28 – Before Brangelina – there was Rita

I know I said it didn’t matter but …

If you did wonder about the ‘beautiful girl called Rita Romelli’ who captured Ria’s heart in New York—If you did try to picture her, or to imagine what turns her life may have subsequently taken, here she is:


And here:


The endlessly frustrating thing about this work is that this isn’t a detective novel with the smooth chronology that ensures clues lead to evidence which leads to a solution or ‘truth’. So, weeks after I needed crucial dates and information on Le Gallienne’s life, an official biography landed on my desk. Theories then have to be unravelled; I have to backtrack madly along lines of enquiry. But I can’t resist details: practical facts and trifles, business factors that shaped artistic work, and anything at all that helps in building up a full-colour picture of Ria’s world. And trying to capture her thoughts and emotions was impossible without at least a glimpse of Rita Romilly, whose name tantalizingly flashed up on a Civic Repertory cast list for The Drunkard but then vanished out of sight.

In February 1928, Shelah Richards wrote to her fiancé to tell him that two nice gentleman came and took her and Ria (her understudy) to see the Civic’s latest production. At 5am, she scrawled him a love letter saying:

‘The Three Sisters’ was actually good – very good … the acting was extraordinarily good and the best I have seen here, and the most like The Abbey!

She subsequently reported that Ria had a part with the company. Her tone was matter-of-fact, but in fact winning a role in the Company was not straightforward.

Katharine Hepburn approached Le Gallienne looking for some theatre work, only to be told that there was no place for her. Some months later, Ria wrote an effusive letter and was granted an audition. Helen Lohman, the Civic’s literary manager, had seen her play Mary Boyle in The Plough and the Stars and may have noticed that the still, elegant quality of the Abbey acting style resonated with Eva Le Gallienne’s approach. Le Gallienne relied on others to ‘scout talent’ for her, but there’s no doubt that she made all the decisions. In auditioning, she looked less for formal training than to “sense their inner quality … some trace of sensibility or imagination, humor, or aspiration.”

To Ria, she simply observed that with all of the nationalities in the Civic, she still hadn’t an Irish member and maybe it was time to include one.

The Fourteenth Street Theatre was crumbling, but a few weeks before the new season, Eva took money she’d won with a Pictorial Review award to refurbish the interior. When Ria arrived for her first day, the cast sat around on the stage reading the new scripts. She looked out on the auditorium, freshly painted in green, gold and black, and tried to hide beneath a sophisticated air her delight in the cyclorama of lights and footlights. After the read through, they walked up the newly-carpeted aisles and explored the dressing rooms backstage, where unfortunately the floorboards were still warped and the radiators wheezing. In the Green Room, photos of the poet Richard Le Gallienne hung on the walls, although his daughter didn’t speak to him.

Eva and her sister Hesper in the Green Room of 14th Street Theatre (c.1928)

Eva and Jo Hutchinson had been living together for over a year. The other actors affectionately called them ‘The Botticelli Twins’ and if anyone had a problem with the couple, they could take it up with Jo’s mother: Leona Roberts had been a member of the core company for many years. Julie Le Gallienne, Eva’s imposing if open-minded mother, shared their flat for a few months each time she came to visit from Paris. Perhaps Ria and her flatmate were simply taking ideas from the Civic’s designer Irene Schariff when they decorated their flat, but in doing so they mimicked the dark blue walls and oiled timbers of Le Gallienne’s own home. Of course, the grand piano was missing from Ria’s walk-up, where the trains constantly roaring overhead were the only soundtrack. But she lived in the theatre, frequently eating in the Childs’ restaurant (a kind of precursor to the Cheesecake Factory) across the street.

Despite their ‘marriage’, in casting her favourite play L’Invitation Au Voyage, it wasn’t Josephine whom Eva cast as her sister. Ria won the major part of Jacqueline, the twenty-year-old sister to the bored Marie-Louise, wife of an industrial magnate. Marie-Louise is in love with a man that recently fled to the Argentine Republic and she sustains herself with the notion of their idealised love, of which he has no knowledge.

When the curtains rose, the audience sighed with pleasure at the beautiful, serene setting: tall, arched French windows flooded the stage with September sunlight while Marie-Louise (Eva) played Chopin on the grand piano. Jacqueline appeared on the patio outside the window. Eva wore a bobbed, brunette wig and Ria had her own black locks cut to match. Both women had sophisticated make-up and what one reviewer deemed ‘some of the prettiest dresses ever worn in 14th street.’ Leaning in the window, Ria uttered the opening line: ‘Are you alone, Marie Louise?’ Those listening hard enough could still hear the notes of Dublin in her accent.

Much of this play is slow and suggestive: sighs and pauses and hidden tears. But there is a beautiful intimacy between the two sisters that can only have been performed by two confidantes.

The second act is set in December, with snow heaped on the fir trees outside.

Jacqueline tells Marie-Louise: ‘I understand much better than you think, believe me. I’ve eyes in my head. And I know that the Argentine set you dreaming.’ With tears in her eyes, Marie Louise confesses: ‘I should be so glad if we could talk together gently, you and I. We’re very far apart, perhaps. But I’ve really no one but you, Jacqueline.’

Ria was close enough on stage to smell the Eau de Verviene that Eva always wore for opening nights, and, if the rumours were true, to smell the alcohol when things offstage weren’t going well.

Around that time, critic George Jean Nathan penned an acerbic article calling on Eva to give up her belief that “she is a reincarnated combination of Rachel, Joan of Arc, and Nat Goodwin, with faint but unmistakable overtones of Jesus.” (Snarky hack – as they would say nowadays.) He held distinctly homophobic views, but his estimation of the size of Eva’s ego doesn’t seem far off. When company member Rose Hobart took advantage of a few days off from performing to visit her husband, Eva promptly sacked her for not seeking permission. On stage in L’invitation Au Voyage, Jacqueline tells Marie-Louise: ‘Your happiness is something for me to live up to!’ and Ria, like the others, must have seen in Eva a guru, an artist to aspire to.

Eva treated all her actors with respect, always calling them by their surname (Miss Mooney) in rehearsals. But she expected all of her actors to match her own discipline and devotion, and her own charisma went far to engender adoration in the others.

Thus, as I survey the frost on the rooftops from the window of Trinity’s Early Printed Books section, I start compiling theories about what happened to Ria’s relationship with Eva after that production. Because from then on, Ria’s parts were minor, if she was on stage at all.

They clearly fell out. But why? With an egotistical, power-monger like Eva, there are bound to be reasons.


A – Did Ria fail to meet Eva’s exacting standards? It seems unlikely. Ria was always serious (to the point of dour) about her work. In fact, it seems more probable that Eva was threatened by her talent and presence; but nobody ever questioned Eva’s confidence.

B – Did Josephine object to being deprived of a main role? Also seems unlikely, given her placid manner and absolute deference to Eva. Jo was also ‘delicate’ and when Eva remembered this, she did her best to allow her adequate rest time between runs.

Jo and Eva in Connecticut c.1927

C – Did Eva make advances on Ria (as she was wont to do on co-stars, especially when creating roles) and have her attention spurned? I like this theory. I am, perhaps, a gossip artist. But it’s not entirely implausible, given her history of philandering. In addition, Ria was already involved with Rita – who had money, power and influence through her strong connections with Robeson, Epstein and other big names from the Harlem Renaissance. Perhaps her head couldn’t be turned and Eva saw this as defiance.

Anyway, after that performance ended, before the critics could intervene, there were the usual opening night celebrations. The cast collected in Greenwich village, where the Russian musicians resident in the Civic played their own compositions. The actresses (at least those still watching their figures) indulged in their usual fare of ‘chocolates, gin and oranges’. The Botticelli twins argued and made up, Robeson sang and they drank and danced until the early hours.

For those few hours, before the reviews landed, Ria Mooney was a star. In fact, while many dismissed the whole production as a consummate failure and said that Ria’s part was lost, the records show different. The New York Times sensed the delicate beauty in the play and said ‘it discovers the Civic Repertory troupe in one of its most accomplished aspects.’ Le Gallienne was lauded and he also said ‘Ria Mooney plays the part of the sister with as much graphic precision as charm.’ By then, Ria’s family in Dublin had little interest in her career. If she shared such flattering reviews with anyone, it was Rita Romilly.

Despite their piety, The Abbey Players knew all about ‘girls-friendly’ women, as Denis Johnston called them. In fact, I quite like this description, which sits well with Rita and Ria, given our lack of intimate knowledge about their relationship. Unlike the Irish actresses who shunned Ria for playing a prostitute, the American girls she met celebrated her ambitions. Rita provided contacts and opportunities, as well as hosting many parties and encouraging much debauchery. She also gave support, probably financial as well as emotional.

Over forty-five years (and a long affair with Fred Higgins) later, Ria still remembered with love her ‘friend’ in New York. Each time I picture Ria writing up her memories in the Wicklow ‘hut’, she is sitting at the window picturing the ‘beautiful girl’ that stole her heart in New York.

And here comes the problem with all my complicated theories. In her memoirs, Ria believed that Rita married a Mr Erlanger. She didn’t. She married a Mr Benson. When she came back from America, Ria knew no more about her friend’s life. Did she hold on to the memory of that ‘girl’ so that she didn’t have to encounter the ‘lady’ that she became?

[With particular thanks to the lovely librarian in Early Printed Books in Trinity, who greets me like an old friend and has no problem with the many hours I spend staring out the window. He enjoys all my titles, but as Bernard’s plays came in a collection entitled A Sultry Fire he was particularly amused today.]

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