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Alice Lewisohn

Biography: 

(1889-1972)

The first decade of the 20th century witnessed a transformation in the social standing of stage performers. While limelight had drawn the poor and middling classes for decades, it only began to charm the gentility during the 1900s. Alice Lewisohn, daughter of "Copper King" William Lewisohn, may have been the first wealthy young woman to have sought a career on stage. Worth over two million dollars, she took a minor role under an assumed name in a 1906 New York production of "Pippa Passes." When her venture was found out she confessed that is was for pleasure that she acted. Ever after wealthy young persons looked to careers of fun and celebrity on the stage.

Lewisohn used her celebrity for political ends, working conspicuously in the cause of women’s suffrage, particularly in its demonstrations. She produced experimental one-act plays at the Settlement Theater. She played the lead in 1915's "Jephthah's Daughter," the first production of the Settlement Theater's offshoot, the Neighborhood Theater. Equipped with the finest lighting system in the city, the Neighborhood Theater was one of the pillars of the early non-commercial theater in New York, along with the Washington Square Players. Serving a small, intelligent subscribership, the Neighborhood Theater was a critical favorite for much of the early 1920s, staging art plays by Lord Dunsany and continental dramatists. It endeared itself to the general public for its series, The Grand Street Follies, a low-budget highly-witty revue that ran in editions until 1928.

In 1927 Lewisohn closed the Neighborhood Theater after a dozen years of success, including landmark productions such as 1925's "The Dybbuk." In 1930 she co-founded with her sister and long-time collaborator, Irene, Neighborhood Playhouse Studios in which they held classes in the theater arts. Martha Graham taught dance at the school. She also founded the Museum of Costume Arts, whose collection would eventually become absorbed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After the Second World War, Lewisohn settled in Zurich with her husband, the artist Herbert Crowley. In 1959 she published a history, The Neighborhood House.

NOTES: Chicago Tribune (Nov 13, 1906), 5. "Suffragette Cavalry," Los Angeles Times (Mar 14, 1912), IV:8. NY Times (Feb 13, 1915), 9. Clayton Hamilton, "The Non-Commercial Drama," The Bookkman 41.3 (May 1915), 274. "Endowed Theater is to Close Soon," NY Times (Apr 11, 1927), 1. NY Times (Jan 23, 1972), 46. David S. Shields/ALS