It all began in 1979, along Route 50 between Winchester, Virginia and Washington, D.C., when the historic marker announcing the birthplace of Willa Cather first captured the attention of Betty Jean Steinshouer. And the rest, truly, has been history.
"I went directly to Second Story Books, at Dupont Circle, to see what they had of this mysterious author. I found The Professor's House, and I've been hooked ever since. Hypnotized."
Steinshouer's portrayal of Cather has that same effect on people in her audiences. They use expressions like "mesmerizing" and "spell-binding." Herb Hyde, writing of her first few years of touring as Cather, called her "a national treasure" in his column for the Lincoln Star Journal, an offshoot of the newspaper for which Willa Cather was writing her early columns, when she became known as "the girl critic with a meat-ax."
Betty Jean Steinshouer also wrote columns for her hometown newspaper in Missouri (soon to be published as Letters to Bolivar: Herald-Free Press Columns 1981-84) and began her research by reading all of Cather's novels and stories, as well as her newspaper columns and essays. "And her poetry," she laughs. "Even though she considered it bum verse."
Seven years of research was what it took before Steinshouer felt ready to portray the author of O Pioneers! and My Antonia on stage. "In those days, her letters were scattered all over, from Red Cloud to London. I met Yehudi Menuhin ten years after I had first begun to study Cather, and he told me how much I didn't know. He had all the letters she had written, not only to him, but to his sisters, Hepzibah and Yalta."
Thankfully, Steinshouer had a photographic memory, as well as a highly developed oral tradition. "As a Baptist preacher's daughter, forbidden in the pulpit, I was keen to try every form of public speaking I was allowed. My high school speech teacher, Jean Stark, took me to contests, and I did so well that I got a full scholarship on Bob Derryberry's fine team out of SWBC, in Bolivar. I stood out at extemporaneous speaking and oral interpretation of literature. Both of these would serve me well on the Chautauqua stage."
Mildred Bennett, the matriarch of the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Educational Foundation in Red Cloud, Nebraska, Cather's home town, wrote the first Nebraska Humanities Council grant to bring Betty Jean Steinshouer "home" in "Willa Cather Speaks."
Steinshouer's fond remembrance of that tour was that "Mildred insisted I come for Willa's birthday - December 7. That year there happened to be a lot of early snow on the plains, so I spent a week driving through blizzards, but I didn't miss a single town. I drove into ditches and right back out again, because there was so much snow drifted along the country roads that everything was level. I found out what Cather meant when she said that in winter, the whole landscape was obliterated, everything covered."