FEATURES | By Mark Lewis

Kitty Winn’s Circle


Kitty Winn, photo by Cindy Burton

Kitty Winn, photo by Cindy Burton

Each year on the third weekend in November, the Ojai Festivals Women’s Committee throws open the doors to the four showcase houses that comprise that year’s Holiday Home Look In line-up. Tour regulars know what to expect: Cutting-edge architecture, high-end interior design and often an impressive art collection, artfully displayed.

But in November 2010, the Women’s Committee threw its tour-goers a bit of a curveball: The Gwynne Cottage, a Craftsman-style house built in 1920 and recently remodeled by Ojai designer Jane Carroll. The house was beautiful, and beautifully furnished, and the current owner’s art collection was indeed impressive. But the tour brochure offered tantalizing hints of a most unusual provenance.

“A late-18th century Chinese tapestry displayed on the dining room wall was a gift to the owner’s grandfather, General George C. Marshall, from Chiang Kai-shek,” the brochure noted. “The Moroccan landscape in the living room titled ‘View of Tinherir’ is a digital scan of the original painting by Sir Winston Churchill. It was given by Churchill as a token of admiration to George Marshall after the war.”

Marshall is not as well remembered as Dwight Eisenhower or Douglas MacArthur, but he was their boss – the man who ran the U.S. Army during World War II. Chiang was China’s wartime leader. Churchill was, well, Churchill. So history buffs had a field day on the tour that year, thanks to the inclusion of the Gwynne Cottage. But film buffs missed out, because the tour brochure omitted an significant detail about the house: Its owner, Kitty Winn, was not merely George Marshall’s granddaughter, but an accomplished former actress who had once been the toast of the Cannes Film Festival.

It’s fair to say that on Feb. 21, 1944, George Marshall had a lot on his mind. In England, the Eighth Air Force had just launched a massive series of bombing raids designed to cripple the Luftwaffe. In the Pacific, GIs and Marines recently had stormed ashore at Kwajalein and Eniwetok, and MacArthur was about to invade the Admiralty Islands. In Burma, Merrill’s Marauders were operating behind Japanese lines, while in Italy, General Mark Clark’s Fifth Army was still bogged below Monte Cassino. Meanwhile, Dwight Eisenhower was preparing for the upcoming invasion of Normandy.

But for the Army chief of staff, the big news of the day emanated from Washington’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where his beloved stepdaughter Molly Winn had just given birth to her second child. The new addition was named Katherine after her grandmother, but everyone would call her Kitty.

General Marshall was delighted. He loved children, especially little girls. His first wife, Lily, had been a semi-invalid with a weak heart, for whom parenthood was out of the question. When Lily died in 1927, Marshall was devastated. But two years later, while stationed at Fort Benning in Georgia, he met Katherine Tupper Brown, a widow with three children in their mid- to early teens. He married Katherine in 1930, and her children – Molly, Clifton and Allen – quickly embraced Marshall as their stepfather. The affection was mutual. At 49, Marshall finally had a family to call his own.

“He never had children, so these were his children,” Kitty Winn says.

  As it turned out, Katherine was not the only woman in her family who found a husband at Fort Benning. Molly started dating a young lieutenant named James J. Winn, an Alabama native who was fresh out of West Point. Molly’s path to the altar was more protracted than her mother’s had been: A decade would pass before she and Jim finally married. Meanwhile, her stepfather advanced through the ranks to the Army’s top job. When at last Molly and Jim tied the knot, on Christmas Day 1940, the ceremony took place at Quarters One in Fort Myer in Arlington, Va. – the official home of Chief of Staff George Marshall.

A year later, the nation was at war, and Marshall was burdened with crushing responsibilities. He welcomed the distractions provided by his growing brood of grandchildren, who were often in residence at Quarters One. Kitty and her older brother, Jimmy, called Marshall “Undaddy,” a toddler’s approximation of “Granddaddy.” 

“He loved being called that,” Kitty says. “He loved anything that took him away from the cares of the world.”

For Marshall, those cares included the death of his stepson Allen Brown, killed in action south of Rome in May 1944. Nor did Marshall’s responsibilities end on V-J Day in 1945. Later that year, President Truman sent him to China on a doomed mission to broker a peace agreement between Chiang and his Communist rival, Mao Zedong.

Molly Winn and her children visited George and Katherine Marshall in Nanking in November 1946, on their way to join Molly’s husband in India. One day during this visit, the Marshall family joined Generalissimo Chiang and his wife, the beautiful and formidable Madame Chiang, for a picnic at the Ming Dynasty Tombs. Kitty, who was not yet 3 years old at the time, remembers Marshall “picking me up and putting me on the back of this stone lion.” Later in the visit, Kitty and Jimmy got in trouble for digging up Madame Chiang’s flowerbeds in an attempt to dig their way back home to America.

Kitty experienced the peripatetic childhood of a typical Army brat. Her father, who had fought in the Battle of the Bulge, was a career Army officer, and the family followed him from post to post. Kitty spent parts of her childhood in such exotic locales as India, Kansas and Japan. (On an outing near Tokyo one day, she found herself in conversation with a young Japanese man in uniform, who turned out to be Crown Prince Akihito. These days he is better known as the reigning emperor of Japan.)

When not posted overseas, the family often spent time with George and Katherine Marshall, who had homes in Leesburg, Va., and Pinehurst, N.C. The general finally had retired, after serving Truman as secretary of state from 1947 to 1949, and then as secretary of defense during the first year of the Korean War.  In 1953 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for having come up with the Marshall Plan, which helped Europe rise from the ashes of World War II.

Kitty's grandfather, Gen. George Marshall, with FDR and Churchill

Kitty Winn, photo by Cindy Burton

In June 1953, President Eisenhower sent Marshall to London to represent the U.S. at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. His wife accompanied him to the ceremony.

“As the Marshalls walked up the aisle at Westminster Abbey, the entire congregation rose to its feet,” Kitty says. “General Marshall looked back to see who had entered. General Omar Bradley leaned over to him and said, ‘They are standing for you, General Marshall.’ “

That was pretty much Marshall’s career finale. Having laid down the burdens of office, he was happily cultivating his garden and playing with his grandchildren.

“Undaddy loved taking his grandchildren to the circus,” Kitty says. “In fact, I can’t remember a circus that I went to in childhood that I did not attend with him.”

The last time she saw him was on his deathbed in Walter Reed hospital in October 1959. She was 15; he was 78, and fading fast. Each grandchild was sent in one at a time to say goodbye. When it was Kitty’s turn, she held his hand and told him that they would go fishing when he felt better.

“I don’t know if he heard me or not,” she says. “I’d like to think he did.”

After he died, the family gathered in Washington for the funeral, which took place at the National Cathedral. Kitty remembers Harry Truman showing up at their hotel to pay his respects to Katherine Marshall, who was sequestered in a bedroom.

“I remember when he came out, he had tears streaming down his face,” Kitty says. “And I looked at him and I thought, ‘I didn’t know presidents cried.’ ”

Kitty Winn loved her grandfather, but she was more influenced by her grandmother.

“Once, when I was about 9 years old, I was sitting alone with my grandfather on the lawn at their Pinehurst home,” she says. “He was telling me that I should not grow up to be a ‘deep feeler,’ because they were most always ‘poor thinkers.’ He then gave me several examples in history of that ilk that came to a bad end. I sat there thinking, ‘Oh dear, I’m one of those.’ But the funny thing was that the person he was closest to and loved the most in the world, Nana, was just like me in that regard.”

Nana was born Katherine Boyce Tupper in Harrodsburg, Ky., in 1882. After graduating from Hollins College in 1902, she joined her family in New York City, where her father was serving as the minister of a Baptist congregation. The Rev. Allen Tupper took a dim view of the theater, but Katherine was eager to try her luck on Broadway.

“I was as thoroughly stage-struck as is possible for a girl to be,” she wrote in a memoir.

She enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where she made enough of a splash to be noticed by Broadway’s reigning matinee idol, James J. Hackett.  When the leading lady of Hackett’s current show fell ill, he offered Katherine the role. But her disapproving father would not hear of the idea, so she had to turn Hackett down.

Rather than give up her dream, she booked passage to London, taking along a letter of introduction to the famous theatrical impresario Herbert Beerbohm Tree. (Her father apparently gave this venture his reluctant blessing, with the proviso that she act under the name Katherine Boyce to avoid disgracing the family.) But when Katherine went to see Tree, he recoiled from her American accent.

“I asked him what would be the best course for me to follow, and he told me to come back and see him when I had learned to speak English,” she wrote.

(She presumably did not encounter his 7-year-old daughter, Iris Tree, who later would make a memorable impression upon Ojai as the flamboyant founder of the High Valley Theater in the 1940s.)

Katherine never saw Tree again, but she had better luck with Frank Benson, another English actor-manager, who specialized in Shakespeare. She joined his touring company as a student apprentice and worked her way up to playing leading roles: Juliet, Ophelia, Miranda in “The Tempest.” But after only a few years, ill health forced her to give up acting and return to America.

An old friend from childhood days, Clifton Brown, asked her to marry him. But Katherine was not ready to give up the stage. In September 1907, she accepted an offer from the American actor-manager Richard Mansfield to be his leading lady. They opened in Chicago in a show called “Engaged,” but she only lasted two performances before her health gave out again. Now reconciled to her fate, she married Brown, moved to Baltimore, and began having children.

After Brown died, she married Marshall. When he rose to prominence, she found herself on a bigger stage than Tree or Benson or Mansfield had ever trod, as she socialized with world leaders and witnessed great events. After the war she published a memoir: “Together: The Annals of an Army Wife.” According to the book, baby Kitty passed the first few months of her life at Quarters One, to her grandmother’s evident delight:

“With Kitty Winn there came to me the peace that passes all understanding. George was away a great deal of the time on long, hazardous flights across the waters. When I felt I could not stand the waiting and suspense of the war any longer, I would go up to the nursery and take my little granddaughter in my arms and rock her to sleep. What she meant to me at that time, I could never put into words.”

Katherine’s book was well received when it came out in 1946. But the publisher had made her delete a 73-page section about her early days on the stage, on the grounds that the public would be more interested in her later life with Marshall. Nevertheless, Katherine never lost her love for the theater, and she was thrilled when her granddaughter, too, turned out to be “as thoroughly stage-struck as is possible for a girl to be.”

Actually, Kitty’s early ambition was to become a painter. But during her senior year at the Garrison Forest School near Baltimore, she won a small part in a school play. “That was enough to convince me that that’s really what I always wanted to do,” she says.

Eventually she landed at Boston University, majoring in theater. The future star John Lithgow, then a Harvard undergraduate, gave Kitty her first big break by casting her as Polly Peachum in a Harvard production of “The Beggar’s Opera.”

After graduating from BU in 1966, she headed straight for New York, got a job as a waitress in an Irish pub, and started sending around her photograph and resume. She received only one response, from William Ball, founder of the American Conservatory Theater. Ball invited her to audition for ACT, which he was in the process of moving to its new home in San Francisco. She found herself in a room full of actors, none of whom she knew.

“I first met her at that audition,” recalls her friend and fellow actress Carol Jenkins. “There was one girl sitting off in the corner. She was a little waif.”

But Ball saw something more than a waif in Winn. He asked her to read something from Shakespeare, so she ran out and bought a used copy of “The Complete Works” in a nearby bookstore. Returning to the audition, she read Cleopatra’s dying speech from “Antony and Cleopatra:”

“Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have immortal longings in me.”

Jenkins recalls Ball’s reaction: “She had just started the first few lines and Bill kind of chuckled and said, ‘That’s what I thought.’ He had suspected that she had that kind of strength and that kind of power.”

Kitty (and Jenkins) spent the next four years in San Francisco, doing play after play for Bill Ball at ACT. During this period, there were occasional forays back east. In 1968, Kitty played Emily in a production of “Our Town” at the Mineola Theatre on Long Island. The all-star cast included Robert Ryan as Emily’s father, Estelle Parsons as her mother, and Henry Fonda, no less, as the stage manager. Kitty says that at first she did not feel entirely comfortable as Emily, even though she was well suited for the role.

“I was good in it, but I never really felt like I owned it – until the night Nana came,” she says. “It was the first time she had seen me on stage. It was a wonderful experience for us both.”

The following year, Katherine saw Kitty make her Broadway debut in Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters.” Katherine had never made it to Broadway herself as an actress, but she lived to see her granddaughter do it. “I think she was really pleased,” Kitty says.

In 1970, as her time at ACT was winding down, Ball cast Kitty in the title role in “Saint Joan” by George Bernard Shaw. It was a classic Kitty Winn part: a vulnerable-seeming waif who turns out to be a tower of strength.

“She was an extraordinary Joan,” Jenkins says. “Kitty has a way of getting inside the characters she plays. She embodies them so completely.”

The Hollywood producer (and future Vanity Fair writer) Dominick Dunne saw the show and invited Winn to read for the lead role in his next film, “The Panic in Needle Park,” about two young heroin addicts. (The script was by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne; the director was Jerry Schatzberg.) Winn won the part and soon found herself back in New York, rehearsing with her co-star, a young actor named Al Pacino. The following year she found herself in Cannes, accepting the “best actress” award for her performance in the film.

Pacino’s next film was “The Godfather,” which made him a star. As for Kitty, she went on to make, among other films, “The Exorcist” (she played Ellen Burstyn’s assistant). She also did some television, including “Beacon Hill,” the American version of “Upstairs Downstairs.”

“But I always went back to the theater,” she says.

In 1972 she played Ophelia in an acclaimed New York Shakespeare Festival production of “Hamlet” in Central Park that also featured Stacy Keach, James Earl Jones and Colleen Dewhurst. “Her Ophelia was probably the best Ophelia I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen something like 20,” Jenkins says.

Katherine Tupper Brown Marshall died in 1978, at the age of 96. That same year, Kitty married Morton Winston, a Los Angeles businessman who had a son and a daughter from a previous marriage. Like George Marshall before her, Kitty bonded with her stepchildren. The stepdaughter was still fairly young at the time, and Kitty was soon to have a daughter of her own. She decided that her all-consuming approach to acting would not leave her enough time or energy to devote to her children.

“I just didn’t feel like I could do both,” she says.

So, like her grandmother before her, she left the theater to focus on her family. Some years later, Carol Jenkins found herself working with Pacino, who asked about Kitty. Jenkins recalls Pacino’s response when she told him Kitty had given up acting: “He said, ‘That doesn’t surprise me. I always thought that there was something about Kitty that was too fine for this business.’ ”

Fast forward to 2004, when Kitty settled in Ojai after her marriage had ended. Her children are grown and she now has a granddaughter, upon whom she dotes. She is happily ensconced in the remodeled Gwynne Cottage, which she bought in 2008. To do her bit for the Ojai Music Festival, she allowed the house to be featured on the Holiday Home Look In tour in 2010. But few tour-goers realized that the mistress of Gwynne Cottage was not only George Marshall’s granddaughter, but also a former “best actress” honoree at Cannes. The only actress in sight during the tour was Kitty’s late grandmother, pictured in sepia-toned photographs that showed her in costume as part of Frank Benson’s theater company, back at the turn of the 20th century.

A year later, in October 2011, Kitty allowed an old ACT friend to tempt her back on stage for the first time in almost three decades, as the lead actress in a San Jose Repertory Theatre production of “The Last Romance.” To help overcome her nervousness, she wore her grandmother’s bracelet. Each night before the curtain went up, she would touch the bracelet with her other hand. “And I would say to myself, ‘OK, Nana, we’re going on.’ And that’s what got me onto the stage.”

Kitty was nominated for a Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle best-actress award for her performance. But she is not sure when – or if – she will do another play. She is busy working on a biography of ACT’s William Ball, and she hopes some day to write a book that tells her grandmother’s story, drawing upon those 73 pages that were deleted from “Together: Annals of an Army Wife.”

But even if Kitty never does another play, the family tradition continues: Her 11-year-old granddaughter, Sara, recently won a part in a children’s theater production in Los Angeles.

“She’s going to be Alice in ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ ” Kitty says. “It looks like she wants to go into acting. I think Nana would be very pleased.”

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