The Moment

May 1948

Helen has plenty of time to look around. It's 1:50 pm and the show won't begin for another 40 minutes. She turns to see the rows behind her, wondering how many of the other seats will be filled. It's a Wednesday matinee after all, but just yesterday it was announced that Tennessee Williams won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, so it could be a full house. She sinks back into the plush seat. It's Long Weekend and it feels good to be at the Barrymore, good to be back in New York. She's glad to have her Bennington friend and journalistic co-conspirator Cynthia Lee along with her. She's the right sort for this type of adventure. As the audience fills in she decides $3.60 was a good investment for their choice seats. They browse the playbill, reading Brando's biography and skimming through advertisements for Gilbey's gin, Old Gold cigarettes, and Carmen Cavallaro's Orchestra on the roof of the Hotel Astor where "rain or shine the weather's always fine." Helen tilts her neck and stares up at the sparkling chandelier as the house lights dim. The velvet curtain goes up.

The fourth act ends and the lights come up. During the intermission the plucky duo decide on a plan. When the final curtain falls they know what they are going to do. Later Helen and Cynthia would recall this moment saying, "When the play ended, we took action. Scrawling nonchalantly on an envelope, we wrote a note to Marlon Brando and delivered it to the stage manager, who returned a few minutes later, winked, and said, 'He'll see you Saturday at two o'clock.'"

Back at Bennington they edit the article about the interview. Brando met them at the backstage door of the Barrymore and then brought them to a "dingy" cafe where he ate a hurried breakfast before the matinee. Their article will run in The Beacon, Bennington College's student newspaper. Cynthia is the editor and Helen is on the editorial board. They review one section of the article:

"I want to go to France and get into French movies," he said, taking an enormous bite of rye toast. "I've been studying French in preparation." We asked if he wanted to do any work in American movies. "American movies are not governed by what will make a good picture, but by the dollar sign, as is almost everything American. People never consider how successful an artist you are, but judge you by how much money you make." Suddenly he looked at a rather unattractive alley cat who was walking across the room, beckoned to him and said, "Cat, come here." When the cat ignored him, he continued, "I don't mean that I'd ask for a salary of fifty dollars if I could get five hundred and fifty, but I don't want a salary to be the standard for success." He mopped up the last bit of egg on his plate.

Imagine Helen and Cynthia working together that night. After the final edits to the article the only remaining task is the selection of a title. It is so late. They are tired and giddy. Pitching titles, they soon realize the possibilities are both endless and unbelievably funny. Laughing, ribs held for support, one breathlessly gasps, "A Brando Named Desire." A new wave of laughter capsizes them. They wave their arms, pleading with each other to stop, their sides aching. Cynthia wipes at the corners of her watering eyes with a knuckle. Helen takes a steadying breath for composure. The title sticks.

From the Archive


Abstract Impressionist Helen Frankenthaler '49 became one of the most influential and admired painters of her era. Staining raw canvas with paint thinned with turpentine, Frankenthaler refined Jackson Pollock's technique of pouring paint directly onto canvas. She entered Bennington in the winter of 1946, studying cubism with faculty member Paul Feeley, who was influential in her early development as a painter. Frankenthaler said, "He was full of vitality, open to everything...very giving and very alert...and a terrific teacher." In what may have been the first published review of her work, The Beacon, a Bennington student newspaper reported, "The art exhibition in the dining room is especially interesting because it is representative of what the students are accomplishing in the varied art studios...Helen Frankenthaler's non realistic still life, is a picture that draws your attention immediately though not for a spectacular quality; but because her colors, lines and space planes really, 'work together.' The colors are straight-forward and clear and yet the play between the warm and cool tones, the infinite variations, which take off from the main circular movement, keeps one looking at and discovering more and more subtleties." At Bennington College she served as editor of The Beacon. She also headed the newly formed student branch of Bennington College's Public Relations Office, writing press releases about upcoming campus events. After graduating from Bennington in 1949 her alma mater was never far from her heart. Frankenthaler returned to lecture in 1972 and joined First Lady Betty Ford at the dedication of the Visual and Performing Arts Center (VAPA) in 1976. She served on the Board of Directors of Bennington College from 1967 to 1982. Helen Frankenthaler was the recipient of numerous awards and honorary degrees, receiving the National Medal of Arts in 2001.

Brockway, Thomas. "Personalities of Painters in the '40s: Feeley, Knaths & Holt," Bennington Quadrille Feb. 1985. Print.
Frankenthaler, Helen, and Cynthia Lee. "A Brando Named Desire." The Beacon - Bennington College Archive 24 Jun. 1948: 4. Print.
Glueck, Grace. "Helen Frankenthaler, Abstract Painter Who Shaped a Movement, Dies at 83." New York Times 27 Dec. 2011. Print.
Lee, Cynthia. "Student Committee Formed." The Beacon - Bennington College Archive 27 May 1948: 1. Print.
"Student Exhibition in the Dining Hall." The Beacon - Bennington College Archive 16 Dec. 1948. Print.