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The Life of Agnes de Mille
By Carol Easton

Chapter One: Genes

Agnes de Mille's genetic cards were dealt from a deck stacked with the qualities of women born to prevail. Her mother and grandmothers had the strength and the stamina of pioneers; one can imagine any of them reining in a team of runaway horses with one hand, meticulously stitching a quilt with another, and removing her own appendix with a third, all the while planning what to serve for supper. History neglects them, for the history of their time was made by men, and extramarital ambition for a woman was unthinkable. They planned, pushed, and applauded not for their own dreams, but for those of their husbands and children. Even when one of Agnes's remarkable grandmothers managed, after being prematurely widowed, to create her own history, it was as Mrs. H. C. De Mille.

The enterprising widow, born Matilda Beatrice Samuel (known as Beatrice, or "Bebe"), provided the Jewish thread in Agnes's hereditary tapestry. Beatrice was eighteen when her parents (the German-Jewish Sylvester Samuel, a businessman, and his Ashkenazy wife, Cecilia) emigrated from England in 1871. They settled in Brooklyn, and there, at a meeting of the local music and literary society, Bebe met a tall, redheaded student who shared her love of the theater. He was Henry Churchill De Mille, descended from the Dutch Episcopalian DeMils who had emigrated to America in 1658. Like Beatrice, Henry was born in 1853, but in vastly different circumstances. While she was growing up in a middleclass English household, Henry's father, a North Carolinian, was fighting on the losing side in the Civil War.(*) As a boy in those difficult times, Henry dreamed of a career as a playwright-he wrote his first play at fifteen-but his parents sent him to New York to pursue not his dream but theirs, and he entered Columbia College as a theology student. He changed his major, however, to education, a field with broader possibilities.

Henry was tall, slender, and mild-mannered; it's unlikely that he had known many Jews, and Beatrice's dark good looks and zaftig figure must have seemed to him exotic. Bebe was intelligent, educated, forthright, and so strong-willed that in 1876, in spite of, or perhaps because of, her parents' objections to her Gentile suitor, she converted to Henry's faith and married him.

In 1881, Henry and Beatrice were living in Manhattan with their two sons: three-year-old William Churchill and the infant Cecil Blount. When Henry's teaching job permitted, he wrote and produced amateur plays and worked as a play reader for the Madison Square Theatre. There he met and teamed up with a young stage manager, David Belasco, whose drive and commercial instincts complemented Henry's literary talent. Together they produced melodramas, mostly written by De Mille and directed by Belasco, which were popular enough to inspire this anonymous doggerel: "Nor should it be forgot that no fiasco/Existed for De Mille or for Belasco."(*)

Henry wanted more than commercial success; he wanted recognition as a serious playwright, and in 1891 he got it, for his adaptation of a naturalistic German drama about labor.(+) The play was well received, and Henry, at thirty-nine, was financially secure enough to buy seventy-six acres in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey. Here he built an imposing threestory Victorian house overlooking the lake. With a new baby daughter, Agnes Beatrice, his family flourished. He began work on a new play and preached as lay reader in the local Episcopal Church. Life may have seemed, after his early struggles, too good to be true. As is often the case, it was. In 1893, after he and his family celebrated their first Christmas in their new home, Henry De Mille contracted a fatal case of typhoid. Legend has it that on his deathbed he implored his wife to keep his sons away from careers in the theater. Beatrice, who loved the theater and had enthusiastically supported her husband's theatrical aspirations, directed this evasive reply to his corpse: "May your sons be as fine and noble and good and honest as you were. May they follow in your steps . . . "(1)

At forty, Beatrice was suddenly a widow with three children, a house, a $20,000 insurance settlement, and no savings. William was fourteen, Cecil eleven, little Agnes not yet two. Beatrice's feelings are not recorded, but her actions inspire awe: eight weeks after Henry's death, she opened the Henry C. De Mille School for Girls in her home. Almost simultaneously, she set herself up as the second woman playbroker in America, with an office on Broadway.

The speed with which Beatrice opened the school was dizzying, but the idea was logical enough. In the early days of her marriage she had taught elocution at a boys' school in Brooklyn, and in Pompton Lakes she had helped start a school for the children of underpaid steelworkers, a labor of love and of conscience. Now she needed to be paid for her labor; but she was better at negotiating money than at managing it, and the school's fortunes floundered. As they did, her career as a playwright's agent flourished.

In the business world of the 1890s, women were secretaries; at higher levels nobody took them seriously, least of all themselves, and certainly not in the Broadway theater. Her natural chutzpah reinforced by desperation, Beatrice barged into this bastion of sexism with every appearance of confidence. She had always negotiated her husband's contracts; now, shrewdly, she staked out virgin territory by building a client list of women playwrights, particularly those whose work promoted the controversial idea of women's equality. She even wrote, in collaboration with a young woman dramatist, an autobiographical play; it failed commercially, but it drew attention to her as an exponent of what would one day be called women's liberation, and like-minded women responded by becoming her clients.

Two years after Henry's death, little Agnes died of spinal meningitis. The unsinkable Beatrice carried on. She enrolled her younger son, Cecil, in a military school in Pennsylvania and arranged for William to study at a gymnasium in Freiburg, Germany. When William returned to New York, he attended Columbia University. Like both his parents, he was strongly drawn to the theater, but in deference to his father's deathbed request, he studied engineering instead. In his senior year, however, he signed up for a playwrighting class and began his life's work.

From Columbia, William went on to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He had his father's tall, lean physique, but he was stronger and more athletic; in college he had gone out for track, fencing, and boxing and had played tennis with a passion that would endure all his life. His curly brown hair was already thinning; his face, like his body, was long and thin, with a hawkish nose and mournful brown eyes. Girls admired him for his wit and enthusiasm, but from a proper distance, for his mother insisted that her sons remain pure until marriage, thus ensuring that any premarital sexual experience would be riddled with guilt.(2) His letters to Anna George during their engagement reveal a strain of deep romanticism and a profound ignorance of women-a dangerous but not uncommon combination in young men of his time and class. Still, compared to his bride-to-be, William was a veritable guru of sex. If William strove for virtue, Anna Angela George personified it.

Anna's childhood existence was poor and peripatetic. Her father, Henry George, had left school and his parents' Philadelphia home at the age of thirteen and supported himself as an errand boy, seaman, typesetter, printer, and gold miner, all the while reading omnivorously and developing his revolutionary economic ideas. In 1861 he eloped with the Anglo-Irish-Catholic Annie Corsina Fox, who had grown up in Australia. Henry was twenty-one, Annie just seventeen. Her family disapproved, and for good reason: Henry had no money.

Henry George's Episcopalian father had published religious books, but Henry invented his own religion, the Single Tax, and wrote his own Bible, Progress and Poverty. "He who makes should have, " said George; 'he who saves should enjoy." Taxes should be placed only on land, and on such natural resources as oil, natural gas, and minerals, all of which belong to the people; labor should not be taxed, but where there is a natural monopoly, the benefits should accrue to the people.

During the years George spent writing his great work, the couple's financial situation wobbled from precarious to dire while their family grew. Anna, the youngest of their four children, was born in San Francisco in 1877. Two years later, Henry's book was finally published.

Progress and Poverty would become a classic, but the family's life did not improve immediately. For a time George worked on a New York newspaper while his wife ran a boardinghouse in San Francisco. By 1881, however, the family was reunited in Greenwich Village, and Henry was internationally famous. In that decade, Progress and Poverty sold more copies worldwide than any other book except the Bible.

Henry George was a true American original, self-made and self-taught, honored at home and abroad for his economic philosophy and his outstanding oratorical gifts.(3) Among his admirers were Sun Yat-sen, John Dewey, Count Leo Tolstoy (in Tolstoy's novel Resurrection, the hero into exile in Siberia with a copy of Progress and Poverty under his arm)-and Henry De Mille. The two Henrys were friends, and their children attended the Horace Mann School.(*) At the age of eleven, Anna asked the twelve-year-old William to marry her. He declined.(4) Nine years later, he would change his mind.

Publicly, Henry George was an icon, an authentic Great Man; his wife and children revered him. In Anna George de Mille's biography of her father, both of her parents glow with saintliness. Henry is generous, humble, modest, devoted to children, his only fault a "trace of impatience" when he called his children to him. His wife never thinks of herself and never complains-even though, in the early years of her marriage, she was forced to pawn her jewelry and was so close to starvation after the birth of her second child that her husband begged money from a stranger on the street. In Anna's version of her childhood, her mother was a marvel of "tact and managerial genius" who could and did rise to any occasion, including providing meals for unexpected guests; the presence of two servants is noted only in passing. The family gathered in the "shabby, cozy sitting-room . . . for study, reading, games, and fancy needlework and mending."(5) As Annie, an expert seamstress, taught her daughters to sew, they all sang. Indeed, as Anna depicted it, someone always seemed to be singing somewhere in the house. Her mother sang the alto parts of operettas and grand operas; her father, when deep in thought, absentmindedly whistled a few bars of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" or "Yankee Doodle."(6) To their youngest child, Henry and Annie George were perfect partners in an ideal marriage-a perception that would create impossible expectations in her own marriage.

In 1897, after ignoring doctors' warnings and wearing himself out in an unsuccessful campaign for mayor of New York, Henry George died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving his family in emotional chaos. Anna was twenty-only five feet tall, but with the energy of a titan. Her piercing blue eyes were "of an intensity to stop speech"; masses of golden red hair flowed to her waist, and her tiny hands and size one feet were a source of great pride.(7) William, whom she had adored since childhood, gave her his class ring, and they became officially engaged five years later, in 1902. In his postproposal euphoria William wrote, with unknowing clairvoyance, "I have kissed you as no man has ever kissed you, or will again."(8)

He was teaching fencing at his mother's school in Pompton Lakes and writing one-act plays; Anna was living with her mother in New York. They saw each other only on weekends, but William wrote often, on notepaper headed "The Dreamery," his attic studio in his mother's house. He was by then twenty-four, but his letters are those of a painfully earnest adolescent. "If this isn't heaven it's as near as I care to get . . . You are my image of God . . . I am absolutely yours forever . . . I cannot live without you . . . As our engagement gets older my longing for you gets much more intense . . . I never believed that I could so madly crave any living mortal."(9) She is his ideal, "the truest, most helpful little woman that ever inspired a man to work and love . . . I worship you more than my honor . . . I respect you as I do no woman except my mother."(10) "You are the one woman in the world who can give me the perfect understanding which every man craves."(11)

The impatient fiance occupied himself playing the piano, riding his horse, playing tennis, taking long walks "with my gun for company, " and writing Strongheart, a play about an Indian chief in love with a white woman.(12) When Anna suffered from premarital tension, understandable if for no reason other than her total ignorance of sex, William attributed it to the fact that her mother treated her "as if you were about two years old. . . . It is your constant and intimate relations with your mother (sleeping in the same room etc.) that is keeping you in this nervous condition." (13) As the wedding day approached, his letters quivered with anticipation: "I want to clasp you in my arms and feel your beautiful tender body next to mine-and feel you thrill with the same intense passion of love that I feel . . . I adore you through eternity."(14) After all this excruciating suspense, they were married on March 30, 1903.

Anna moved into the Dreamery, but the new bride cannot have had an easy time in the house of her formidable mother-in-law.(15) By fall, she and William had their own apartment in Manhattan, with enough expectations for several lifetimes. He thought her an angel; she thought him a genius. They had both suffered the loss of their fathers-for William, this occurred when he was in the throes of puberty, which exacerbated the trauma-but they had otherwise been sheltered and spoiled and taught that their families belonged to the intellectual elite. William had become titular head of his family after his father's death, and the position had given him a disproportionately strong sense of responsibility. Anna, the baby in her family, would become a woman of awesome capabilities, but certain childlike qualities-some lovable, some maddening-would linger throughout her life.

Hardly had the couple been joined than they were parted, this time by out-of-town tryouts of Strongheart. On the road almost constantly from May to December of 1904, William wrote to his bride almost nightly. On Christmas Day he wrote from St. Paul, Minnesota, of the play's success and of his anticipation of their reunion in January: "I long for you much more than when we were engaged. You are the only woman in the world Sweetheart . . . I wish to devote my whole life to making you happy . . . " On December 30, "I can hardly wait . . . I want you so. . . . Soon my arms will clasp you . . ."(6) At last, after another successful opening, this time in Minneapolis, he arrived by train in New York. Exactly eight months and nine days later-on September 18, 1905-Agnes George de Mille was born.

© 1996 Carol Easton

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