Rediscovering Broadway's Golden Age

by Janis Gibson

When Jack Macauley of Wilton began going through boxes kept by his parents after they died (his mother in 2010 and his father two years later), he came across a trove of scrapbooks, photographs, correspondence and other items that had been assembled by his great-uncle, John C. “Jack” Wilson, who died in 1961. Among the papers was a memoir Wilson had written in the late 1950s, describing and reflecting on his career in the theater during Broadway’s Golden Age, from 1928 to the mid-1950s. Macauley, who had grown up hearing “Uncle Jack” stories from his mother, found the manuscript fascinating; but would others? He decided to find out.

“Mom had mentioned the manuscript, but it sat in a box in her closet for years, and I never looked at it until 2012,” Macauley said. Barbara Cart Macauley, who worked as a piano-playing song plugger in Manhattan’s Brill Building, had inherited the boxes from Wilson’s wife, Natalie Paley Wilson, when she died in 1981. Known to her friends as Natasha, Natalie was an intriguing personality in her own right; a first cousin to the last czar of Russia — and a Vogue model as well as socialite and occasional film actress.

The couple met in London, married at The Pebbles, Wilson’s home on Sasco Hill Road in Fairfield, in 1937, with Noel Coward as best man. “Natasha lived in Manhattan after Jack died and Mom looked after her.”

Macauley’s pre-eminent reason for producing the book — Noel, Tallulah, Cole, and Me: A Memoir of Broadway’s Golden Age by John C. Wilson, edited with commentary by Thomas S. Hischak and Jack Macauley — is to “get information about Jack Wilson’s work on Broadway, the London stage and national tours as well as television into the public domain.”

Macauley was nine when Wilson died but he remembers, “Jack could get us tickets to any Broadway show and everyone seemed to know him. But for all of his success — he was the producer and/or director of several well-known Broadway plays, including Noel Coward’s Private Lives, Blithe Spirit and Present Laughter, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate and Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes — he has a limited Internet presence and I’d like to see that change.

“While there have been 25–30 books written on Porter and Coward,” he continued, “if Jack is mentioned, it is more for his romantic relationship with the men rather than his own body of work.”

Wilson had a personal relationship with Coward from 1925 to 1936 and a professional one from 1926 to the mid-50s. First noticed by Coward as an enthusiastic front row audience member, Wilson was working on Wall Street when they met and became the writer/actor’s assistant, then business manager a year later, eventually becoming more involved in the production of Coward’s plays, and directing and producing on his own.

Asked why people are unfamiliar with Wilson’s contributions to the theater, Macauley replied, “He was focused on the business side of theater — very serious about running shows in ways that they were successful. His thing was not self-promotion, but he loved working in the theater and loved having a good time — dancing, entertaining, etc.”

Wilson also became general manager the Westport Country Playhouse in 1941. He returned to that position when the theater reopened after the war, remaining from 1946 to 1957. With Wilson using his connections in the theater and Hollywood to bring big names to Westport, it became an important summer stock venue. Among his initiatives was a summer intern program; a 1951 intern was a young man named Stephen Sondheim.

At the same time Macauley approached Yale, from which Wilson graduated in 1922, to ascertain its interest in the archive — which includes 58 scrapbooks that are “a combination of articles and reviews on his plays and others… magazine clippings more than newspapers; articles on US and world events that captured what was going on as it was happening; Playbills and thousands of original photos and correspondence” — some Yale alumni were preparing to honor the 2013 centennial of Cole Porter’s graduation from the university with a concert presentation of Kiss Me, Kate.

He was introduced to the concert’s producer, Amber Edwards, ’82, an independent documentary filmmaker with more than two decades of experience creating arts and cultural programming for PBS.

“One of my favorite people,” says Macauley.

From there, Macauley “embarked on a six-month journey of trying to unearth people who would know something of the history of Broadway’s Golden Age, to ask them ‘Would it be worthwhile to publish this manuscript, and if so, how would you do it?’” It was written in the first person present; the tone is respectful and reflects the gentleman Wilson was and the code of conduct of his era and circle. A major problem, however, is that many of the people Wilson wrote about, while once household names, are, with some exceptions, virtually unknown outside of theater circles today.

Macauley’s quest led him to Thomas Hischak, head of the theater and drama department at SUNY Cortland and author of more than 20 books on theater, film and popular music, as well as 33 published plays. “He is an unbelievable reservoir of facts and figures about American arts and culture,” notes Macauley. Together they devised a solution.

Macauley used his journalism and corporate communications background to edit the original work and insert limited bracketed information within the text. Hischak created informational boxes inset on the page of mention that explain a particular production or person in context; his or her movies, shows, why the person or production was significant at the time. Thus a reader, if familiar with the person or production named, may continue reading without distraction. If a person wishes to know more, the box with details is available.

Noel, Tallulah, Cole, and Me, published by Rowman & Littlefield, also has several appendices. One provides Wilson’s production credits with play, theater, opening date, type of production, author of book, music and lyrics and number of performances; producer and director and cast; another provides some of the names of visitors from entertainment, fashion and design worlds who signed the guestbook for The Pebbles for the years 1934–1956. There are also full indexes to quickly find information.

It is available from or online booksellers in hardcover ($65) and digital ($48.99) formats.