William McDermott - Renowned Drama Critic
10311 Lake Shore Boulevard
William McDermott was the dean of drama critics for nearly forty years. As the Plain Dealer drama critic, he came to the office at such odd times that some of his associates, who had been at the paper for years, never saw him. In the flesh, McDermott could be identified as a short, stocky fellow with an innocent round face under a black hat. He would have a cigar in his mouth, be dressed in a dark color suit, and most likely would be in no hurry. He was a self-effacing fellow with more humility than many lesser men.
He would arrive at the Plain Dealer late on theater opening nights, retire to his cubby-hole office, and write the reviews that made him famous in dramatic circles throughout the country.
On ordinary days, he wrote his column at home, took a taxi to the office about 6:00 p.m. when most of the staff was at dinner, and stayed only long enough to place it on the managing editor’s desk. Sometimes he never came to the office at all but sent in his copy by a cab driver.
New York critics and theater people respected and admired him. He had been called the best drama critic in America. Producers often consulted him before staging plays, some of which were revised because of faults McDermott pointed out in his reviews.
William Francis McDermott was born on February 17, 1891, in Indianapolis, Indiana, to John and Elizabeth McDermott. He graduated from Butler College and married Georgie Richards in May 1910.
He started working as a telegraph operator and began a newspaper career on the Indianapolis News in 1914 and, within three years, became an editorial writer and drama reviewer.
The Plain Dealer editor, Erie Hopwood, wrote to New York critics, producers, and actors asking for advice in locating a critic. Almost unanimously, they spoke of a brilliant young man on the Indianapolis News named William McDermott. Hopwood invited him to Cleveland to talk about a job.
McDermott wrote back, “I don’t think I want to leave here. I have an oriental rug and a Venus de Milo in my office.” Slightly stunned, Hopwood replied, “I can’t give you an oriental rug or a Venus, but I can double your salary.” McDermott came to the Plain Dealer in 1921 with the stipulation that he have three months off each summer for travel. Apparently, his wife, Georgie, did not want to leave Indianapolis, and the couple divorced in 1921.
In addition to his regular critical trips to New York, McDermott persuaded the Plain Dealer to send him on annual tours of the European theatrical capitals. From where he sent back interviews with such luminaries as Somerset Maugham and Ferenc Molnar and accounts of visits to Max Reinhardt’s castle and Russian production of Hamlet. Newsweek magazine later hailed him as one of the nation’s most esteemed drama critics.
With the decline of Cleveland’s legitimate stage after the 1930s, McDermott began writing columns on general topics. Moving further afield, he covered the Detroit sit-down strikes of 1937, and the Spanish Civil War. During World War II, he covered the Italian front as a war correspondent and, subsequently, the United Nations’ formation.
McDermott married Eva Pace in 1938. She was born on January 12, 1898, in Newcomerstown, Ohio. The pair brought the Golden Age to Bratenahl.
Following the war, McDermott continued to stand with one foot in the make-believe world of the stage and the other in world events. He took a strong stand against local censorship, which won the notice of Newsweek and voiced tentative concerns over the postwar growth of presidential power.
Bill and Eva were an extraordinary couple whose mutual love of life and for each other added richness to their home. Hailed by Newsweek as one of the nation’s most esteemed drama critics, “Mac” knew almost everyone who was anyone in the theater world. He and Eva entertained at their Bratenahl home the likes of Helen Hayes, Charles Laughton, Tallulah Bankhead, John Barrymore, Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, Richard Rodgers, and Oscar Hammerstein. Katherine Hepburn played tennis on the court in the front yard.
Over half of Cleveland’s taxi drivers knew McDermott’s Bratenahl address, for he seldom left his house except in a cab. He didn’t know how to drive an automobile, though he owned a 1941 car with hardly any miles on it. Eva drove it, but following a distressing incident with a policeman, she refused to drive downtown.
In 1950, William underwent a series of operations and was unable to attend a new play’s opening night. Probably the high point of his critical career occurred during the convalescence in his Bratenahl home.
Katharine Cornell and her producer husband, Guthrie McClintic, brought the farcical comedy, Captain Carvallo, to his Bratenahl home. On December 22, 1950, a fleet of taxis pulled up to 10311 Lake Shore Boulevard bringing Cornell, McClintic, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Nigel Bruce, John Buckmaster, Robert Emhardt, Hope Cameron, and others for a private performance in McDermott’s living room, unique in theatrical history.
Bill wrote hundreds of columns. The one that brought the greatest uproar was one in which he questioned the genius of Arthur Godfrey. The second most popular in terms of the volume of mail it provoked was about his dog, Gyp. According to Eva, his best column was one he wrote on New Year’s Day in 1936. It was a newspaperman’s prayer. She choked up inside when she read it.
Brooks Atkinson, in his book Once Around the Sun, said in part, “Everyone feels a little brighter and more comfortable when Bill is around, for he is interested in everything, takes time to mull it over, and comes up invariably with wise and generous conclusions. The presence of one man like that would be reason enough to live in Cleveland. . .”
During his battle with cancer, McDermott continued to send in columns, dictating the last few to Eva. He died at his Bratenahl home on November 16, 1958. Eva died on March 29, 1985. Both are buried in Lake View Cemetery.