Ever hear of Willa Cather?
“I feel like if young gay people heard her story, it would touch their hearts and really inspire them and know that they’re not alone,” Prudence Wright Holmes says. The second woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for literature nearly a century ago, Cather may not have ever called herself lesbian or transgender — but she did ask people to call her William.
“Cather should be an LGBT icon because she was so out there and unapologetic at a time when it was really not done. And that took a lot of courage,” says Holmes, who has developed the one-person show, Call Me William: The Life and Loves of Willa Cather. While growing up and going to college in Lincoln, Nebraska, Holmes explains, “Cather cut her hair off and said, ‘Call me William.’ And her neighbors were absolutely horrified as was the family, but they kind of had to deal with it because she was so brilliant and so accomplished. Kind of like the star of her little town.”
Cather is inspiring in other ways as well, including the fact that she left the Great Plains to achieve her literary dreams in New York. “She didn’t know anybody [and yet] she worked her way into the most famous literary circles in New York of the day. She was hanging out with Mark Twain and Theodore Dreiser.” But she spent most of her time with other women, including the Pittsburgh socialite Isabelle McClung, who “basically bankrolled Willa Cather in the beginning of her career…. They were together for 10 years, then Isabelle ended up marrying a man, which was the big tragedy of Cather’s life.”
Holmes plays all the significant people in Cather’s life in her show, which she will perform next weekend at McLean’s Alden Theatre. While Holmes is working on another one-person show — about British crime novelist Agatha Christie — she’s best known for appearing in larger productions on Broadway and in Hollywood. In fact, she’s still reaping some earthly rewards from her role as a nun in the first two Sister Act films. “I actually just got a residual check of almost $500 — and that movie was over 20 years ago.”
Prudence Wright Holmes appears Sunday, April 19, at 2 p.m., at the Alden Theatre, 1234 Ingleside Ave, Mclean, Va. Tickets are $20. Call 703-790-0123 or visit aldentheatre.org.
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