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#1658: Willa Cather to Helen Louise Cather Southwick, February 12, 1944

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⬩W⬩S⬩C⬩ Dear Helen Louise1:

I have made three unsuccessful efforts to telephone you - two of these on successive Sundays. I think you must have disappeared altogether in the Murk. I forget for what date you got your tickets to Othello3. In the meantime Yehudi4 made a second desperate effort and succeeded. He played a concert in Washington5, got the midnight train, found that his stateroom had been commandeered for an ambassador, sat up all night, and got in here at about 10 o'clock in the morning. He had a nap, and marshalled Edith6 and me to the theater. that evening. He had already seen the play twice, but he was determined that we should see it.

You see, it was at his mother7's apartment that I first met Paul Robeson8. Yehudi was a boy of fourteen then and the family spent every winter in a big apartment in the Ansonia Hotel. Marutha (Yehudi's mother) invited Robeson and Olin Downes9 and me for dinner one evening. She had just come back from Switzerland10, where Mrs. Robeson11 was living (because Paul's son12 was in school there). She wanted to give him tidings of his wife. On my way across the park I was wondering whether I might feel a bit "Southern" in such mixed company. But the moment one meets Robeson, one loses everything except the flash that always comes when one first meets a truly great personality. His manners are perfect, because he is so natural - he never thinks about himself. or what effect he will make. In "domestic" conversation he has the most beautiful speaking voice I can remember. In Othello he has very little opportunity to use this intimate voice, but you do get it when he lands in Cyprus13 and greets Desdemona - a very short scene but one of the most beautiful in the play.

Of course, I knew Robeson's impersonation14 was a very fine one. Before this war it made a great sensation all over Europe15. His reading of the part was ⬩W⬩S⬩C⬩ about what I felt sure it would be. But for me, the real surprise and thrill of the evening was Uta Hägen16. Although so young, she is a celebrated Scandinavian actress, and I expected a little of the that thick accent. But she speaks the most beautiful English, and her interpretation was a revelation. I had never seen the stage play before., But though I have heard Verdi17's opera18 many times and I have heard good vocalists sing the part, Desdemona. but tThey were always distinctly mature, if not matronly. And when this lovely young thing came in, terrified before the Doge, my heart took a double beat. The fact is she is not lovely at all - a rather plain, peaked, starved little thing, like Markova19. But her beautiful conception of the part is so strong that it shines through her, like a candle through a horn globe. And she grows lovelier with every act, until the last terrible one. When, after the arrival of the deputation from Venice20, Othello strikes her, she does the most beautiful fall I have ever seen on the stage. And it isn't a trick fall, either. I am sure that she must have taken lessons from some of the Russian ballet people, because she acts with her whole body. It is no mixture of "gestures" and "elocution". I would have gone to the theater again to see her before this, if I didn't have my right hand21 in its little aluminum brace22 once more again. It has been strapped up ever since New Year's. It is a hard punishment to bear, and inhibits me in almost everything. I haven't done anything wicked, except that I was having a good fling at work about Christmas time.

Good night, and my love to you. Your Aunt Willie
FROM CATHER 570 PARK AVE.23, NEW YORK CITY2 Mrs. Philip L. Southwick,1 503 Carleton Road, Westfield, New Jersey24. NEW YORK, N.Y.2 FEB 12 1944 [illegible] Othello