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The famed sisters of “Wonderful Town”

Our friend Bill Katz holds down the fort at Urgent Agenda. He writes to follow up on my brief celebration of “Wonderful Town,” the Wonderful Musical that I saw on Broadway in the 2004 revival starring Donna Murphy. Bill adds back into the mix much of the incredible human interest that I left out of the story:

Earlier this week Scott wrote a piece on the musical, “Wonderful Town,” which originally opened on Broadway in 1953, and won five Tony awards. It has always been one of my favorites, in part because of Leonard Bernstein’s music. (After “Wonderful Town” he went on to write the music for “Candide” and “West Side Story.”)

As Scott noted, “Wonderful Town” was based on “My Sister Eileen,” and therein lies a story of two sisters, of triumph, and, sadly, of great tragedy, and then, in a new generation, renewal.

“My Sister Eileen” originated in a series of short, autobiographical stories by Ruth McKenney in the New Yorker in the 1930s. They depicted the lives of Ruth and her sister Eileen, who moved from Ohio and ultimately found their way to a basement apartment at 14 Gay Street in New York’s Greenwich Village. (The name has nothing to do with sexual orientation. The street was named in the 1800s for the editor and abolitionist Sidney Howard Gay.)

The series was so successful that Ruth, by now a respected author, turned it into a book in 1938. Americans were charmed by the adventures of these two young Midwestern girls, first in Ohio, and then in Depression-era New York – Ruth, the more intellectual sister, and Eileen, the prettier, stage-struck, younger sister. (“Men,” said Ruth, “did not look at Eileen….They looked paralyzed.”)

In turn, “My Sister Eileen” was acquired for the stage, with the production scheduled to open on December 26, 1940. By then, Eileen McKenney had moved on to Hollywood, employed by Walt Disney, and was heading for a film career. She had also married the rising American writer, Nathanael West, who had written The Day of the Locust. All seemed so good, and so positive.

Eileen and Nathan were preparing to travel to New York to attend the Broadway opening of “My Sister Eileen,” when their close friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald, died suddenly of a heart attack in Los Angeles. They set out by station wagon to attend the funeral. Along the way, West ran a stop sign, resulting in a horrible collision. Eileen, aged 26, died instantly. West, aged 37, died within an hour.

“My Sister Eileen” opened on schedule four days later, but Ruth McKenney, grief-stricken, would not go. Indeed, she never saw the play, which became one of the biggest hits in Broadway history, and never got over the death of her sister Eileen.

Nathanael’s and Eileen’s cremated ashes were buried in a cemetery in New York, where West had grown up. There is no separate marker for Eileen. The gravestone simply says:

Nathanael W. West

Husband of Eileen

Oct. 17, 1903

Dec. 22, 1940

Ruth McKenney had gotten married in 1937 to the writer Richard Bransten. Both were Communists, but were later purged from the party. After Eileen died in that tragic car crash, Ruth and Richard had a daughter, whom they naturally named Eileen. They also had a son.

Ruth McKenney never matched the success of “My Sister Eileen.” She and her husband lived in England after World War II, but, on Ruth’s 44th birthday, in 1955, Richard Bransten committed suicide. Ruth returned to the United States, lived in New York, and never wrote again. She died in 1972 at the age of 60, having lived a life of triumph and sadness.

The play, “My Sister Eileen,” and its musical descendant, “Wonderful Town,” continue to be performed today. As Scott noted, the 1942 film of the original play was shown just recently on television.

But there is renewal. What happened, you might ask, to the other Eileen, Ruth McKenney’s daughter, named for Ruth’s sister Eileen? Justice Eileen Bransten is today a justice of the Supreme Court of the State of New York. She is a highly regarded jurist, lecturer and teacher of law. Her chambers, on Centre Street in Manhattan, are only a few neighborhoods away from the basement apartment at 14 Gay Street where “My Sister Eileen” took form. The judge has said of her mother, “If you scratch the surface, every humorist is a tragedian. She had a tragic life, a very sad life.”

In a New York Times story, Justice Bransten also observed, “She loved New York. It made her feel vibrant. In her last years, when we lived together on West 70th Street and I was beginning to go into politics, we would have parties. All the politicians would come to see her. She was so happy doing that.” (I lived two blocks away during that time and never knew they were there. I’d have killed for an invitation.)

The basement apartment at 14 Gay Street still exists. It was occupied for 30 years by a man named David Ryan, a retired insurance executive who jealously guarded the character of the apartment and its neighborhood. He was revered by preservationists, but tragically died in a fire, in that apartment, in 2003.

Next door to 14 Gay Street is 12 Gay Street. In its basement apartment, adjoining the apartment of Ruth and Eileen, once lived the puppeteer, Frank Paris. In the late 1940s he designed, in his apartment, a puppet named Howdy Doody.

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