Clothed in Light: The Love Letters of Carl and Annetta Wonnberger

My darling, You are wonderful! I start with that because now again you have covered yourself with a light that sets you off from every other person I have ever known!” (Carl to Annetta, August 25, 1928).

The love letters of Carl and Annetta Wonnberger are among the most beautiful expressions of love, longing, and devotion I have ever read. With Valentine’s Day coming soon, it’s a perfect time to share with you some of their words that convey something of life’s highest mystery as it can manifest between two people.

Carl and Annetta Wonnberger. September 7, 1929. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Carl George Wonnberger (1901-1980) and Annetta Bouton Wonnberger (1909-1997) arrived at Cranbrook in 1929. Carl taught English at Cranbrook School until 1967, and they both founded the Cranbrook Theatre School in 1942. Their life is a love story of manifold paths. Their letters provide us with an intimate glimpse into the couple’s hearts in the two years preceding their marriage and the beginning of their life together at Cranbrook.

Annetta first met Carl in the Spring of 1926, when she visited the Storm King School, New York, to take the college entrance exam, which she failed. Carl, a teacher there, was the administrator. Annetta attended Drew Seminary as a post-graduate student and retook the exam in the spring of 1927, and that is when they connected. If sparks didn’t fly at their first meeting, they did at the second, as shortly after, on June 23rd, Carl asked Annetta to marry him.

Writing in July 1927, Annetta recalled that early evening in June—their walk in the woods, the perfect quiet except for the frogs and locusts around Black Rock, the ride back and the thunder shower. Annetta’s candid style of writing offers us quite a vivid sense of her character as well as a discernible process of maturation over the two years:

Carl, ever since I was a small child I have lived in a sort of fairyland of dreams and ideals. It was only natural, of course, that the people whom I met in real life differed from the creatures of star-dust and moon-mist fashioned by my fancy. And it has always been hard to realize the truth. But you, dear, there is no disillusionment about you. You are all I have ever dreamed the man I would love would be – and more. I only hope that I may be able to follow the road you’ve shown me, and reach the goal you’ve set.”

Letter from Annetta to Carl, November 30, 1927.

From 1927-1929, Annetta attended Smith College in Massachusetts, while Carl remained a teacher at Storm King in New York. They would meet up periodically, but the rest of the time was spent in yearning, which is recorded in their letters (sometimes more than one a day!).

Letter from Annetta Bouton to Carl Wonnberger, January 7, 1928. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives
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Playing our Part

As performance venues prepare to reopen in Michigan today, I thought it timely to take a look at the storied history of a group that’s nearly as old as Cranbrook itself: St. Dunstan’s Theatre Guild of Cranbrook. With ties to Cranbrook’s founding family, staff, and the physical Cranbrook campus, combined with its enduring cultural role in the surrounding community, this nearly ninety-year-old institution has a rich history. Allow me to share with you a few fascinating details from its early years.

View of St. Dunstan’s Playhouse from Lone Pine Road looking east. Balthazar Korab, photographer. Copyright Korab and Cranbrook Archives.

“The worst thing about it, it’s named for a saint. But don’t think it’s holy, ‘cause it certainly ain’t.”

Sheldon Noble, an early and active Guild member

The Theatre Guild was indeed named after St. Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury in the ninth century and patron saint of the arts. As St. Dunstan lived in Kent, England, from where Cranbrook founder George Booth’s family hailed, the Guild’s name was fittingly suggested by his son and founding member, Henry Scripps Booth. Shortly after the Guild began in 1932, members were writing and producing their own one-act plays. In an April 1933 letter announcing an informal evening  of a “Home Talent programme,” for the 100 Guild members and their guests, Jessie Winter, Guild Secretary and Brookside School Headmistress, implores them to “Be kind, be understanding, be generous . . . give the actors and authors the warm reception which such offerings warrant.” One such author was Henry Scripps Booth. Billed as Thistle, his play, Sedative Bed, was one of four being performed that April 28th evening at Brookside School for just $1. It was the tail end of the Great Depression, after all!

The first public performance of St. Dunstan’s Theatre Guild took place at the Greek Theatre with The King and the Commoner. Taking supporting roles were the likes of Annetta Wonnberger (Cranbrook Summer Theater School), Pipsan Saarinen Swanson (daughter of Cranbrook architect Eliel Saarinen), and Henry Scripps Booth, among others.

A scene from The King and the Commoner. Henry Booth on right. Detroit newspaper rotogravure clipping. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

The cast and crew of the 1940 production of The Last of Mrs. Cheyney again reads like a who’s who of Cranbrook, including Harry Hoey (Cranbrook School Headmaster), Templin Licklider (Cranbrook School Faculty), Dorothy Sepeshy (wife of Cranbrook Academy of Art President, Zoltan Sepeshy), Rachel Raseman (wife of Richard Raseman, Cranbrook Academy of Art Executive Secretary and Vice President), the aforementioned Annetta Wonnberger, and various members of the Booth Family. Henry Scripps Booth, part of the Guild’s Scenic Design Committee, and his wife Carolyn, the production’s stage manager, created the sets.

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