Introducing Miss Frolie Mulhern:
‘She is just an attractive Irish girl’ reads the caption to Frolie’s press shot from the 1937/38 Abbey tour.
(Aideen, by the way, is ‘very young and very charming’, but enough of her for a bit.)
Just an attractive Irish girl. I’ve overcome a fear of flying to come halfway across the world. I’ve braved the I-10 East Freeway – even more terrifying. Frolie is a lot more than that.
HISTORY LESSON BEGINS:
Frolie (Frances) Mulhern was born in 1907. She was youngest of one boy and six girls born to James and Bridget Mulhern, who lived at 17 Belmore Street, Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. James Mulhern ran Mulhern & Co., a substantial bottling business in the county. Like Aideen, Frolie lost a parent at an early age; the 1911 National Census declares Bridget Mulhern a widower. Personal accounts suggest that Bridget Mulhern was a formidable businesswoman as well as a strong maternal presence. After her husband’s death, she managed the business affairs and set about ensuring a proper education for all of her children. Before Frolie was in her teens, Bridget had moved the family to ‘Belvedere’, a mansion with extensive grounds in the upmarket neighbourhood of Ailesbury Road in Donnybrook, Dublin. Her elder sisters went to boarding school and Frolie was educated at a Sacred Heart convent, close to the city centre. While many of her sisters went on to university, Frolie joined the Abbey School of Acting and first appeared on stage in 1929.
HISTORY LESSON ENDS.
She was also more than ‘just an attractive girl’ to American theatre producer Elbert Wickes. In 1939 Aideen revealed to Eddie Choate that Frolie and Elbert Wickes were ‘very much in love’ during the US tour of the Abbey Company in 1937/38. At that point, Aideen was desperate for her best friend to go back to the United States with her, where it seemed both love and professional accomplishment awaited both of them.
So, I am here, in the chilled air of the Honnold/Mudd Library in Claremont, CA.
Claremont is … Well, put it this way: I was lucky to walk through the front gates of Trinity College every day for four years. These kids are spoilt!! It’s about 10 degrees hotter than LA all the time, so I can sit out on the deck until late without ever thinking about the sea breeze. Carrie (the wonderful and generous Head of Special Collections at Honnold/Mudd), explained that if I keep thinking I’m at Harvard, it’s because when the college was founded here, they replicated much of the architecture to attract high-calibre young lecturers. There’s no Starbucks – because Claremont frown on franchises – but there are tree-lined streets with a cozy village in which to shop and eat.
Pomona College are putting me up in ‘The Rose Room’ at Sumner House, built in 1887, with the original Victorian glass recently restored. (I had the bay window at the front!)
AND – here comes the Nerd bit – the Special Collections of Honnold/Mudd have an Adobe Early Books Scanner which makes my life in Special Collections an absolute delight.
So, here I am, counting press shots. Literally, counting press shots. Running out of other ideas, but determined to find any evidence of Wickes’s feelings for Frolie. This may be difficult, as this was a man who kept his address book by topic. For example, “Attorneys” under “A” and clients under “T” for “talent”.
The first thing I found when I opened the boxes were letters with Boss Shields’s loping signature, so I don’t feel as if I’ve entirely abandoned Aideen. AND there is one photo of Frolie showing … But I think I’ll keep that for the book, as I can’t give everything away now.
Several of the photographs in the archives here show Frolie with a cigarette in one hand, and a drink in the other. She wore slacks, and her mimicry of other Abbey actors was (apparently) hilarious. Many believed she would take on the roles of Maureen Delaney when the older comic actress retired. Frolie was seven years Aideen’s elder, but they were best friends. They appeared as sisters in ‘The Far-Off Hills’ and they shared a room on tour, alternately rowing and making up. In New York they danced The Big Apple all night and then went straight to 5 o’clock mass in the cathedral.
Frolie’s family were at home on Ailesbury Road, Donnybrook. She was earning notably less than the ingenue Aideen, but while Aideen wrote home to her sisters for loans, money never seems to have been a problem for Frolie.
Despite the fact she had left Wickes behind, when the 1937/38 tour ended Frolie settled back into the Abbey Theatre much more easily than Aideen. She played Rosie Redmond in Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars in its revival in October 1938 and continued to get comic roles in new productions. Aideen told Eddie Choates about seeing Frolie appear in Heritage , a play by J. K. Montgomery at The Gate Theatre declaring her friend’s portrayal of a movie-struck servant to be ‘grand’.
Elbert Wickes did not have an easy transition to post-Frolie life in the US. At some point that year, he discovered his business partner had been running up ferocious debts. In July 1938, he wrote to Boss and to F.R. Higgins at the Abbey Theatre pleading clemency. But things only got worse. Everything down to the table lamp on the walnut desk in Wickes’s Boston office was put on an inventory, and divided equally with Alber of Alber & Wickes Inc. To add to his problems, Elbert Wickes had a wife and two boys to support.
Yup. Another married man with a family to support. Did Frolie choose her family and stability over a return to the US with Aideen? Or did she realise that the married man she loved had no intention of leaving his wife?
On December 7, 1939 Aideen was staying at the Whitby apartments in New York when she received devastating news from Dublin. Frolie Mulhern had died on November 17 at her mother’s home on Ailesbury Road, aged thirty-two. Family stories report that she died suddenly and quietly; her heart stopped as she sat at the fire with her mother. Earlier correspondence from Arthur Shields suggests that there were underlying health problems. In the death notice published the next day, the long list of mourners shows a grieving extended family, and a large collection of clerics confirms Aideen’s earlier comments about the religious background of the Mulherns. In the obituary, The Irish Independent said:
Her high ideals, courage and good humour adorned all she undertook, and the Company will be the poorer for her death.
When I met Christine Shields, she was anxious to know more about Frolie. On learning the circumstances of her death, she asked me straight away: ‘Did she die of a broken heart?’ I may never know. But I’m going to fall asleep in Sumner House wondering.
 McCullough, M. Personal interview with the author. 9 April 2010.
 McCullough, M. Personal Interview with the Author. 9 April 2010.