Braithwaite, Lilian (1873–1948)

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Braithwaite, Lilian (1873–1948)

British actress. Name variations: Dame Lilian Braithwaite. Born Lilian Florence Braithwaite in 1873 in Ramsgate, England; died in 1948; daughter of a minister; married Gerald Lawrence (an actor); children: daughter, Joyce Carey (b. 1892), also an actress.

One of the grande dames of the British stage, Lilian Braithwaite gained popularity early in her career playing a succession of suffering heroines, but in later years expanded her repertoire

to become a well-respected actress.

Born in Ramsgate, England, in 1873, the daughter or a minister, Braithwaite grew up to be remarkably beautiful, with classical features, including a wonderfully long nose—slightly broad at the end—that was said to have sent artists into raptures. Though she appeared in amateur theatricals with the Strolling Players and the Oxford University Dramatic Society, her desire to go on the professional stage was met with a storm of family protest. But in 1897, at age 24, she joined the William Haviland and Gerald Lawrence Shakespearean company, making her first professional appearances in minor roles in South Africa. (Married to Gerald Lawrence, Braithwaite had had a daughter Joyce in 1892; the marriage was subsequently dissolved.)

After an appearance at Stratford-upon-Avon in Pericles (for which she learned the role of Marina in one day), she made her London debut at Crouch End Opera House as Celia in As You Like It, playing opposite Julia Neilson . However, it was her portrayal of Lady Olivia Vernon in the original Haymarket production of Sweet Nell of Old Drury (1900) that brought Braithwaite to the attention of playgoers. In 1901, she joined Frank Benson's company at the Comedy Theater to gain more experience in Shakespeare, and she returned to the West End a year later, where her technique and radiant beauty made her a huge box-office draw. Signing with the George Alexander company, she was seen in The Wilderness, Liberty Hall, Paolo and Francesca, The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Windermere's Fan, Old Heidelberg, and Mr. Wu, a 1913 hit which ran for a year. Though Braithwaite could have presumably played the West End successfully for the rest of her career, she occasionally strayed from London to play more challenging roles in the provinces, sacrificing salary to gain experience.

After considerable success as Margaret Fairfield in A Bill of Divorcement (1921), Braithwaite took a risk with a different kind of role. She played opposite Noel Coward in his early play The Vortex (1924), about a young dope addict and his neurotic mother, who is having an affair with one of his friends. (The part became Braithwaite's when Kate Cutler left the cast in a dispute with Coward.) The play, daring in theme for the 1920s, brought Braithwaite status as a serious actress. The production "was shattering," wrote her daughter Joyce Carey . "I'd never seen anything like it on the stage in my life and the last act left one literally shaking with excitement. Both my mother and Noel were fantastically good." While playing in the New York production of the play, Braithwaite received such an enormous round of applause at her first entrance that she nearly forgot her lines. Upon her return to London, Braithwaite's role as Mrs. Phelps, the possessive matriarch in The Silver Cord, fully entrenched her as an actress to be reckoned with. Four years later, she took on a second role intended for another actress—this time, Constance Collier —in Ivor Novello's comedy The Truth Game. Displaying a great talent for delivering the most malicious insults in a honeyed tone, she subsequently played in a series of Novello comedies, including Symphony in Two Flats, Party, Fresh Fields, Full House, and Comedienne.

Braithwaite was also known for her terrific wit, reminiscent of Mrs. Patrick Campbell , though she was thought to be kinder. According to Eric Johns, Braithwaite frequented the Ivy Restaurant, occupying a favorite table by the door, where anyone entering would have to pass scrutiny, thus becoming fair game for her endearing sarcasm. "At one time Margaretta Scott favoured a cloak and tricorne, looking like a picturesque Dick Turpin character. As she swept past the Braithwaite table on her way to a matinée, Lilian remarked, 'There goes Peggy—off to York!'" Johns also writes that critic James Agate so relished Braithwaite's remarks that he gave her twopence each time he felt she had outdone herself. He relished goading her. "At supper one night he crossed to her table to say, 'I've just seen a very good performance from London's second best actress.' Lilian replied, 'What encouraging praise from London's second best critic.'"

During World War II, Braithwaite worked for the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), an organization that provided entertainment for the armed forces. At her office in the Drury Lane Theater, she oversaw arrangements for units to entertain at various hospitals, often arguing with authorities who sought to stop her performers from leaving in times of danger. In the midst of wartime, she took time from ENSA to play Abby Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace. Then 69 years old, the actress made her way to the theater for 1,337 performances, even when the West End was in danger of bomb blasts.

Braithwaite was close to her daughter Joyce, although for a time she tried to discourage her from going into the theater. She finally came around and arranged for her to study with Kate Rorke at the Florence Etlinger Dramatic School. Joyce enjoyed some success as an actress, best known for her roles in a number of Coward plays. She also wrote a popular play, Sweet Aloes (1934), under the pseudonym Jay Mallory.

Neilson, Julia Emilie (1868–1957)

English actress and theater manager. Born in 1868; died in 1957; educated in Wiesbaden and at the Royal Academy of Music; married Fred Terry, in 1891 (died 1933).

Julia Neilson made her acting debut at the Lyceum Theater in 1888. For the next 12 years, she acted in plays opposite such luminaries as Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Sir John Hare, and Sir George Alexander. In 1891, she married Fred Terry, the brother of actress Ellen Terry . From 1900 to 1930, in collaboration with her husband, Neilson was actor-manager on a series of successful productions, including Sweet Nell of Old Drury (1900), The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905), and Henry of Navarre (1909). She made her last stage appearance in the 1944 presentation of The Widow of Forty.

Even late in her career, Braithwaite's flair and wit won her the respect of her colleagues old and young. She may be best remembered for the particular dignity she brought to her calling. As Eric Johns points out, she "became the epitome of the West End stage presentation of a Lady."


Hartnoll, Phyllis, and Peter Found, eds. The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theatre. NY: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Johns, Eric. Dames of the Theatre. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1974.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts