The green, silk robe shimmered in the light of the dressing room. Adjusting the neckline, Lillian Russell glanced into the mirror and considered the interviewer’s question about beauties never appreciating their good looks. “I think they do,” she countered. “They are glad to have it, as they are grateful for any other gift. I am pleased and gratified when someone says I look nice.”
Looking “nice” was a part of the job that the corn-fed beauty from America’s heartland never forgot. The costume she wore in the second act of Lady Teazle showed off her abundant charms to perfection. The green silk, the large, plumed hat, and the ebony walking stick adorned with orange ribbons were but a pretty frame for the statuesque blond performer whose sumptuous exterior diverted attention from a sharp mind and a warm heart.
As she continued dressing for the second act of the play, she answered questions from Miss Ada Patterson, longtime reporter for The Theatre Magazine. How, asked Patterson, had a girl from Iowa earned the name “America’s Beauty”?
“I came away from Clinton when I was six months old, and I don’t remember much about it,” she told the reporter. A backward glance over a smooth, white shoulder gave a glimpse of the famous smile, curving perfect lips. A spark of mischief flashed in the beautiful, blue eyes framed by long, thick eyelashes as she added, “Although there are Tabbies who say they remember my life there when I was six months old sixty years ago.”
The feature later published in The Theatre Magazine of February 1905 never came right out and said that America’s most famous beauty was now forty-three years old. Behind her lay phenomenal success as well as heartbreak and failure, yet none of it dimmed the glow. The interviewer that day compared the throat and shoulders rising from the green silk to the Venus de Milo. The pure soprano voice still hit high C with ease, and, after, more than twenty-three years on stage, the name Lillian Russell still drew people to the theater.
Lillian Russell’s thoughts on beauty were avidly read by women all over America when Ada Patterson’s interview appeared. The reporter described how the girl christened Helen Louise Leonard demonstrated the proper placement of an enormous hat atop a cluster of golden curls. Adjusting the tilted brim, the star gently lectured the reporter about her theories on good looks. “But what is beauty? It is nothing compared to intelligence and a manner. Meet a woman who has intelligence and a beautiful manner, and who stops to think whether she is beautiful or not?”
One set of admirers could testify to the gracious manner, warm heart, and generosity of the star named Lillian Russell. She was notoriously kind to people who worked for her, even when they stole from her, as one did. Yet, another group that she did business with, theater producers and promoters, knew they were dealing with a hard-driving woman who understood exactly what she was worth and made them pay her price. It was her voice, her looks, and her reputation that could ask for, and receive, huge sums for appearances on stage even when beautiful, talented, younger women contested her reign.
From her earliest years, Helen Louise Leonard had the kind of beauty that stopped traffic. She had a voice that her mother, Cynthia Rowland Leonard, an ardent feminist, paid to have trained when her fifth 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. She was the apple of her father Charlie’s eye, his “airy, fairy Nellie,” the youngest daughter with the looks and the voice of an angel.
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 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 ignored her mother’s plans and made her own career choice by secretly joining the Park Theater 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. A neighbor of Cynthia Leonard told her about a young woman who resembled her daughter appearing in the new play he’d seen. The secret came out when her mother, fuming, rose from a seat in the audience and shouted out, “That’s my Nell!”
Cynthia and her daughter were often at odds. “Mothers are good for an actress to have near until they are sixteen,” Lillian later said, “and after that they are apt to be a nuisance.”
Her feminist mother thought a career in light opera was beneath her daughter, but the principles of independence she’d taught had obviously found fertile ground. Eager to dive into this new life that had opened before her, not only did Helen Louise continue onstage, she took a fateful step that nearly sundered her relationship with her mother. She accepted a proposal of marriage shortly before the end of Pinafore‘s run in 1879.
Although a handsome millionaire was courting her, she married the company’s musical director, Harry Braham. That marked the end of her appearance in the chorus. She withdrew from the company and settled into domestic life, a life she was born for, according to her friend, actress Marie Dressler.
Soon Helen Louise was pregnant, and a baby son was born. Despite Dressler’s opinion about Helen’s natural domestic tendencies, a nurse was hired to care for the baby so that 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 that decision, but a woman raised to be independent was not easily swayed when fame and fortune called.
Then one day she returned 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 Braham accused his wife of neglect.
Grieving over the death of her son, feeling betrayed by her husband’s accusations, andbeset by her mother’s vitriolic accusations against Braham, Helen 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. Her mother argued for a return to the career path she’d planned for her daughter in grand opera, but Helen Louis 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 theater specialized in send-ups of popular plays like The Pirates of Penzance, produced by Pastor as The Pie Rats of Penn-Yann. The impresario thought Helen Louise Leonard too dowdy and provincial a name for the gorgeous blond with the voice of an angel. In 1880 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 name began and ended with the same letter. Pastor gave her parts that showed off 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. As she 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 Woods and Fun in a Photograph Gallery earned recognition in the newspapers, and reporters took note of the fresh, young singer who made several appearances:
There is a pretty young girl, a Miss Lillian Russell, who has a voice as sweet and fresh as a thrush, but Miss Russell sings everything too fast and loses half the effect she might give.
The same review in The Argonaut took note of her costumes, reporting that they were very pretty, pale blue satin painted with poppies and hat to match, a paler blue satin with trailing vines and morning glories, and another hat to match, and a pretty affair of pink and white and swansdown.
Unfortunately, financial disaster stalked Willie Edouin’s troupe, which even the newspapers noted. Said one supporter:
Willie Edouin has been struggling manfully against small business at the Standard. He has one of the cleverest companies I have seen here.
The report took note of Edouin’s newest performer:
And pretty Miss Lillian Russell, who is Mrs. Braham in private, has a mezzo soprano voice of beautiful quality and immense promise.
The promise of financial reward did not pay out. The San Francisco Call noted:
The performances of this company have been, in many instances, exceptionally clever, and, only, because of the presence in our city of several combinations presenting similar entertainments, can their partial failure be accounted for.
The troupe left the city with nearly empty pockets, and in Colorado illness caused a cancellation of performances. Broke, the company dissolved, but Edouin and his wife chaperoned the young actress home.
In 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. She’d seen how easily the money disappeared despite good reviews and a strong company. Fresh from the financial disaster in the West, her inexperience in the trade led her astray. Faced with a number of offers upon her return to New York, she found she could not say no.
Early in 1882, she signed conflicting contracts with rival companies and, threatened with litigation when all was revealed, escaped by sailing for England. While the press at home called her reckless and unsavory, her debut at London’s Gaiety Theatre set her star ablaze.
Once again, her romantic inclinations betrayed her. She and Braham had divorced after the death of their baby, but she still had a soft spot for the boys in the band. In May 1884 she married, and again it was to a musician, English composer Edward Solomon. By the winter of the following year, Lillian, her husband, and their baby daughter, Dorothy, had returned to New York.
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. Even scandal, however, brought people to a theater.
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 two seasons on the road, Lillian was a bigger star than ever, and, 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.
She also loosened the corset when she sat down to a feast with Diamond Jim. The Legendary, railroad equipment salesman had made, and spent, millions of dollars, and a lot of his profits went into huge dinner parties for himself and his friends. Lillian reportedly matched him at the table but handily outdid him at maintaining her weight. She once took off nearly thirty pounds and reduced her waist from twenty-seven to twenty-two inches by sticking to a schedule of exercise that included bicycle riding, tennis, workouts in a gymnasium, Turkish baths, and massage.
In 1907 she was once again on tour in her private Pullman car. Her play, Wildfire, was a huge success. According to an enthusiastic report in the Anaconda (Montana) Standard:
Miss Lillian Russell, the celebrated actress and American beauty, is making her first visit to Butte. Miss Russell’s public interviews and writings have long been noted for the good advice to young women, based on her own extended and varied experiences and observations.
Lillian’s recommendations about religion were also quoted extensively. “I am to a certain extent a believer in Christian Science. Mrs. [Mary Baker] Eddy’s teachings are not new, however. Much of her arguments were taken from the Confessions of Marcus Aurelius. She has read Buddha and dipped into the writings of Confucius. Her doctrines contain the best teachings of those ancient wise men,” Lillian expounded, somewhat to the surprise of the Standard interviewer.
Marriage and divorce were also covered, with the star using the newspaper to advance some rather radical ideas for the time. “Marriage is not an ideal institution as it is,” she said. “The idea that as soon as a man marries you that he should assume the airs of a proprietor and tell a woman where she should go and whom she should meet and why, especially if she is a woman of feeling, is irksome.”
Irksome was too mild a word for Lillian’s third marriage. In 1894 she wed a singer, John Haley Augustin Chatterton, who styled himself Signor Giovanni Perugini. Her actress friend,Marie Dressler, portrayed the tenor as a conceited buffoon who stooped to embarrassing Lillian onstage. After several months of discord, Lillian kicked him out. Disillusioned, she threw herself into her career, taking a hand in management of her company. Although her appearance in The Goddess of Truth and other productions under the direction of Henry E. Abby were not well received, she made a comeback in An American Beauty and thus acquired her nickname.
In 1899 Lillian joined Weber and Fields Music Hall, 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 made a movie version of Wildfire in 1914, starring with John Barrymore, but the movie was not particularly successful. Her public appearances, however, especially when she closed with her them song, “Come Down My Evenin’ Star,” still roused huge enthusiasm. Her profile, which was as well known as her name, was featured on cigar bands and matchbox covers, theater posters, and magazine covers. The Illustrated American declared:
There are those of course, who have preferences in other directions when it comes to female beauty. They may prefer theirs darker, or slighter, or more willowy, or shorter or taller. But any such predilection is a personal matter, after all, everyone acknowledges Miss Russell a beauty and a rare one at that.
Lillian always knew her beauty was an asset, but after her work for equal rights for women, for political causes, and on behalf of American servicemen, she decided to enter the political arena herself, and, so, in 1915, she declared her candidacy for mayor of New York. The woman whose first tour of the West had ended in economic failure had learned a lot about the world of commerce, and her candidacy was founded on the principles of sound business practice. “The reason I want to vote is because I pay three kinds of taxes–on my property, my income and my business–and I think I ought to have something to say about what to do with my money,” she told the New York Herald.
Women did not receive the national right to vote until 1920, and Lillian’s run for mayor did not succeed, except that it gave her another avenue to express the strong beliefs she had in equal rights. Despite her age, her good looks still engaged the largely male press. One editor noted that if perennial beauty is an outward manifestation of inward spiritual grace, then New York’s government should be crowned with success under her hand.
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. Shortly after she’d completed her mission, the famous American Beauty, the superstar of the “Gay Nineties,” died at her Pittsburgh home of “cardiac exhaustion.”