Belmont, Eleanor Robson (1879–1979)
Belmont, Eleanor Robson (1879–1979)
Actress and philanthropist, known as "the woman who single-handedly saved the Metropolitan Opera." Name variations: Mrs. August Belmont. Born Eleanor Elise Robson on December 13, 1879, in Wigan, Lancashire, England; died on October 26, 1979, in New York, New York; daughter of Charles Robson (a musician and conductor) and Madge Carr-Cook (an actress); attended St. Peter's Academy on Staten Island, New York; married August Belmont, Jr., February 26, 1910, in New York City (died, 1924).
In 1910, Eleanor Belmont gave up a successful acting career to marry wealthy widower August Belmont, Jr. Throughout a second career as a philanthropist, her extraordinary efforts on behalf of numerous organizations, most notably the American Red Cross and the Metropolitan Opera, were unparalleled. At the time, it was said that she probably helped raise more money than any other woman in America.
Belmont was born Eleanor Robson in Wigan, England, the third generation of a well-known theatrical family. Her father died when she was very young, and her mother later married actor Augustus Cook and moved with him to the United States, placing Belmont in a convent on Staten Island while she toured with the Daniel Frawley Stock Company of San Francisco. (Known as Madge Carr-Cook , Eleanor's mother would best be remembered for her performance in the title role in Mrs. Wiggins of the Cabbage Patch.) As a shy 17-year-old, Belmont rejoined her mother and stepfather and found herself performing bit parts with the company for $15 a week. (Later, she claimed to have been hired not because anyone thought she could act, but so her mother could keep an eye on her.) When the company's ingénue quit the company, Belmont was pressed into more serious roles. She was not only beautiful—blonde, with large blue eyes—but a quick study. According to her mother, Eleanor didn't learn lines, she absorbed them, mastering 13 different roles in as many days.
At 21, she made her Broadway debut, playing Bonita Canby, the lead in Augustus Thomas' Arizona. In 1904, she appeared in Merely Mary Ann, written at her suggestion by Israel Zangwill from his own short story. After a successful run in New York, she appeared in the equally well-received London tour. Her performance particularly enthralled young playwright George Bernard Shaw, who called her a "Joan of Arc" and, in spite of his notorious reputation as a misogynist, sent her a glowing letter, one of many to follow. "I take no interest in mere females; but I love all artists," he wrote. "They belong to me in the most sacred way; and you are an artist." His platonic crush on Belmont endured for many years, and he created the play Major Barbara as a vehicle for her, though her producer at the time would not release her from her contract to accept the role.
During the height of her theatrical career, Eleanor was persistently pursued by August Belmont, Jr., a wealthy widower with three sons. While August busied himself with building the New York subway system, his real passion was for breeding and racing horses. He became somewhat of a stage-door Johnny, showering Eleanor with flowers and adoring notes. Although he was 27 years her senior, and her decision to marry him may have been more practical than passionate, the two wed in January 1910. Just weeks before the nuptials, in her final stage performance as the character Glad in The Dawn of a Tomorrow, she delivered a prophetic curtain line: "I'm going to be took care of now."
Belmont fit easily into her newly acquired role as wife to a very rich man, writing: "A private railroad car is not an acquired taste. One takes to it immediately." In addition to enjoying the high life (including a party at which Harry Houdini performed one of his famous escapes), Eleanor Belmont threw her enormous energy and creative talents into fund-raising. One of her first philanthropic creations was the Working Girls' Vacation Association, a fund to help young working women get out of the city for a week or so each year. She also founded the Society for the Prevention of Useless Spending to confront the problem of a growing number of overlapping fund-raising appeals. The society served as a planning agency, which studied areas of need and convinced wealthy donors to allocate their gifts in a manner that allowed more people to get a portion of the pie.
Carr-Cook, Madge (1856–1933)
English actress. Born in Yorks, England, on June 28, 1856; died on September 20, 1933; sister of T. Morton Powell (a theatrical manager); married Charles Robson; married Augustus Cook (an actor); children: (first marriage)Eleanor Robson Belmont (1879–1979).
Madge Carr-Cook made her stage debut at age three, appearing as Fleance in MacBeth. Following many tours within England, she moved to the U.S. in 1887, joining the Lyceum stock company under Daniel Frohman's management. Carr-Cook had her first taste of fame when she opened as Elvira Wiggs in Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch. First produced in Louisville, Kentucky, in October 1903, the Alice Hegan Rice play opened at the Savoy Theatre in New York in September 1904. Carr-Cook retired from the stage following her daughter Eleanor Robson 's marriage to August Belmont in 1910.
During the First World War, Belmont turned her attention to the American Red Cross. In the first three months of the war, she made 45 speeches in ten states in an appeal to raise money. In the fall of 1917, she made a dangerous trip across the Atlantic to visit the European troops, carrying with her a letter of introduction to General John Pershing, commander of the U.S. forces, from Theodore Roosevelt. In accordance with the gender parlance of the day, the letter outlined her mission and pinpointed her special abilities: "She has a man's understanding, a woman's sympathy, and a sense of honor and gift of expression such as are possessed by very few either among men or women." Belmont made a number of other tours on behalf of the Red Cross before the end of the war and also established a children's unit of the Red Cross in New York. In 1919, she was elected to membership in the Red Cross' governing body. Indeed, she would continue to be active in Red Cross activities throughout her life, receiving medals honoring her work in 1934 and 1939.
Widowed in 1924, at age 45, Belmont, with her snow white hair and elegant demeanor, settled comfortably into the role of grande dame. She auctioned off her husband's stable of 113 thoroughbred horses and sold a mansion on Madison Avenue, as well as the couple's Newport "cottage." She would make her home in a large apartment on Fifth Avenue and maintain a summer cottage in Maine until the late 1950s. During the Depression, she was chair of the Women's Division of the Emergency Unemployment Relief Commission for New York City. She also founded the Adopt-a-Family Committee to care for white-collar workers who needed short-term relief. Her artistic talents were again put to work; in 1924, she collaborated with Harriet Ford , adapting Ford's novel In the Next Room into a successful play.
Belmont's fund-raising skills were perhaps best utilized in her work for the Metropolitan Opera, which was on the brink of closing its doors after the Great Crash of 1929. Appointed to the then all-male board of directors in 1933, Belmont described her first meeting as something akin to opening night in the theatre. Her approach
to saving the Met was creatively geared to creating a new generation of youthful and middle-class opera-goers. Enduring criticism that she was "cheapening" the opera, she instituted Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts from the Metropolitan stage and ran a "What the Opera Means to Me" contest, with a weekend in New York and tickets to a performance as the prize. She established group discounts for children and students. When the Met's front curtain had to be replaced, Belmont had the old curtain cleaned, cut, and sewn into souvenir bookmarks and eyeglass cases by a network of volunteers. The sales of the Gold Curtain Souvenirs brought in $11,000.
In 1935, Belmont organized the Metropolitan Opera Guild, which provided members with special perks, like early ticket purchase, discounts for various performances, and subscriptions to an opera newsletter. Most attractive to many members was the privilege of attending opera rehearsal. During its first year, 2,000 people became guild members, with numbers climbing each year to reach 60,000. In 1957, over and above ticket sales to members, the Guild raised $2 million for the Metropolitan Opera Association.
During World War II, Belmont headed up the Guild's wartime activities, which included distributing opera tickets to service personnel. She also assumed the presidency of the Motion Picture Research Council, an organization formed to raise the standards of American films, and became a member of the advisory board of the National Broadcasting Company.
Eleanor Belmont remained active well into her 70s and 80s, giving small lunches and keeping a full-time secretary busy with correspondence. In 1949, she made a final visit to G.B. Shaw at his home in England. Whenever possible, she continued to attend the opera, although she had to be lifted from a wheelchair to her special chaise in her box. Awards and honors collected until the end of her days included a lifetime appointment as founder and president emeritus of the Opera Guild. Belmont received a distinguished service medal from the Theodore Roosevelt Association and was awarded honorary degrees from Yale and Columbia Universities. On the occasion of her 90th birthday, when she was reported to be in ill health, The New York Times prepared a full-page obituary. It did not appear until nearly 10 years later, when Eleanor Robson Belmont died in her sleep just shy of her 100th birthday.
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Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts