R. D. Shepherd, aka R. D. McLean
Rezin Davis Shepherd was born in New Orleans on March 7, 1859, a son of Henry Shepherd II and his wife Azemia. In 1871, Henry purchased Wild Goose Farm near Shepherdstown, West Virginia, from his cousin, Shepherd Brooks. R.D. enjoyed life on the farm as a teen and later attended Washington and Lee University as well as the University of Virginia. At the age of nineteen he became the agent of his father’s large estates in Louisiana and also managed several million dollar’s worth of property in and around New Orleans owned by his relatives, Peter C. and Shepherd Brooks of Boston, Massachusetts.
From early childhood, R.D. was passionately fond of the theater and during college was famous as a Shakespearean reader. After returning to New Orleans in 1879 he made his stage debut in an amateur performance as Brutus in Julius Caesar. He went on to win fame as an outstanding amateur thespian and formed his own company of Shakespearian actors, who performed in New Orleans and nearby cities.
After a few years, R.D. resolved to abandon his commercial career, an assured success, for the uncertainties of the stage. From the start he used the name of R. D. MacLean, adopting as his last name that of his mother, Azemia. His first professional stage appearance in 1886 was at Kingston, New York, in the character of Pygmalion in the play Pygmalion and Galatea. That fall he was hired by actress-manager Marie Prescott and for the next seven years they presented a varied repertoire, including Romeo and Juliet, Ingomar, Twelfth Night, The Winter’s Tale, Othello, The Merchant of Venice, Spartacus, Richard the Third, Cleopatra, and many others. When Henry Shepherd II died 1891, R.D. inherited Wild Goose Farm and a year later he married Ms. Prescott.
By 1893 the couple had retired to the relative comfort of Wild Goose Farm but shortly after Marie died of cancer in New York City, leaving R.D. to tend to the farm, an avocation he thoroughly enjoyed, even though it was far removed from the bright lights of the theater.
The rural attraction did not last long, however, for by 1897 R.D. had returned to the theater. Whether drawn by his love of the stage or by his love for his new partner, actress Odette Tyler, he returned full-force to his theatrical roots. Also, in April, 1897, the New York Times announced that Miss Tyler had married R.D. Shepherd on April 1 of that year. Between 1901 and 1902, Mrs. Shepherd starred with her husband in elaborate productions of King John and Coriolanus. Regarding his new wife, it was said “She shows in her work the stock from which she springs. Her acting is marked by dignity, and the true womanliness for which Southern women are renowned, and she has an indescribable charm and grace of manner found only too seldom on the stage or elsewhere.”
Odette Tyler was born Elizabeth Lee Kirkland in Savannah, Georgia, September 26, 1869. Her father, General W. W. Kirkland, was a West Point cadet and entered the United States Navy, but joined the South during the Civil War. Her mother was a sister of General William Hardee, of Savannah, at one time commandant at West Point, and later a Southern general.
Miss Tyler was educated at convents in Washington, DC and in Canada. She was but fourteen years of age when she made her professional debut. The piece was Seba, and even at that time she showed promise of future success. A few years later she joined Daniel Frohman’s company, appearing at the Madison Square Theatre, New York. Among her most successful plays at that time were Men and Women, Romeo and Juliet, Merchant of Venice, and Secret Service. For a short time she appeared with Miss Minnie Maddern and filled a special engagement with Steele Mackaye, in Colonel Tom, in which piece she may be said to have made her first decided hit.
At the close of the 1906 season, R.D. and Odette retired and returned to the Shepherdstown farm for several years before selling Wild Goose and moving to Washington, D.C., in 1911 and resuming their professional activities and devoting their great talents to the interpretation of Shakespeare.
In 1916, Shakespearean scholars and students at Shepherd College celebrated the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with R. D. and Odette. In every way Mr. and Mrs. Shepherd fulfilled the high expectation of the large audience who keenly enjoyed every moment. According to The County’s Shakespearean Actor, “The most popular production was the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Then came the wonderful tragic potion speech of Juliet. Mr. Shepherd was much appreciated in his favorite role, that of Shylock [which he had played more than 400 times] from the Merchant of Venice. Everyone laughed heartily at the scene from Taming of the Shrew.”
With East Coast Shakespearean audiences rapidly diminishing in size, the Shepherds moved to Hollywood in 1919, achieving great success in a series of Shakespearian recitals which earned R.D. a reputation as “one of the finest classical actors Los Angeles had ever possessed.”
A few years after arriving in California, R.D. expanded his repertoire and began to make movies though, according to an article in the Magazine of the Jefferson County Historical Society, “R. D.’s film career was filled with more hopes than success.” Beginning at age sixty-one he appeared in such forgotten films as The Best Man, Full of Pep, The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, The Silver Horde, Number 99 (for which the Variety critic said “Another in the cast who made good in no small fashion was R.D. MacLean, a former Shakespearean star” as Judge Elliott), Don’t Neglect Your Wife, Bag and Baggage, Cradle Song and The Bishop of the Ozarks, a melodrama which listed R. D. fifth in a list of nine cast members named. A photo of R.D. as Richard III is shown on the left.
In 1923, Miss Tyler was recognized by “The Rainbow Division men” for her support of the play, Name It.
In June 1928, R.D. received a Doctor of Letters degree from the University of Southern California. Preceding the commencement, R. D. performed Shakespearean scenes on the University of Southern California campus just as he had twelve years earlier at Shepherd College,
In 1936, Odette died of a heart attack in California. Ten years later, at the ripe old age of 89, R.D. died in Hollywood of a heart ailment on June 28, 1946. In his will he bequeathed all his property to his faithful housekeeper, Viola Kidwell. One of the items she received was a tall case clock built in Shepherdstown by Jacob Craft. To read the fascinating story of how that clock found its way back to Shepherdstown, read the article by Curt Mason in the 2014 Magazine of the Jefferson County Historical Society.
by Curt Mason
Jack Peyrouse, “Rezin Davis Shepherd, III (R.D. MacLean): He Loved Shakespeare as His LIfe,” Magazine of the Jefferson County Historical Society VOL (1991):16-60; Google Books (https://books.google.com/books?id=JsZ5BgAAQBAJ&pg=PA1 : 2016). Excerpt only, available for purchase as an ebook.
A. D. Storms, The Players Blue Book (Worcester, Mass.: Sutherland & Storms, Publishers, 1901), p. 165; Google Books (https://books.google.com/books?id=KlE3AAAAIAAJ&pg=PA165 : 2016).