The Remarkable Legacy of John Wilson
Photos Courtesy of John C. Wilson Archive at Yale University
John Wilson was a successful Broadway impresario who rubbed elbows with the glitterati of his day. Wilson, a business partner—and former lover—of Noël Coward, was married to Natasha Paley, the great niece of Czar Alexander. He was also the great-uncle to long-time Wiltonian, Jack Macauley, who recently took on the challenge of editing Wilson's memoirs and getting them published.
Jack Macauley strode into Starbucks and after greeting me with a confident handshake and a congenial smile, passed me a vintage tan leather-bound guest book. “I thought you might be interested in seeing this,” he said. Engraved in gold lettering on the front cover was the word “Pebbles”—the name of Wilson’s luxe weekend estate on Sasco Hill Road in Fairfield.
On the first page, beneath the title, 1934, written in elegant cursive, a few distinctive signatures jumped out at me: writer and legendary wit, Dorothy Parker; Gone With the Wind heartthrob Leslie Howard; celebrity photographer/designer Cecil Beaton.
As I paged through the journal, my eyes widened. The list of celebrities who had weekended at Pebbles was jaw-dropping: Gertrude Stein, Laurence Olivier, Vivian Leigh, Tyrone Power (pictured left with his actress-wife Annabella at Pebbles in 1940,) Olivia De Haviland, Clifton Webb, Anita Loos, Claudette Colbert, and many other recognizable names.
Over a three-decade period, John Wilson produced numerous hits on Broadway and in London. He’d partnered on multiple productions with Noël Coward, Cole Porter, and Tallulah Bankhead, and had directed the original production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and a successful revival of Kiss Me Kate. As well, he’d managed the Westport Country Playhouse for 17 years.
(Pictured right, Wilson managed to lure Hollywood heavyweight Claudette Colbert to the East Coast where she appeared at the Wesport Country Playhouse in 1951.)
Wilson helped shape the careers of actors, songwriters, and composers including Carol Channing, Christopher Plummer, Chita Rivera, and Stephen Sondheim, to name just a few, and yet only a small number of people—including me— knew anything about him.
And were it not for Jack Macauley and his recently published book Noël, Tallulah, Cole, and Me (Rowan & Littlefield, 2015), John Wilson’s memory and impressive theatrical legacy might not be remembered at all.
I observed Macauley over our respective lattes. His professional background was in running global corporate communications for Hill & Knowlton. So how had he ended up editing this treasure-trove of theatrical history?
It all started with a dusty box sitting inside a closet jammed with memorabilia, he told me. There, within lay Wilson’s hand-written manuscript on aging yellow legal paper, with his original notations and edits. Macauley’s mother, Barbara Cort, had been a surrogate daughter to Wilson and his glamorous wife, Natasha (a former Vogue model), who had never had children of their own.
(The Wilsons, pictured left, were frequent transatlantic travelers from New York to England and France. This photo from the late 1930s shows the couple aboard an oceanliner before WWII halted Atlantic crossings.)
Growing up, Cort spent a great deal of time at Pebbles, enthralled by the non-stop parade of celebrity guests. In today’s terms it would be akin to hanging out with George and Amal Clooney at their Lake Como house and hobnobbing there with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, Sandra Bullock, David and Victoria Beckham, and Bill Murray.
Thanks in part to her early exposure to this privileged behind-the-scenes world, Cort went on to become a “song plugger” for aspiring songwriters, and was a regular at the famed Brill Building on Broadway.
“Uncle Jack” died in 1961, and when Natasha died 20 years later, everything that had belonged to her husband came to Barbara Cort.
Macauley remembers his mother’s enthusiasm for her famous uncle and recalls that she would frequently pull out a few of the 58 family scrapbooks or some of the 90 framed playbills she had inherited and marvel at her uncle’s life and his many accomplishments. Her son’s reaction? “I’d say, ‘Wow! Interesting relative!’” says Macauley. “And then I’d wonder aloud if there was a baseball game on TV.”
“My mom passed away in 2010, and my father died in 2012. I finally took a real look at the manuscript for the first time since it all had come to my house,” Macauley continues. “Everything stayed in the boxes until 2013 when Yale announced the 100th anniversary of Cole Porter’s graduation. Then I remembered that Porter had done an original production of Kiss Me Kate and that my great uncle had known him in the twenties. Porter’s wife, Linda, and Natasha were very close.”
(Pictured right, Noël Coward, Harpo Marx, Tallulah Bankhead, and Wilson in 1931.)
After discovering and reading the manuscript, Macauley soon realized not much was known about John Wilson, and suddenly he wanted to change that. “I had it in mind that someone could write a book about him—maybe a Yale graduate student. It started me on a path of networking with people and eventually I connected with Thomas Hischak who knows everything there is to know about the Golden Age of Broadway.”
An internationally recognized playwright, author, and teacher in the performing arts, the recently retired Hischak was intrigued by the manuscript, and the two men soon formed a partnership on a handshake.
Macauley edited the manuscript while Hischak brought historical context to the memoir by meticulously researching the people, plays, and players referenced by Wilson, creating informational sidebars so the material would be relevant to contemporary readers. The result is Noël, Tallulah, Cole, and Me which hit bookstores this past October.
“I feel very good about getting this out there and to have it available to the public,” says Macauley with obvious pride. “Even if only 50 people read it, I’ll be happy.”
Given the rave reviews and the intense interest from theater buffs and academics alike, Jack Macauley’s mission to preserve his great-uncle’s legacy is now assured. And what’s next for Macauley? “I’ve been thinking about maybe a sequel or a documentary on John Wilson.”
An exerpt from Noël, Tallulah, Cole, and Me: A Memoir
(Pictured left, Tallulah Bankhed at Pebbles during the summer of 1947collaborated with Wilson on seven theatrical productions. Pictured below right, the Wilsons in 1950 on the beach in Jamaica with Noël Coward. )
I have long had enormous respect for Marlon Brando’s talents. Prior to Eagle, I offered him a part in a play, which he simply sent backin the mail with a polite refusal. Shortly afterward, I made a second try to engage him for an important role in Noël Coward’s Present Laughter.
He came to my office in Rockefeller Plaza, took away the script, and returned 48 hours later, literally throwing it in my face with the remark, “Doesn’t Mr. Coward know there’s a war on?”
But the same year, he finally succumbed to playing the poet in Eagle. He played it beautifully, of course, but there were moments when his personal behavior was, to say the least, somewhat disconcerting.
One day, I arrived in the waiting room of Penn Station, en route with company to Wilmington, to find Marlon sitting on his luggage pounding on a pair of bongo drums, which I was to learn invariably traveled with him.
And then during our tryout engagement in Wilmington, another incident occurred that to this day leaves me puzzled. Marlon failed to appear at the theater for a dress rehearsal, and after a considerable amount of waiting—with the cast milling about impatiently and Tallulah absolutely fuming—I went to his hotel to find out what had happened.
I knocked on his door once, twice, and even three times, with no response. I went in and there was Marlon sound asleep on the bed, rigged out from head to foot in a football uniform: helmet, shoulder pads, and even spikes
Excerpt from Noël, 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 (Rowman & Littlefield)
STARS GALORE - More photos
John C. Wilson, age four in 1903.
Celebrated photographer and designer Cecil Beaton in 1935.
Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh snuck away to Pebbles in 1939 during the height of their affair.
British star Gertrude Lawrence, who was the toast of Broadway in 1925 and later starred in a play directed by Wilson.
John and Natasha Wilson at Pebbles in 1947 lounging by the pool with former baron and fashion magazine editor Niki de Gunzburg (far right) who was a frequent guest at Pebbles—his name appears in the guest book 100 times.