Connecticut Iconoclasts

By Nona Footz

After watching marathon episodes of HGTV’s Property Brothers, My Lottery Dream Home and Love It or List It during a pandemic binge, I discovered it’s easy to become obsessed by houses. There are the renovation addicts, the real estate fanatics; and then there are those who fall under the spell of a house in their town, making repeated drive-bys, exclamations of “If only we lived there!” and low and behold, a “For Sale” sign is spotted on said house’s lawn. The stalkers rapidly compose a letter to the owner explaining why they, of all possible buyers, should be the chosen ones and that they, and only they, will treasure the home as no one else possibly can and would they please accept their heartfelt offer.

I admit, I wrote a version of a letter like that once. Hand written, hand delivered, the works. Only I knew it was a pipedream. Sure, I wanted to own that midcentury modern home in my town that was built by notable architect Richard Neutra. But I knew the $3.2M price tag was well beyond reach and what I really wanted was a story. “The” story – of the house, its history and its owner.

Betty Corwin lived in that house. I’d heard about “that theater woman” and first contacted her in 2012 in the hopes of landing an interview for this magazine. She was the brainchild of The Theater on Film and Tape Archive, known by the acronym “TOFT” – which consisted of over 8,500 recordings that preserved live theatrical productions and documented the contributions of distinguished artists and legendary figures of the theatre. Over the course of her 50 years in the industry, Betty Corwin’s list of accomplishments was impressive. She not only founded TOFT but created and produced the League of Professional Women’s Oral History Project, co-produced City University of New York’s Women in Theatre television series, received an Obie Award, the Westport Connecticut Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement and awards from the Drama Desk, Women in Communications and The Villager. Betty also won a special Tony Award in 2001 and at the age of 96 received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the League of Professional Theater Women. She lived in a majestic art filled midcentury modern home designed by a famous architect and I was convinced she would make an interesting subject for an article. But my interview request went unanswered.

I returned to the subject of Betty several years later upon noticing, with some surprise, that her estate was for sale. “Own one of only two known properties remaining in Connecticut designed by famed modernist architect Richard Neutra” said the listing – and I had long coveted that house. It was located on storybook “Huckleberry Lane” and sat stealth set back on the road, a long rectangle of glass, brick and sharp angles overlooking The Saugatuck River.

Richard Neutra was an Austrian-American architect, living and building for the majority of his career in Southern California. He was considered to be among the most prominent and important modernist architects, known for “reconciling humanity with nature in an exultant dance of interconnectedness.” Luxury art book publisher Taschen produced a tome written by Neutra Scholar Dr. Barbara Lamprecht, describing the architect’s design as “indoor-outdoor flow meets clean, crisp modernism in the structures …whose cool, sleek style synthesized technology with nature.” But this was quite a rare design for Neutra to produce in Connecticut, typically overrun with Puritan Saltbox and center-hall Colonials. Perhaps this was my chance to make another attempt at an interview with Betty and learn something about that unique house that was now looking for a buyer.
This time I delivered a handwritten letter requesting an interview with a little more emphasis on how I pined for The Corwin House. A week later I received a call which took me by surprise – “Is this Nina?” said the clear woman’s voice on the other end of the line; “This is Betty Corwin – I got your letter.”

“Oh Mrs. Corwin, I’m so glad you called!” I shrieked, grateful to be finally speaking to this legend. She graciously refused a formal interview saying, “I’m suffering from 98 going on 99-year-old ailments” but I kept her on the phone as long as I could. She didn’t miss a beat – catching my attempts at what I thought were well-honed interviewing tactics to lure a reticent subject into talking about themselves. She corrected a few of my architectural faux pas, and wished me luck after offering a few details about her life to whet my appetite. I was heartbroken to end the call fearing it would be the last time I spoke to her. Four months later I saw her obituary in the New York Times and sadly knew my fantasy was gone. The house would never be mine and I would never meet the great Betty Corwin.

I decided to continue my quest to learn about the Corwins, speaking with Betty’s family, her former colleagues as well as architectural experts at The Neutra Institute for Survival Through Design. Betty Corwin grew up on NYC’s Upper West Side in the 1920s and loved the theater. She worked as a production assistant and script reader for film director and producer Martin Gabel, but once she became a doctor’s wife relocating from Manhattan into the depths of 1950s suburban life, Betty Corwin became an archetypal mid-century housewife, busy entertaining and raising children. By 1955 Dr. and Mrs. Corwin had started to collect art, they appreciated design, and decided to take the bold (and pricey) move of commissioning the famed Richard Neutra to build their dream home.

Neutra was known to be a demanding man, irascible yet could also be turn on a dime to be charming and solicitous with clients. He had an impressive track design record and a reputation on the upswing, achieving the epitome of stardom donning the cover of Time magazine in August 1949 showcasing his “astounding modernist houses.” Neutra had a unique approach in getting to know his clients. His draftsmen kept photographs of their clients in front of them while working to keep the owner’s interests top of mind but Neutra himself desired an even deeper level of insight into how his clients lived, ate, slept, worked, and moved about. He would request biographical essays from the family – some referred to them more like ‘client interrogations’ – often asking the husband and wife to write separate summaries, attempting to evaluate their physiological and psychological dimensions from each side of their relationship.

As per Dr. Lamprecht, “The standard relationship between the client and Neutra was intense and manifested in thick sheaves of letters back and forth, sometimes daily.” Noted in Neutra’s voluminous office files now housed at UCLA’s Library Special Collections, Henry Corwin indicated that he and his wife were “a popular couple who entertain frequently, are trim and athletic.” In the Corwin’s case the correspondence was particularly intimate and perhaps more akin to a medical intake – Dr. Corwin felt it was important to simply reveal all the details of his lifestyle and wrote, “While defecating I like to read and would like to have a magazine rack next to the toilet.”
Henry, “Hank” as he was called, was proud of his Neutra home and took every opportunity to talk about it, eager to show it off to anyone who would listen, and openly express dismay if houseguests didn’t bother to inquire about its design and origin. Hank had unwavering pride in his home and always mentioned in quasi-jest his desire to have a Viking funeral when his end came – a reference to the burial custom of Viking Age North Germanic Norsemen who were cremated along with a loved one or house on a funeral pyre. The Neutra house meant that much to him.

Once the Corwin’s three children were of school age Betty became restless in the isolating suburbs and looked for something to get involved in. She was volunteering at a NYC hospital when her sister-in-law, a theatrical agent at the William Morris Agency, suggested Betty consider doing something in the industry they both loved and that taping and preserving theatre productions was an idea that had been talked about for years but no one had done anything about. Betty grabbed the idea, hatched a plan and pitched it to the head of the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center in November 1969. They agreed to let her “make a go of it” as a volunteer, giving the suburban doctor’s wife a desk and a phone and within a year the first Off Broadway taping was complete and the rest, as they say, is history.

Flying directly in the face of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous quote, “There are no second acts in American lives” Betty was in her forties, fit, fashionable and on her way to becoming one of the most notable second acts in the NYC theatre industry. She worked tirelessly building relationships and gaining the consent and cooperation of the various theatrical unions and production artistic collaborators.

Customarily well-coiffed, tastefully bejeweled and with a flowy silk scarf around her neck Betty was universally beloved. Despite the commitment and myopic dedication it took to launch TOFT (not to mention managing the schlep from the Metro North station in Westport to Grand Central and Shuttle to the West Side 4 days a week), run a household, raise a family, manage a business, make social appearances – it all seemed rather effortless for Betty.

Her foresight and tenacity resulted in what today is an archive of over 8,500 Broadway and Off-Broadway recordings that approximately 5,000 people use each year, including actors, agents, casting directors, composers, critics, set designers, makeup artists, press agents, producers, choreographers and stage managers. The collection has also become a staple of the city’s universities and theater programs, offering students of all ages access to recordings for insight, direction and ideas. Need to know what the original costumes, set design, or lighting looked like from early productions of The Glass Menagerie or Hello Dolly? TOFT.

I can’t help but make the link between Richard Neutra’s legacy organization The Neutra Institute’s vision and dedication to “serve humanity and the planet” with Netura home owner Betty Corwin creating a resource that will serve, nourish, and guide all who want to keep the spirit of the theatre alive.  ☐


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