I have touched down in New Haven, where fall has arrived in all its golden glory and the jetlag is better than expected, perhaps because of the excellent coffee. But before I start channelling Joan Didion circa 1968 and covering the Trump Tapes, I want to share new information about a character that hasn’t appeared here for some time: Frolie Mulhern.
Actresses produce work that is as ephemeral as a snowflake. It’s gone as soon as the applause starts; all traces vanish into thin air before the audience get to their feet. The intense physical work doesn’t even leave a puddle of water. I squeezed in some Dublin Theatre Festival performances before I left, and through chance, found myself sitting closer to the performers than I’ve ever been before. At Guerrilla I could smell the performers’ sweat as they raved. At Swan Lake, I saw a bloodstain seeping through the costume sleeve of one of the dancers after she knocked her elbow. At something else, I noticed a performer was wearing an ankle support; her attempts to conceal it with thick tights failed to hide the bodily injury: the impact on her limbs of the long performance run, with numerous shows a day. The performance may vanish; the bruises and strains prove that it happened.
Actresses get sick just like normal people; but it’s their job to conceal it. In the 1930s, while the Abbey Company toured the US, many of the letters home shared tales of colds, flus, stomach pains, and how the repertoire and the ensemble had to be rearranged to cope. Often they went on anyway: during the tour of 1934/35 Bazie Magee nursed the girls through stomach pains and other menstrual ills with painkillers and whiskey. Dossie Wright had to have teeth extracted in New York. F. R. Higgins decided that the ‘gummy’ look was perfect for Playboy but never commented on whether he was in pain backstage. The most serious illness was Paddy Carolan, who contracted fatal TB. Without telling his family, the Company banded together and pooled what money they had to buy him a first-class train compartment to take him back to the ship. He reached his wife and children, but died soon afterwards.
Frolie died aged thirty-one, just after the First World War broke out. There were hints of ‘delicate health’ in a number of places, but I had no real information and speculated that it might also have been TB, perhaps undiagnosed. [The TB epidemic, affecting the lungs and airways, was rife in Ireland at the time, with sanatoria nationwide.] Without proof, I could only surmise.
Shortly after my PhD was submitted, I was contacted by a woman in Dublin related to Frolie who had found my work while researching her family tree. She was able to fill in some of the gaps in the history I’ve been building and not just from anecdotes: one relative had handwritten his memories of living at the Mulhern home of Belvedere on Ailesbury Road. These letters, written by an elderly man now passed away, recalled a number of relatives but shone with particular delight, love and pride for his aunt Frolie.
I feared my reading of Frolie – based on fragments—might be nothing like the family memories; but this lovely lady called her ‘a real livewire’ and confirmed my suspicions about her energy and sense of humour. In the spring of 1937, Aideen wrote home to her sisters from San Francisco:
I am typing this at an open window of my bedroom, Frolie has just left the room like a young hurricane to have her hair done, and when she comes back we are going to do a bit of shopping, a movie and dinner somewhere before the show.
A young hurricane: that’s always how I’ve thought of Frolie. Full of verve and laughter, getting Aideen into trouble and then charming their way out of it. But behind all this, Frolie was dealing with a serious heart condition. The doctors had said at her birth that one of the chambers of her heart wasn’t working, and nothing could be done. The condition often left her breathless and weak. Her family knew that it could claim her life at any time and that her time was limited.
Mrs Bridget Mulhern (widowed at an early age) spent her life trying to keep her youngest daughter healthy and safe, while also determined to let her experience all that life could offer. Bridget ran a busy household, with six of her own children as well as three members of the extended family that came to live under her care. There were five smart, independent women: Frolie’s eldest sister would become one of the first female professors of dental science in Trinity.
Bridget’s charges ranged in age from forty-years-old to young teenagers and her own elderly sister also lived there, helping to keep order. The age range meant Frolie had young nephews at home awed by her glamorous lifestyle, often sitting in the passenger seat of her motorcar as she raced around Dublin. Frequent lectures about speeding from Gardai were often appeased by tickets for an Abbey matinee, if she couldn’t get out of a ticket with comedy and flirting.
Frolie had an incorrigible sense of fun from an early age and “tried out” (ahem) a number of convent schools in Dublin before she ran out of options and had to finish her schooling with London nuns. But she was always going to be an actress: she started in the Abbey School when Lady Gregory was still there, dispensing Gort cake.
Mere weeks before her death, Frolie performed in her hometown of Enniskillen in an evening of vaudeville entertainment, of “mystery, music and mirth” where her dramatic talents “charmed and pleased” the local audience. At the packed event, in aid of the parochial bazaar, Frolie was obliged to recite “no fewer than six pieces,” with her “imitation of the dialect and mannerisms of the people of home and foreign countries being exceptionally clever.” Her touring of the world had left a lasting impression; in her own way, she introduced Mr Elbert Wickes (her Mormon lover) and her other American friends to her family.
The Mulhern family might have been reluctant to let Frolie return to settle in America for all kinds of reasons (her heart condition as well as their conservative Catholic values) but they loved to entertain the Abbey Company and the Sunday suppers hosted at Belvedere were classy but fun affairs. After food and tea had been served, the children were sent to bed and the rest of the guests gathered in the drawing room with Bridget Mulhern, her sister and daughter, and any other visiting adults. Around the fire, over the piano, each actor had to take a turn: a song, a poem, a dramatic speech, a funny monologue. The impromptu cabaret could last late into the night.
Upstairs, one little boy couldn’t sleep. Petulant at being sent to bed just as the fun was starting, he crept out of his room and onto the ‘middle landing’ (he couldn’t risk the bottom one). There he lay, in his pyjamas, listening to the songs and the laughter. Decades later, he recalled all this in writing and the sense of magic and joy is palpable in his account.
Despite their knowledge of Frolie’s condition, nobody was prepared for her death. One Saturday morning, that young boy woke to a quiet and mourning house. His aunt had passed away the night before: sitting at the fireside with her mother. They brought her to Enniskillen to be buried beside her father. The list of mourners in the newspaper goes on and on.
The Fermanagh Herald reported extensively on the funeral service. Their reporter detailed the sermon from the alter, which included this advice:
In their bereavement, the relatives had one consolation. The deceased had been taken from a wicked world, whose efforts and temptations she had succeeded in resisting.
I don’t know why I find this so amusing, but my sense is that wherever Frolie was looking down from, she was having a chuckle. Any temptations life had put in her path, Frolie had taken them: travel, fast cars, dancing, drinking and smoking. She was a kind-hearted and generous friend; she was a loyal, hard-working member of the company and a talented actress. She made a lot of people very happy, however wicked their world was.
That boy in his pyjamas was one of them: an audience member who didn’t even see the performance. He pressed his pyjamas against the wooden landing. He rested his head in his arms and listened closely, imagining. He watched the light dancing around the doorframe, listened to the tinkling piano and the bursts of applause. Nobody could see the impact on Frolie’s body of her performance: the weakening heart, the struggling lungs. Not the friends watching and laughing, nor the boy on the middle landing. His feet were cold and his eyes were heavy, but he knew something special was happening. That memory never left him.