Henry Mygatt Woodruff was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1869, son of Samuel Vincent Woodruff and Emma Jane Coite. It appears he may have been named after his grand uncle, Henry Mygatt, who had died without children. His family moved to New York City at some point between 1877-1879, then moved to Jersey City, New Jersey shortly after. This may be why some biographies and his New York Times obituary erroneously list his place of birth as Jersey City.
We have this account of young Harry Woodruff’s stage debut at the tender age of nine, from Munsey’s Magazine in 1893:
In the year 1879 an advertisement in the New York papers called for children to appear in a juvenile “Pinafore” troupe to give performances at the Fourteenth Street Theater. The notice came under the eye of a little golden haired boy who, having been taken to the theater a short time before to see “Baby” and “Old Love Letters” had returned to his home in Jersey City stage struck. The sight of this advertisement seemed like fate to him. Without consulting anyone, he seized his hat, and, frequently inquiring his way, at length arrived at Chickering Hall, where the voices of the children were being tried.
When the new comer’s turn arrived –”Well, my little man, what can you sing?” asked the stage manager.
“I can sing ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers,’ ” was the reply.
“Try it,” came the command.
They took him up on the stage, and, fired by the great desire of his heart, the little fellow sang out with all his might.
“Good,” cried the manager, “you are engaged at two dollars a week.”
And thus began the stage career of Henry Woodruff, now playing a leading role with Charles Frohman’s Company in “Surrender.” Parents objected, but Harry persisted, and won quick promotion in his chosen course.
Harry was soon in demand for boy’s parts, and appeared with a number of well-known actors, including several roles in Edwin Booth’s company. He took over the role of Ned, the cabin boy, in The Black Flag, an engagement lasting four years, playing the role nearly twelve hundred times. In the fall of 1887, he joined A. M. Palmer’s Stock at the Madison Square, with which he remained four years, then came a year spent traveling abroad.
Back from his travels, the season of 1891-92 saw him appear in A Kentucky Colonel, Ye Earlie Troubles, His Wedding Day and The Girl I Left Behind Me. After a season as Charley in Charley’s Aunt, Harry Woodruff entered Harvard College, where he remained four years, though he gained a temporary leave of absence in the spring of 1897, to go to London with Secret Service.
His reasons for leaving show business to attend college are rather interesting. There are a number of newspaper articles in the New York Times and other papers alluding to a rumored engagement to young Anna Gould, daughter of tycoon Jay Gould. Some accounts have Harry being approached by New York Police Superintendent Thomas Byrnes, at the behest of Jay Gould, in order to dissuade him from the engagement. It was rumored that Gould then offered to pay for Woodruff’s college expenses, with the purpose of having Harry study law in order to better suit him as part of the family and the social circles in which they moved.
It was a confused and continuing saga, with Miss Gould later becoming engaged to someone else, then abruptly calling off that engagement only to announce yet another engagement to Harry Woodruff. She was sent abroad by the Gould family, her father having died by this time, and while in Europe was wooed and won by a French aristocrat. Apparently her 15 million dollar inheritance attracted many suitors, and though true love may have been involved in Harry’s case, he may well have been one of those with dollar signs in their eyes. In any case, Harry Woodruff never married.
The circumstances of Harry’s engagement and college education were the inspiration for a play by Augustus Thomas, as he relates in his 1922 book, The Print of My Remembrance:
A little later than this Harry Woodruff came to see me at New Rochelle. He had then left the stage and been two years at Harvard College under romantic conditions. Harry had won the affections of a daughter of a wealthy family whose members objected to an actor as a husband for the young woman. They agreed, however, that if Woodruff would go through Harvard and equip himself for another profession the objections would be withdrawn. They also agreed to pay his way. While Woodruff was at his studies the family took the young girl abroad and, with a change of scene and her wider opportunities, succeeded in arranging for her an alliance with one of the nobility. With this accomplished, the family had notified Woodruff that the financial support they were giving him at the university would be withdrawn. Harry was courageously making arrangements to pay his own way through the remaining two years, and regretting he had not secretly married the girl, as he had an opportunity to do.
This possible set of relations—a young man in college secretly married and the family trying to marry his wife to a foreign nobleman—struck me as a pretty complication for a comedy. Having a contract with Goodwin for something to follow “In Mizzoura,” I developed that story into a three-act play which I called “Treadway of Yale.” Goodwin accepted both the scenario and the finished script, but before the time came for production he married Maxine Elliott, of whose dramatic ability he had such high opinion that he thought the comedy gave her insufficient chance. He therefore forfeited his advance payments on it and returned the script. It was produced some time later under the title, “On the Quiet” by William Collier under the management of Will Smythe, and later revived by Charles Frohman when Collier passed under his direction.
After being graduated from Harvard in 1898, Harry quickly resumed his acting career, working steadily with many top actors and directors. Among other credits, he appeared with Mrs. Fiske in Mary of Magdala and in 1903 played the title role in a revival of Ben Hur. A season earlier, in 1902, he appeared in Joan o’ the Shoals opposite Henrietta Crosman. During the play, Miss Crosman had to simulate climbing up a cliff to replace a beacon light. Directly behind the light was a large electric fan that gave the effect of heavy winds. At one performance, she leaned too close to the fan and her dress was caught and began ripping to shreds. It appeared she might be drawn into the fan, and as her screams brought the audience to its feet, she was rescued by Harry, her leading man. As is often the case with stage accidents, the scene continued as if nothing had happened!
The great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 occurred on April 18th, leaving the city devastated. Starring in Brown of Harvard at the time, Harry responded along with the rest of the New York theatrical community to aid fellow actors who’d been working in San Francisco at the time of the quake. He was listed as treasurer of a committee formed to aid actors who were stranded and destitute as a result of the catastrophe. Indeed, The New York Dramatic Mirror listed numerous benefits by theatrical companies across the country raising funds for disaster relief, proving that the acting community has a long record of service to those in need.
Brown of Harvard closed in May of 1906, and headed out of town for a lengthy tour. It would provide Harry Woodruff steady employment for the next several years.
When the show played Boston in the Spring of 1907, opening night saw the house packed with Harvard students who, according to the New York Times, “did their utmost to break up the show. They yelled at every actor and hurled lemons from all sides of the house.”
Five of the disturbers were arrested, and the following day this apology appeared in The Crimson:
Last evening the presidents of the four classes publicly apologized for Monday night’s demonstration at “Brown of Harvard.” J. D. White ’07 expressed the apology as follows:
“We, the presidents of the four undergraduate classes of Harvard University, have come here tonight on behalf of the undergraduate body to express our regret both to Mr. Harry Woodruff and his company, and the audience of Monday night, for the demonstration on the part of some Harvard men during the performance.”
This was not the first excitement on the Brown of Harvard tour for Harry, though. When the show was playing in Pittsburgh in October of 1906, he found himself under arrest, as we see in this article from the New York Times under the headline, “HENRY WOODRUFF, PRISONER”:
PITTSBURGH, Nov. 1—Henry Woodruff, the actor, on Hallowe’en, with several other actors, started out to see the fun.
Everything went well until Woodruff saw Policeman J. P. Kinney arrest Louisa Ford, colored, who was getting too boisterous. Woodruff remonstrated with the policeman. Kinney retorted that if he didn’t keep quiet he would take him along, too. Woodruff told the policeman his identity, and Kinney told him that he didn’t care if he was the President of the United States. Then Woodruff retorted, and they started at each other, while the dusky Louisa tried to make her escape down an alley.
Kinney blew his whistle, and soon a score of policemen were on hand. The wagon also arrived, and Woodruff and Louisa were escorted to the station house. There Woodruff got into more trouble trying to explain to the Sergeant, who threatened to lock him up. Woodruff’s friends had arrived by this time, and got him away after he had furnished bail.
This morning Woodruff appeared before Magistrate Brady, charged with interfering with an officer, and paid a fine of $5 and costs, in preference to going to the workhouse for ten days. He is highly indignant over his arrest, and declares that the whole proceeding was outrageous.
At some point Harry had visited Hawaii, perhaps on his round-the-world tour about 1890, and had fallen in love with it. When he became part of the Actors’ Colony in the village of Siasconset (or ‘Sconset, as natives call it) on Nantucket Island in the early 1900s, he built the first “upside down house” there, inspired by Hawaiian architecture. An “upside down house” had its bedrooms on the ground floor, and living quarters above. He named the house “Aloha,” and it became a gathering place for artists and actors during the summer months. Built around 1904, he sold the place in 1916 shortly before he died, leaving furniture and memorabilia in the house, perhaps knowing he had no further need of it. Indeed, children of the family who bought “Aloha” recalled that it looked like he had merely stepped out and planned to return at any moment.
And perhaps he did. In Nantucket Ghosts: 44 True Accounts, several people relate their encounters with Harry’s ghost in the house. Some report seeing him looking in from the second floor porch, accessible only from the inside, and others recall hearing him pacing and looking through things in the attic. One young visitor, sleeping in the attic and completely unaware of its previous owner, reported waking to find a man standing next to his bed. “Hello, I’m Harry Woodruff. I’m sorry to have woken you,” he said in a very formal, old-fashioned way. Then he turned and walked off into one of the storage rooms. When the young man got up and looked in the room, it was empty!
Though Brown of Harvard is his last show credit in the Broadway Internet Database, Harry was still involved and interested enough to attend that first meeting of Equity members on May 26th, 1913. Passenger lists show that he had just arrived back in New York on May 23rd on the S.S. Cristobal, from the Canal Zone. Most likely he was sailing back from the west coast or some point farther beyond—perhaps his beloved Hawaii.
Like many other founding members of AEA, Harry Woodruff tried his hand in early silent films. He has two film credits: a short entitled The Beckoning Flame and a western entitled A Man and His Mate, both in 1915.
Harry Woodruff died in his room at the Algonquin Hotel in New York on October 6th, 1916. His New York Times obituary states he had been ill about six months, and the cause of death was an acute attack of Bright’s disease, now known as chronic nephritis, a kidney disease. His only known survivor was one of his brothers, not named, who was living in Pittsburgh.
Born: 1 June 1869, Hartford, Hartford County, Connecticut
Died: 6 October, 1916, New York City, New York County, New York
Member of The Lambs, The Players