Rosanna Seaborn

The following is excerpted and edited from “Life upon the wicked stage” by Pat Donnelly. (Montreal Gazette, Saturday, December 4, 1999.)

I interviewed this grand dame in her suite at the Ritz, where she holes up for weeks at a time. I soon discovered that she has an anecdote for every occasion and a flair for the epigrammatic.

Having been told she was 88, I asked for confirmation. “I would prefer to say I’m pushing 100,” was her reply. “Our theme is ancient and modern. I’m very ancient, but I’m very modern.”

Who is Rosanna Seaborn? There was a time when every Montreal matron who sipped afternoon tea knew the answer. Brought up in Senneville, she was the daughter of Dr. John Lancelot Todd, a specialist in tropical medicine, and the granddaughter of Sir Edward Seaborn Clouston, once vice president of the Bank of Montreal. From the Clouston side of the family, Hudson’s Bay people, comes her proud Cree ancestry.

What high school did she attend? “I never went to high school,” Seaborn replied. “I always had a governess.” Montessori method, of course.

She attended finishing school in South Carolina, where she became a close friend of Doris Duke, whose immense fortune came from tobacco.

But the life of a society belle wasn’t enough for this ambitious young woman. Seaborn went on to study theatre at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in England. She stayed to work in London and spent 1936 doing repertory theatre in Cambridge.

If she was a woman ahead of her time, Seaborn doesn’t see it that way. “I never thought about time at all,” she said. Why did she remain single? “I don’t like to discuss private life,” she replied, adding, “I’ve had several romantic attachments, but no one I wanted to marry.”

Seaborn did social work for the Red Cross in London during the war and returned to Montreal in 1947. That’s when she founded the Open Air Playhouse near Beaver Lake on Mount Royal. It lasted four years and launched many notable careers, including that of Christopher Plummer. While it is often said that she gave Plummer his first job, Seaborn qualifies that. “Chris was not getting paid,” while some of the older actors were. And he was not a relative, only a “connection,” she explained: “His grandmother’s sister married my great-uncle. No blood relation at all.”

Then suffering from burnout, Seaborn gave up the company to travel. She returned to produce and act in two pioneer Quebec films, Coeur de Maman and L’Esprit du Mal, in the early ’50s. But severe allergies forced her to seek refuge in Nassau in The Bahamas, where she spent most of her time since the early ’60s, living in a villa designed to look like a Roman ruin.

She’d probably still be there if it weren’t for Doris Duke, who left $1 million to Seaborn in her will. Seaborn said the Duke bequest was a surprise. She hadn’t seen much of Duke during her last years.

Duke’s bequest to Seaborn along with Seaborn’s meeting Montreal actress-producer Suzanne Cloutier (the former Mrs. Peter Ustinov) helped launch Seaborn’s new film company, Deux Montagnes Inc.

Money might not be able to buy love, but it can purchase fame, even in your golden years — if you have the talent to back it up.

In An Evening With Rosanna Seaborn, a quirky art film in search of a cult following, Seaborn acquits herself admirably as an elderly actress dreaming of her past. And she won an acting award a few years ago in Nassau for a production of Driving Miss Daisy. Accommodations were made for her allergies, bad hip and week eyesight. But she’s not about to try it again.

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