A Classic Player: Walter Hampden, 1879-1955



By C. CLAIBORNE RAY


Walter Hampden, President of The Players from 1927 to 1955, had a face that meant "Actor" for audiences in the first half of the 20th century. Born in Brooklyn and trained in England, Hampden was famous for two of the most theatrical roles ever, Cyrano de Bergerac and Hamlet. He played Hamlet three times on Broadway, as did both Edwin Booth and later Maurice Evans, another Player, who topped them both with four Broadway appearances in the role. Long before Jose Ferrer, another President of The Players, Hampden was known for his long-running success as Cyrano, making the part his own in five productions from 1923 to 1936. Though he never had leading roles in movies, Hampden still made his presence known. He was frequently a prominent supporting player -- notably as the aged thespian who presents an award to Anne Baxter at the beginning of the classic All About Eve (1950). When Ronald Colman did scenes from Othello on screen in A Double Life (1947), it was Walter Hampden who coached him. An actor/manager, like Edwin Booth, from 1925 to 1930 Hampden managed the Colonial Theatre, a vaudeville house at Broadway and 62nd Street, renaming it Hampden's Theatre. His last stage appearance was in 1953, in a supporting role in The Crucible. Hampden stepped down from active duty as President because of ill health in 1954 and was President Emeritus until his death the next year. His name is immortalized in that of the Hampden-Booth Theatre Library, which incorporated his Walter Hampden Memorial Library in 1957. His portrait as Cyrano, by Truman E. Fassett, is prominently displayed in the Dining Room; it appeared on the cover of Time magazine on March 4, 1929.


C. Claiborne Ray retired in 2008 as deputy obituary editor at the New York Times and wrote the Science Q&A column for Science Times until 2019. She has used The Players as her drawing room since 2014. She is chair of the Admissions Committee.