Winsor French-Cleveland's First Media Star

[photo courtesy Cleveland State University Cleveland Press Collection]
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If you needed to know where to get bootleg booze in Cleveland and what it would cost you, where the best jazz clubs where and  with whom Cole Porter had lunch yesterday, Winsor French had the answer.

From the 1930s through the late 1960s, this journalist was one of Cleveland's most glamorous and larger than life characters.  Writer James Wood told the story of Cleveland’s first media star in his 2011 book “Out and About with Winsor French.”  Wood’s book is the basis for “Winsor ! A Cleveland Cabaret” which is being staged at Nighttown by the Musical Theatre Project.

French, a native for Saratoga Springs, N.Y. came to Cleveland at age five, when his mother, a widow married Joseph Eaton, the founder of Cleveland’s Eaton Corporation.

Although school wasn’t the place for French, Wood said like most great writers, “French had a driving curiosity.  He had a sense of language, he was very colorful and was very  interested in things, so I think he naturally becomes a writer.”

French founded and edited Parade magazine which chronicled the activities of Cleveland’s high society.  He was aided by prominent Cleveland philanthropist and socialite Leonard Hanna.  Hanna introduced French to the city’s movers and shakers and also helped him make connections with the elites of the Broadway and film, including Noel Coward.  French would later go onto become close friends with Cole Porter and Marlene Dietrich.

After leaving Parade in 1933, French went to work for the Cleveland News.  The paper wanted him to write a gossip column, but French had other ideas.

“He wanted to do an ‘about town” column. He always annoyed that people sometimes called his column a ‘gossip column.’  French would say “Walter Winchell is doing a gossip column. I’m doing an ‘about town’ column.  I want to tell you about what’s going in Cleveland and he did it in great detail,” Wood said.

French not only chronicled the activities of the well-to-do and well-connected, he was one of the first writers for a major Cleveland paper to venture into the city’s black nightclubs to explore the rich jazz scene. 

During a time in which most gay people hid their sexual orientation, French didn’t hide his homosexuality.  So how did he win over the macho male dominated culture of the newsroom?

“He could drink them under the table,” Wood said.

Wood said that insinuations were made about French by other writers:  “The society editor of the Cleveland News reported that French ‘fluttered into the newsroom which raised the male newspaper reporters eyebrows.’  In the show (Winsor! A Cleveland Cabaret)  we’re talking about, Winsor says ‘I never fluttered and I don’t swish.’

French’s stay at the Cleveland News was short-lived.  He married actress Margaret Perry, the daughter of the prominent theatre director Antoinette Perry.  The couple moved to Paris, where French hoped to write more serious work, like a play, movie script or novel.

However, French who drank heavily never completed any of these pieces.  The couple divorced after a year and French returned to Cleveland taking a job at the Cleveland Press where he once again, wrote an “about town” column.

Wood said that French’s drinking was driven in large part by self-doubt.

“French was very good friends with people who were international celebrities.  He measured his writing with what Cole Porter, Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward did. He thought his own newspaper column just didn’t measure up to their work.  He had a lot of confidence issues about how good a writer he was,” Wood said.

French not only chronicled Cleveland’s time as one the country’s major cities, he also wrote about its decline, especially the demise of downtown.

“French was very disappointed. He feels that we somehow lost our ability to have fun and to be open to all aspects of Cleveland,” Wood said.

In 1953, with the hopes of helping revive the once lively street know as Short Vincent which had fallen into decay, French helped organize a benefit for the area.  

“If you can believe this, a tornado came along before the benefit could be finished. It was not destined to be a success,” Wood said.

French, who suffered from a neurological disease for many years, passed away in 1973 at age 68.

The Musical Theater Project’s “Winsor! A Cleveland Cabaret” will be staged at Nighttown in Cleveland Heights.  The Thursday July 6th performance is sold out.  Tickets remain for the Sunday July 9th performance which begins at 7 pm.

Listen to the entire interview




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