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Cape Cod Playmates: The Merry Widow and Her Boys

For a few years the cover story about the Cape Playhouse and Cinema held: A visionary ex-botany teacher moved an old church to a pasture in Dennis on Cape Cod and transformed it into a world-famous theater complex. The Playhouse debuted Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart, while the Cinema featured a spectacular ceiling mural by Rockwell Kent.

Raymond Moore, Cape Playhouse founder

Raymond Moore, Cape Playhouse founder

A 1930 promotional brochure added some implausible details to the story:  Young Raymond Moore, then living in Provincetown, was captivated by a “For Sale” sign on an old church. He bought it, partly with money from his savings as a teacher in California and partly from small funds borrowed from a few enthusiastic friends. They moved the church to Dennis, converted it into a playhouse and in the spring of 1927 began to organize the Cape Playhouse Company. Moore attracted stage luminaries such as Basil Rathbone and Violet Kemple because they “admired the young man’s courage.” And he attracted Kent, then at the height of his fame, because the artist started his career in nearby Barnstable.

The story beggars belief: Basil Rathbone hauls off to a Cape Cod barn for a performance in response to a persuasive letter from an obscure producer? A world-famous artist designs the largest mural in the world because of his fondness for a town in Massachusetts – at a time when he’s boycotting the state for railroading Sacco and Vanzetti? And the Baltimore-born ex-teacher of modest means is able to hire one of New York’s most prominent architects, Alfred Easton Poor, to design the cinema – and pays for the celebrated Frankl Gallery to create the 317 seats in black lacquer and tangerine?

“Dear -- oh dear!

After a few years the real story behind the “Let’s put on a show in the barn” fable emerged. It turned out there was a behind-the-scenes Judy Garland who financially backed Moore’s Mickey Rooney. And a cache of revealing letters to Rockwell Kent suggests the Cape Cod Playhouse and Cinema was more the work of a married Judy than the Mickey who was 30 years her junior.

The playhouse was an instant hit in 1927. Three years later John Barrymore praised Moore for bringing Broadway to “dirt road and oil-lamp country.” The Cape Playhouse and Cape Cinema, he wrote, are “a dream come true, that has attracted the attention of the theatrical and playgoing world as nothing else has since the Provincetown Players came off the Cape to bring Eugene O’Neil to fame and fortune. It is the dream of a young artist, Raymond Moore, who has transformed a wilderness off the beaten path into a thing of beauty.”

A 1936 account in the travelogue, “And This Is Cape Cod,” begins with the exclamation, “dear -- oh dear!

“In a garden of flowers, in a stone-walled pasture, what was once a seventeenth-century church is now a theater – the most successful summer theater in America.

“Nearby is the Cinema. And in the Cinema is the largest and possibly the loveliest mural in America. A midnight sky. A comet flashing. A Milky Way where leisured lovers stroll. Horses charging through a sea of blue. Flying figures dance. And the bull jumps over the moon. A quite mad mural by Joe Mielziner and Rockwell Kent.”

A Secret Marriage

The myth was dispelled that year when lumber heiress and Cape summer resident Edna Bradley Tweedy died. It was discovered that Moore had secretly married the widow a year before. She was at least 65, he was still in his late 30s. Tweedy had inherited the Bradley lumber fortune and left him a generous bequest. That became public when Moore quarreled over the will with her three daughters, the main beneficiaries of the estate.

Bette Davis

Bette Davis

By then the story about the Playhouse origins had to change a little. Promoters acknowledged that Moore had persuaded the elderly “widow” to help him and to pay for the Rockwell Kent mural.

No one persuaded Edna Bradley Tweedy to do anything, judging by her boldly scrawled letters. She once described herself as “imperious,” and that is borne out in correspondence saved in the Rockwell Kent Papers collection at the Archives of American Art.

In 1927, Mrs. Edna Tweedy was still married to Robert B. Tweedy, president of the Tweedy Realty Co. in Milwaukee and a former candidate for governor of Wisconsin. She, however, was living on 5th Avenue in New York and summering in Wianno, an exclusive resort community on the Cape. Her correspondence with Kent suggests her marriage to Tweedy was at least open and probably over.

It was Edna Tweedy who summoned Rockwell Kent to New York in 1930 to offer him and his partner the $5,000 commission to design the mural. It was her lawyers who negotiated the contract for Kent to design it and for celebrated set designer Jo Mielzener and his crew to install it. It was she who managed the project, she who paid him and she who consulted with him – apparently constantly. In one letter Kent wrote to her in 1930:

I am trusting to find so many occasions during the course of this decoration to consult with you that by the time it is finished I will be coming to see you quite as a matter of course and habit.

Their correspondence suggests she actively managed the theater as well. When Kent sent her a bill for a large rug he’d ordered for the Playhouse, she replied, “business has been good” if we “don’t get unexpectedly swamped with bills like this.”

“You are a crazy not-so-young man!”

The relationship between the newly widowed Edna Tweedy and Rockwell Kent developed quickly into a warm rapport, at the very least. He was then 48, living on an Adirondack farm and a veteran of many extramarital affairs.

Kent was at the height of his fame, having illustrated a wildly popular edition of Moby Dick, which reignited interest in the book. One day early in 1930 he received a letter from Edna:  “I am most anxious to consult with you in regard to mural decoration I am considering having done in building on Cape Cod.”

Within a few months the correspondence became more intimate. She gossiped about her sister’s facelift, worried about finances and began to sign here letters with her middle name, “Mentora.” In one letter, she writes, “If as you said “I am a crazy old woman” I will say you are a very crazy not so young man!”

Rockwell Kent Mural at the Cape Cod Playhouse

Rockwell Kent Mural at the Cape Cod Playhouse

Kent apparently visited the Cape twice, at the beginning and end of the project, according to the correspondence.

A letter to Kent from Mrs. Tweedy tells him to meet at the Ritz in Boston and then drive to the Cape with her. She writes that she’s looking forward to having him in her home. A letter that followed, sent on June 21, says:  “Take this scrap of paper do whatsoever you wish with it. Always remember me! I send it down to you with a big kiss and loads of birthday love!”

That Kent invited her affection is clear from a flattering letter he wrote to her, and from a telegram responding to his complaint that a check she sent him lacked a zero:

CORRECT CHECK MAILED TO YOU TODAY I WAS INCLINED TO MAKE FIVE ZEROS INSTEAD OF FOUR YOUR LETTER WAS SO CHARMING YOURS TRULY THE CROOK.

After Cape Cod, Moore’s sad demise

Though Edna Tweedy wrote that she hoped Kent’s work on the Cape would be the beginning of a long friendship, the archives include no more correspondence between them after 1930.

In 1931, Raymond Moore produced two Broadway plays, “Ladies of Creation” and “Berlin.” He married Edna Tweedy on May 17, 1935.

She died 17 months later, and Raymond Moore’s life took a series of bizarre twists before ending in 1942.

Edna Bradley Tweedy Moore was reported to have inherited a Wisconsin lumber fortune worth $10 million, but the court determined her gross estate was worth $1,082,856. She had given Moore $517,000 in gifts before their marriage and $112,000 while they were married. Presumably much of that money had gone to creating the 30-acre theater complex. In addition to the Playhouse and Cinema there were actors’ houses and a restaurant, a scene shop and a goldfish pond, orchids in a pergola and gardens throughout. It is also hard to imagine that the Bradley lumber money wasn’t used to lure internationally known actors, architects and designers – as well as Rockwell Kent -- to the pasture on Cape Cod.

Mrs. Moore bequeathed her husband a life interest in a trust fund of $100,000, but her three daughters got most of the money. Moore contested the will, apparently claiming a surviving spouse’s share. In 1937 he compromised with the daughters: he would give up the trust and accept two cash payments of $45,000 and $58,828.

The money didn’t buy Raymond Moore happiness and it didn’t keep him out of the newspapers. He suffered what the New York Times described as a “nervous breakdown” and went to Hollywood, Calif., to recover. There he met a nurse, Miss Marianne Schultz. They married in 1938 and divorced a year later in Barnstable on Feb. 15.

Two months after the divorce, however, his ex-wife bore a son. Moore denied he was the father. Marianne Moore told the Milwaukee Sentinel that she would authorize blood tests to determine the parentage of the baby, Michael Dennis Moore. She posed for a photo with the child in her arms. Her attorney said the blood tests would show Raymond Moore was the father and they would try to get the divorce revoked.

Raymond Moore died in March 1940, 11 months after his ex-wife went public with the controversy over the child. The New York Times reported he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in his apartment at the Hotel Elysee. He was 42 years old. The obituary makes no mention of the child and states he was divorced from his second wife.

The story took another strange turn five months after his death. His ex-wife was arrested in Santa Barbara, Calif., on suspicion of being under the influence of drugs, and the baby was placed in a detention home pending an investigation of her fitness as a mother, the San Jose News reported. She then took the child from the detention home and was sought on a warrant charging her with kidnapping. What became of her and the child is unknown.

Raymond Moore left his money to the Raymond Moore Foundation, which continues the Playhouse and Cinema. “Hello Dolly” is currently playing at the Playhouse, Fruitvale Station at the Cinema.

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