THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Neysa McMein: Who Is She And Why Does She Deserve Your Immediate Attention?

The excellent revival of S. N. Behrman's 1932 drawing-room comedy Biography at Theatre Three at The Mint has me thinking about someone who's fascinated me for years, someone well-known at the time the play debuted but virtually forgotten now: Neysa McMein.

Biography is about Marion Froude, a painter and illustrator living a Manhattan vie de Boheme who's talked into writing her autobiography (the play is incorrectly titled) by a tough-minded editor. Her agreeing to produce a manuscript causes particular dismay in a former, still enamored boyfriend about to run for the Senate and worried that any disclosure of his early affair with free-living Marion could hurt his chances with a conservative electorate.

While Marion is having second and third thoughts about the wisdom of putting her past between hard covers, events in her studio (this is one drawing-room where actual drawing takes place), provide evidence that she's turned herself into her own kind of celebrity after leaving behind her Tennessee upbringing and acquiring a distinctively New York City sophistication.

To underline her prominence, an emigré composer on his way to Hollywood drops by repeatedly and John Barrymore-type Warwick Wilson, who's running from (not to) Hollywood, pops in for titillation. (Another version of John Barrymore appears in the current revival of the George S. Kaufman-Edna Ferber comedy, The Royal Family. This time he's called Tony Cavendish.)

So what has a play considered a hot item when it opened--as were most of the Behrman comedies--to do with Neysa McMein? Plenty. The evidence is that she was the inspiration for Marion Froude. Like Froude--a respected illustrator who, Behrman stipulates, lives in a building on West Fifty-Seventh Street--McMein was an illustrator who lived in an apartment atop West Fifty-Seventh Street's Carnegie Hall. Like Froude, McMein was known for throwing open her digs to the rich or not-that-rich and famous. Furthermore, McMein had a reputation for being a libertine--or, at the least, a very liberated lady, whose conjugal ties to husband Jack Baragwanath were loose at best.

There are so many parallels between Froude and McMein (though the latter was Margery Edna from Illinois) that it's difficult to believe Behrman didn't have her in mind when he penned this piece about defining morality for oneself and sticking to the definition no matter how much it clashes with conventional thought.

One of the strongest ties between Behrman and McMein was their status as part of the crowd that hung around the highly publicized Algonquin Hotel round table. (In Alan Rudolph's 1994 Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, McMein is played by actor-director Rebecca Miller. Behrman is not a character, but others who wrote for the New Yorker, as he did, are.)

Somewhere there's an unpublished doctoral thesis on Behrman that contends Marion Froude is an amalgam of Grace Moore, Ellen Terry and McMein, which could very well be the case. But the latter is the only one who lived on West Fifty-Seventh Street and painted portraits of Warren Harding, Herbert Hoover, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Dorothy Parker, Janet Flanner, Katharine Cornell, Helen Hayes, Anatole France and Charles Chaplin--many, if not most, of them mingling with myriad luminaries like the above-mentioned Kaufman, Ferber, Behrman and the gabby Alexander Woollcott, who once proposed to the occupant.)

How, you might ask, did I become aware of McMein, who nowadays could be considered no more than a colorful footnote to a Manhattan history of the 1920's-'30's-'40's? (She died in 1949.) I began wondering who she was and what she did when her name kept appearing in memoirs of the period. It was a name almost never accompanied by a lengthy, or even brief, description but almost always in a list of names. Part of the reason she stuck with me, of course, was the odd first name. And it turns out a numerologist suggested the switch of "Neysa" with "Margery Edna."

Who's to say the numerologist wasn't on to something? As Neysa McMein, the Quincy, Illinois expat became one of the busiest illustrators of the time--with a reputation rivaling others like James Montgomery Flagg, John Held and George Petty. For instance, from 1923 to 1937, she provided all the McCall's Magazine covers and she was chosen to create the first Betty Crocker likeness.

There's an inherent irony here, too. In contrast with her free-spirit life, McMein's women were the embodiment of innocence and rectitude. Considered a beauty herself, she depicted fresh-faced American beauties--perhaps some of them self-portraits. McMein was defining the American woman for McCall's, the Saturday Evening Post and other publications at the same time as chipping away at the image in her daily affairs (pun intended).

Quite a woman, that Neysa McMein. Look her up if only to see how footnotes to history deserve their own prominent footing.