As someone who did not grow up in Las Cruces, I am fascinated with learning the history of the community I now call home. And there is so much to learn! Early on, I eagerly read Paula Moore’s book Cricket in the Web, which tells the story of the unsolved murder of Cricket Coogler. More recently, Moore has added a second heavily-researched book connected to our area, but with a very different focus. Matinee and Evening is about actress Abby Lewis, daughter of well-known local religious leader, “Preacher” Lewis, and her husband, actor John Davenport Seymour.
Moore spent countless hours researching historical archives that many people don’t know exist: the Institute of Historical Survey Foundation (IHSF) in Mesilla Park, Abby Lewis’ home town. Lewis donated her lifetime of records to the organization and Moore sorted through them to understand and document the decades-long love story of Lewis and Seymour.
Seymour was descended from a well-known New York theater family while Lewis was an outsider from the territory of New Mexico and both were trying to make their mark on Broadway. They met in the acting world, one in which they would live — and strive to make a living in — for the rest of their lives.
The problem was, although Lewis was struck with the handsome Seymour from the first time she saw him, he was unavailable, married to his second wife, Frances. Lewis was also a dozen years younger than the man she fell in love with, but perhaps that only served to allow Seymour to serve in a mentor role before they became lovers. It is an indication of the depth of Lewis’ feelings for Seymour that despite her religious upbringing that she became the mistress of a married man for decades before they were finally able to marry.
The records that both Seymour and Lewis kept provided a rich basis for research, as Moore discovered. They kept everything from their voluminous love letters to diaries, carefully noting expenditures and, for a young John Seymour, the many times he attended performances free by dropping the name of his Broadway icon father, Willie Seymour. Abby Lewis meticulously kept carbon copies of many letters she wrote and rough drafts of others. In fact, after John Seymour’s death, she became something of a hoarder, with her entire apartment filled with piles of papers and boxes of records, which she willed to the IHSF.
Along with insights into the challenges of their love life, Matinee and Evening shows just how hard it was — and is — for an actor to make a living. Moore demonstrates that the job of an actor is in great part looking for the next job. When Seymour and Lewis began their careers, stage acting was the goal. Eventually they added roles on radio dramas, modeling, and then television. They also both acted in corporate films. As years went on, they were in demand as a good-looking mature couple, playing happy, healthy grandparents, or sometimes folks in need of medical attention in ads for pharmaceuticals. They especially enjoyed opportunities to work together.
Another striking aspect of the Seymour-Lewis relationship is the love they expressed for each other in letters and notes. Often, when love is new, letters can be filled with words of passion, which often cool as the years go by. In their case, perhaps due to rather than in spite of the many years in which they were lovers rather than a married couple, their letters were affectionate and loving for decades. They spoke of their eagerness to be together again after a separation long or short, necessitated by their acting careers. In 1954, twenty years after Lewis was first attracted to Seymour, she wrote, “I am on the subway en route to Road of Life 9:30 a.m. I want to let you know how glorious it was to get your dear phone call. Believe it or not, this has been the most difficult separation to live through. Guess I love you more and more every year.” Then, in 1970, after they had been lovers for 36 years, Abby wrote in a short note, “Love you so. You are dear and wonderful and handsome and warm.” Then she reminded him to eat.
John was also a master of the love letter. In 1948, he wrote to Abby, “My Very Very Dearest — on the verge of leaving for New Haven — and I find I’m leaving in NY most of myself and all my reason for being, and everything I want and need. So it behooves you to look after…that 106 pounds of blonde loveliness…that I love and adore. Keep her well and happy for me to see and love and bask in and fight for, on my return. God bless you. I love you.”
Lewis was a determined woman who worked hard to achieve her goals, whether in acting or in life. She was a master networker who kept files of contacts she could call upon, an inveterate writer of thankyou letters to help foster those contacts, and would knock on doors throughout long days in order to dig up acting jobs. She put her energy to use in helping her husband find jobs as well. She never seemed to believe that he got the recognition he deserved and was determined to help him as much as she could. They both worked in acting, in one form or another, well into their senior years. John Seymour’s listing on the Internet Broadway Data Base shows his first stage job in the year 1919 and his last in 1975. Lewis’s listing on the same data base is much shorter, spanning from 1945 to 1975, but appropriately, the final listing for both is the same play, We Interrupt This Program…
Even though they were often struggling financially, Lewis always found money to send to her family members to help with their needs, from tuition to homes to medical costs. Although Seymour’s Broadway credits are longer than Lewis’s, she kept busy working in every avenue of acting she could find and often out-earned her husband. She never seemed to express disdain for any particular type of work and was always learning to hone her craft. In a New York Times articles in 1978 entitled More Than Just A Pretty Face, in which they were interviewed about modeling, Abby said, “I find still photography to be the most challenging, the most difficult to learn. You must have a sense of active life stillness.”
After a love story that spanned five decades, John Seymour died in 1986. He had survived an automobile accident, but succumbed after a violent mugging. Abby Lewis lived until November 1997. Theirs was a life strewn with challenges, but they always seemed to focus on what was most important: the love they had for each other.
Author Paula Moore retired in 2000 after serving as executive assistant to the president of New Mexico State University. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from NMSU and a MFA in creative writing from Warren Wilson College. In addition to her first book, Cricket in the Web: The 1949 Unsolved Murder that Unraveled Politics in New Mexico, she has had short stories and poem published in literary journals. Matinee and Evening is published by Brighton Publishing and is available through Amazon as a hard copy or Kindle edition. It is also available locally at COAS Books, Hastings, and Barnes & Noble.