Joan Wetmore -The flashing brunette with the charming voice

Above: Joan Wetmore photographed c1943. Newspapers reported that her hair had been done in this new style at Elizabeth Arden’s New York salon. J. Willis Sayre Collection of Theatrical Photographs, University of Washington Special Collections.

joan-c1940The Five Second Version
Joan Wetmore was a busy actor on Broadway and in the early days of live TV in the United States. Born in Sydney Australia, on 29 August 1911 as Joan Deery she moved with her family to New York in 1917. It might be a stretch to describe her as a forgotten Australian, as almost all of her life was lived in the US, where she also had her start on stage. Yet throughout her life she was described as Australian and even after living in the US for twenty five years, she had to go through the process of becoming naturalised. She died in New York in 1989. It was Australian journalist Allan Dawes who described her as a “flashing brunette with (a) charming voice and unidentifiable accent.”


At left: Joan Wetmore in The Daily News (New York) 15 Apr 1941, P75, via Newspapers.com

Theatre in the family

Both Joan’s parents were Australian born. Her mother Agnes “Aggie” Thorn was an acclaimed soubrette for JC Williamson’s Royal Comic Opera Company, very active between 1904 and late 1906. After schooling at Presentation Convent in Melbourne, Aggie studied music at the University of Melbourne and also studied privately with Charlotte Hemming, a well known elocutionist. Aggie appeared in a burst of performances around Australia and New Zealand until she married Arthur Deery and left the stage. Arthur Deery was an up and coming Sydney lawyer whose cases were regular material for newspaper reports. In 1913, the young family lived at what must have been a comfortable home at 92 St George’s Crescent in Drummoyne, a spot that even today has spectacular views of central Sydney across the water.

Above: Left – Aggie Thorn on a postcard. David Elliott Theatrical Postcard Collection, c 1905. Right – Arthur Deery in The Sunday Sun (Syd) 27 May 1906. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Unfortunately, family life soon became less enjoyable. Following a court case in March 1915, Arthur was struck off as a solicitor and several months later, he boarded the SS Niagara for the US. He settled in New York, soon managing an engineering business. A divorce followed, Aggie claimed he had been unfaithful and had failed to support her. The divorce was granted. For a time, Aggie lived in Melbourne and attempted to start a business, with Joan and her older sister Kathleen attending Presentation Convent as their mother had. And yet, in June 1917, Aggie packed up the girls and left for the US on the SS Makura. The US census return shows that by 1920, the family was living together again, in Manhattan. Aggie and Arthur stayed together for the rest of their lives and were buried side by side at Mount Hope Cemetery in New York’s Westchester county. Whatever their differences, they had successfully reconciled. According to Joan, while in the US Aggie still pursued her passion for singing.

Joan’s US career

Interviewed in late 1944 by Allan Dawes, an Australian journalist based in North America, Joan gave an account of her life in United States that was unusually accurate, and avoided so much of the creative narrative favoured by established actors of the time. After arrival in New York, she had attended the Horace Mann School in the Bronx, and the George Washington High School.

One thing she did not mention to Dawes was that in 1930 she had eloped with William “Bill” Wetmore, whom she had met on an European break. Aggie told some newspapers she did not even know about the impending marriage. Joan was only 19 years old and William, a Harvard hockey and football star, was 23. He was the son of architect Charles Delaven Wetmore, of the well known New York firm Warren & Wetmore. Bill and Joan became a well known society couple in New York, and Joan also developed a reputation as a model. Photos taken of her in 1933 for Vogue magazine by well known photographer Edward Steichen, still circulate today. A son, William, was born of the union in November 1930. But sadly their marriage was reported to have failed by 1936.

Above: Left – William Wetmore, Oshkosh Northwestern (Wisconsin) 5 April 1930, P15. Right – Joan about the time the couple divorced. New York Daily News, 16 Dec 1939, P309. Via Newspapers.com

In the early 1930s Joan studied under Benno Schneider, a drama teacher who had once been a member of Stanislavski’s Art Theatre in Moscow, and now ran his own school in New York. (In time he was the Columbia Studio drama coach, and his many pupils included Kim Novak, Gene Tierney, Vincent Price and James Garner). In the 1944 interview, Joan did not explain to Allan Dawes exactly what had fed her “stage ambitions”, but her mother’s influence on her life was acknowledged (although Aggie had died in 1932). But the path to the stage had been hard, she admitted to Dawes. “Lots of girls have come to me for advice about a stage career…and I warn them all how deeply you must pay for your ambition and experience.”

Above: 29 year old Joan listed in the 1940 revival of Kind Lady with Grace George in the lead. Working with Grace George would have been an profound experience. She had been appearing on Broadway for 40 years. Author’s Collection.

Joan Wetmore became an active and successful actor and it seems that she was busy almost continuously until the early 1970s – an impressive career of over thirty years.

Joan’s earliest performance on Broadway was in the operetta The Two Bouquets at the Windsor Theatre in June and July 1938. In late 1940 she appeared with Grace George in a 3 month revival of an old favourite, the melodrama Kind Lady at the Playhouse Theatre. By this time Joan had divorced Bill Wetmore, and in February 1941 she married W Palmer Dixon, a New York broker. With the outbreak of war she volunteered as a nurse’s aide at New York’s Bellevue hospital, while Dixon joined up as an officer in the US air force. Despite reports she would leave the stage, she did not, nor did she change her established stage name.

It is hardly surprising that her career reflected the changes taking place in US society and the theatre world. She clearly chose the New York and east coast stage in preference to Hollywood and her choice of role suggests she had a great interest in trends in theatre. For example, during the war years she appeared in several plays written and directed by Elmer Rice – including A New Life (1943). The latter play gained some notoriety for its harrowing on-stage birthing scene, and a first for the US stage. Both were produced by the Playwright’s Company, established in 1938 to give leading US playwrights better exposure.

In November 1942 she began a most successful run in a leading role in Elmer Rice‘s Counsellor at Law, with Paul Muni reprising the leading role (he had first played the role ten years before). While New York’s Daily News complemented Joan for her excellent portrayal of the cold socialite wife (26 Nov 1942), Billboard gave her a thorough pasting – Joan’s was an “unbelievably bad performance” the paper reported (5 Dec 1942). However, obviously not everyone felt this way, as the play ran for eight months – more than 250 performances. Home on leave from the war, Colonel Palmer Dixon reportedly enjoyed it immensely and apparently any doubts about his wife continuing a career on stage vanished.

Above: Franchot Tone with Joan Wetmore in the play Hope for the Best. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pennsylvania), 13 Jan 1945, P12. Her wartime appearances also brought her into the company of many performers of note – Jane Wyatt, Vera Allen and Betty Field among others. Via Newspapers.com

With the benefit of hindsight, her roles often seemed consigned to beautiful but aloof women. In Counsellor at Law (1942-3) she played the hero’s unsympathetic society wife. In Hope for the Best (1945) she played a liberal columnist’s “snobbish fiancée” who discourages Michael Jordan (Franchot Tone) from writing about controversial social topics. In The Great Indoors (1966), a play about racial prejudice, she played a “boozy heiress.” Yet perhaps this says much about the range of roles being written for women.

Above: Left – Joan on tour – with Fay Bainter and Arthur Storch in Put Them All Together (1955), The Boston Globe, 2 Jan 1955. Right – Joan with Don Ameche in The Pleasure of His Company (1966) Fort Lauderdale News, 3 Aug 1966, P24. Via Newspapers.com

After the war, as television rapidly became dominant as a source of entertainment, audiences for theatre generally contracted. Broadway survived but declined in influence – while alternatives appeared in new theatre companies, and new performance venues sprang up outside New York. New plays reflected the social changes in US society. Post-war, Joan sometimes appeared off Broadway, for example in the Equity Library Theater productions of Leonid Andreyev’s The Sabine Women (1947) and Margaret Curtis’s A Highland Fling (1949).

Short of program material, post-war television networks increasingly used stage actors in adaptions of well known plays, filmed live to air. But in a report on the Philco Television Playhouse version of Counsellor at Law in 1948, one reviewer was frank in acknowledging the challenges: “Technically the film was none too smooth but action was good on the small set required for the play. Paul Muni was good…although he was guilty of too much mugging [over-acting] in his video debut. The cameras were far from kind to Joan Wetmore…”(Dayton Daily News 1 Nov 1948). Technicians and actors persevered – some surviving examples of early television programs that include Joan are listed below.

Joan’s mid-Atlantic accent was undoubtedly a product of parenting, schooling and elocution. This is highlighted in a short clip from And Adam Begot, a 1951 episode of the NBC supernatural series Lights Out. She appears here with Phillip Bourneuf and Kent Smith. The full episode can be seen here.

Joan Wetmore remained active on the stage and small screen well into the 1970s. She had a recurring role in the CBS TV series The Nurses, but much of her later creative effort went into short runs of popular comedies performed in theatres up and down the US east coast. These included Cornelia Otis Skinner‘s The Pleasure of His Company and Paul Osborn‘s The Vinegar Tree.

Joan died of cancer at her New York home in early 1989. Her numerous US obituaries noted her long career on stage and that she specialised in playing “elegant women”. Palmer Dixon had died in 1968 and her son by Palmer had died in a tragic shooting accident in 1960, aged only 14. She was survived by her son to Bill Wetmore, William Thomson Wetmore Junior, a journalist and successful author, and her older sister Kathleen, who lived much of her life in Venezuela.

Above: Joan in 1963. The Miami News. 17 Nov, 1963

Note 1

Joan was not tested for Gone With the Wind. This appears to have been a PR or sub-editors story. The names of those tested for the part of Scarlett O’Hara are quite well documented.


References

Early TV & Radio
[Examples of early live TV programs are hard to find. A few examples – featuring Joan Wetmore – can be seen here]

New York Public Library Digital Collection

University of Washington Special Collections

Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University

Text

  • Gerald Bordman (1996) American Theatre; A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama. Oxford University Press
  • Louis Botto (2002) At this Theatre, 100 years of Broadway Shows Stories and Stars. Playbill/Applause
  • Edward Bronner (1980) The Encyclopedia of the American theatre. A S Barnes
  • John Langeloth Loeb (1996) All in a lifetime; a personal memoir. John L Loeb
  • Felicia Hardison Londré & Daniel Watermeier (1998) The History of North American Theater : the United States, Canada, and Mexico : from pre-Columbian times to the present. Continuum
  • Anthony F R Palmieri (1980) Elmer Rice, a Playwright’s vision of America. Associated university Presses
  • Walter Rigdon (Ed)(1966) The biographical encyclopaedia & who’s who of the American theatre. J H Heineman
  • Toby Gordon Ryan (1985) Stage left : Canadian Workers Theatre, 1929-1940. Simon and Pierre

National Library of Australia

  • Melbourne Punch, 21 April 1898, P9
  • Australian Town and Country Journal (Syd), 29 Nov 1905, P34
  • The Gadfly, 14 March 1906 P11
  • Critic (Adel) 9 Jan 1907, P22
  • Daily Telegraph (Syd) 3 March 1915 P12
  • Sun (Syd) 20 Nov 1916, P3
  • Truth (Melb) 2 Dec 1916, P4
  • Herald (Melb) 9 Dec 1944, P9
  • Mercury (Hob) 8 Jan 1945 P3

Internet Archive

  • Billboard 5 Dec 1942
  • Newsweek, 19 Feb 1945
  • Billboard, 19 April 1947

Newspapers.com

  • Daily News (New York) 1 Apr 1930, P16
  • Oshkosh Northwestern (Wisconsin) 5 April 1930, P15
  • Harrisburg Telegraph (Pennsylvania) 7 Apr 1930, P5
  • The Plain Speaker (Pennsylvania) 29 Sep 1939, P6
  • Daily News (New York), 16 Dec 1939, P309
  • The News Journal (Delaware) 12 Apr 1941, P17
  • Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 13 Jan 1945, P12
  • The Winona Daily News (Minnesota) 5 Dec 1953, P4
  • The Boston Globe (Massachusetts) 2 Jan 1955, P110
  • Newsday (Nassau New York) 25 Jun 1960, P5
  • St. Louis Globe-Democrat (Missouri) 27 Jul 1962, P56
  • The Bridgeport Post (Connecticut) 11 Aug 1963, P52
  • The Miami News, 17 Nov 1963, P78
  • Fort Lauderdale News, 3 Aug 1966, P24
  • Daily News (New York) 10 Oct 1967, P402

Nick Murphy
September 2021

This site has been selected for archiving and preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive

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