The online magazine of Theatre Heritage Australia
Tuesday, 09 June 2020

Zoe Caldwell’s Many Faces


Following her recent book on Judith Anderson, Australia's first lady of the American stage, Desley Deacon looks at the career of Zoe Caldwell, the undisputed heir to Anderson, whose career took her from Melbourne to Broadway and beyond. See also: Treasures from a Suitcase: a niece’s story by Sherryn Danaher»

Zoe Caldwell, the Australian actress who died in February this year, was tiny. But she managed to portray on stage and screen some of the largest historical personalities—Sarah Bernhardt, Emma Hamilton, Colette—and from her own era, Lillian Hellman and Maria Callas.

Zoe (called Zoey by her family, Zoe as in Joe by her public) was born into a theatre-loving family in Melbourne in 1933. Her mother—also Zoe—toured Asia with the Bandmann Company when she was thirteen. This experience cured her of dreams of a career in the theatre; but she married an avid theatregoer, Edgar Caldwell, and the two, with Young Zoe, would meet when Edgar had finished his workday as a plumber and enjoy the latest theatrical offering.

Although she had given up her own theatrical ambitions, ‘Old Zoe’ encouraged ‘Young Zoe’ to acquire the necessary skills from an early age. She was only two and a half when neighbours took her with them to toe, tap and ballet lessons. By the time she was seven, equipped with lessons in eurythmics, calisthenics and musical appreciation, she began elocution lessons with Winifred Moverley Browne, whom Zoe called her first Jean Brodie (referring to the eccentric schoolteacher she played on Broadway in 1968). Miss Moverley was a well-known amateur actress and producer and teacher of elocution who adjudicated at the many eisteddfods that were popular at the time. Within three years Zoe was winning prizes for recitation at the South Street Ballarat Competitions, Australia’s major eisteddfod. By 1945 the Melbourne Argus was reporting that 11-year-old Zoe Caldwell was distinguishing herself at the Tivoli in Peter Pan, as Slightly (the baby Slightly Soiled), as well as understudying the actress playing Peter Pan. Over the next few years Zoe was showered with prizes for elocution. When she was fifteen she was awarded the Victor L. Trotman Memorial Junior Cup at South Street for the highest aggregate in that section. By this time an experienced professional, acting in radio plays and presenting 3DB’s Children’s Hour, she left school and began teaching elocution.

In 1950, at age 17, Zoe was chosen as leading lady in The Gleam for the Melbourne Little Theatre. She was spotted immediately as especially promising, ready to ‘take her place in professional company with ease and, perhaps, distinction.’ Her rise was then rapid. The following year, she attracted interest in the first of many portrayals of extraordinary women she made during her career—as Florence Nightingale in the Union Theatre’s production of The Lady With the Lamp. ‘Whether making you feel the pangs of love in her dramatic scenes with Henry Tremayne ... or in rousing your incredulity at the same woman become a termagant to enforce her will, Miss Caldwell vitally compels interest,’ the Age critic wrote. In 1952 she gave a ‘sparkling’ performance as Rosalind in her Shakespearean debut in The National Theatre Movement’s As You Like It.

Early in 1953, when John Sumner and his wife Karis Mond began to put together their professional Union Theatre Repertory Company, Zoe Caldwell was an obvious recruit. ‘Occasional amateur performances get no-one any where,’ Karis Mond told the Argus. ‘You must be permanently in, with and of the theatre and learn all that goes to make up a sound production, before you have a chance of becoming worthwhile in your profession. And you can't expect the commercial theatre to give big parts to amateurs. So repertory training is the only answer.’

Zoe Caldwell, 19 years old, but already an experienced actress, played the name role in the company’s first production, Anouilh’s Colombe, in August 1953. The Age critic was full of praise. ‘Zoe Caldwell’s Colombe, ingenuously pursuing happiness,’ he wrote, ‘was a creature of grace and blossoming spirit.’

The company’s repertoire over the next two years gave Zoe experience in every sort of play and every sort of role—from a bewildered and highly emotional French maid in Private Lives to the accused witch, Jennet, in The Lady’s Not for Burning, the future queen in The Young Elizabeth, Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest, Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday, the idealistic Salvation Army lass in Major Barbara, and the 16-year-old rapscallion in Gigi. When she played the lead in The Heiress in September 1954, The Advocate declared that ‘Zoe Caldwell in recent years has given amazing performances, but here, as Catherine, she has reached perfection ... the half-hour which elapses before Catherine admits she has been jilted, is the most gripping I have ever seen.’

The UTRC at this time was the training ground for many talented actors, including Alex Scott, Patricia Kennedy, Carmel Dunn, Peter O’Shaughnessy, Noel Ferrier, Ray Lawler, Maree Tomasetti and Malcolm Robertson. In March 1954 an unusual young man named Barry Humphries joined them as, of all things, a colonel in His Excellency. That summer, the company toured in Twelfth Night for the Council for Adult Education with Zoe Caldwell and Barry Humphries as Viola and Orsino, two sides of the lovers’ triangle. Humphries was, Zoe recalled, ‘as thin as a pin’ and had lank long hair—not an ideal love object in a romantic comedy. But in the back of the tour bus he created a character for Zoe to play—the first incarnation of ‘Mrs Norm Everage.’ Zoe told him he should play her himself, which he did a few months later—and thus history was made.

After two busy seasons at the Union Repertory, in May 1955 Zoe was named Melbourne’s top actress and presented with the Erik Kuttner Award by the visiting Sybil Thorndike. She had been planning to leave to try her luck in London, but John Sumner had just been appointed Sydney manager of the new Elizabethan Theatre Trust. Australian-born Judith Anderson was to open their first season in a performance of her Broadway success, Medea, and Zoe Caldwell, Maree Tomasetti and Malcolm Robertson were chosen to play minor roles alongside the returning celebrity. Zoe decided to stay and observe ‘the greatest tragédienne of modern times.’

‘She arrived like a diva come to sing her role with this company,’ Zoe recalled in her memoirs:

We practically curtsied. Then, without taking off her high-heeled ankle-strap snakeskin shoes (she had lovely legs) or changing out of her honey-coloured cashmere sweater and skirt (no bra—in the 1950s—she had good breasts), she began to rehearse. Immediately we knew that we were not God’s chosen.

Nevertheless she felt that she learned a lot from Anderson—not only about acting, but also about the loneliness of the actor’s life—and she vowed to make sure she married and had children.

After touring with Medea, Zoe remained with the Theatre Trust to tour as Bubba in Ray Lawler’s groundbreaking Australian play, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, during 1956. When the play was invited to open in London the following year, Elsie Beyer, the general manager of the Trust Drama Company, warned her not to accompany them. If you go, you will always be typecast as an Australian actress, she advised.


Elsie Beyer had other plans for her protegee. In 1958, when Zoe was 24 years old and a seasoned professional, she arranged a three-year contract for her with the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon, where she would work for the first year under the directorship of Glen Byam Shaw.

Stratford-upon-Avon proved to be full of Australians. Ron Haddrick was playing three featured roles. John Salway was in his second year there. Hal Rogers was stage manager for three productions. And Googie Withers, an honorary Australian due to her marriage to John McCallum, was playing Gertrude in Hamlet and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Even the caterer, Max Hillier, was an Aussie.

Nevertheless Zoe was thrown in with many other international stars. In her second year, she played Bianca in Othello in a company that included the great Paul Robeson and the up-and-coming Albert Finney, a brilliant Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well with Dame Edith Evans, the first (bitchy) fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Charles Laughton as Bottom, and a dazzling Cordelia to Laughton’s King Lear. The year was pivotal, she wrote in her memoirs. ‘It stretched me’ and made [me] ‘a stronger and wiser actress.’

Zoe Caldwell ‘can speak verse as if she both means and understands it,’ the New Statesman wrote in 1959. She ‘has the emotional range and intelligence to make her the finest Shakespearean actress of her generation.’ But British drama was in the process of making a decisive turn; and authentic modern life, preferably of working class ‘angry young men,’ was increasingly the subject matter in avant-garde theatre.

Two young men she met at the Memorial Theatre were central to this new drama—the producer Tony Richardson and the actor Albert Finney. Part of the British ‘New Wave’ of directors, Richardson directed John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court Theatre in 1956 and The Entertainer in 1957; and in 1959 he directed the films of both plays, with Finney playing the son of the down-and-out music hall actor played by Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer. Finney quickly took a central place in this movement, playing the satirical musical The Lily-White Boys at the Royal Court in early 1960 and Billy Liar later in that year. In October 1960 he became one of the stars of the New Wave in the film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, produced by Tony Richardson.

Involved in an ‘explosive’ love affair with Albert Finney, Zoe Caldwell’s life and career were strongly impacted by these events. She appears to have declined a third year at Stratford in order to go to London with Finney. She recorded plays with the BBC and did a season at the Royal Court. But, she wrote in her memoirs, ‘I never felt that I really belonged. ... I had become what Elsie wanted me to become, a successful young leading lady just as it was going out of style.’

When her affair with Finney finally ended, ‘causing havoc and pain,’ a midnight phone call early in 1961 rescued her. Michael Langham, director of Stratford Festival in Canada, wanted her urgently to replace the actress about to play Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost. ‘I needed to get out of town,’ she told an interviewer many years later. Three weeks after her arrival in Canada’s Stratford she was served with papers as correspondent in Finney’s divorce.

Rejuvenated by a successful year in Canada, Zoe accepted the invitation of the Elizabethan Theatre Trust to return to Australia in Saint Joan. In Sydney, Patrick White and Manoly Lascaris came backstage and invited her to dinner. Before she returned to North America she played a small part in White’s Ham Funeral and the important role of Nola Boyle in A Season at Sarsaparilla. By this time she and White had formed a lasting friendship, which included her parents. When the play was in Melbourne, White stayed with Edgar and Old Zoe, who became his lifelong correspondent. (To his disappointment Young Zoe was a hopeless letter writer.)

White was not the only person to fall a little in love with Zoe Caldwell. H.G. Kippax, writing as Brek in the Nation, hailed her genius in passionate terms. ‘Miss Caldwell,’ he wrote, ‘tawny-headed, a proud slattern, showed us Nola—the childless Nola, the trapped Nola struggling in the throbbing insistent flesh, mother of men and lover of men—in slack shuffle, in taut and ugly stance, in wide, generous movements of love and desire and regret, in sidelong hooded glance or in blazing candour.’ (It is worth looking up the account in her memoir of how meticulously she prepared for this role, which White feared she was too small to put over.) Future cultural critic Peter Craven, aged 12, was taken to see her in Saint Joan ‘(at the long ago Tivoli)’ and was ‘staggered’ by her performance. ‘I will never forget the absolute authority, the candour, and the unfeminine irrepressibility with which she played the country girl who saves France,’ he wrote in her obituary. ’No one will ever be able to tell me that Shaw’s play is just spectacularism and rhetoric because I saw the title role incarnated by an actress of genius.’

Life—and lack of opportunity in Australia—swept Zoe back to North America, this time in answer to an invitation from Sir Tyrone Guthrie, who was setting up with Oliver Rea and Peter Zeisler a classical repertory company in an extraordinary new theatre that was still under construction in Minneapolis.

Tyrone Guthrie had established the Stratford Festival of Canada in 1952 and remained its artistic director for three years. He had directed Zoe in All’s Well That Ends Well in Stratford, England, in 1959 and knew how well she had done in the Canadian company in 1961.

Over the nine-month 1963 season she played Ophelia in Hamlet, Frosine in The Miser and Natasha in The Three Sisters. Here, and during a year she spent in Chicago, she began to be noticed by influential American critics. Claudia Cassidy, long time drama critic at the Chicago Daily Tribune, who had spotted the young Judith Anderson in 1922, admired Zoe Caldwell just as much. ‘Miss Caldwell is a brilliant comedienne,’ she wrote after seeing her in The Miser. ‘She has voice, manner and style, a sense of inflection to make a point, a flair to carry off a scarlet wig, and a knack of knowing just when to advance and when to retreat, a valuable trick for an opportunist.’ Richard L. Coe, critic at the Washington Post and Times Herald, was just as enthusiastic. ‘She will, I’m certain, become a major and distinctive star,’ he wrote. ‘Miss Caldwell is nothing short of a riot. She has an indefinably unique voice, something like a sawing machine equipped with a whiskey purr.’ Cassidy’s admiration deepened when she saw Zoe in The Madwoman of Chaillot the following year. ‘Miss Caldwell is a comedienne brushing the hem of tragedy,’ she wrote, ‘looking meanwhile a little like Sarah Bernhardt playing Pierrot.’

At the end of her second season with the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre, in 1965, two things happened that were to change the direction of her life and work. Her colleagues and friends Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy introduced her to Robert Whitehead, the well-known Broadway producer who was to become her husband; and she appeared fleetingly on Broadway, long enough, however, to impress herself on the audience’s consciousness and to win her first Tony in Tennessee Williams’ short-lived Slapstick Tragedy.

Before she was claimed by Broadway and marriage, however, she had one more season to play at the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Canada. In what she portrays in her memoirs as the culmination of this period of her life, she played opposite Christopher Plummer in Antony and Cleopatra. Although she had performed many important roles in her career, this was, to her mind, her first great part, in which she took on a deeper involvement than ever before. ‘She brought me to another depth of acting,’ she wrote at the end of her memoirs. This was the beginning of the greatest part of her career, when she inhabited role after role of larger-than-life women and became one of America’s most acclaimed actresses.


In April 1967, before her season at the Shakespeare Festival Theatre began, the New York Times announced that Zoe Caldwell was to have the plum role of a free-spirited school teacher betrayed by one of her pupils in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The play, the rights to which were owned by Robert Whitehead, had been a huge success in London with Vanessa Redgrave in the lead. Now Whitehead was going to produce it on Broadway.

When her brilliant season at Stratford closed, Cecil Smith, the Los Angeles Times drama critic, predicted that when Caldwell played on Broadway in January 1968 in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie a great star would be born. This indeed was the case.

‘“The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” might well be subtitled “The Prime of Miss Zoe Caldwell”’, Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Times. This was certainly true. As well as winning her second Tony for the performance, Zoe Caldwell married Robert Whitehead that year and proceeded on a period of family happiness in which her two sons, Sam (1969) and Charlie (1972) were born.

To Zoe Caldwell family life was paramount. ‘I am an actor,’ she told an interviewer. ‘But being a wife & mother still seems to me to be some kind of extraordinary stuff.’ Her Broadway performances were rare. In 1972, after Charlie was born, she controversially played Eve in Arthur Miller’s The Creation of the World and Other Business, produced by her husband; and two years later she was Alice in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s production of Strindberg’s Dance of Death.

She was, however, not idle. In 1970, always catholic in her choice of venues, she had performed her first character portrait, Colette, off-off-Broadway at the Ellen Stewart Theater on East Third Street, ‘down the street from the headquarters of Hell’s Angels.’ Despite the obscurity of the venue, New York critics could not praise Zoe’s performance enough. As Walter Kerr headlined, ‘When Zoe Is Good, She Is Very, Very Good.’ In the same year she presented Emma Hamilton, Nelson’s paramour, as ’full of riotous vulgarity’ in Rattigan’s A Bequest to the Nation to a ‘swooning’ London, where she also received an OBE. In 1975-76 she portrayed a frizzy-haired, desperate Mary Tyrone with Jason Robards in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which opened at the Kennedy Center, Washington, and played a brief but brilliant season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Over the next decade she made a number of television portraits—Catherine the Great (1974), Sarah Bernhardt (1976), Arkadina in The Seagull (1978) and Carlotta Monterey O’Neill (1986)—that demonstrated vividly her skill in getting to the essence of a personality.

Her portrayal of Sarah Bernhardt—‘the most exhilaratingly theatrical portrait of the star as sacred monster since Bette Davis played Margo Channing in the movie All About Eve’—proved to be the most momentous. Judith Anderson, now a Dame and living in semi-retirement in Santa Barbara, saw the programme, and decided this actress would be perfect to play Medea, the role that had won her such acclaim in 1947. She called Robert Whitehead, who as a young man had produced her Medea and had indeed incurred her wrath in the process. Their old quarrel forgotten, she told him he must revive Medea. She had just seen the perfect actress for the part—Zoe Caldwell—and she herself would play the Nurse. She had not recognised the young actress who had been part of her company in Australia, and she did not know that she was now married to Whitehead.

The new Medea, with Zoe Caldwell in the lead, was produced to great acclaim, first at the Kennedy Center and then on Broadway, winning her a third Tony. The production was televised brilliantly by Canadian television the following year. And in 1984 Zoe came home to Australia to dazzle audiences in this unforgettable role.

David Richards in the Washington Post wrote at the time that ‘Medea is one of the great greedy roles of dramatic literature—a figure so vast that it can absorb all the energies and intuitions of an actress and still cry out for more.

Lest it be found wanting, it wants all—passion, pathos, poetry, exoticism, magic and even the milk of a mother’s love. It is insatiable in its demands. Talent will take an actress only so far into the character; a certain recklessness and courage are required to finish off the deed.

Zoe Caldwell had the recklessness and courage to create a Medea that equalled, if not surpassed, that of Judith Anderson. Joseph McLellan, drama critic for the Washington Post, in describing her ‘virtuoso performance,’ conveys vividly the ‘energies and intuitions’ that were the source of her power.

Her voice and posture range through an enormous spectrum, from bewildered fragility to exultant cruelty; she snaps a bitterly ironic line with savage relish and then, a minute later, is a tortured mother facing with mixed feelings the thought that her revenge can be complete only if she kills her children. She adopts a cold logic in the recurring question-and-answer scenes where she probes the exact dimensions of her situation and the wild over-the-brink style, writhing in ecstasy, as she listens to Anderson’s chilling story of death by fire. In its enormous dimensions, its variety of tone and its occasional lapses into vulgarity, her performance is something like an organ recital by Virgil Fox.’ (An American organist known for his flamboyant ‘Heavy Organ’ concerts of the music of Bach.)

Chicago’s Claudia Cassidy had described Zoe Caldwell in 1964 as a ‘comedienne brushing the hem of tragedy.’ Even in this greatest of all tragedies she was able to inject moments of black comedy. As Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times, ‘One of Miss Caldwell's trump cards is wit. Her Medea gets genuine laughs when she sarcastically extols the virtues of “civilized” Greece and her “kind” Jason—neither of whom have treated her with anything like civility or kindness.’

Zoe once again ‘brush[ed] the hem of tragedy’ in 1986, when she revealed ‘the Guts & Grace’ of the vitriolic playwright Lillian Hellman, again produced by her husband, initially at the Kennedy Center and then on Broadway. ‘Lillian is digging for the essentials,’ David Richards wrote. ‘Everyone involved ... wants to get down to bedrock, which is to say the woman’s formidable character.’ Caldwell gives a performance ‘so nakedly honest that there seems to be nothing between us and her soul,’ he concluded. ‘Like any fine piece of art, her acting is stripped of every extraneous detail. No energy is wasted in useless embroidery. What she shows us is what counts. Nothing more. Nothing less.’

Zoe Caldwell had always emphasised that she was ‘a great stickler for the text.’ ‘The one person you should trust is the author,’ she told an interviewer. ‘There's the playwright first and then there are us, actors. ... We are not there to create. We are a passage through. As an actor you are a medium.’ In Medea she had had the words of the great poet Robinson Jeffers in his adaptation of Euripides’ play. Lillian’s author William Luce was a highly successful writer of one-woman shows. But in the early nineties she found a perfect partner in Terrence McNally, the great playwright of Kiss of the Spider Woman, then at the height of his powers. In 1993 she starred in his off-Broadway play, A Perfect Ganesh, as one of two elderly women (she was now 60 years old) trying to find themselves in India. The following year McNally invited her to read a new play at a playwriting festival in Big Fork, Montana. This became Master Class, a mainly one-woman show in which the faded opera star, Maria Callas, lectures and berates and prods a group of young hopefuls, teaching them much about singing and art and life.

First produced by the Philadelphia Theatre Company in February 1995, Master Class travelled to Los Angeles, San Francisco and the Kennedy Center before arriving in New York in November. ‘Is it the theatrical setting for a world-famous but faded diva, about to coach young singers? Or is it an operating theater, where nerves, and even souls, are exposed by the knife of memory?’ asked Daniel Webster in the Philadelphia Inquirer when the play opened. As a writer who specialized in outsize emotions and the art of living, McNally had written the ideal vehicle for Caldwell. She is ‘deliciously caustic and dauntingly imperious,’ the Los Angeles Daily News wrote, ‘as she spices her instructions to three nervous students with reminiscences about her difficult youth ... and catty put-downs of such rivals as Renata Tebaldi and Joan Sutherland.’ ‘Caldwell as Callas is the talk of Avocado Alley,’ gossip columnist Liz Smith reported. Former theatre manager Barton H. Emmett wrote, ‘I first saw Zoe Caldwell act 33 years ago when we were both with the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. I made a vow then never to miss one of her performances.’

In a long life in the theater, I have never seen a better performance ... Master Class might have some weaknesses, but whatever they are they don't matter. The audience is lifted up, carried along, made to think, to laugh and then wrung out. What more can be asked of it?

Aided by brilliant co-star Audra McDonald (who had already won one Tony and went on to win five more), Zoe Caldwell was hailed as a ‘goddess’ in the New Yorker; and Newsday’s Linda Winer described how the audience was ‘helplessly, rapturously—students in the thrall of a scary, complex, flawed and brilliant teacher, a woman capable of devastation and inspiration, of gaping emotional contradictions and a chunk of the world's great art.’

‘The play is also wicked fun,’ Winer went on. ‘We are the audience for the class, held on the creamy rotunda stage (beautifully designed by Michael McGarty), with a piano for Manny, her impressed accompanist (the delightfully bemused David Loud) and double doors for her grand entrances.’

No one was in any doubt that Caldwell would win her fourth Tony for this performance. Terrence McNally won his second in a row for the play; and Audra McDonald also received her second award in a row as best featured actress.


Despite her glittering career as an actress, Zoe Caldwell was much more. In 1976, secure in her stardom on stage and television and happily settled in family life, she expanded her repertoire into directing (‘Because you have to stay away from your family only three months, instead of nine’). Over the next few years she directed her friend and neighbour Colleen Dewhurst in An Almost Perfect Person (1976-78); a season at Stratford, Canada, in 1978, daringly tackling three different versions of Richard II in the opening week, with three different actors playing Richard; and These Men at the intimate Harold Clurman Theater off-Broadway in 1980. In 1981, as she was preparing for Medea, she was called on to help with a production of Othello that had got into difficulties; and in 1988 she did the same for Macbeth. In 1991 she directed her husband’s production, Park Your Car in Harvard Yard on Broadway. Two years later she re-opened the American Shakespeare Theater in Stratford, Conn. with a modernized version of The Taming of the Shrew; and in 1994 she directed the simple, stylish Vita & Virginia, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins at the off-Broadway Union Square Theater.

In 1988, with her sons now grown, Zoe extended her advocacy of theatre to teaching when she began a series of appointments as Visiting Eminent Scholar at Florida Atlantic University, where she directed student performances. She also began travelling extensively, making a long visit to India; and she joined other well-known actors performing on Theatre at Sea cruises.

From 1996, when she retired from Master Class, Zoe Caldwell and Robert Whitehead—often called the First Couple of the American Theater—played a central part in nurturing the theatre ‘family’ that had been so good to them. ‘The ubiquitous Zoe Caldwell’ as Liz Smith dubbed her, joined the boards of small companies such as Rattlestick Productions and large organisations such as the Shakespeare Stratford and was indefatigable attending and performing at fundraisers for everything from local theatres to Washington’s Kennedy Center and the Guthrie Theater. At these occasions she often presented parts of Come A-Waltzing with Me: An Evening with Zoe Caldwell, an entertainment about her own life devised in 1987 for her sons’ school. As their cohort grew older, she was called upon to present honours (and to receive them herself) and to speak at memorial services for friends and colleagues, becoming known for her ‘vivacious’ speeches.

In April 2000 Zoe Caldwell was invited by the League of Professional Theatre Women to speak about her career in front of an industry audience for their oral history programme. Videotaped by the Lincoln Library for the Performing Arts Theatre on Film & Tape Archive, this was probably the impetus for the memoir of her early career, I Will Play Cleopatra, published the following year. This lively book takes the reader from the awkward little girl with glasses on the front cover to the triumphant Cleopatra she played with Christopher Plummer in 1967—the year before she began her illustrious career in New York.


The final episode of this busy and fulfilling life began in 2002, when her beloved husband, Robert Whitehead, died of cancer. This blow, followed by her diagnosis with Parkinson’s Disease the following year, deprived her of much of the energy that had driven her throughout her life. She did, however, continue her readings for benefits and took a few, carefully chosen, parts. In 2003 she played her last role on Broadway as one of the Mystery Guest Stars in The Play What I Wrote, co-produced by her son Charlie; and she returned to Australia in The Visit for the 50th anniversary of the Melbourne Theatre Company (which had begun as the Union Theatre Repertory Company).

Never enthusiastic about acting in movies, Caldwell had previously played only one role—the Countess in Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). In 2002, however, she played a small part in the dark comedy Just a Kiss; in 2005 she was a family friend in Birth, with Nicole Kidman; and in 2011 she was the grandmother in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.

She still had her glorious voice, and from 2002 to 2006 she was the voice of the Grand Councilwoman in the popular children’s film and series Lilo & Stitch.

In 2014, after a final accolade from the League of Professional Theatre Women with a Lifetime Achievement Award, this vital woman disappeared from public life. Cared for lovingly by her sons, Charlie and Sam, Zoe Caldwell lived quietly at the family home in Pound Ridge, New York, until she slipped peacefully away on 16 February 2020.

On Friday, 28 February, Broadway dipped its lights in memory of this beloved actress. ‘Zoe Caldwell was indisputably Broadway royalty,’ Thomas Schumacher, Chairman of The Broadway League, said in his tribute, ‘with four Tony Awards and four decades of thrilling performances in work ranging from Tennessee Williams to Euripides to Terrence McNally.’

Her audiences were struck by her elegance, her strength and the penetrating timbre of her extraordinary voice. But those of us lucky enough to have worked with her—whether on stage or in one of her rare film roles—likely equally remember her kindness and beaming smile. She was a great star and a great woman.

[Terrence McNally, the great playwright who had provided the words for Master Class, died a month after Caldwell, a victim of Covid-19.]



Zoe Caldwell's son Charlie Whitehead has been very generous in the preparation of this article, as has her niece Sherryn Danaher, whose article also appears in this issue. Many curators of photographic collections have been very helpful, despite the problems created by the Covid-19. I would like to thank particularly the photographer Joan Marcus for responding so generously to my queries.

Published in Profiles


When Zoe Caldwell died in New York on 16 February 2020, the Covid-19 epidemic was beginning to unfold and her family in Australia was unable to fly to America to attend her memorial. Sherryn Danaher remembers her aunt and shares with us some of the pages from the scrapbooks assembled by Zoe’s mother chronicling her daughter’s early stage and radio appearances in Australia and subsequent fame in England, Canada and America. See also: Zoe Caldwell’s Many Faces by Desley Deacon»

Zoe CaldwellZoe Caldwell, 2004, a shot taken during rehearsals for Limonade Tous Les Jours, a play she was directing. Image courtesy of Charlie Whitehead.Facing melbourne easter in Covid-19 lockdown I decided to open the cream suitcase which had been lying in my study for years. It held my grandmother's considerable collection of scrapbooks, photos, programs and publications charting her daughter Zoe Caldwell’s seventy year career: a treasure chest of memorabilia and prompts for writing this account of times spent with my dear aunt. Zoe died peacefully in her home in New York in February this year.

It had been my intention to tackle the job of sorting through and documenting Old Zoe’s collection before handing it over to the Australian Performing Arts Collection. It was not only the sheer volume of the task that held me back but a large part of me hasn’t been ready to let go of this very personal material which I love to dip into from time to time.

Zoe’s parents loved theatre and, realising their daughter had talent from an early age, started her career with singing and dancing lessons. She also competed in South Street Ballarat, Bendigo and suburban elocution and calisthenics competitions. The family, though not well-off, soaked up Melbourne theatre, from their seats in ‘the gods’. When taking applause, Zoe always raised her head to patrons in the uppermost seats of the theatre. Under the tutelage of Winifred Moverley Browne, Zoe learned elocution, how to use her diaphragm to develop her voice and was exposed to the classics. At thirteen she had her own radio program as News Editress of 3DB’s ‘News and Interviews’ which she co-presented with fifteen year old News Editor, David Wittner. She was on her way to becoming an actor.

Zoe was born on the 14 September 1933 to Zoe and Edgar Caldwell when her brother, Bert (my father), was eleven years. She was doted on. Family history has revealed that the name Zoe has been handed down from Zoe’s Mauritian maternal great great grandmother whose name was Zoe. To avoid confusion, my grandmother was known as Old Zoe and her daughter was Young Zoe, with the affectionate pronunciation of Zoey. Long after, an older generation of Melbourne theatre-goers, who followed Zoe’s career from her Melbourne beginnings, would still ask me about Zoey. Old Zoe had been a singer and dancer travelling by ship to India, China and Japan in 1909 when she was thirteen and without her parents. She was part of the Bandmann child opera company.

I started work on a timeline as I combed through the material. Just when I thought I’d completed the timeline, another production would pop up. Zoe was involved in over fifty productions before she left our shores in 1958 at the age of 24 to take up a two year scholarship to Stratford-upon-Avon to walk-on, study and play under the direction of Glen Byam Shaw.

Aunty Zoey, as I called her as a child, left Australia when I was seven. She was always full of energy and fun to be around in staid post-war Melbourne and I loved seeing her shows.

Zoe has been a constant in my life through her many trips back to Australia and mine to visit Zoe and the family in their home in New York, from 1972 until May last year. I still have the toy teddy bear she gave me when I was born. It sits in my window along with the millions of other bears sitting in windows around the world as part of the children’s teddy bear hunt distraction throughout this Covid-19 pandemic.

While Zoe was working overseas building her career, she sent gifts, postcards (few letters), material from her performances and tape recordings to her parents. I learned about the places she visited through a stream of parcels. There were Babushka dolls from Russia, a pretty French floral enamelled alarm clock, a doll’s house chair from London, rock from Gretna Green, embroidered cap from Portugal, pottery dish from Norway and a North American Native Indian beaded, chamois doll and girl’s chamois good-luck pouch enclosing a coin and which I secreted into school exams.

From New York, she sent LP recordings of Broadway shows including a favourite, an original recording of Beyond the Fringe with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett. My brother and I had the skits off pat as we played the parts. Years later I discovered that the Whiteheads could all quote from the same LP at the drop of a hat. It’s now part of the family repartee.

These treasured gifts, her visits and stories have left me with a life-long passion for travel and to dive in and experience whatever it may bring.

I first visited New York in August 1972 at the end of a twelve month ‘discovering the world’ trip. Zoe had married Robert Whitehead and they had two sons, Sam born in 1969 and Charlie who was just three months old.

When I arrived at JFK a driver met me holding a board with my name and saying that he was to drive me to a restaurant in the city where I’d meet my uncle for lunch and who would then drive me up their house in Pound Ridge about an hour’s drive away. I’d never met Robert before and only knew that he was an important Broadway producer. My mother, who was living in the Netherlands with my Dutch step-father, packed a box of Dutch cigars into my suitcase which she knew would be a fitting gift for a man of his status.

The driver took me and my green vinyl suitcase and cigars to Sardi’s restaurant in Manhattan where Robert greeted me and introduced me to three luncheon companions and business associates. They were Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan and Harold Clurman. As a very naïve young Aussie traveller who’d spent the past year keeping body and soul together ‘temping’ in London to save up for a European camping trip with friends in a tiny tent, fine dining was unfamiliar to me. I had no idea who these men were. I was very polite, calling them Mr Miller, Mr Kazan and Mr Clurman. I addressed Robert as Uncle Robert, as I had always been taught.

Dressed in my best purple tie-dyed miniskirt and hand appliqued purple t-shirt I knew I looked good, although quite out of depth with the theatre conversation around the table. From the Italian menu, I managed to find a familiar dish, spaghetti bolognese, and my charming Uncle Robert bailed me out by ordering my wine. All seemed to be going well until I spilt half of the spaghetti down the front of my favourite outfit. The rest is a blur. I only know that, shortly after, Robert drove us to their house in Pound Ridge where I fell into in the arms of my dear Aunty Zoe.

While staying in Pound Ridge Arthur Miller, his wife Inge and daughter Rebecca came to the house for a barbecue and to further discuss the upcoming production of Arthur’s play, The Creation of the World and Other Business which Robert was producing. After I left New York, and with some casting changes, Zoe stepped into the lead role of Eve, taking over from Barbara Harris. The play opened in the Shubert Theater on Broadway in December for a short season.

Zoe found time to show me New York City, took me to museums and galleries, shopping on Fifth Avenue, The Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall and gave me a lesson in what to do if I looked like being mugged—‘Sing “The Star Spangled Banner” at the top of your voice and they’ll think you’re mad and leave you alone’. ‘That’s alright for you Zoe,’ I replied, ‘you’ve got the voice.’ We had a ball and we connected for the first time as adults.

This was my first taste of the incredible world of New York Theatre that had become my Aunt Zoe’s life. It was my first connection with the family, with whom I have had a close relationship for fifty years. Zoe and Robert welcomed me into their home for the three week stay and were interested in my life, although it was so insignificant compared with what they had achieved—it was family.

On that first trip I met another identity of New York theatre, Doris Blum (Gorelick). Doris helped me navigate her city as she answered my myriad questions. She has become a lifelong friend. Prior to being hired by Robert as his assistant and production associate from 1968 until his death in 2002, she had herself stage-managed and produced New York productions. For 33 years Doris was head of the Neighbour Playhouse School for children and teenagers. Doris, or Aunt Doe, knows New York theatre inside out and has always been considered part of the family. I have never forgotten her kindness towards a very naïve 22 year old on that first visit and we meet over dinner each time I re-visit. Today, Doris misses her daily morning phone calls with Zoe.

Grandpa Caldwell, Edgar, was also visiting on one of many annual trips to stay with the family. Old Zoe and Edgar had made their first and only overseas trip together to visit Zoe while she was working at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis in 1965. Sadly Old Zoe died in 1969 without seeing her daughter married and with a family of her own.

In 1984 Zoe, Robert, Sam and Charlie came to Melbourne for Zoe to open the new Playhouse theatre at the Victorian Arts Centre with Robinson Jeffers’ adaptation of Euripides’ Medea. Robert directed this Melbourne Theatre Company production. At that time he was also producing Arthur Miller’s Broadway show, Death of a Salesman starring Dustin Hoffmann, about which he had concerns.

While in Melbourne, the family received a letter from their old friend and Robert’s tennis partner, Katharine Hepburn. She told Robert not to worry about being away from the production in New York. She was pleased that things were going well with Medea and in her words she said, ‘… Go to Sherbrook [sic] Forest and try to find the Lyre Bird—It is thrilling …’.

Zoe was working but I drove my uncle Robert and young cousins to Sherbrooke Forest for a picnic but we didn’t see a lyrebird that day.

When Zoe left Melbourne she gave me Kate Hepburn’s handwritten letter as a momento. I puzzled over why Kate had suggested they visit Sherbrooke. This led me to research the background. This is the story behind the letter.

In 1955, when in Australia on tour with the Old Vic theatre company, Katharine Hepburn took Robert Helpmann to Sherbrooke Forest to see the lyrebird’s mating dance on its mound. Some time after Helpmann claimed to have had a dream of seeing Hepburn dancing naked on a mound surrounded by lyrebirds. The dream inspired his fascination for the bird’s mating dance and he choreographed The Display, his first production for the Australian Ballet and performed in 1964. It is dedicated to Katharine.

The story of The Display  centred around a bush picnic in which a bunch of young footballers start drinking and fight over a girl. She is chased by the young men and left lying exhausted on the ground after having been raped. The ballet opens with the dance of a lyrebird behind gauze and the bird reappears in the final scene dancing around the girl with its tail fully displayed until he folds her in his fanned plumage.

Helpmann engaged Sidney Nolan for set design and Carlton Football Club coach, Ron Barassi, to coach the dancers’ football moves.

Katharine had visited the Dandenongs several times during that Melbourne tour where she spent hours watching the birds in the company of a Sherbrooke Forest local, a young boy, who told her of their habits and where to find them. This very Melbourne story and Katharine’s letter sent when Zoe and Robert were working on Medea, was the impetus for a poem which I later wrote and which I titled The Display.

Zoe was always a hard worker and enjoyed the challenge of taking on new roles. When she returned to Melbourne it was mainly to work. Occasionally, between productions, she would sneak home, incognito, to spend time with her Mum and Dad and the family away from the hungry gaze of the Australian press.

After a happy marriage of over thirty years, Robert died in 2002 in Pound Ridge where Zoe nursed him up until his death in their home.

A grieving, deeply sad Zoe made one last visit to Melbourne in 2003 when she was asked to perform Dürrenmatt’s The Visit at the Arts Centre to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Melbourne Theatre Company. It is a story of revenge and greed. She gave a strong performance as Claire Zacchanassian, a successful, rich woman from humble beginnings returning to save her poverty-stricken home town while exacting revenge on the now influential mayor. He had denied paternity of the child she bore when she was young and had driven her from town. Like Claire, Zoe returned to her home town, not to exact revenge, but once again, to work.

Zoe knew that I understood how vulnerable she was and I knew that it was my turn to watch out for her. After the season finished, we flew to Broome where she could rejuvenate while soaking up warm rays of the Kimberley sun and we could share new travel experiences away from Melbourne, the press and theatre. We could dag around in old clothes and an old hire car, relax, eat, drink, laugh, take camel rides, swims, massages and experience the splendour of the Kimberley landscape as shown to us by the locals. We could also chew over family stories, our lives and memories as she regaled me with the doggerel she wrote, as always.

One day, as we talked over lunch in a Broome cafe, Zoe told me that a woman was staring at her. I said that she was imagining it and that no one knew her in this town. The woman then stood up to approach our table. I forbade Zoe to open her theatre mouth and said I’d do the talking. The woman apologised for interrupting but would we mind if she asked us a question?  It transpired that this woman had an old friend who was needing help cleaning her home and she asked us if we were looking for work. After telling her that we were in Broome on holiday and not interested in work, we left the café in fits of laughter.

To complete the lesson in humility, we walked around the corner to buy a couple of kit bags for Sam and Charlie. The very helpful shopkeeper asked if we were staying at the caravan park. We drove back to our small but beautiful, garden-set resort hotel where we shared the day’s moments of mirth over glass of wine by the pool.

On the beach at Lombardina in the Kimberley, Zoe mentioned that she had one last official engagement in Melbourne before returning home to New York: she was to be presented with an honorary doctorate in law at Melbourne University for which she had to write a speech. As we tossed over ideas, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s skit about the legal profession Sitting on the Bench from Beyond the Fringe sprang to mind and from our lips. We played with the words until we finally decided that it wouldn’t pass muster and dropped the thought of sun-baked speech writing.

When I accompanied Zoe to the official ceremony at the University, I had no idea of the content of the speech she’d been writing. I saw a tiny, sad, grieving woman clad in academic robes with her face and ‘boss’ eye peering out from under a large, floppy hat, ready to accept her doctorate. She was dwarfed by very tall, handsome professors of law and words looking extremely elegant in their academic garb. They gave suitably erudite speeches.

From the moment she approached the podium, Zoe’s audience was entranced. She spoke of not having any degrees, although I knew she had lectured in theatre studies in universities across the United States, but she considered that every major production was like getting a university degree. She followed by saying how she spent her early professional theatre career at Melbourne University in the 1950s as part of the University Theatre Repertory Company at the Union Theatre and  forerunner to the Melbourne Theatre Company. She indicated that today, through gaining this honour, she had come full circle back to the University. She enthralled the gathering with her presentation and depth of understanding of the importance of education. As always, she delivered her speech from the heart, with humour and making full use of her diaphragm.

Zoe returned to America where she continued to work on the stage in another five productions, in benefits, the feature films, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and Birth and in the Lilo and Stitch animation series from which a younger generation know her as the commanding voice of Grand Councilwoman.

Zoe held a large part of Australia in her heart. It was the work opportunities that took her away from her country. Zoe’s great passion was for the stage, for the thrill of the live audience and to be part of the ensemble. She never forgot those Australians who nurtured her early career and she made a point of visiting them whenever she returned to her home country.

© Sherryn Danaher April 2020




Published in Profiles