Sister Act

The story of two grande Baltimore dames is echoed in the lives of the pair staging the tale

September 17, 2006|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,Sun Reporter

There once were two sisters. One was a pioneer and an adventurer, while the other was a homebody. One was outspoken and fierce, while the other was peace-loving and quiet.

The sisters grew up together in Baltimore. They went their separate ways as adults, only to join forces again late in life. Together, they made an indelible contribution to the local arts scene.

Their names were Claribel and Etta Cone. And their names are Naomi Greenberg-Slovin and Vivienne Shub.

Perhaps it takes a pair of devoted, if very different, sisters to understand a pair of devoted, if very different, sisters.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the A&E Today section Sunday incorrectly described the French painter Henri Matisse. He was a Post-Impressionist or Fauvist. The Sun regrets the error

Naomi is the dramaturge for Everyman Theatre, and she has written a one-actor play about the Cones and the remarkable collection of modern art that they amassed during the early and middle 20th century.

Because of the Cones, the Baltimore Museum of Art now owns more than 500 works by the great Impressionist painter and sculptor Henri Matisse - the largest holding of his artworks in the world. The Cone collection also includes seminal works by then-unknowns Picasso, Cezanne, Gauguin and Renoir.

The Cone Sister, which opens tonight at Everyman Theatre, was envisioned by Naomi as a vehicle for Vivienne, who portrays Etta Cone. The play includes Etta's homey reminiscences about life with Claribel, a charismatic physician and pathologist (she was one of Baltimore's first female doctors); the sisters' collecting career (which culminated in a visit by Matisse to Baltimore in 1930); and the famous people that the Cones knew, including Matisse, Picasso and Gertrude Stein. When the play opens, Claribel has been dead for 20 years, but she is a constant presence in the script.

"She wasn't the easiest person in the world," Etta says. "But what a woman she was!"

Though The Cone Sister is a staged reading instead of a finished play, the project is being greeted with such enthusiasm that most shows have sold out.

"When Naomi first told me that she and Vivie were collaborating on a play about the Cone sisters, I thought: `This is perfect. They are the Cone sisters, without the art collection,' " says Vincent Lancisi, Everyman's artistic director.

"They are these two indefatigable Renaissance women in their 80s who pursue more cultural interests in a month than the rest of us do in our entire lives. One's weakness is the other's strength. They finish each other's sentences, and they watch each other's backs."

Vivienne, 87, is a beloved fixture of the Baltimore theater scene whose career has spanned an astounding 69 years. She has worked extensively with Vagabond Theatre (the nation's oldest continually running little theater) and at Center Stage. For the past decade, she has been most prominently associated with Everyman Theatre, where she is a company member.

Naomi, 83, has had a variety of careers on two continents, including orchestra cellist, psychotherapist, translator and now, dramaturge, researching the historical backgrounds of plays and their characters.

The most obvious differences between the two pairs of sisters are their appearances. The Cones were stately, imposing women. Picasso famously dubbed Claribel Cone, "The Empress." She was so fat that she couldn't walk in her voluminous skirts

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down the narrow hallways of her Eutaw Place apartment without knocking over a precious objet d'art, according to Mary Gabriel's The Art of Acquiring, A Portrait of Etta & Claribel Cone.

The Slovin sisters are tiny, with crinkly white hair and twinkly eyes and twinkly smiles. It's tempting to imagine both women fitting inside a china teacup, with room to spare. Nor were the Slovins blessed with the fabulous wealth of the Cones, whose family made its fortune in denim.

But both pairs of sisters came under the sway of brilliant, magnetic personalities.

Paris and Munich

Though Leo Stein (then 20) and his outrageous, 18-year-old sister, Gertrude, were younger than Etta and Claribel Cone, they quickly became dominant - at least, as far as Etta was concerned.

It was Leo Stein who taught the shy Etta to appreciate art, who introduced her to Matisse and Picasso, and who initially encouraged his well-heeled friend to invest in works by artists dismissed by the establishment as charlatans and pornographers.

It was Etta Cone who typed the original manuscript of Gertrude Stein's first book, Three Lives. And it was Gertrude who may have been Etta Cone's first and only love interest.

Gabriel's book quotes a 1901 entry from Etta's diary, written while she and Gertrude were sailing on the ocean liner Q.E.D.: "Clear beautiful day which I spent mostly below in a most beautiful state of mind but one which brought out the most exquisite qualities of Gertrude." (The emphasis is Etta's.)

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