No Lady of Leisure
Story of "that Landi brat" fromVancouver who won top billing on stage and screen and has now turned playwright
SHOULD anyone acquainted with the energetic abilities of Miss Elissa Landi be asked to designate her under a single label, it would take a bit of pondering. She is an outstandingly successful actress, has had five novels published, has appeared in more than a score of films, speaks four languages, and is a decided ornament to the lecture platform. She is also an accomplished ballet dancer, concert pianist, and mezzo-soprano; and this season, will have a play produced on Broadway.
In her spare time she rides a horse like a Valkyrie and plays a smashing game of tennis that has the better-than-average male opponent looking grim, and muttering imprecations that are more than impolite. She also gives freely of her time and talents to entertainments for the armed services and is indefatigable in inducing patriotic people to buy more war certificates and stamps.
And she can cook !
This human dynamo further assaults the male conception of mentally gifted womanhood by being a downright combination of brains and beauty. She is red-haired, green-eyed, stands five feet five, and never has to worry about her weight. Furthermore, women and men alike adore her for that understanding charm and graciousness, so very strikingly lacking when she was the champion roof-jumping hoyden in Vancouver not so many years ago.
She was also then the dire despair of neighborhood mothers whose little girls—and boys—would come home after school bearing physical signs of combat inflicted by that “awful Landi child.” Still, as it is recalled by her contemporaries, she was a schizophrenic long before the word came into its present usage. In the daytime she shrilly insisted in being included in the small-fry sand-lot baseball games or mountain-climbing excursions; in the evenings, when her mother had some friends in, Elissa would quietly make her parlor entrance, gleamingly scrubbed and garbed in starched habiliments, then to render such obnoxious juvenile ditties as “The Little Brown Hen” and “Butter Making.” At the finish, there would be audible clucks of approval from elderly ladies; the mothers of Elissa’s little playmates would gaze with awe upon the personality transformation and finally, sotto voce, confess to bafflement. Elissa would curtsy, politely say good night, and scuff upstairs muttering about adult asininity.
She has refuted all the maxims in the copy-books and is a shining example to all naughty little girls. She started upsetting schedules when she arrived on the scene in Venice while her Austrian parents were on their way to Canada via Southampton. As casually as one would mention the weather, Elissa Landi nonchalantly mentions that she is
thirty-eight, this assertion substantiated by the records which show that she was born on December 6, 1904. It seems her father had made an arrangement with a Canadian syndicate to supervise some railway construction in northern Quebec.
ELISSA was three months old when she woke up one morning to find herself in Montreal. Less than a year later she woke up another morning to find herself in Vancouver. It was in that city that she gained her first conscious memories and she says today that the recollections of her initial schooling and the first childhood friends she made there are particularly vivid and beloved. (Incidentally, in her latest novel to be published in December in New York, the heroine is a Canadian.)
There was, of course, considerable speculation in Vancouver when the family arrived. It seems the
news had travelled on ahead and it was known that the dashing Count Karl Zanardi-Landi had gone through a swank cavalry school in Austria and then switched to civil engineering; that his wife was the lovely daughter of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, she, the wife of the Emperor Franz Josef, last of Europe’s fabulous monarchs in an era that vanished with the last war. It was not known that the Count had grown a little tired of a decadent country that held no outlet for the Zanardi-Landi energies.
Adventuring in a new country where there was no caste system, he established his wife, the two youngsters and their nurse, in Vancouver; then he went north and began building roads and bridges with Hindu and Chinese labor. There was no side to the Count; he toiled hard; and the workers liked this slim blue-eyed stranger with the military bearing, who was quiet-eyed and quiet-voiced unless building schedules were not being maintained.
Back in Vancouver the Countess Carolina also lived quietly. She took an interest in church and social activities and had no difficulty in making friends. If she had memories of court life in Europe, she showed no sign of this. She gave language lessons to little boys, some of whom are now important figures in West Coast business and professional life.
Elissa, meanwhile, had become the household’s problem. To get her out of the way a few scant hours a day, the Countess enrolled her as a day pupil in Miss Walton’s School for Girls, a small and select academy for those daughters of the community’s élite who might otherwise have had to rub rude shoulders in a public school.
When the Count finally finished an engineering project near Prince Rupert, he got the wanderlust again and decided he needed a change of scenery. Elissa was ten when she and the family left for Turkey where the Count’s family owned a coal-mine outside Smyrna. The Zanardi-Landis lived at the Italian consulate there for six months; then followed a transcontinental trek of the European play-spots with Elissa quickly developing into one of those homeless cosmopolitan youngsters growing up in the rootless environment of hotels.
Her parents were in London when she and her elder brother, holidaying with their nurse in Bavaria, were hurriedly summoned from the Continent just a month before World War 1 broke out. (Her brother Tony, incidentally, is currently serving somewhere with the American forces.) The children were too young to know what the previous conflict was all about but there were air raids in those days, too, and one of Elissa Landi’s memories is seeing a silver Zeppelin brought down over London. She went home that night and wrote a glowing and excited treatise on the event.
Her career was beginning to shape. Once again she was at school and also studying the ballet under the tutelage of Princess Astafieva Serafina, onetime pupil of the great Nijinski. Elissa Landi formed a friendship then with a tall and lanky boy and a dark little girl whose gyrations even then she envied with considerable awe. The two, you see, who still today are her friends, were Anton Dolin and Alicia Myrkova who were to become stars of the Ballet Russe.
Stage Debut in 1924
JAMES FAGAN, the well-known English theatrical entrepreneur, dropped into the Zanardi-Landi apartment in London with his wife one night to read a play aloud that he thought he might produce. Fagan was also looking for young talent and he looked over Elissa Landi with a speculative eye. He made the expected suggestion and Elissa politely stated that she didn’t want to be an actress—she wanted to write; whereupon the Countess emitted what can only be called a sniff and said: “You can be both, can’t you?”
Elissa made her stage debut in “Dandy Dick,” a Pinero farce, in April, 1924. In the cast were John Gielgud, later of “Hamlet” fame;
James Whale, now one of Hollywood’s top-ranking film producers; Alan Napier, now an established star on the British stage and screen; and Earl Gray who is on the headquarters dramatic staff of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Elissa Landi remembers that she wasn’t the slightest bit nervous on opening night.
(“Why should I have been?” she says.
“All I had to do was say lines that I had memorized !”) Ina small part and in such distinguished company, she was scarcely noticed by the critics and didn’t even care; she was absorbing backstage atmosphere for a book— which she later wrote and which was published the following year. This
was simply titled “Neilson” and, for a first novel, it went over satisfactorily.
Meanwhile, she accepted a part in “Storm” by C. K. Munro. After the opening-night performance the critics hurried off to Fleet Street, feverishly searching their brains for superlatives on the way. Elissa Landi woke up the following morning to find herself a star !
The play ran for six months to packed houses but it was still interfering with her writing. On the recommendation of their European talent scouts, Gilbert Miller and the Theatre Guild kept bombarding her with cables to come to America, she preferred to stay in London. When “Storm” closed, she went into “Lavender Ladies” and this was another hit. After its second month, Elissa Landi had a breakdown and was ill for ten or twelve weeks. When she recovered, she went into Margaret Kennedy’s “The Constant Nymph” with Noel Coward, John Gielgud and Edna Best. The London run lasted eleven months. During that time she wrote her second novel, “Prophet Without Honour,” doing several chapters in her dressing room between scenes. The book was a success.
It, was at this time that she married John Cecil Lawrence, handsome young London barrister. A stage career and the law proved to be a poor foundation for marital happiness, the hours of work for both being what they were. The two were amicably divorced three years later. Fortunately, there were no children.
Meanwhile, she created the leading role in George Bernard Shaw’s “A Glimpse of Reality” and discovered that the Irish dramatist, publicly touted as a rude and irascible old gentleman, was really very charming and good-humored. When Elissa Landi stepped into the leading role of John van Druten’s “After All,” the British filmmakers started making extravagant offers that just couldn’t be ignored. Besides, this medium was new to her and conceivably might provide the background for another novel. She surrendered the van Druten lead and turned her energies to filmacting.
Elissa Landi starred in Anthony Asquith’s famous film, “Underground,” with Brian Aherne playing opposite her. She made a film in France with Adolph Menjou; the picture was written and
directed by Elinor Glyn. During those film commitments she had a third novel published, “House For Sale.”
•It was at this time that Rouben Mamoulian, the Broadway talent scout and ultimately Hollywood director, figuratively got Miss Landi in a corner and insisted that she must play the English nurse in the New York stage production of Ernest Hemingway’s “Farewell to Arms.” He promised her that splendid actor, Glenn Anders, as leading man. Elissa Landi booked passage on the Aquitania; after all —those fabulous dollars being offered in such large amounts!
“Farewell to Arms” opened in New York in early September, 1930—in the middle of a heat wave— but the wilting critics duplicated the activities of their London brethren and did everything but toss their top hats in the air.
Hollywood On the Trail
ITLISSA LANDI received five long-distance calls from Hollywood before the following noon. She let the boys raise each other on the ante and wisely waited for the absolute top bid. Fox Films turned out to be the winner, putting Elissa Landi automatically in the four-figure weekly salary bracket.
Elissa Landi has made over thirty pictures but candidly admits that she was not part icularly happy nor did she fit too easily into the Hollywood environment. Some of her films were masterpieces of mediocrity and she would just as soon forget them. Some of the better ones, however, included “The Count of Monte Cristo,” “The Masquerader,” “Yellow Ticket,” “I Loved You Wednesday,” “Devil’s Lottery,” and “The Sign of the Cross” in which, as the Christian maiden, she was tossed as a toothsome morsel to Nero’s lions at the finale. She also committed the unpardonable social blunder, by Hollywood folk standards, of not renting some pretentious hillside villa, complete with spectacular tiled swimming pool. Nor did she appear much in public, as far as the night-spots were concerned; and she was definitely opposed to bathing-suit poses, an objection which the publicity boys simply couldn’t understand, Elissa Landi’s physical assets being very obviously what they are.
Her last Hollywood film was “After the Thin Man” in which she appeared with William Powell, Myrna Loy and Jimmie Stewart. It was important theatrical news when she announced her decision to give up pictures and return to the New York stage. She appeared in “Tapestry in Grey” and this, thanks to her talents, enjoyed a very successful engagement. She then played the lead in “The Warrior’s Husband” and followed this comedysatire success by playing the lead in “Tovarich.” The indefatigable lady, however, was still searching for further Three years ago she began presenting her programs of one-woman sketches which she wrote herself. Then, last year, she was induced to go on the lecture platform where the recital of stage and screen experiences has made her the darling of culture groups across Canada and the United States. She is currently appearing on the road in Maxwell Anderson’s “Mary of Scotland” and the more susceptible in the audience nightly weep at her portrayal of the young Scottish queen treated treacherously alike by foes and those she thinks to be her friends.
Her permanent address is a farm near Kingston, New York, but she spends only six or eight weeks on it a year. It is not a luxury estate but a profitable enterprise of a hundred and thirty acres, sixty of these under cultivation, and complete with livestock of all classifications. With the help of three men the Count manages the place with enthusiastic energy.
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The neighbors are descendants of the ; early Dutch who settled New York State and the date on the lintel of the I centre doorway of the Landi home is 1696.
The house is of grey stone, with gleaming white shutters, and there are those embrasures in the walls so : angled that one could shoot attacking Indians without presenting a target. The barns are large and there is a trout stream artificially dammed. The older part of the house, where the large living room and dining room are located, has priceless overhead beams. There’s a grand piano in the i living room, something like three i thousand books, and a collection of classical records that Elissa Landi has been collecting for twelve years. Much of the family furniture, including the grand piano and the Count’s four-poster bed, was brought over from Austria several years ago.
¡ The cat is a gift from Clifton Fadi! man, literary critic and director of “Information Please.”
There is a country club down the road but Flissa Landi is not a mem! ber and thinks that knocking a golf ! ball into a hole hundreds of yards away is a waste of time. She does I ride, however, when she is at the j farm ; she also swims and plays tennis.
I In addition, she has a cellar full of I pickles and preserves she prepared herself this summer during the few weeks she was able to visit the farm; and the two women servants, who adore her, maintain you can’t keep her out of the kitchen. She is usually up at eight in the morning and nine is late. As her colored maid chuckles:
I “Yassuh, Ah’ve worked for actresses all mah life but that Miss Landi i she won’t stay in bed !”