Beyond Vassar

Spotlighting Frances Sternhagen '51

By Samantha Soper '91

A self-proclaimed “shameless scene-stealer” as an undergraduate actress, Frances Sternhagen ’51 doesn’t need to compete for an audience’s attention anymore. Her long list of acting roles on and off Broadway has garnered her numerous accolades: two Tonys, two Obies, and two Drama Desks; the honor of the Helen Hayes Tribute; induction into the American Theatre Hall of Fame.

Sternhagen started her acting career at Washington, DC’s Arena Stage in the mid-fifties. She debuted on Broadway in 1955 as Miss T. Muse in The Skin of Our Teeth — and she hasn’t looked back. Other Broadway credits include Seascape, Steel Magnolias, Equus, and The Foreigner. But in case you missed her on stage, you can always enjoy a Sternhagen performance on film or television. Who can forget her as Bunny MacDougal on Sex and the City, or as Carter’s family matriarch on ER? Most recently she
can be seen on the TV show The Closer, also starring fellow alum Jon Tenney ’84.

But it isn’t just about acting for Sternhagen. While forging a career in the performing arts, Sternhagen and her late husband Thomas Carlin raised a family of six. Vassar is close to Sternhagen’s heart as well; she is always quick to accept a request from her class or the college. She has visited and performed readings at Vassar many times over the years, most recently as part of the inaugural celebration of President Catharine Hill.

Frances Sternhagen at morning panel
Frances Sternhagen at morning panel
AAVC is proud that it, too, can honor such an esteemed artist. In February, Sternhagen accepted the AAVC Award for Distinguished Achievement, honoring an alumna or alumnus who has reached the highest level in her or his field. “Not only has her acting been noteworthy, but it has been of such consistently high quality throughout a vast and continuing career,” says AAVC Alumnae/i Recognition Chair Joseph Heissan ’87. “The AAVC Awards Committee found Frannie’s dedication to her craft and her profession, and her ongoing affection for Vassar, to be inspiring. Her remarkable achievements as an actor have been recognized by audiences, critics, and her peers, and we are all so pleased that the Vassar community is now celebrating them,” adds Heissan. Sternhagen spent two days on campus meeting with drama majors, lecturing in classes, and performing an all-campus reading. “I am so touched and thrilled with this amazing honor,” she says. “My career is definitely slowing down (as am I!), so to be recognized at this point in this way is humbling.”