Mommy Dearest
How Albee's tumultuous relationship with his mother inspired Three Tall Women
By Sara Rademacher, Seattle Rep Artistic Intern

(L-R) Actors Alexandra Tavares, Megan Cole, and Suzanne Bouchard

When Reed Albee, Edward Albee's father, married the tall and stunning Frances Loring Cotter (his third wife), the headlines were blunt:


It wasn’t long before the well-to-do newlyweds adopted young Edward. The future playwright was just 18 days old. From that point on, though, Edward was raised mostly by nannies. Later in life, when Albee wondered where he came from, who his natural parents were, and how they affected his character, his mother refused to give him any information about his origin.

Albee once described his adoptive mother as "imperious, demanding, and unloving." Regardless of his view of her, however, Frances was always an influential—if not ever-present—force in his life. The tumultuous relationship between mother and son led directly to his writing Three Tall Women.

Not that his mother was entirely to blame for their differences. Albee admits that he was "not a very easy kid," and he managed to get himself expelled from several private schools. At the age of 17, after a particularly nasty fight with Frances, Edward decided he could no longer live under his parents' rule. He packed one bag, said goodbye only to his grandmother, and left his parents' house forever. Edward did not speak to his mother for the next seventeen years, and though he was notified of his father's death in 1961, he did not attend the funeral.

Finally, in 1965 Edward contacted Frances after hearing she survived a heart attack. Both parties were cordial and made an effort to revisit their relationship, but they always remained hesitant and distant. Edward never brought up controversial issues or politics with his mother, and he never discussed his homosexuality with her. Despite maintaining a relationship with Frances until her death, Edward and his mother never progressed past civil acquaintances.

It was during these visits that Frances began to share stories with Edward about her life, husband, and marriage—most of the stories in Three Tall Women come directly from these conversations. And though the title characters in the play are based on Edward Albee's mother (and the character of The Boy on Albee himself), the playwright is quick to respond when the play is described as autobiographical:

"It does tend to suggest that writers don't have any creative imagination. That we're limited to what happened to us. You see, I don't think I've ever written about me...Of course, I write through my own experiences, and what I write is limited to my ability to perceive things...but if the work doesn't transcend the experience that produced it, then it's not worth the trouble in the first place."