Behind the New Autobiography Unlocking a Treasure Trove of Broadway Secrets and Setting the Record Straight

News   Behind the New Autobiography Unlocking a Treasure Trove of Broadway Secrets and Setting the Record Straight Noel Coward. Cole Porter. Tallulah Bankhead. These are the known names of Broadway's glory days. But there's one name missing from that list: John C. Wilson. The mover-and-shaker's new autobiography unearths juicy revelations about the Golden Age and the people who made theatre history.

You may not recognize the name John C. Wilson — a.k.a. Jack Wilson — but you should. He is the guy who, among other things:

1. Introduced Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart to Cole Porter and wound up directing not only Rodgers and Hart's last Broadway show, 1943's A Connecticut Yankee, but also Porter's biggest Broadway hit, 1948's Kiss Me, Kate.

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2. Discovered and directed Carol Channing in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1949.

3. Formed Transatlantic Productions, Ltd. with Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne and Coward and produced plays for all three.

4. Unveiled Tennessee Williams' Garden District Off-Broadway. 5. Invited Lerner and Loewe to come to a Westport production of Pygmalion to see if they thought there was a musical in it. They didn't think so. He told them to think again. And they did…My Fair Lady.

6. Maintained a lavish Great Gatsby-like lifestyle at a magnificent country estate in Connecticut where much of entertainment's crème de la crème congregated regularly.

An omnipresent, but apparently inconspicuous, fixture in the theatrical scene during our industry's heyday, Wilson is the "Me" of "Noel, Tallulah, Cole, and Me: A Memoir of Broadway's Golden Age," just published this fall.

Spanning three decades of theatrical glory, weaving in and out of the lives of greats and near-greats, it's quite a carpet ride — all from the perspective of someone with a fixed position in the thick of things.

Theatre buffs know how rare it is to discover new nuggets of knowledge in the much-mined fields of Broadway lore, let alone fresh slants on established giants. Still, Wilson succeeds on both counts, coming at it from a lofty, learned position.

This is why this book is a great save and glows like a Golden Age treasure trove. Jack Macauley brings Wilson's story front and center after a half-century of collecting dust in a closet.

Macauley was nine at that time of Wilson's death. His chief memory of Uncle Jack — yes, it's all in the family — was the never-seen string-pulling done to secure the family great house seats to Camelot or Gypsy.

According to Thomas S. Hischak, who, along with Macauley edited Wilson's autobiography and added helpful commentaries on the 136 leading plays and players that come up, the relationship Wilson had with his wife was more platonic than passionate. Consequently, the closest thing they had to an offspring was Wilson's niece, Barbara Cart, who was Macauley's mom. The life story Wilson had put on paper three years before his death filtered down over the decades to Cart's closet, where it was stored until her death. Enter Macauley.

Jack Macauley
Jack Macauley

"I was probably the first person to read it in 50 years," he says. "It was in with all kinds of scrapbooks and other manuscripts that have subsequently gone on to Yale University to a new collection there. I saved back the autobiography to give it read. 

"My background is in communication — I studied journalism so I know something about writing — and my first reaction was that it really deserved to be published.

"It confirmed everything my mother had always told me about his fascinating life and the incredible influence he had on theatre. Of course, I had read books about Noel and Cole — there must be 35 of them — but nothing had really been written about Jack. He was kind of a mystery man. What's in those books tends to focus on his relationship with Noel. None of those books deal with his professional career."

Adding insult to injury, Wikipedia boiled Wilson's 62 years down to eight sentences, and one of those is mean-spirited, if not libelous. His professional achievements get short shrift and, indeed, are almost explained away by his Coward connection. Wilson was, in fact, one of Noel Coward's lovers.

"One didn't write about those kinds of things in 1958," Macauley offers by way of explaining this genteel blurring of the past. "It was a very different world then."

At precisely the same time that Macauley was writing his memoir, Moss Hart was writing "Act One", the definitive coming-of-age-in-the-theatre. "Moss and Jack were complete contemporaries, writing vividly, lovingly, about their careers — different looks at the same time period — and they died a few weeks apart."

Now, at last, a book is out there that sets the record straight — or at least straighter than it was — and the beauty of that is Wilson gets to do it in his own words.

"Anybody who knows anything about the history of American theatre will enjoy this book," insists Macauley. "I'm ignorant about how hard he tried to get this published. I don't know if he tried at all or what obstacles he encountered, but I hope he'd be thrilled that his book is finally coming out. His sense of humor informs every page.  He would have been an interesting combination of a businessman and humorist. He was very serious about making a profit in theatre, but he had tremendous humor."

Noel Coward had his number, all right: "John C. Wilson is," he once wryly observed, "a man with his head in the clouds and his feet planted squarely in the box office."

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