Sydney Greenstreet, born 136 years ago today in Sandwich, England, made only 24 movies in a brief, eight-year movie career, but what an indelible mark he made in that brief span.
As a young man, Greenstreet sets his sights on a career as a tea planter in Ceylon, but drought conditions brought him back to England, where he managed a brewery. He also took acting lessons, as a lark.
He made his stage debut in a 1902 production of Sherlock Holmes and would go on to appear in many plays, in England and the U.S, appearing frequently with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine in Theatre Guild productions.
Throughout his film career, Greenstreet battled diabetes and Bright’s disease, and his health forced him to retire from films in 1949. In 1950-51, though, he would star in a radio series for NBC, The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe. He died at age 75 in 1954, survived by his wife of 36 years, Dorothy Marie Ogden, and their son, John Ogden Greenstreet.
Happy birthday, Mr. Greenstreet, wherever you may be.
In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles Lynn Fontanne, Broadway actress and half of the storied theatrical team Lunt and Fontanne.
TELL ME, PRETTY MAIDEN
LYNN FONTANNE. She’s just a bird in a “Guilded” cage.
Was born in London. Her name was Lily Louise Fontanne. Changed the Lily Louise to Lynn because it sounded better.
Every morning for breakfast she has honey and rolls.
She has a wide smile, a throaty laugh and a robust sense of humor.
Lives in a triplex apartment in East Thirty-sixth Street. The pride of the apartment is a fireplace with an aluminum background. The telephone operator there has a list of the people she will speak to.
A woman, above everything else, she believes, should be fashionable.
During the World War she worked in London as an emergency chauffeur.
She met Alfred Lunt, her husband, during a rehearsal of Clarence. Entering to speak his lines to her, he tripped and fell at her feet. It could be said that he fell for her. Later he suggested that they rehearse in the open air. He took her riding in an open carriage through the park. He gave their scripts to the driver to read while he proposed to her.
Dislikes short dresses and never wore them when they were the style. Wears a blue smock in her dressing room or when idling around the house.
She can foot pedal an Ampico piano longer and better than anyone in this state.
Avoids going to parties. Always giving the same excuse: “I’m too tired.” An actress, she insists, should keep away from her public. She is fond of dancing but seldom does.
Her husband’s pet name for her is “Rich Lynnie” because she is always saving her money.
Doesn’t like tinned food and people who rub their hands together. Hates to wear stockings but does. Like to wear jewelry but doesn’t. Hates to write letters and seldom does.
When traveling she brightens up her hotel room with chintz curtains and window flowers which she buys at Woolworth’s.
Her great ambition in life is to be a writer of critical essays.
Changes her perfume weekly. Claims a change of perfume is a change of attitude.
Two years ago, knowing that she was to be operated on for appendicitis, she played through an entire performance against doctor’s orders. Her substitute wasn’t ready. And she didn’t want that show to miss a performance.
Other people call her husband by his nickname, “Bill.” She always calls him Alfred.
She visited her home town, London, last summer for the first time in ten years. She went into a glove shop. The clerk greeted her with: “Oh, how do you do. So glad that you’re back. You’ve been acting out in the colonies, haven’t you?”
In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles sportswriter, author, and playwright Ring Lardner.
HE’S FUNNY THAT WAY
RING LARDNER. He came to New York to do nothing and has been a failure ever since. Was born in Niles, Mich. The great event took place forty-six years ago. Always looks seven years younger than he really is.
He bites his tongue while writing.
Elmer the Great was his first play. While it was current he made his friends call him “Fanny.”
In the way of drinks his taste runs to any glass that is filled with anything but champagne. Champagne makes him nauseous.
As a newspaper man he worked in crowded offices with people talking and writing all around him. Today he can’t even begin to work if there is anybody else in the room.
He has never murdered anybody. If he does you can lay two to one that the party will be the author of a poem, story or play that is the least bit whimsical.
Occasionally he spends an entire day in a restaurant.
Was once paid five hundred dollars by a pottery concern to make a speech at their annual convention.
His first magazine story was about ball players. He sent it to the Saturday Evening Post. Not only did they buy the story but they encouraged him to write the now famous “You Know Me Al” yarns.
He’d rather be alone than with anybody excepting four or five people. He believes this is mutual.
Was among those who were the guests of Albert D. Lasker on the Leviathan‘s trial trip. While he was on the boat, he never saw the ocean.
Doesn’t care for parties. Unless he is giving them. Because then he can order as often as he likes.
Was fired from the Boston American in 1911. Went back to Chicago, his favorite shooting gallery, and asked the Chicago American for a job. The managing editor inquired: “What was the matter in Boston?” He replied: “Oh, nothing; except that I was fired.” The managing editor said: “That’s the best recommendation you could have. Go to work.”
Is the author of the following books: The Love Nest, What of It? How to Write Short Stories, Gullible’s Travels, The Big Town and a modest autobiography titled: The Story of a Wonder Man.
He can play the piano, the saxophone, the clarinet and the cornet. But not so good.
Has what is called “perfect pitch.” That is, he can tell which key anyone is singing or playing in without looking or asking. Once won $2 at this stunt. It really isn’t an accomplishment he can live on.
He is a passionate collector of passport pictures and license photographs of taxi drivers.
Among the things that annoy him are writing letters, answering the telephone, signing checks, attending banquets, untying the knot in h is shoelace, filling his fountain pen and trying to find handkerchiefs to match his neckwear.
Before he dies he hopes to write a successful novel. Believe he is going to live to a ripe old age.
Begins his stories with just a character in mind. Hardly ever knows what the plot is going to be until two-thirds through with the story.
He dislikes work (except the writing of lyrics), scenes like the Victor Herbert thing in the 1928 Scandals, insomnia, derby hats, beauty marks, motion pictures (excepting those Chaplin is in), dirty stories and adverse criticism—whether fair or not.
The W is for Wilmer.
He was standing at a bar in New Orleans during Mardi Gras time three years ago and a Southern gentleman tried to entertain him by telling how old and Southern and aristocratic his family was. Lardner interrupted the Southerner after twenty minutes of it with the remark that he was born in Michigan of colored parentage.
Recently he offered a cigarette concern this advertising slogan: “Not a Cigarette in a Carload.” They didn’t accept it.
He is noted for sending funny telegrams. One of the most famous is the one he sent when he was unable to attend a dinner. It read: “Sorry cannot be with you tonight, but it is the children’s night out and I must stay home with the maid.”
In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles star of Broadway and the silver screen Leslie Howard.
THE ENGLISHMAN FROM AMERICA
LESLIE HOWARD. He so conquered this nation that in his native country, England, they refer to him as “that American actor.”
He is nearsighted and wears glasses at all times, except when acting and reading.
His father was a stock broker. When he was graduated from Dulwich School, London, he had to work as a clerk in a bank. When the war broke out he joined the army to escape from this existence.
Never eats any meat because he dislikes eating animals. Eggs are his favorite dish. He often eats eggs three times a day.
Was “invalided” out of the army in 1918. Later that year he made his London theatrical début in Pinero’s play The Freaks. It opened during an air raid and lasted only six weeks.
He was the first member of his family ever to appear on a stage.
Hates the accepted style of fashions for men. Wearing trousers, collar and tie annoys him. He is happiest when in the country. Then he wears short pants, no socks, no tie, sandals and a beret.
Is not an impromptu person. He must think about a thing before he does or says it.
Has a great intuitive sense about plays. When allowed to make his own selection he has always picked a hit.
His passion is languages. He would like to learn every language. He speaks English, French, German and American.
Only knew his wife, Ruth Martin, three weeks before they were married. They eloped. He was a soldier at the time. He was given an hour’s leave of absence. Two scrubwomen in the church were the witnesses. After the ceremony he went back to the war.
Has two children. One a boy, Ronald, age eleven. The other a girl, Leslie, age five. Ronald is in school in London. Leslie is here with him.
The only sports that interest him are the three in which he indulges. He is fond of horseback riding, playing tennis and swimming in warm water.
Made his American début in 1920 in Just Suppose. After that he had the ill-fortune to appear in a number of failures. Speaking of that dreadful period a person recently said to Mrs. Howard: “Every first night I went to I saw your husband.
Wears a guard ring on the pinkie of his right hand. It has never been off that finger since it was given to him by his mother when he was sixteen.
He has two sisters, Irene and Doris. Has two brothers, Arthur and Jimmy. He hasn’t seen Jimmy, who is now somewhere in the wilds of Africa, for the last ten years.
His ambition is to be an author. He wrote one play, Murray Hill, and articles that have appeared in the New Yorker and Vanity Fair. He doesn’t like acting.
Autumn shades are his favorites. Every tie he owns is brown or red. Every suit is a gray flannel or a brown tweed. When he buys a new suit it looks exactly like the one he has discarded.
At the age of sixteen he pulled a Noel Coward by writing the book, music and lyrics of a play called Mazie’s Diplomacy. He plays piano by ear.
Two years ago his wife was very ill and underwent a serious operation. When she recovered he presented her with a Victoria Cross, which he bought in a pawnshop. “For Valor” was inscribed on it. It is her proudest possession.
He never drinks coffee but has buttermilk with every meal.