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Before He Came to Dinner
When Monty Woolley was forced out of his job at Yale, students and alumni rose up in protest. But it may have been the best thing that ever happened to him.

Most people remember Monty Woolley ’11—if they remember him at all—as the acid-tongued houseguest in the 1941 film The Man Who Came to Dinner. But Woolley spent more than ten years as a Yale drama teacher before he went on to a distinguished career on Broadway and in Hollywood. In fact, if it hadn’t been for a clash of personalities in the University’s drama programs, Woolley might never have left Yale.

From the time of his arrival as an undergraduate, Edgar Montillion Woolley introduced a new standard of theatrical performance—and theatrical living—to Yale. As the son of a successful owner of hotels in New York City and Saratoga Springs, he knew the stars of the era and emulated their lifestyles in New Haven. He entertained lavishly and organized costume parties that became the stuff of legend. Among the friends he made at Yale was Cole Porter '13, who later wrote that he “considered meeting the loquacious Monty one of [his] finest experiences at Yale.” Woolley directed and acted in Porter’s hit shows for the Yale Dramat.

After earning master’s degrees at Yale and Harvard, Woolley served as drama coach at Yale from 1914 to 1917. World War I service took him to Paris, where he and Porter renewed their friendship, and in 1919, Woolley was appointed assistant professor of drama at Yale. Under his leadership, undergraduate theater flourished artistically and financially.


The New York papers alleged “a sinister plan of the Yale Corporation.”

When Edward S. Harkness gave a million dollars in 1924 to establish a drama department at Yale (the first in the United States) Dramat members assumed that their beloved coach would be one of the first men to be offered a staff position. But their hopes were dashed in the spring of 1925, when they learned that the new department head, George Pierce Baker, had not chosen him. Woolley resigned from the Dramat, and a great furor arose throughout the campus. Supporters from all over the country demanded his reinstatement.

The Yale Corporation responded by voting—at the request of the Dramat—to designate Woolley director of undergraduate dramatics. Woolley then reconsidered his resignation, and the Dramat appointed him coach. Two years later, though, the second part of the affair erupted. Professor Baker and Woolley could not get along, and the Corporation did not renew his appointment. Woolley did not want to continue as a private Dramat coach and again resigned. This time the student reaction was even more outspoken. Reports alleging “a sinister plan of the Yale Corporation” appeared in the New York newspapers. But the protests and petitions were useless, and Woolley left Yale for good.

Yale’s loss became Broadway’s and Hollywood’s gain. With Cole Porter’s help, Woolley soon became a successful director of musicals and revues. In 1936, he began his career as an actor, and in 1939 took the stage role that brought him lasting fame, in The Man Who Came to Dinner. After portraying Sheridan Whiteside (a character based on the drama critic Alexander Woollcott) for 739 performances, he repeated the role in the now classic film. Woolley appeared in more than 20 films, was nominated twice for Oscars, and in 1946 played himself in Night and Day, a film biography of Porter.

Woolley is credited as a pioneer in university and musical theater in America. In contrast with the experimental and proletarian style represented by Baker, Woolley represented a tradition of witty, escapist sophistication. This creativity was exemplified by his spontaneous contribution to one of Porter’s hit songs when he was his guest on a 1935 world cruise. As they watched the sunrise, Porter cried, “It’s delightful.” His wife Linda added, “ It’s delicious,” and Monty continued, “It’s de-lovely.”  the end


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