William Luce, playwright, dies at 88; Wrote 'Belle of Amherst'
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William Luce, playwright, dies at 88; Wrote 'Belle of Amherst'
“The Belle of Amherst,” Luce’s play about the reclusive Dickinson, reflected his love of her elliptical poetry, which he first read in high school, and his fascination with the letters she wrote to friends.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- William Luce, who in his 40s turned from a musical career to writing one-character plays about Emily Dickinson, Isak Dinesen, Lillian Hellman and John Barrymore — all of which were produced on Broadway — died Tuesday in Green Valley, Arizona, near Tucson. He was 88.

His death, at a memory care facility, was caused by Alzheimer’s disease, his godson, Grant Hayter-Menzies, said.

“The Belle of Amherst,” Luce’s play about the reclusive Dickinson, reflected his love of her elliptical poetry, which he first read in high school, and his fascination with the letters she wrote to friends.

“There is a mystical energy, an inner tone in her writings,” Luce wrote in the author’s note to “Belle,” which opened at the Longacre Theater in New York in 1976. “Emily’s poems and letters radiate an invisible light. It is much like looking obliquely at a star in order to see it.”

Julie Harris earned her fifth Tony Award for best actress for her portrayal of Dickinson and reprised the role on public television later in 1976.

In his review of the TV production, taped in Los Angeles before a live audience, John J. O’Connor of The New York Times called the play “an ingenious theatrical portrait” that presents “a woman of defiant and almost devilish spirit.”

Over the years, “Belle” has become a vehicle for many actresses, including Claire Bloom and Joely Richardson, and has been performed throughout the United States and Europe.

Hayter-Menzies said that in 2016 he took Luce, who was in an assisted living facility at the time, to a production of “Belle,” starring Jane Fellows, at the Back Door Theater in Portland, Oregon, the city where Luce was born.

“I knew he was moved when I saw him in the darkness whispering along to Jane’s lines, tears streaming,” Hayter-Menzies said by phone. After the show, he said, Luce told the actress: “You made Emily come to life. Thank you.”

“Belle” became his template for his other one-character shows on Broadway: “Lillian” (1986), with Zoe Caldwell as playwright Lillian Hellman; ”Lucifer’s Child (1991), which starred Harris as Danish writer Isak Dinesen, and “Barrymore (1997), with Christopher Plummer as flamboyant, alcoholic actor John Barrymore.

In the one-person-show format, Luce found a genre that suited his personality.

“When I listen to music, I prefer a solo instrument,” he told The Toronto Star in 2010. “And when it comes to performers, I love to write for the solo voice. In my personal life, I don’t like to be with crowds. I prefer one or two friends.”

He also wrote “Bront” (1979), also called “Currer Bell, Esquire,” which starred Harris as Charlotte Bront, poet and author of “Jane Eyre.” Luce wrote it for WGBH Radio in Boston (earning the station a Peabody Award) before he adapted it for Irish television and as a stage play. In 1984, he wrote “Zelda,” with Olga Bellin as novelist Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

He occasionally departed from the solo-show genre. For television he wrote “The Last Days of Patton” (1986), with George C. Scott reprising his Academy Award-winning role as Gen. George S. Patton; “The Woman He Loved” (1988), about the romance between King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson; and “Lucy and Desi: Before the Laughter” (1991), about the careers and marriage of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

William Aubert Luce was born Oct. 16, 1931. His father, Darrell, was a cigar salesman. His mother, Eleanor (Kjul) Luce, was a Christian Science practitioner.

William studied piano at Boston University and two other colleges but never graduated. He was an organist at a Christian Science church in the 1950s. In the 1960s and early ’70s, he wrote song lyrics and sang baritone with choral groups, including the Roger Wagner Chorale and the Ray Charles Singers, led by Charles Raymond Offenberg.

While performing with the Charles singers on “The Hollywood Palace,” a variety show on ABC, Luce met a crew member whose friend, comic actor and director Charles Nelson Reilly, had discussed collaborating with Harris on a television production about Dickinson.

In Luce, Reilly found a fellow Dickinson devotee and asked him to write a script. That first attempt, a play with 14 characters, proved unsuccessful.

But the idea gained new life when Reilly was at Sardi’s, the theater district restaurant and hangout in Manhattan, where he overheard the producers of “Clarence Darrow” (1974), a one-man Broadway show with Henry Fonda as the renowned lawyer, talk about needing a new project.

Reilly suggested Dickinson — and Luce resumed writing, this time for a stage production. The producers, Mike Merrick and Don Gregory, thought the first draft was too lyrical and literary. Luce was discouraged. But then, he said, he had a dream about the opening scene.

As he told an interviewer, he envisioned Harris walking onstage, holding flowers in her arms and saying, in words that he would write: “Forgive me if I’m frightened. I never see strangers and hardly know what I say. My sister Lavinia — she’s younger than I — says I tend to wander back and forth in time. So you must bear with me.”

Luce revised the play, and when it opened in Boston, directed by Reilly, critic Kevin Kelly of The Boston Globe described it as “singularly beautiful.” He added that Luce had “made an Emily so warm, human, loving and lovable that her ultimate vulnerability will break your heart.”

Luce left no immediate survivors.

Of all the subjects of his one-person productions, he met only Hellman, who wrote the plays “The Little Foxes” and “Watch on the Rhine.” He asked her to lunch in Los Angeles in 1981 to get her blessing to write “Lillian.” She told him that she had seen “Belle” and had called Harris to be assured that Luce was not a disagreeable man.

“Evidently satisfied with Miss Harris’s testimonial about my pleasant disposition,” Luce wrote in his preface to “Lillian,” “Miss Hellman gruffly gave me her blessing.”

“Are you sure I’m the one for the job?” he asked.

“Yes,” she told him, “and I seldom say yes.”

2019 The New York Times Company

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