April 7, 2021

Lights, Camera, Katherine!

Katherine Tupper married George C. Marshall in 1930, but her early life took a very different route – a life on the road and on the stage. Yes, Katherine was once a celebrity actress!

After graduating from the Hollins Institute, Katherine set her sights on the New York stage and enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1902-1904. Despite an agreement with her father to study theatre without actually appearing on stage, she carried the lead role in Mrs. Dane’s Defense. As a result of her performance, she received an award from the academy and an offer from Broadway matinee idol, James K. Hackett, to work as his leading lady. Katherine’s father, however, who “would rather see [her] dead than on stage,” forbade her to continue pursuing a career in New York.

Determined to follow her dream, Katherine set off for England. She dropped her Tupper surname and adopted Boyce (her middle name) as her stage name. Accompanied by her sister Allene and armed with a diploma and letter of introduction from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Katherine secured an interview with the renowned English actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, owner and manager of her Majesty’s Theatre in London.

Sir Frank Benson as Hamlet, and Katherine as Ophelia in Hamlet

With all “the nerve” and “the gall” she could muster, Katherine auditioned for Sir Frank Benson, a leading Shakespearean actor and producer. After three months of rigorous training with the Bertrand and Benson company, she finally made her first appearance on the English stage as an apparition in Macbeth. She was ultimately given a seven-year contract with Benson’s company.

Katherine as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet

Katherine played four seasons with the Benson Company. She carried ten Shakespearean roles, including Juliet, Portia and Ophelia. In addition to rehearsals, performances and travel, she battled intense stage fright. None of this, however, was enough to keep her off stage. “Nothing’s going to stop me,” she told her sister resolutely in the squalid lodgings they had found in York, England. “I’m hitching my wagon to a star [and] I’m going to get there.”

Katherine as Rosalind in As You Like It

Katherine’s career did not last long, however, as she fell ill and collapsed after a performance in Edinburgh, Scotland. Diagnosed with “tuberculosis of the kidney,” Katherine was forced to end her career on stage in England and return to the States. She was devastated. “My world tumbled to bits,” she later recalled. “I felt as if the earth had fallen from under me. Every thought, every ambition, every hope had vanished.”

Soon, her hope was revitalized when a handsome attorney named Clifton Brown asked her to marry him. Katherine, wanting a calm and quiet life, said yes. They wed in 1911.

The information for this blog comes from the exhibit on Katherine Tupper Marshall currently on display at the George C. Marshall International Center in Leesburg, VA.

Cody Youngblood is a graduate student and docent at George C. Marshall’s Dodona Manor in Leesburg, Virginia. Follow his adventures @young_preservationist.