Who she was: One of the leading producers of Broadway shows in the 20th century.
What she accomplished: If you love a lavish Broadway musical, a Tennessee Williams drama, or revivals of classics by Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Chekhov, you can thank producer Cheryl Crawford (1902-1986) for bringing all these to the Great White Way. Producing may have been largely a man’s world, but being a woman and a lesbian didn’t keep Crawford from making her mark. Her credits include the Lerner and Loewe musicals Brigadoon and Paint Your Wagon; the Gershwins’ classic folk opera Porgy and Bess; Williams’s The Rose Tattoo and Sweet Bird of Youth; Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing! and Golden Boy; Shakespeare’s The Tempest; Ibsen’s Ghosts and A Doll’s House; Chekhov’s The Three Sisters; and many, many more.
Born in Akron, Ohio, Crawford came to New York City in the 1920s after graduating from Smith College. She did a bit of acting and stage-managing with the Theater Guild, then became its casting director at age 27. She left in 1931 to found the influential Group Theater with Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman; the Group was devoted to method acting, a concept created by Russia’s Constantin Stanislavsky, and to the presentation of plays on social issues of the day, usually with a liberal point of view. It staged works by Odets, William Saroyan, Irwin Shaw, and other writers who would become famous, and nurtured the careers of such actors as John Garfield and Lee J. Cobb. Crawford quit the Group in 1937 to become an independent producer, a bold move for a woman at the time, but one that brought her great success. She went on to help found other theater companies, including the American Repertory Theater, with Eva Le Gallienne and Margaret Webster, and the Actors Studio, with Elia Kazan and Robert Webster, eventually joined by Lee Strasberg.
“For forty years she bet the odds that a woman could prove successful in the male-dominated establishment of American commercial theater,” writes biographer Milly S. Barranger in A Gambler’s Instinct: The Story of Broadway Producer Cheryl Crawford. “That success brought her mixed blessing: anxieties, disappointments, loneliness, but chiefly dreams of the next production, the next winning playwright, the next critical success.” Crawford was a “woman of poker-playing instincts and gaming skills” as well as an “individual of courage and fortitude,” Barranger observes.
Crawford was the longtime partner of Ruth Norman, a restaurateur and cookbook author. Barranger reports that while Crawford was “taciturn” about her personal life, she wore her lesbian identity “undisguised in her tailored clothes, her hair style, her masculine tone of voice, and her circle of women friends.”
Crawford remained active in the theater almost up until her death. One day in June 1986, she was climbing the stairs to the office of New Dramatists, an organization that trains playwrights and develops plays, when a student opened a door from the inside and accidentally sent her falling backward onto the sidewalk. She never recovered from her injuries, and died in October of that year.
Choice quote: “There are doors to the inevitable everywhere.” — Crawford’s motto, which she took from the play Shakuntala