How an unfortunate parallel tarnished a star Connecticut actor
Fredric March, the famous actor who lived in New Milford, Connecticut for part of his life, has become a name associated with America’s reckoning with its Civil War statues. Several statues and memorabilia of Confederate soldiers and slaveholders have been removed from the public eye in recent years. However, March may have been included on this growing list without reason.
WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Tom Condon to discuss his article, “CT film icon Fredric March tarred by tenuous tie to the Ku Klux Klan,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.
WSHU: Can you briefly tell us about Fredric March and why the removal of his name from two theaters at the University of Wisconsin has caused some consternation among some folks in rural northwestern Connecticut where March lived?
TC: Fredric March was one of the great stage and film stars of the mid 20th century. His films such as the original “A Star is Born,” “Desperate Hours,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” are classics. He was a two-time Oscar winner, a two-time Tony winner.
He was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin. In 1919, an honor society was at the University of Illinois three years earlier and brought to Wisconsin, in which Fraternities would nominate an outstanding junior to be a member as a senior. March was an outstanding student, so his fraternity nominated him to this honor society.
The odd thing was the name of the fraternity. It was called the Ku Klux Klan. No one is sure why. The honor society had nothing to do with the actual Ku Klux Klan, which is evidenced by the fact that the actual Klan came to campus two years later and started a fraternity, which of course they would not have to do if they had a campus affiliate. So, for nine months March is a member of this honor society. He then goes on to a lifetime of success on the stage and also civil rights activism.
WSHU: The way you got into this story, there were some people who were very concerned about it in northwestern Connecticut where Fredric March lived for so many years. Could you tell us about Margaret Miner?
TC: Margaret Miner is a legendary conservationist in Connecticut. She was the head of the Rivers Alliance and just a great conservationist. Growing up, her family and the March’s were close friends. She knew him very well.
When she heard about what happened, she was appalled. What happened was, when some students and others found out about March’s connection to this honor society named the Ku Klux Klan, there were two theaters at the University of Wisconsin, one at Madison and one at Oshkosh named after March. The university took his name off of both theaters.
WSHU: When Miner complained to the university, she brought out evidence showing that his life was one of involvement with the NAACP and other civil rights movements.
TC: I mean one classic incident: In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow the great contralto Marian Anderson to sing in Constitution Hall in Washington because she was Black. Well, March was one of the few Hollywood stars who sponsored the now-legendary concert that she gave on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial. March and his wife Florence Eldridge were there. This took a certain amount of courage because he risked his box office. In 1939, he was the top box office actor in the country.
WSHU: But even with all this evidence, the University of Wisconsin has not changed its mind?
TC: That is correct. John McWhorter of the New York Times has also written about this, he simply believes that members of the university administration are afraid of being called racist.