Columbia Presents Corwin

A portrait of Hester Sondergaard taken on April 5, 1944, in New York. At the time, she was a regular performer on the CBS Radio series, “Columbia Presents Corwin.”

Many are familiar with the works and talent of Litchfield native and Academy Award-winning actress Gale Sondergaard, but few are aware of the success of her younger sister, Hester, as a voice and stage actress.

Hester Sondergaard was born July 5, 1903, in Litchfield to Danish Americans. In 1890, Hester’s father, Hans Tjellesen Smidt Sondergaard, immigrated from Rodding, Denmark, to America where he met and married Danish immigrant Anna Kirsten Holm. Hans worked at the Litchfield Creamery and was known to be a master butter maker.

In 1912, Hans accepted a position as a federal butter inspector, and the family moved to Minneapolis where Hester attended Central High School and was an active student.

Taking after her father, Hester played the violin and was a member of the high school’s orchestra. She was also vice president of the Central Confederation of Clubs, associate editor of the school’s newspaper, “Central High News,” and a member of the Girl’s Athletic Association and Girl’s French Club. Upon graduation in 1920, Hester enrolled in the University of Minnesota.

As with her older sister, Hester dreamed of being an actress and was a member of the U of M Masquers Dramatic Club. She played many supporting roles, but in her junior year she landed the lead role of Madame X in “The Stronger.” In her senior year, Hester joined Paint and Patches, a dramatic club that presented one-act plays at the U of M’s Shevlin Hall. She starred in two of the three productions performed that year.

While a U of M student, Hester served as secretary-treasurer on the board of the Music Club and played the violin in the University Symphony Orchestra. She was also a member of the women’s sorority, Sigma Kappa, the Liberal Discussion Club and served as a Big Sister on the board of the Women’s Self-Government Association.

Hester was a member of the Women’s Athletic Association, Trailer Club and played women’s hockey. In her junior year, she became the team’s field hockey manager. She was a natural choice when the U of M selected student leaders for its stadium drive. The campaign successfully raised money to build an outdoor athletic stadium, which came to be known as Memorial Stadium — the home of the Minnesota Gophers football team for 58 years.

On stage and radio

Hester graduated from the U of M in 1925 with a Bachelor of Science degree. In pursuit of her dream to become an actress, she moved to New York where her sister Gale was already working in radio and on Broadway. It wasn’t long until Hester began to land small parts in Broadway shows.

One of the Broadway productions Hester appeared in was “Mother,” where she worked with Lee J. Cobb, John Carradine and Francis Bavier. In 1936, she appeared in 61 performances with Cobb and Bavier in “Bitter Stream.” She worked with Bavier again in the 1939 Theatre Guild Broadway production “My Heart’s in the Highlands,” where Hester spoke in Armenian.

In 1941, Hester sang a solo in Marc Blitzstein’s two-act socialist opera, “No For An Answer.” Carol Channing made her debut in this opera. The “New York Times” and “Herald Tribune” hailed the production as “thrilling!”

Between plays, Hester found work as a regular in radio dramas and was a frequent supporting player on Fletcher Markle’s Studio One and Ford Theatre Radio Drama anthology programs.

During the golden age of radio, Hester also worked for CBS Columbia Presents Corwin, NBC Mystery Theatre and NBC’s Arch Obeler’s Radio Hall of Fame. She performed in operas, dramas, radio serials, docudramas and public service, ethnic, educational, historical and nonfiction radio programs. The Lima News reported on Aug. 12, 1939, “Miss Sondergaard won considerable acclaim in the Group Theatre-Theatre Guild production, ‘My Heart’s in the Highlands’ as well as in Oboler’s ‘Another World.’”

Some of the notable radio actors Hester worked with included Marlene Dietrich, James Cagney, Gene Kelly, Robert Mitchum, Burgess Meredith, Anne Seymour, Robert Young and Glenn Ford. Many of Hester’s radio shows can be heard and purchased online.

By 1943, Hester began landing small parts in New York feature films. Her first movie role was in “Seeds of Freedom.” Her next role in 1948 was in “The Naked City,” where she played a nurse. In 1949, she played Mrs. Max Borg working alongside Henry Fonda and Burgess Meredith. Her last film was in 1953 when she played an agency girl in the film, “The Big Break.”

Hester met her future husband, former Congressman Emerson DeLacy, while he was on a business trip to New York. The couple married in 1952, but their marriage was put to the test in 1954 when Howard Costigan spoke in sworn testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Constigan and DeLacy sat on the governing Bureau of the Seattle District Communist Party USA from 1937 to 1939. Hester was labeled a “red sympathizer” and placed on the “Hollywood Blacklist,” which denied employment to actors, directors, musicians and screenwriters. Gale had also been blacklisted in 1951 when she invoked her Fifth Amendment right and refused to answer questions about her political affiliations during a HUAC hearing.

California and beyond

Hester and DeLacy moved to California in 1959, but their marriage ended in divorce in 1960.

Hester did not have any children and never remarried. With her acting career finished, she decided to go back to school and become a licensed speech pathologist. In the 1968 directory of “A Guide to Clinical Services in Speech Pathology and Audiology,” Hester is listed as holding a Certificate of Clinical Competence issued by the American Speech and Hearing Association. The directory also notes Hester had a private practice in Los Angeles. In the 1970s, she became a member of the Doctor’s Congress in Copenhagen, Denmark, and became acquainted with her Danish relatives.

Hester and Gale remained close throughout their lives. When Gale became too ill to take care of her personal affairs, Hester lent a helping hand by answering requests for interviews with handwritten letters. Sadly, Hester lost her beloved sister and friend on Aug. 14, 1985, and Gale’s ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean.

The old-time radio and Broadway star who once walked the streets of Litchfield as a young girl lived a long and fascinating life. When Hester lost her acting career, she became successful in an entirely different field.

Hester died at the age of 90 on Feb. 26, 1994, in Torrance, California. Her last wish was to be cremated and have her ashes scattered in the Pacific Ocean in the same location as her sister near Santa Monica, California.

Robyn Richardson is a Litchfield history researcher who occasionally contributes to the Leader’s sister newspaper, the Litchfield Independent Review.