Partner Phyllis Wilbourn
157 W 57th St, New York, NY 10019
East Finchley Cemetery and Crematorium East Finchley, London Borough of Barnet, Greater London, England
Constance Collier (born Laura Constance Hardie, 22 January 1878 – 25 April 1955) was an English stage and film actress and acting coach. In the 1950s, after Collier died, her live in secretary (and companion), Phyllis Wilbourn, went to live with Katharine Hepburn, and was buried in the Hepburn family plot.
Born Laura Constance Hardie in Windsor, Berkshire to Cheetham Agaste Hardie and Eliza Collier, Constance Collier made her stage debut at the age of three, when she played Fairy Peasblossom in A Midsummer Night's Dream. In 1893, at the age of 15, she joined the Gaiety Girls, the famous dance troupe based at the Gaiety Theatre in London. She was a very beautiful woman and soon became so tall that she towered over all the other dancers. In addition, she had an enormous personality and considerable determination. On 27 December 1906, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree's extravagant revival of Antony and Cleopatra opened at His Majesty's Theatre, with Tree as Mark Antony and Collier as Cleopatra, a performance for which she received much critical praise.
Famed for his realistic productions, Tree and his designer, Percy Macquoid, dressed Collier in a range of spectacular costumes. Later, Collier commented: "There is only a mention in the play of Cleopatra appearing as the goddess Isis. Tree elaborated this into a great tableau... Cleopatra, robed in silver, crowned in silver, carrying a golden scepter and the symbol of the sacred golden calf in her hand, went in procession through the streets of Alexandria, the ragged, screaming populace acclaiming the Queen, half in hate, half in superstitious fear and joy as she made her sacrilegious ascent to her high throne in the market-place." Collier was now established as a popular and distinguished actress. In January 1908, she starred with Beerbohm Tree at His Majesty's Theatre in J. Comyn's new play The Mystery of Edwin Drood, based on Charles Dickens's unfinished novel of the same name. Later that year, she made the first of several tours of the United States. During the second, made with Beerbohm Tree in 1916, she made four silent films, including an uncredited appearance in D. W. Griffith's Intolerance (she can be seen being carried through the entrance to the city in the Babylonian part of the film) and as Lady Macbeth in Tree's disastrous first film interpretation of Shakespeare's Macbeth. In 1905, Collier married English actor Julian Boyle (stage name Julian L'Estrange), a forerunner of Clark Gable in looks and style. They performed together for many years until his death in 1918 in New York from influenza. No children were born from the marriage. In the early 1920s, she established a close friendship with Ivor Novello, who was then a young, handsome actor. Around the same time, Collier became seriously ill from diabetes. First sent to Switzerland for treatment in 1923 then taken to a doctor in Strasbourg, she was the first patient in Europe ever to be treated with the drug insulin following its recent discovery by Frederick Banting and others in Toronto. Fully recovered, she played the Duchesse de Surennes in W. Somerset Maugham's comedy Our Betters, and in the following year, collaborated with Ivor Novello on a play called The Rat. She also appeared in several plays with him, including the British version of the American success, The Firebrand by Edwin Justus Mayer. In 1924 Collier introduced Novello to the poet Siegfried Sassoon, with whom he had a six-month affair. While Sassoon destroyed his diary for this period, his unhappiness over their relationship became well-known, and according to his biographer Jean Moorcroft Wilson, 'pitched him into [what he referred to as] an "unblinking hell"'. Collier introduced Novello also to Glen Nyam Shaw, another of Novello's affairs, and also Shaw had a quick fling with Sassoon. Collier directed Novello and Shaw in the play Down Hill in 1926. Collier's writing career is notable for her collaboration with Deems Taylor on the libretto of the opera Peter Ibbetson, which was premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in February 1931 and which received mixed reviews. In 1935, upon her arrival in Hollywood, Luise Rainer hired Collier to improve Rainer's theatre acting and English, and to learn the basics of film acting.
In the late 1920s Collier relocated to Hollywood where she became a voice coach and teacher in diction. This was during the tumultuous changeover from silent films to sound and many silent actors with no theatre training were scrambling for lessons. Her most famous pupil was arguably Colleen Moore. Film historian Kevin Brownlow interviewed Moore for the series Hollywood (1980) about the silent film era. Moore recounted that upon taking voice lessons from a "very famous lady" the teacher asked "is it true that you make 10,000 dollars a week?" Moore replied, "no ma'am, I make 12,500 a week". The teacher Moore was referring to was Constance Collier. Collier nevertheless maintained ties to Broadway and would appear in several plays in the 1930s. In 1932 Collier starred as Carlotta Vance in the original production of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's comedy Dinner at Eight. The role was played in the 1933 film version by Marie Dressler. She appeared in the films Stage Door (1937), Mitchell Leisen's Kitty (1945, a comedic performance as Lady Susan, the drunken aunt of Ray Milland), Perils of Pauline with Betty Hutton, Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948) and Otto Preminger's Whirlpool (1949). During the making of the film version of Stage Door, she became great friends with Katharine Hepburn, a friendship that lasted the rest of Collier's life. Collier was presented with the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre Award for distinguished service in training and guiding actors in Shakespearean roles. Collier was a drama coach for many famous actors, including Audrey Hepburn, Vivien Leigh and Marilyn Monroe (Truman Capote introduced Monroe to Collier). She also coached Katharine Hepburn during Hepburn's world tour performing Shakespeare in the '50s.
Collier died of a heart attack in Manhattan, at the apartment on West 57th Street she shared with Wilbourn, on 25 April 1955 at the age of 77. Among the speakers at Collier's funeral two days later at the Universal Chapel, Lexington Ave. and 52nd St., was Cathleen Nesbitt. During the early days of World War I, Collier had helped Nesbitt prepare for her wedding to the poet Rupert Brooke, but he died before it could take place. Collier was cremated and her ashes brought by Wilbourn to England for burial. The ashes were interred in East Finchley Cemetery, North London, in one of three adjacent plots containing nine other members of her family, all of them actors. Wilbourn observed to Hedda Hopper: "I spent my life with an angel." One wonders if she would have said the same of the 40 years she would spend at the side of an even bigger star. When Collier died, Wilbourn went on to become Katharine Hepburn's personal secretary and remained so until her own death in 1995.
My published books:
BACK TO HOME PAGE