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Woodward friend and actress Beulah Bondi

Beulah Bondi
An early headshot image of Beulah Bondi

Beulah Bondi was a famous Hollywood character actress known for playing the role of the "quintessential matriarch" that often brought a quiet dignity and moral authority to the more than 50 films she is credited. She was a friend of Woodward's, and though we do not know the origins of their friendship, we do know that she was a frequent guest and visitor. Beulah was born in Chicago (May 3, 1888) and raised in Valparaiso, Indiana. The daughter of real estate agent Abraham Bondy, she caught the acting bug at the age of seven performing in local theater. As a young girl, she attended the Francis Shimer Academy (Mount Carroll, Illinois - now Shimer College) just two hours north of Peoria, IL where Woodward was attending the Bradley Polytechnical Institute. She would attend Valparaiso University receiving her bachelor's degree (1916), as well as, her Masters in Oratory Arts (1918). Due to her father's disapproval of her career choice, she would change the spelling of her last name to Bondy with an "i" and make her way to New York City. In 1925, she made her Broadway debut in "One of the Family" playing an elderly lady (Maggie) that would be the template of her 40+ year career. She would be in New York for another five years, in six different productions before making her film debut in "Street Scenes" (1931) reprising her role as Emma Jones that she originated in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play (1929).

Visit this wonderful profile of Beulah by the blog: Old Hollywood Films
It includes TCM's wonderful profile segment and other clips...
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June 5, 1937, North Adams Transcript
June 5, 1937, North Adams Transcript
regarding Beulah's visit to Southwick and
her purchase of A Golden Slope

The little we do know about Beulah's friendship with "Bob" (the name she called RSW) began around the time or shortly before she first appeared on Broadway. In a recollection by Helen Patch given to the Deerfield Academy's American Studies Group. Helen would state, "The catalogue enriches my own memories: Perhaps most of all a buffet supper at the Hiram Woodward studio where our continuing friendship with Buelah Bondi began." By Helen's own account she and her husband, Henry became friends with Woodward shortly after their marriage in 1921. With Bondi most likely in New York City around the same time leaves us wondering if her visits originated before she ever became a famous film actress. The question remains, however, what brought the two together? Did they know each other through mutual friends and a shared geography of the greater Chicago area? Could it be that their fathers knew each other through their shared professions in real estate (Woodward's father Orion was a real estate developer for the Briggs Real Estate Company based out of Toledo, Ohio and served the Midwest region before expanding nationally)? Did RSW and Bondi meet or get introduced through their fathers? Woodward was at the Bradley Polytechic Institute up until Beulah's junior year at Shimer. The Francis Shimer Academy was an all-girl's school so for them to hold mixers and socials would require inviting students (boys) from other schools like Bradley. Did they meet at a mixer or dance while both students? Could Beulah have simply come to the dinner as the friend of another guest? She would have surely hit it off with RSW swapping stories of life in the Midwest and even tried to find friends in common. Whatever the case Beulah did come as a guest, and it would launch a friendship that would last until Woodward's death in 1957.

Golden Slope
Golden Slope

1937 Willington Academy Exhibit Card
1937 Willington Academy Exhibit Card

It is unclear how frequently Beulah visited Buckland after that first dinner. Helen does not say, however, we imagine that she visited as often as she could when on break from her work on Broadway up until 1930 when she left New York for Hollywood and her debut role in the film Street Scenes. She quickly became one of the most sought after supporting actresses of the 1930s appearing in 28 films. According to Dr. Mark's original acount of Beulah, sometime before the Hiram Woodward home and studio burned (July 4, 1934), "During a visit to the East Coast, she spent several days at the home of RSW. She is quoted in a newspaper article at the time: "I had such fun riding about the countryside with Bob in an old-fashioned gig with rubber tires. And his house, where he lives with his mother and father, is a lovely old New England farm-house". This visit would have been sometime between when RSW's parents would move back to Shelburne Falls and before his father passed away in 19??. She returned in 1937, a year when she only appeared in two movies. Beulah would stay in Greenfield (MA) for a number of days and visit. The visit would receive some press reporting that she intended to purchase a painting from Woodward's current exhibition at the Willington Academy for her home in Hollywood. That painting was Golden Slope. Unfortunately for Dr. Mark, he was not yet working for Woodward.

Beulah would visit again while in Boston for the 1940 premier of the movie "Our Town." One of Beulah's most famous roles, she plays the mother of the bride, Mrs. Webb. It would be unfortunate again for Dr. Mark. Though employed by RSW at this time, he just started as a helper around the house, mostly at landscaping the grounds. He did not get to meet her because he was not working the day her and Woodward went to Heath to picnic (this was prior to his purchase of the property). Woodward's cook and practical nurse, Lena Putnam did and her daughter Abbie tells her story and shares her mothers personal items, which included an autographed picture of Beulah given to Lena's daughter Abbie. Beulah dated the picture "1941," suggesting it was sent to her after the visit. Dr. Mark actually never got to meet Beulah in all the years he worked for RSW. He would either be away serving in the military, or attending college.

Picture of Bondi in fron of her car
Picture of Bondi in front of her car in LA

Handwritten note on back of car picture
Handwritten note on back of car picture:

Reflections of back gate -
in car door
Oleander - back ground -
Steps lead to swimming pool
past the white flower pot

Beulah in her dinning room with
Beulah in her dinning room with Golden Slope

Publicity photo of Beulah sent to Lena Putnam
An autographed publicity photo
of Beulah sent to Lena Putnam's
daughter Abbie

We do not know if RSW drove to Boston to attend the premiere of "Our Town" as Beulah's guest but we find it hard to believe he didn't. He did travel to Boston regularly and given his close friend was opening her latest movie there... we are sure he wouldn't want to miss the event. Mr. Mark, in his original essay on Beulah, does tell a wonderful story of how much Woodward loved to go to the movies. As soon as he was old enough to drive (around 1942- '43), he began chauffeuring Woodward on errands and to paint. Dr. Mark writes, "In those days, I drove RSW to Greenfield numerous times. We would first go out to supper at the Weldon Hotel or at the Mansion House and then go to the Victoria or Lawler theater to a movie in which Beulah had a part. The Lawler was his favorite theater because the entrance was completely inclined for entrance with his wheelchair and there was a place in the rear of the seats for him to roll in at the back of the theater. I would sit just a few rows down from him. Just a very few of those pictures were: 'Watch on the Rhine', 'Sister Kenny', 'It's a Wonderful Life', 'Mr. Soft Touch', and 'The Furies'."

Beulah and Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Beulah and Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to
She would play Stewart's mother
four times in her career.

Beulah's career is a fascinating study. Though it could be argued that she was pigeonholed into a "type," she made the most of it without remorse. Was it this strength of character that gave her such a presence? Was it her Masters Degree in Oratory Arts? An odd choice, why not study acting if that is what she had always wanted to do? To an interviewer cited in her obituary The New York Times, she is reported saying, "I had this face that somehow seemed older... And with the proper hairdo, I was just right." In her entire career, there is only one movie in which she would play a leading role, "Make Way for Tomorrow" (1937) costarring with Victor Moore, about a devoted elderly couple who are separated by their unsympathetic children during the Great Depression. She would be one of the first of five women nominated for the new Academy Award category for Best Supporting Actress (1937). She would be nominated again in 1939 but never won the award. In her film career, she would appear in six Best Picture nominated movies. With her film career waning through the 1950s she moved to the new and growing medium of television doing a few made-for-TV movies and appearing on a number of popular shows (Perry Mason, Wagon Train, Alfred Hitchcock Presents) and even joined the Jimmy Stewart Show in 1971 to play Mother Howard in a skit titled "the Identity Crisis."

From RSW's personal items, a clipping of Bondi
From RSW's personal items, a clipping of
Bondi from a local newspaper. The image is a
great example of how the "hairdo" helps
makes the character.

In 1976, culminating in at a long and distinguished career, Beulah returned to the TV show "The Waltons" reprising her role as Aunt Martha in an episode titled, "The Pony Cart," winning her a 1977 Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead for Single Appearance in a Drama or Comedy Series. When her name was announced it was initially believed that she was not in attendance. It took some time for the crowd to realize that the 88-year-old Bondi was slowly making her way to the stage, to which, they rose to give the matriarch a resounding ovation. In accepting the award, she thanked the audience for honoring her "before" she died. A fitting end to a terrific career. She would retire and not appear in any other shows. She would die from pulmonary complications caused by broken ribs suffered when she tripped over her cat in her home on January 11, 1981, at age 91. Her legacy will continue for the unseeable future for her appearances in a number of all-time classics.

The name Beulah is a Hebrew name meaning, "married, to marry, claimed as a wife..." But ironically, she never married. In the Old Hollywood Films blog, the writer cited her being remembered as once saying, "I'm glad I never married but chose a full-time career for my life." What is of particular interest to us here at the website is that Beulah would be just one of three close female friends Woodward would have to make such an unconventional choice for the time period? The other two are Helen Ives Schermerhorn and Ethel Dow. We can't help thinking or at the very least asking ourselves, "is this something? Is there some significance to this? Would it have anything to do with RSW's high regard for his mother and her 'Strong' name?" Though really interesting, we do not have an answer for that at this time.

Beulah Bondi
Beulah Bondi, the
quintessential Hollywood matriarch

What we can say is that when making a list of qualities or interest shared by both Woodward and Beulah it is no surprise they were friends. For starters, both were strong-willed, knew from an early age what they wanted to do, showed a talent for it and at some time or another rebelled against their parent's plans for them. They were both raised in the Midwest, went to private schools not too far away from each other, lived in Los Angeles, California for a portion of their lives and early successes in New York City launched their careers. Both rose to what can be described, at the very least, prominence in their chosen professions in spite of inherent limitations or disadvantages physically. A description of Beulah, describes her as, "slight in stature with a gaunt, pale looking face..." Though attractive, in a comely way (see above headshot), her looks most likely kept her from "leading lady" roles and RSW's obvious handicap. Both even earned prestigious awards in their careers. Another common interest, we believe, the two shared can best be described as, 'the ordinary or common thread of experience.' What we mean is that while Woodward was a champion of New England and its values, Beulah often appeared in movies portraying or examining many of the same topics of grace and dignity. It could even be said that Beulah embodied said values, the "glue" that held family and love together from a seemingly insignificant background position. It is actually difficult to find a movie Beulah did that was just a lighthearted comedy. In today's Hollywood vernacular she almost exclusively did "message movies" or movies that held a moral message. Woodward would've surely respected that her work reflected her values. Finally, they both had hobbies or "follies" closely tied to their passions. Beulah was a "home-movie" enthusiast while Woodward was a "presevationist" restoring old farms, an old mill and homestead to their past glory.

After her death, Beulah gave her personal and private papers and photographs, through the executor of her will, to the Porter County Museum in Valpariaso (IL). The museum is doing a full inventory of its entire artifact collection, which may exceed 25,000 items (read the article). We are currently working to get more information on the collection, particularly... if the collection has her home movies which we believe would contain coveted footage of Woodward on her many visits, as well as, pictures and letters. She also gave a small collection to the Motion Picture Academy of Arts & Sciences, which we imagine, would be exclusive to the film industry portion of her life. One thing for certain, Beulah's legacy will surely live on for a long time. She owns December and March of every year. "It's a Wonderful Life," is a Chrstmas classic shown annually and her appearance in 7 "Best Picture" nominated films meant they air the month leading up to the Oscars. ... Movies such as, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "The Southerner," and "Our Town" are regularly played in the year-round Turner Classic Movies (TCM) rotation.

Another Bondi clipping found in RSW's personal items
Another Bondi clipping found in RSW's personal items