The Case of the Two Nancys — A Shopping-Day Investigation

 

While I’ve never been much of a shopper, I will snap up old books, publications, posters and music when I see something I want. Yesterday was one of those days when I made some great purchases in two locations, linked, improbably, by the late actress Nancy Marchand. Or actress Nancy Marquand. Same actress or not? What started as a a fun post on an amazing coincidence became a puzzling tale of research and ambiguity.

I know Marchand from the series The Sopranos, of which I became a huge fan once it appeared on DVD. I compulsively watched the show and took notes that I turned it into an essay, “What I Learned About Love from Tony Soprano.” A small part of the essay appears in “A Kosher Dating Odyssey.” Marchand played Tony’s conniving mother Livia, to great acclaim. Memories of the show returned when I dropped by the local Goodwill store yesterday afternoon and found “The Sopranos: A Family History,” published in 2000 after show’s second season. The book notes that Marchand died in 2000, during the filming of the second season. She died the day before her 72nd birthday.

Later in the day, I dropped by the Westport Public Library for its spring sale. There, I saw boxes of old — and I mean, back to the 1940s old — Playbill theater programs. There must have been 200, and the sale had been on since 9 a.m. The more I pawed through the boxes, the more I thought, “I gotta scoop these up. When will I get this chance again?” Another theater buff asked about when the Playbills appeared and I showed her where most of them carried a date for the week they appeared, on an inside title page. She thanked me as we returned to our crazed quests to find programs of plays that resonated with us.

I left the library with 28 Playbills at 50 cents each, total cost, the equivalent of about three gallons of gas. Such a deal! I selected them in several categories. Some were classics, like South Pacific or West Side Story, and others might appeal to friends, like Lost in the Stars and Roland Petit’s Les Ballets De Paris. Others had great kitsch appeal in their covers, like Gorilla Queen (off-Broadway) and others featured young versions of famous faces on Broadway, such as Alan Alda in The Owl and the Pussycat and Carol Burnett in Fade Out-Fade In.

And then I scanned one of the oldest Playbills, I Remember Mama from the week of March 4, 1946, by Rogers and Hammerstein. Starring in the role of Christine was Nancy Marquand. The program said,

Nancy Marquand (Christine) hails from Philadelphia’s Main Line. While in high school she began preparing for the stage by studying with her great aunt, Julia West, who at one time had been a member of Lillian Russell’s company. Her professional debut was with the Greenhills Theatre at Ocean City, where she remained as the company’s ingenue for two years. Her first Broadway engagement was with “Kiss and Tell.” Earlier this season she was seen in Owen Davis’ “No Way Out.”

 

Reading this, I assumed Marquand was Marchand with an earlier spelling, but the more I read about Marchand’s career, the more I wondered. Bios all say she didn’t reach Broadway until The Taming of the Shrew in 1951; I Remember Mama was five years earlier. When I looked for Nancy Marquand, the path quickly goes cold, as she’s listed for only the plays given above and then — nothing. The Marquand bio from 1946 describes an actress with more experience than Marchand could have had as a 17 year old then. Marquand came from Philadelphia, while Marchand studied at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Tech (later renamed Carnegie Mellon University). The photos don’t quite look the same, as Marquand looks delicate; Marchand in her late 60s was tall and stern — but the photos were taken a half-century apart. Here’s the 1946 photo:

 

So my shopping passions collided with my Sam Spade instincts to lead me into the case of the Two Nancys, Marquand and Marchand.. I’d like to think they’re the same Nancy, but my instinct says they’re not. I now know everything about Nancy Marchand. But who was Nancy Marquand, and how did she vanish after such a promising start on the Great White Way? Does anybody remember (her role in) Mama?