Radio, stage, and screen actress Nancy Coleman, who grew up in Everett in Snohomish County north of Seattle, had a successful career that spanned nearly four decades. Beginning in radio drama in 1936, she moved to New York's Broadway stage, which led to a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers Studio where she acted in films with well-known stars including Ann Sheridan, Kirk Douglas, Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan, and Ida Lupino. At Warners she met and married Whitney Bolton (1900-1969), who was then the studio's publicist. When Bolton was hired as drama critic for the New York Morning Tribune, the couple moved with their twin daughters to the village of Sea Cliff, New York, on Long Island, and Coleman continued to act in films, on stage, and on television into the 1970s.
Nancy Catherine Coleman was born in Everett on December 30, 1912, to Charles Sumner Coleman (1881-1932), managing editor of the Everett Daily Herald, and Grace Sharpless Coleman (1885-1977), who was the newspaper's society reporter. A second child, Barbara, completed their family in 1916. The Colemans lived at 919 Grand Avenue in Everett, with a vacation house, "Greycroft," on Lake Stevens some five miles east of the city.
Nancy attended North Junior High and graduated with the Everett High School class of 1930. Two of her classmates were future U.S. Senator Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983) and writer, photographer, and painter Marjorie Duryee (1913-1991). Nancy Coleman and Marjorie Duryee would remain lifelong friends. They corresponded for decades, letters that Duryee kept, and visited each other many times over the years.
A bright student, Nancy loved to read and her father encouraged her excellent reading voice, as they often read poetry aloud to each other. As Herald editor, Charles received complimentary tickets to theater performances, and while he seldom attended, Grace and her daughters went regularly. Nancy was fascinated with these stage plays and increasingly longed to find a place for herself in theater. She enrolled at the University of Washington in 1930, majoring in English because the UW at that time had no drama department. She performed in campus plays, along with another student, Frances Farmer (1913-1970), who as Coleman recalled, usually won the lead roles. In Coleman's words:
"I was a washout with the university's drama department. ... It was nobody's fault but I was uncastable. I had skipped a grade in school and was barely 17 when I entered the university. I had a long, thin body topped by a freckled baby face. Since I was no ingénue and certainly not a leading lady, what could they do with me? ... They taught me a splendid attitude toward theater, though. Acting is a job, something to which you must give your best every time you set foot on stage. I've never forgotten it and still practice this belief, drilled into me by Dr. Glenn Hughes" (Ragan).
Charles Coleman died in 1932 and never saw his daughter's success. His death was a loss to the family both personally and financially, and since it came during the early and hardest years of the Great Depression, Grace Coleman convinced her daughter to be practical and prepare for a career more promising than acting. After graduating from UW, Nancy Coleman agreed to pursue a master's degree in teaching if she could do this in New York City. She began graduate studies at Columbia University, soon fell in love, and became engaged. Not long after, Coleman broke off the engagement, realizing that neither teaching nor marriage was for her at the time. She headed for San Francisco to pursue a career in radio drama.
Radio and San Francisco
Grace, Barbara, and Nancy Coleman made the trip to San Francisco in 1936 and rented an apartment together, with Barbara enrolling in a business college. Nancy Coleman applied for a job as clerk at the Emporium Department Store. Now mature, 5-feet-8 in height, and with stunning auburn hair, Coleman was given a job first as a model in the millinery department and then as an elevator operator, the latter a grueling and tedious job since it was a manually operated lift. But it paid $11 a week and led to her first big break. Dressing up her uniform, Coleman frequently wore her Kappa Alpha Theta sorority pin. While riding in her elevator, a sister Theta spotted the pin and started a conversation. The woman was friends with a casting director at NBC and arranged for Coleman to audition. She was hired to act in radio dramas including One Man's Family, Hawthorne House, Winning the West, and Death Valley Days.
Coleman set a two-year goal for herself to find work as an actress and to save enough money to make a trip back to New York. With $1,000 in hand, she did just that, staying with family friends for a short time and then, through San Francisco connections, moving into the Rehearsal Club, a famed boarding house for aspiring actresses. It was here that Coleman learned the basics of how to dress and apply for work. In addition she made contacts and was able to find modeling jobs for an income.
One of these contacts was actress Nancy Kelly (1921-1995), who was playing in Susan and God at the Plymouth Theater, cast with Gertrude Lawrence (1898-1952). When Kelly signed a movie contract and left the play, Coleman auditioned and won the part, chosen over 200 others. Her successful performance gained critical respect and the strong support of Gertrude Lawrence, who frequently praised Coleman in the press and on air. When the play closed in New York, Coleman went on tour with the company, performances that took her to theaters in many states. Other Broadway roles followed, including The Sacred Flame, The Desperate Hours, and Liberty Jones. Her starring role in Liberty Jones caught the attention of an agent who set Coleman up to audition for both Warner Brothers Studio in Hollywood and Paramount on Long Island. Coleman won a part in Warners' movie King's Row, starring with Ronald Reagan. The movie was filmed in 1941 and released in 1942.
At Warner Brothers
Although she had no previous experience or training in movie acting, Coleman was highly photogenic on screen and seemed instinctively comfortable on a movie set. She received good critical reviews for her debut performance in King's Row, and this led to her signing a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers. A contract stipulation Coleman insisted upon was that the studio would not change her name. King's Row was followed by Dangerously They Live (1941) with John Garfield; The Gay Sisters (1942) with Barbara Stanwyck, Geraldine Fitzgerald, George Brent, and Gig Young; Desperate Journey (1942) with Errol Flynn; Edge of Darkness (1943) with Errol Flynn, Ann Sheridan, and Judith Anderson; Devotion (filmed 1943 and released in 1946) with Ida Lupino and Olivia de Haviland; and In Our Time (1944) with Ida Lupino.
By the 1940s Warner Brothers was an important film studio in what has been considered the Golden Age of Hollywood, having pioneered in the transition from silent films to talkies. Coleman's work at Warners falls into the World War II era when most of the studio's films had serious, heavy, dark plots played out by large casts and filmed in black and white. But it was also the age of movie glamour, and while Coleman was naturally beautiful, she was given a Hollywood makeover. Coleman claimed that for her first film the studio placed a plastic covering on her front teeth. Perc (Percival) Westmore was the main makeup artist for most of her movies, with Edith Head and Orry-Kelly as frequent costume designers. All three were Academy Award winners. But Coleman's interest was in the acting: "I was not necessarily interested in star parts. I just really wanted to work and to work in good things. I liked what Warners was doing at that time" (Bubbeo, 22).
Marriage Changes Things
Warners publicist Whitney Bolton met Coleman at the studio and they married in 1943. While the couple had a long and successful marriage, it greatly changed her film career. Warners strongly disapproved of the marriage, feeling that Bolton could not properly publicize Nancy's movies. In his book The Women of Warner Brothers, Daniel Bubbeo devotes 20 pages to Nancy Coleman and expresses it this way:
"If ever an actress seemed to have all the tools for stardom, it was Nancy Coleman. Her stage training, natural beauty and sincerity should have fortified her position as a top Warner Brothers star. During her brief period at Warners she proved herself a formidable dramatic actress whether playing the fragile, spurned girlfriend of Ronald Reagan's in King's Row, the high-strung mistress of commandant Dantine in Edge of Darkness or the most ingenuous of The Gay Sisters.
"Unlike her often neurotic screen incarnations, the real Nancy Coleman was a self-assured and strong-willed professional who gained the respect of both directors and her fellow actors. And while she never attained peak status, the studio's belief in Nancy was evident by the fact that she was only cast in 'A' pictures. At the height of her popularity, she opted to marry Whitney Bolton, Warner's head of publicity. It was a decision that brought her much personal happiness but professional antagonism from the top brass at Warners. She was released [from] her contract and though she continued to work, her screen career never regained its momentum" (Bubbeo, 19).
In 1944 Coleman was pregnant and placed on studio suspension until she gave birth to identical twin daughters, Charla Elizabeth and Grania Theresa, on July 12, 1944. Movies that followed were Her Sister's Secret (1946, Producers Releasing Corporation) and Violence (1947, Monogram Pictures), a film noir with Michael O'Shea and Sheldon Leonard. Coleman also returned to radio drama with an RKO production of Mourning Becomes Electra.
Life on Long Island
In 1949, Bolton was hired as drama critic by the New York Morning Telegraph and the family moved to Sea Cliff, New York, on the north shore of Long Island. Coleman continued to work as both a mother and an actress, appearing in the movie That Man from Tangier (1953) and on stage in Desperate Hours. She also began a career in television that included the miniseries The Edge of Night (1956) and Slaves (1969). "From 1949 to 1976, she made numerous guest television appearances, most notably the role of 'Sister Mary Joel' on the daytime soap opera Ryan's Hope (1976), and as Abigail Adams in the television miniseries The Adams Chronicles (1976)" (Bjornstadt).
Twelve years older than Nancy, Whitney died in 1969. By that time both daughters were adults and no longer living at home. Coleman sold the Sea Cliff house and moved into Manhattan, in the heart of the theater district, where she continued to perform through the 1970s, ending her acting career when she found it difficult to remember her lines. Throughout her career, she had kept in touch with many friends in Seattle and Everett, loyal fans who had faithfully attended her performances and followed her career over the years. Writing to the Duryee family in 1990 while vacationing in Bermuda, Coleman considered returning to Everett to live, wondering if anyone she knew still lived there. But her best friend Marjorie Duryee was by then suffering from advanced Alzheimer's disease, and the letter was not opened until years later. With her closest connections still in New York, Coleman remained there and died in Brockport, near Rochester in upstate New York, on January 18, 2000, at the age of 87. She is buried in Lakeview Cemetery in Brockport.
Nancy Coleman was always practical and believed in hard work. Speaking of her lifetime career, she said, "The minute one is off the screen, or not on the New York stage, people assume your career is over. That is one of the unfortunate things about our theater today. I don't believe in fate. You just have to be ready when a chance comes, and all the luck in the world won't do you any good. Work is the answer" (Riddle).