The Divine Miss Patty
On February 16, 1988, Lucille Ball was honored by Harvard University’s Hasty Pudding Club. Before presenting Lucy with her award, the president and vice-president subjected her to what they called her Harvard entrance exam. In reality, it was an I Love Lucy trivia quiz. One of the first questions: “Who played Little Ricky’s babysitter, Mrs. Trumbull?”
“Elizabeth Patterson,” Lucy beamed, “and she was wonderful!”
Elizabeth Patterson was also what composer Stephen Sondheim might call, a "Broadway Baby" -- a stagestruck actress who was willing to bear almost any hardship "to be in a show." Indeed, Lucy's Mrs. Trumbull was in love with show business all her life. Fifty years of bright lights and greasepaint only whetted her appetite for more.
Born in Savannah, Tennessee, in 1874, Miss Patterson -- Patty to her friends -- fell in love with theatre through magazine pictures and stories about the great actresses of her youth, just as modern girls do through TV and movie magazines. Those were the days, however, when no nice girl went out on the stage, particularly in the South. When Elizabeth announced that she wanted to be an actress, her family and the whole town were scandalized.
"Mah mother cried and mah brother said, 'When mah friends at college start talking about actresses, am ah supposed to tell 'em that MAH sister is an actress?'" she later recounted. "Finally granddaddy packed me off to Europe to get these strange ideas out of my head. I went to school in Paris, and for the first time I really saw theatre. The Comedie Francaise! When I came back from Europe, nothing could keep me off the stage!"
Moving from Savannah to Chicago, she joined the Ben Greet Players and made her stage debut in 1907. She later toured through Canada with Gilmor Brown (founder of the Pasadena Playhouse) as her leading man. Then came a stock company in Indianapolis, where Booth Tarkington saw her. Tarkington took her to New York to appear in a new play he had written -- "Intimate Strangers" -- and Patty fell in love with Broadway.
"Mr. Tarkington wanted me to play the mother. I remember when we got to New Yawk, Billie Burke and Alfred Lunt, who played the leads -- they just looked at me. I was young and this was a mature part. Finally, Bullie Burke said, 'Well, I suppose Mr. Tarkington knows what he's talking about.'"
One role followed another, and Patty never looked back. Recognized as an accomplished pro, she found good parts season after season. Among her favorite plays were "Her Master's Voice" with Roland Young and "Deep South" with Richard Bennett and a young newcomer, Bette Davis.
Hollywood called, as they say, in 1926, but Elizabeth hated the melodramatics of silent movies, and rushed back to New York after making two films, "The Boy Friend" and "The Return of Peter Grimm." "I hated the movies," she later recalled. "Told myself, 'If God ever lets be get back to New York, I'll never leave again.'"
But she did -- in 1929, at age 55, to appear in a "talkie" with Will Rogers, "It Happened in Paris." Patty played his wife. "They brought so many of us out from the stage in 1929. None of us brought anything we couldn't pack in a hurry to get back to New York. It was 8 years before I had my furniture and things shipped out. When I got here, I found they'd put me in a musical. I was complainin' and Guthrie McClintic -- he was a Fox then -- told me to be quiet, there was a spy behind every door. He took me home for lunch and I poured out my disappointment to Guthrie and his wife, Katherine Cornell. Katherine finally turned to me and said, 'You came out here to make money, didn't you? Well, you're makin' money. What're you complainin' about?' And I shut up.
"Hollywood in those days was a quiet little town -- pretty. It was nice, but I missed New York. I've been back four, five times to do plays -- and lately I've flown back to do television. But mostly I've just been here, making pictures. I've made about 100 I guess. I once kept count for a while, but then I got too busy. I was always going to make a scrap book, but never had the time."
Too old for young romantic parts, Patty specialized in playing widowed mothers, maiden aunts, and lovable next-door neighbors. To look at her credits, one would think she had appeared in every major movie made between 1929 and 1966. The list is staggering, and includes the talents of
- Katharine Hepburn and John Barrymore ("A Bill of Divorcement")
- Tallulah Bankhead ("Tarnished Lady")
- Maurice Chevalier ("Love Me Tonight")
- Mae West ("Go West Young Man")
Claudette Colbert ("Bluebeard's 8th Wife")
Barbara Stanwyke and Fred MacMurray ("Remember the Night")
- Carole Lombard ("No Man of Her Own")
- Bing Crosby ("Mississippi")
- Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard ("The Cat and the Canary")
- and hundreds more.
Perhaps her favorite films were John Ford's 1941 production of Erskine Caldwell's "Tobacco Road," starring Charles Grapewin and Marjorie Rambeau, and Clarence Brown's 1940 film based on William Faulkner's "Intruder in the Dust." "'Intruder' was a beautiful picture," she said later, "and I loved my part as Ma in 'Tobacco Road.'"
Patty made her first appearance on I Love Lucy on April 7, 1952, as Mother Willoughby, wife of the Justice of the Peace (and also the lady mayor) of a small New England village in which Lucy and Ricky get "remarried." She was called back a year later (April 20, 1953) to play Mathilda Trumbull, the Ricardos' neighbor and resident babysitter for Little Ricky. She would play the role 10 times over the next four years, vying with Gertrude Hoffman (Mrs. Odettes) of My Little Margie as television's favorite “little old lady.”
During her Lucy years, Patty also appeared in such movies as “The Washington Story,” “Pal Joey” and “Tall Story.” She accepted straight dramatic roles on such anthologies as Climax, Matinee Theatre and Playhouse 90 – and returned to Broadway for “His & Hers,” starring Robert Preston and Celeste Holm.
“We had a dinky little stage and you had to climb up three steps to get on – and down three steps when you came off. I had the miseries in my back and those steps bothered me. I was complainin’ and somebody said, ‘Why do you do it, Patty?’ Bob Preston answered for me. ‘I’ll tell you why,’ he said. ‘She’s still stagestruck.’”
Having never married, Elizabeth lived nearly 35 years at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, shuttling back and forth between assignments. In 1957, she confessed to columnist Cecil Smith, of the Los Angeles Times, that she regretted nothing. "I would have done it just as I did; I would never have had it any other way."
Patty died January 31, 1966, truly a trouper.
"The Divine Miss Patty," originally published in our Star Notes magazine in Winter, 1977-78, is the first in a series of reprints "from our archives."
Source material includes "Elizabeth Patterson's Career Spans 50 Years," by Cecil Smith, published in Los Angeles Times, July 14, 1957.
Our thanks to Rick Carl for the loan of the beautiful portrait photo at the top of the page.
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