lillian russell

lillian russellIt was not so much Lillian Russell’s great dramatic ability or her clear, well-trained voice as it was her personality and physical beauty that made her the most famous musical comedy star of her day and acclaimed for more than a generation as “America’s greatest beauty.”

Born on December 4, 1861, in Clinton, Iowa, Helen Louise Leonard had the kind of beauty that stopped traffic from her earliest years.  She had a voice that her mother, Cynthia Rowland Leonard, an ardent feminist, paid to have trained when her daughter was still in her teens.  Helen Louise was educated at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Chicago and attended finishing school at Park Institute.  She took singing lessons and sang in the church choir at the Episcopal Church.  

Her parents separated when she was in her teens, and her mother took Helen Louise and moved to New York, where young Helen started training for the grand opera.  She could sustain the highest notes with virtually no effort, and do it again and again without strain.  Her voice coach, Dr. Leopold Damrosch, told her mother that with a few years of training, he could make her a diva to rival the best.

The beautiful blond from Iowa had other ideas.  Years of training and rehearsals, with only bit parts and backup roles as an understudy, lay before her on the road to stardom in opera.  Helen Louise joined the Park Theatre Company in Brooklyn.  She was eighteen when she danced onstage for the first time in the chorus of H. M. S. Pinafore, a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta that went on to resounding success.  

Before the run of Pinafore was over, Helen Louise had accepted a proposal of marriage from an admirer in the show.  She married the company’s musical director, Harry Graham.  That marked the end of her appearance in the chorus.  She withdrew from the company and settled into domestic life, but her time as a homemaker didn’t last.  

In late 1879, Helen Louise gave birth to a son.  A nurse was hired to care for the baby so the actress could once again take up her career.  Her paycheck made a big difference for the little family.  Her much older husband was not happy with his wife being the bread winner, however, he wanted her to stay home and take care of their child.  But a woman raised to be independent was not easily swayed when fame and fortune called.  

Then one day Helen Louise returned from the theatre to find her baby desperately ill.  Despite all attempts to cure the infant, he died in convulsions.  Apparently, the inexperienced nurse had accidentally pierced his abdomen with a diaper pin.  Harry accused his wife of neglect, and he divorced her in 1881.  

Grieving over the death of her son, feeling betrayed by her husband’s accusation, and devastated over the end of her marriage, Helen Louise concentrated on her career.  Tony Pastor, legendary producer of musical comedy, heard her sing at the home of a friend and consequently offered her a job.  Helen Louise liked the immediate success she’d already tasted in comic opera.  At nineteen, with a statuesque figure, golden curls, skin like “roses and cream,” and a soprano voice that could do everything with ease she had found her first mentor in Tony Pastor.

Pastor’s theatre specialized in send-ups of popular plays like The Pirates of Penzance, produced by Pastor as The Pie Rates of Penn-Yann.  The impresario thought Helen Louise Leonard too dowdy and provincial a name for a gorgeous blond with a voice of an angel.  In mid-1881, Pastor presented her as “Lillian Russell, the English Ballad Singer.”  She chose the two names from a list, later saying she liked the way the names began and ended with the same letter.  

Pastor gave her parts that accentuated her talents.  She was a rousing success, so much so that Pastor feared she would be spoiled by adulation.  Instead of continuing to build her reputation in New York, he sent her west with Willie Edouin’s touring company.  Edouin was an actor, dancer, director and theatre manager.  As Lillian traveled by rail toward the Pacific Ocean, she learned to play poker and pinochle.

In San Francisco Lillian Russell became the toast of the town.  The City by the Bay was bubbling over with brash enterprise, fueled by newly made fortunes dug from the golden hills.  The troupe that played Babes in the Wood and Fun in a Photograph Gallery earned recognition in the newspapers.  Audiences all over the world were soon asking for Lillian Russell to perform for them.  

By October 1881, she was back playing at New York’s Bijou Opera House, a somewhat seasoned twenty-year-old performer who had no trouble in performance but had not yet learned the business side of the entertainment business.  

In May 1884, she married again, and again it was to a musician, English composer Edward Solomon.  The winter of the following year, Lillian and her husband welcomed a baby daughter into the world, and they named her Dorothy Lillian.

Reality slapped the face of the famous beauty once more.  In England a woman named Jane Isaacs Solomon filed suit against her husband –for bigamy.  Edward was arrested in England, and Lillian’s hopes for a happy married life were shattered.  She announced she would seek an annulment.  Although she concealed the pain of Solomon’s betrayal, the gorgeous petals of America’s Beauty were tarnished by scandal.

Lillian decided to make another tour of the American West, and this one turned out to be much more successful.  She signed with the J. C. Duff Company and embarked on a long tour of cities along the Pacific Coast.  At the end of the two seasons on the road, Lillian was a bigger star than ever.  As she entered her thirties, she, herself, was bigger than ever.  The hourglass figure that had contributed to her fame now required the tight cinching of a strong corset.  Lillian, who reportedly could eat a dozen ears of corn as an appetizer, fully enjoyed the offerings of the best restaurants.  Knowing her beauty was a huge part of her success, she began to exercise religiously.  She became a fanatical bicyclist, and her friend, millionaire railroad salesman Diamond Jim Brady, presented her with a gold-plated bicycle.

Always questioned about her beauty secrets, Lillian recommended vigorous exercise at a time when the myth of women as the “weaker sex” was accepted without question.  Lillian’s advice flew in the face of convention.  “Bicycle riding to women usually means peddling along dismounting every five or ten minutes, but this will not do at all if you mean to reduce your weight,” she warned.  In addition, and to the horror of those who already considered bicycles for women a tool of the devil, Lillian advised against wearing a corset while exercising.  “Every muscle must be unhampered”, she insisted.

In 1894, Lillian wed singer, John Haley Augustin Chatterton, who styled himself Signor Giovanni Perugini.  Her actress friend Marie Dresser portrayed the tenor as a conceited buffoon who stooped to embarrassing Lillian on stage.  After several months of discord, Lillian kicked him out.

In 1899, Lillian joined Weber and Fields Music Hall in New York, where she earned more than $1,200 a week.  Until 1904, when Joe Weber and Lew Fields dissolved their partnership, she enjoyed a fizzy success in comic opera.  Lady Teazle, a musical version of The School for Scandal, showcased her talents as an actress.  Minor surgery on her throat had not helped her deteriorating voice, so she began playing exclusively comic roles.  She covered thousands of miles in her private railroad car to indifferent success and finally returned to vaudeville and a popular reprise of some of her most famous songs.

Still beautiful, fiercely intelligent, and as opinionated as her mother ever had been, Lillian began writing a syndicated newspaper column, lectured on health and beauty and love, supported the vote for women, and put out a line of cosmetics called Lillian Russell’s Own Preparation.

In 1912 she married Alexander Pollock Moore, owner of the Pittsburgh Leader.  Moore was everything her musician husbands had not been, and his power in conservative politics matched her interests well.  She recruited for the Marine Corps and supported War Bond drives during the First World War and afterward raised money for the American Legion.

She performed steadily from 1914 to 1922.  In 1922 she campaigned vigorously for Warren G. Harding for President; as a result, in 1922 President Harding appointed her as a special investigator on immigration.

During a tour of Europe in this capacity, she sustained a bad fall and, despite the injuries, turned in her report urging restrictions on immigration.  On June 6, 1922, the famous American Beauty, the superstar of the “Gay Nineties,” died at her Pittsburgh home of “cardiac exhaustion.”  Lillian Russell was sixty-one when she died.  

Chris Enss is the COWGIRL Book Editor, and a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West. For more stories about these wild women, visit for more information on her books.