Katharine Cornell - Table of Contents

Katharine Cornell
By Edward T. Dunn

The text below is excerpted from
Buffalo's Delaware Avenue: Mansions and Families
, by Edward T. Dunn. Pub. by
Canisius College Press 2003

Peter C. Cornell, son of S. Douglas Cornell, studied medicine and married Alice Gardner Plimpton. They resided in Berlin, Germany, while Peter pursued graduate studies in medicine, and their daughter, Katherine, was born there in 1893.

Six months later the family returned to Buffalo where they resided on Mariner Street (photos above).

At thirty-six Peter abandoned his medical practice to manage the Star Theatre.

Neither Katherine nor her father had ever lived at #484 Delaware, but the plays on the fourth floor of the mansion played a part in shaping her career. She wrote in 1938:

Acting is in my blood. The feeling for it was absolutely born in me. My first memories, however, are not of actors but of the theatre - a stage; the curve of a proscenium; a curtain with something wonderful behind it, which might lift at any moment. That was in my grandfather Cornell's house in Buffalo. 1 never got to act there, of course, I was just a very small child sitting on the steps watching rehearsals. My grandfather was a gifted amateur actor, a brilliant director. John Drew, his good friend, always considered him one of the best. 1 can't remember his acting. In my day he was always directing.

My father was an exceptionally fine amateur player - my aunt was too. Even at our summer home in Cobourg, Ontario - a grand old-fashioned house built round a rotunda like a state capital - there was a long gallery at the back near the garden where they used to put on plays. 1 did too.

I think it was the advent of Maude Adams' Peter Pan in my father's theatre [in 1907] that first made me know that I wanted to devote my life to the stage. I had looked forward to Maude Adams with such eagerness that, when the time came, it was sheer agony At first I hid my face in the curtains of the box because I couldn't bear to look. Then, afterward, utter enchantment; particularly the flying part.

She lived in Buffalo long enough to graduate from St. Margaret's School, dismissed by Horton as a foundation under Episcopal auspices for genteel young ladies of Protestant faith at North and Franklin Streets opened in 1884 which flourished for three decades then faded away.

Her childhood was unhappy. A tyrannical father, an alcoholic mother, and awareness that she was not beautiful contributed to her feelings of inadequacy.

After St. Margaret's, she was sent to Oaksmere, a finishing school in Westchester, from which she graduated in 1911. Her first success was in the role of Jo in the London production of Little Women. Her first big hit in the United States was Clemence Dane's Bill of Divorcement (1921) followed by Candida (1924), The Green Hat (1925), The Barretts of Wimpole Street, (1931), Romeo and Juliet (1934), and Antigone (1946). She was one of the great actresses of her day.

Page by Chuck LaChiusa in 2005
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