Lynn Fontanne was once described by a drama critic as "one of our two most gifted comic actors" (the other one was Fontanne's husband and stage partner, Alfred Lunt).
Fontanne was born on December 6, 1887, to Jules Pierre Antoine Fontanne, a brass type founder, and Frances Ellen Fontanne. When she was 10, she was first introduced to the theater when she was taken to a country play in Woodford. She decided that night that acting was what she wished to do with her life.
At the age of 15, Fontanne went to study with the great Shakespearean actress, Ellen Terry. The following year, in 1903, she played her first dramatic role touring with Terry in Alice Sit by the Fire.
Fontanne debuted in London in 1909, when she appeared in the pantomime, Cinderella, at the Drury Lane Theater. Less than a year later, she made her New York debut as Harriet Budgeon in Mr. Preedy and the Countess at Nazimova's 39th Street Theater.
In 1919, backstage at the New Amsterdam Theater, Fontanne met Alfred Lunt, a handsome young actor who had made his Broadway debut in October 1917 as Claude Estabrook in Romance and Arabella. Lunt and Fontanne would go on to become one of the most brilliant acting team of the 20th century. At this time, she was appearing in Laurette Taylor's acting company. The two were married on May 26, 1922, and one year later, they appeared together on stage for the first time at the Ritz Theater as King Charles II and Lady Castlemaine in Sweet Nell of Drury Lane.
The Lunts joined the Theater Guild in 1924, the same year they appeared in The Guardsman, an enormously successful play that ran on Broadway for 40 weeks. For the next few years, Fontanne demonstrated her wide range of acting capability by playing Raina in Arms and the Man in 1926, Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion and Agrafena in The Brothers Karamazov in 1927, and as Queen Elizabeth in Elizabeth the Queen in 1931.
During the Chicago run of Elizabeth the Queen, MGM production head, Irving Thalberg invited Fontanne and Lunt to his hotel suite to ask them to consider making a film version of The Guardsman. Fontanne told him they would accept only if there would be no "swimming, high diving, fast horseback riding, or any of those things you do out there in the movies." Thalberg agreed to her rules, and the Lunts flew to Hollywood to make the movie that would earn them both Academy Award nominations.
The year, 1935, proved to be another successful year for Fontanne. She continued to co-star with her beloved husband in light comedies, such as Reunion in Vienna, in which she played Elena, and Point Valaine, in which she played Linda Valaine. In November of that year, the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded her its medal for diction.
For Lynn Fontanne, the most memorable experience of her career was touring in Robert E. Sherwood's anti-war play, There Shall Be No Night from 1940 through 1941. The play withstood a particularly long run of a year in London during the heavy bombing of the second year of World War II. Not one performance of the play protesting Russia's invasion of Finland was missed until a bomb exploded at the stage door. The actors' nightly performances provided comfort to terrified Londoners. Once, when asked if she was frightened to be exposing herself to the danger of the Nazi onslaught, she answered, "An actor does not think of death when a performance is going well."
When the war finally ended, the Lunts enjoyed the biggest success of their careers. In 1946, they appeared in Terence Rattigan's O Mistress Mine, a comedy which ran for 451 performances at the Empire Theater in New York.
During the next few years, Fontanne continued to prove her artistic expertise in sophisticated comedy. She was a huge success in Noel Coward's Quadrille in London in 1952. In 1954, with repeated success, she performed in a New York production of the same play, at the Coronet Theater. Two years later, she triumphed, yet again, as Essie Sebastian in the Howard Lindsay-Russell Crouse play, The Great Sebastians, a role she recreated for a rare television appearance in 1957.
After playing together in 27 productions, including their last stage performance, The Visit, in New York, Fontanne and Lunt retired to a 120-acre estate in rural Wisconsin. In 1964, they emerged from their peaceful haven to accept the Peace Prize from President Johnson. The next year, they made one final performance, as Justice and Mrs. Oliver Wendell Holmes, in the television production of The Magnificent Yankee, and in 1972, they took their final bow as they accepted the American National Theater and Academy's first Nationl Artist Award for "their contribution to the American theater and to the nation."
Fontanne and Lunt shared a peaceful retirement until 1977, when he died of cancer. Fontanne carried on, riding her stationary bike, reading Barbara Cartland romance novels, and reminiscing about her long career as one of the theater's most magnificent stars. She died in 1983.