The Rise of Dorothy Hale

Saturday, September 22nd, 2007 | All Things, Arts

The Rise of Dorothy Hale” began previews at St. Luke’s Theatre on September 19, and we were there for the first weekend of performances. The play by Myra Bairstow explores the suspicious circumstances surrounding the alleged 1938 suicide of socialite Dorothy Hale, widow of noted American muralist Gardner Hale. Ms. Hale died in New York City after plunging sixteen stories from the window of her Hampshire House apartment at 150 Central Park South. At the time, her death was ruled a suicide – Hale’s New York Times obituary declared “Painter’s Widow Said to Have Been Dissatisfied With Her Progress on the Stage Fell or Jumped” — but history has a means of revising of itself… sometimes under the influence of wealthy and powerful people. The story of Hale’s death at age 33 involves the likes of her friend Clare Booth Luce (author of “The Women” and wife of Time magazine founder Henry Luce), onetime companion Harry L. Hopkins (WPA Administrator and one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s closest advisers), and Frida Kahlo, who painted the work that inspired the play.

The playwright first became transfixed with her subject after seeing Kahlo’s mysterious oil painting in a museum. The work had been commissioned by Mrs. Luce, who had intentions of presenting it to her deceased friend’s mother, but Luce was so horrified with the finished product that she stored it away for decades until donating it anonymously to the Phoenix Art Museum. It was not until the 1970’s that the story behind “El Suicido de Dorothy Hale” came to light. Painted like a multiple exposure photograph, the image is of an eerily calm woman descending from an open window through a swirl of clouds, before finding her final bloody rest on the New York City sidewalk below.

Kahlo’s inscription (translated into English) reads: “In New York City on the 21st of October 1938, at 6:00 in the morning, Dorothy Hale committed suicide by throwing herself from a very high window in the Hampshire House. In her memory …[words erased]…, this retablo was executed by Frida Kahlo.” Over the course of a decade researching the painting’s backstory, Bairstow encountered many historical inaccuracies and contradictions surrounding Hale’s death, intriguing and disturbing details which ultimately became the basis of her play.

Rise of Dorothy Hale

The Rise of Dorothy Hale” intersperses scenes from Hale’s life in the months leading up to her death, with Kahlo’s creative process and her psychic connection with the deceased.

Was that the actual painting mounted on an easel inside the theater lobby, surrounded by framed news clippings and personal correspondence between the playwright and Hale’s niece Penny Weeks? Or a clever replica? The latter seems more likely, but I couldn’t say for sure.

Director Pamela Hall led the production, which starred a few faces familiar from film and television, including Emmy winner Michael Badalucco (Jimmy Berluti from The Practice) as a suspicious Hampshire House doorman, and Sarah Wynter (Kate Warner from Season 2 of 24) as an imperious Clare Booth Luce. Sarita Choudhury (Denzel Washington’s lover in Mississippi Masala and the cuckolded queen Tara in Mira Nair’s Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love) played the Mexican Kahlo, in yet another nationality-defying turn for the half-Indian, half-English actress.

There are 2 Comments ... The Rise of Dorothy Hale

October 5, 2007

I thought it was great.

Lewis J. Obi
October 23, 2007

Great synopsis and review. I actually did see the play on several occasions during it’s development and was more impressed with each performance. The play is better received by a more mature and educated audience but even the Rutgers students were impressed. However I must admit that the Sunday matinee performance which was attended by several the Rutgers group was also attended by Kelly Preston and John Travolta.


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