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Jennie McGraw -- Willard Fiske romance is play's subject

Jennie McGraw

Jennie McGraw, a Dryden socialite in the 1800s whose charitable contributions gave Cornell its chimes and Dryden its library, is the subject of a new musical, Jennie's Will, written and scored by two area residents. The musical was performed last week at Tompkins Cortland Community College, and it will be staged this Friday and Saturday in Barnes Hall at Cornell. Performances begin at 8:15 p.m. Tickets are $5.

The book and lyrics were written by Pamela Monk, a teacher in Boynton Middle School, and the music by Mark Simon, a cataloger in the Department of Music Library at Cornell.

The musical, a mix of Broadway and opera, and which includes the "Jennie McGraw Rag," a song often played by the Cornell Chimesmasters, explores Jennie McGraw's unlikely and controversial marriage to Willard Fiske, Cornell's first librarian, and the battle Fiske has with his conscience over the real reason he had for marrying McGraw.

scene from Jennie's Will
Robert Barker/University Photography
Jennie McGraw (portrayed by Carol Buckley) meets her suitor, Willard Fiske (Steven Sull) under the watchful eye of Fiske's mother (Kris Park) in a scene from Jennie's Will, which will be performed in Barnes Hall Friday and Saturday.

"Fiske hears inner voices -- one suggests that he married her for her money, the other tries to persuade him that he married Jennie because he loved her," said Simon.

One of many suitors, Fiske asked McGraw to marry him in 1880 knowing that she had contracted tuberculosis. She died shortly after the wedding, leaving much of her wealth to Cornell and to her husband. In the legal wrangling that followed, the university claimed it was due more of the estate and took Fiske to court over the matter. Cornell lost the legal fight, but ended up with the money: Upon his death, Fiske willed his estate to Cornell.

The 10-member cast is led by Ithacan Carol J. Buckley, a public service assistant in Uris Library, as Jennie McGraw, and Ithacan Steven Sull as Will Fiske. Buckley, a member of the Cornell Savoyards, most recently appeared in Hangar Theater's production of Camelot.

The production is directed by Susan Kaplan; musical director is Jennifer Haywood.

Dryden Mutual Insurance Company commissioned the musical to help celebrate the Town of Dryden's bicentennial. The town was established in 1797.


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