Ethnically French, British, and Danish, Eva Le Gallienne devoted herself to theater in New York City for decades. In an age when women’s roles in plays were often secondary, Le Gallienne became more than an actor. Her boldness and idealism helped shape the future of theater.
On January 11, 1899, Danish journalist Julie Norregard and English poet Richard Le Gallienne welcomed the birth of their daughter, Eva Le Gallienne. When Le Gallienne was four, her mother took her to live in Paris while her father moved to the United States. Although her parents did not divorce until 1911, Le Gallienne may have been primarily on her own, traveling between Britain and Paris frequently even after her father moved to the States.
It was in Paris that Le Gallienne met actor Sarah Bernhardt backstage after one of her plays. For the young Le Gallienne, this was the moment of change for her life, and by the age of 15, she was taking drama courses and appearing in plays in London. Encouraged by the praise of her performances, she and her mother moved to New York City in 1915.
Success on Broadway was another matter, and it wasn’t until 1920 that she became a star, first in Arthur Richman’s Not So Long Ago. Many think being a star would be wonderful, but Le Gallienne soon decided that Broadway was not putting on the types of plays she really wanted to be involved with. Using some funds from her lover, Alice DeLamar, Le Gallienne created the Civic Repertory Theatre. Le Gallienne was the director of 32 of the 34 plays that the theatre put on before the Great Depression forced it to close.
Le Gallienne continued to act in theatre throughout her lifetime, though that slowed a bit during the 1930s and early 1940s. By 1946, she joined her lover, theater director Margaret Webster, and theater producer Cheryl Crawford to found the American Repertory Theater, often credited with helping to create the idea of Off-Broadway in NYC. She was known affectedly as “Miss Le G” to many in the theater world.
When the medium began, she turned to television from time to time as well. Her IMDB profile lists 16 credits as a television actor and 7 as a writer, generally a translator of non-English plays, for that medium. Her favorite playwright was Henrik Ibsen, whose plays touched upon many social issues that appealed to Le Gallienne. She also authored and translated literary works for adults and children.
In 1964, Le Gallienne was granted a Tony award for her 50 years of work in theater as actor, director, and writer and her support of the National Repertory Theatre over the years. In 1977, she won a Supporting Actress Emmy for her role in the television version of The Royal Family; she had also starred in the award-winning revival of that play the year before. In 1981, her performance in Resurrection was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan presented her with the National Medal of Arts for her work as actor, director, producer, and teacher, and for “encouraging the establishment of regional theater companies”.
While Le Gallienne had several girlfriends over the years, she and her lifetime partner, actress Marion Evensen, bought an estate in Connecticut. Le Gallienne surrounded herself with dearly loved pets because, according to those humans closest to her, she was a private and surprisingly shy woman. She died in 1991 at the age of 92.