate moved with dispatch. Seawell, the lawyer, immediately set about drawing up articles of incorporation. Official society headquarters were set up in the New York and London homes of Natalie Hays Hammond, whose father represented President Taft at the coronation of George V. Notice of the intent of the new group was served on the English-speaking world with the publication of the following personals ad in The London Times some time in 1954: Born October 2,1452, King Richard III at Fotheringhay. His American friends honour the memory of this fine, ruthlessly maligned man, killed solely by treachery. Strange, no plaque in the Abbey to counterbalance the Henry VII chapel, gilded monument to an upstart regicide. We mourn him. – Friends of Richard III Inc. New York City. Cable: Dicktri Given their broad network of contacts within the New York acting community, it’s not at all surprising that the three Founding Friends were able to recruit a star-studded cast of fellow members including Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontaine, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Dorothy Kilgallen, Salvador Dali, John Gielgud, Leo G. Carroll, Elliot Nugent, Helen Hayes, Sylvester Weaver (president of NBC), Tallulah Bankhead, Robert Montgomery, James Thurber, and Charles MacArthur. In an article in The Tatler, Clark described the aims of the organization:… “to petition encyclopaedias and other educational books to revise their Tudor slant, if slant is the right word for an autocratic sledge-hammer. To put up memorials in appropriate places, as for instance the chapel at Fotheringhay and York Cathedral. To find out whether the guides in The Tower refer to the room where Henry VI was `murdered by Richard III’ and any other such fancies, and ask in the name of British Fair Play to have the talk changed. To try to have a play or film, or television play produced telling the truth. To petition the Abbey to erect some commemoration to Richard III, a small enough compensation for all the years the Henry VII chapel has been attested to the self-styled virtues of the man who erected it to himself…”
Many of Clark’s stated aims foreshadow the later accomplishments of the Richard III Society: the plaques, the re-education of the Tower guides, the pressure to revise the accounts in reference works. Another of the proposed projects (which ultimately came into fruition two decades later under the auspices of Jeremy Potter) was described in the February 1955World-Telegram: “Present plans are to have dramatizations which will put Richard on trial for the murder of the princes. All available evidence will be offered — pro and con — and the public will be permitted to serve as the jury… Something like The Night of January 16 but in 1485.” It is possible that Clark was influenced by his six-month U.S.O. tour in Ayn Rand’sThe Night of January 16, a play in trial format with the audience as jury, when this approach to Richard’s vindication was proposed.
The Friends’ first slate of officers included Mr. Clark as president; Mr. Seawell as chairman of the board; and Natalie Hammond, Frances Tannehill (Mrs. Alexander Clark) and Elizabeth H. Taylor as officers. They immediately set to work raising funds to help restore the damaged and deteriorating College of Arms, an organization founded by Richard III himself in 1484.
Perhaps most importantly of all, they mounted a media counterattack, a sort of pre-emptive strike in advance of the release of Laurence Olivier’s film version of Shakespeare’sRichard III. As an actor who once served as drama critic at Vanity Fair (where his desk was next to Claire Booth Luce’s), Clark knew the power of the journalist’s pen and the importance of cultivating a media network. Norton Mockridge, who authored a full-page feature in the World-Telegram, was recruited as a member, as was Hugh Ross-Williamson, BBC journalist, and Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, president of NBC. Ricardian revisionism, then as now, makes good copy, especially when teamed with the prospect of a box- office blockbuster like Olivier’s Richard III. The Friends’ first official meeting (March 1, 1955) was followed by an article in the next day’s The New York Times entitled “Soft You Now, Richard III, Friends Gather to Battle `Lies’ Long Fouling Your Name.” Reporter Lewis Funke combined the serious with the frivolous, quoting Clark (“We are assembled here to do a fine, ruthlessly maligned man a good turn”) as well as Tallulah Bankhead (“Libeled by history, fouled by legend, Richard III must be whitewashed and his bones find their deserved crypt in the Abbey. Let’s have no shillyshallying. Men, press on. Strike while the iron is hot.”) Clark recognized that the combination of serious intent and quixotic purpose appealed to the press, and he and his band of defenders were regular Sunday supplement fare in papers around the country in 1955 and 1956.
The Friends’ real media coup, however, was a nationally-broadcast radio interview by Jinx Falkenberg, on December 3, 1955, featuring both Alexander Clark and Laurence Olivier. Prior to the broadcast, which took place in Peacock Alley of New York’s legendary Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Olivier dined with Alexander and Frances Clark. Asked about Olivier’s views on Richard, Frances Clark is adamant that Olivier was at heart a revisionist. “He told us so at dinner,” she maintains. “In fact, he talked about that scene in the end, when they’re bringing Richard’s body back from Bosworth and the camera focuses on the Garter with its honi soit qui mal y pense(“evil to him who evil thinks”) motto. ‘Did you see that?’ he told me; ‘I put that in especially for you people.” And later, in the broadcast, Olivier made the flat statement,”There’s no reason to suppose that he killed those babies in the Tower.”
After the excitement of the Olivier film passed, the Friends became less active, until in 1966 the group merged with the American branch of the Richard III Society. The Friends were a uniquely American phenomenon, with an intimate connection to the golden age of Broadway and a relatively short life as an organization. Nevertheless, Alexander Clark and his Founding Friends set in motion a series of projects and activities — especially in the field of press relations -that set high standards for us all.
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