Fiske, Minnie Maddern (1865–1932)

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Fiske, Minnie Maddern (1865–1932)

American actress . Name variations: Minnie Maddern. Born Marie Augusta Davey on December 19, 1865, in New Orleans, Louisiana; died on February 15, 1932, in Hollis, Long Island, New York; only daughter of Thomas W. Davey (a theatrical manager) and Elizabeth "Lizzie" (Maddern) Davey (an actress); briefly attended convents in Cincinnati and St. Louis; married LeGrand White, around 1882 (divorced 1888); married Harrison Grey Fiske (a playwright, manager, and journalist), on March 19, 1890; children: (adopted son in 1922) Danville Maddern Davey.

Appearances as Minnie Maddern:

Sybil in A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing (New York debut, French Theater, May 30, 1870); Little Fritz in Fritz, our German Cousin (Wallack's Theater, July 1870); Dollie in Chicago Before the Fire (Theater Comique, June 1872); Prince Arthur in King John and Richelieu in The Two Orphans (Booth's Theater, May 1874); Widow Melnotte in The Lady of Lyons; Ralph Rackstraw in HMS Pinafore (1979); Chip in Fogg's Ferry (Park Theater, May 1882); Mercy Baxter in Caprice (New Park Theater, August 1884); Alice Glendenning in In Spite of It All (Lyceum Theater, September 1885 and on a subsequent U.S. tour); Mrs. Coney in Featherbrain (Madison Square Theater, May 1889).

Appearances as Minnie Maddern Fiske:

title role in Hester Crewe (Tremont Theater, Boston, November 1893); Nora in A Doll's House (Empire Theater, February 1894); Gilberte in Frou-Frou (Garden Theater, March 1894); Césarine in Marie Deloche (GardenTheater, March 1896); wrote and appeared in A Light from St. Agnes (1896 or 1897); Tess in Tess of the d'Urbervilles (Miner's Theater, March 1897); Cyprienne in Divorçons (Miner's Theater, May 1897); Saucers in A Bit of Old Chelsea (Miner's Theater, 1898); Madeleine in Love Finds the Way (Miner's Theater, 1898); Magda Giulia in Little Italy (Miner's Theater 1899); Becky in Becky Sharp (Miner's Theater, 1899); title role in Miranda of the Balcony (Manhattan Theater, 1901); title role in The Unwelcome Mrs. Hatch (Manhattan Theater, 1901); title role in Mary of Magdala (Manhattan Theater, 1902); title role in Hedda Gabler (Manhattan Theater, 1903); title role in Leah Kleschna (Manhattan Theater, 1904); Heroine in Dolce (Manhattan Theater, April 1906); Cynthia Karslake in The New York Idea (Milwaukee, October 1906); Rebecca West in Rosmersholm (Lyric Theater, December 1907); Nell Sanders in Salvation Nell (Hackett's Theater, November 1908); Lona Hessel in The Pillars of Society (Lyceum Theater, March 1910); title role in Hannele (Lyceum Theater, April 1910); title role in Mrs. Bumpstead-Leigh (Chicago, November 1910); toured in The New Marriage and Julia France (1911–12); Lady Patricia Cosway in Lady Patricia (New York Theater, February 1912); Mary Page in The High Road (Hudson Theater, November 1912); Juliet Miller in Erstwhile Susan (Gaiety Theater, January 1916); George Sand in Madame Sand (Criterion Theater, November 1917); toured America with all-star cast in Out There for the Red Cross (1918); Madame Eulin in Service (Cohan Theater, April 1918); Nellie Daventry in Mis' Nelly o' New Orleans (Henry Miller Theater, 1919); Marion Blake in Wake Up, Jonathan (January 1921); Patricia Baird in The Dice of the Gods (National Theater, April 1923); Mary Westlake in Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary (Belasco Theater, September 1923); Helen Tilden in Helena's Boys (Henry Miller Theater, April 1924); Mrs. Alving in Ghosts (Mansfield Theater, January 1927); Mistress Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor (Knickerbocker Theater, March 1928); toured as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing (1928); gave final performance on tour in Against the Wind (Chicago, November 1931).

Born into the theater, actress Minnie Maddern Fiske was the only child of Thomas Davey, a theatrical manager. Her mother, Elizabeth "Lizzie" Maddern , was one of seven children of Richard Maddern, a musician who had brought his family to America from England and had organized them into the Maddern Family Concert Company. As a three-year-old, Minnie accompanied her father's troupe on tour, first appearing on stage in Little Rock, Arkansas, as the young

Duke of York in Shakespeare's Richard III. Not long after, the Daveys separated, and little Minnie and her mother continued to pursue their careers as a duo. On May 30, 1870, at age four, Minnie made her New York debut, appearing in A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing at the French Theater. Billed as "Little Minnie Maddern," she became a popular child actress and, at 13, was adding adult roles to her repertoire, including the elderly Widow Melnotte in The Lady of Lyons. By the 1880s, she had graduated to ingenue roles and appeared in a variety of popular plays of the decade, including Fogg's Ferry, Caprice, and Featherbrain.

In 1882, while touring in Fogg's Ferry, she married LeGrand White, a handsome young theater musician who served for a while as her manager. The couple soon separated, however, and were divorced on June 25, 1888. Two years later, in 1890, she married Harrison Grey Fiske, the wealthy young owner of the New York Dramatic Mirror, and she retired from the stage to become a lady of leisure. Finding herself bored with domesticity, she began writing one-act plays, of which The Rose, The Eyes of the Heart, and A Light for St. Agnes became quite popular. Now using the name Minnie Maddern Fiske, she returned to the stage in 1893, as the heroine in her husband's unsuccessful play Hester Crewe. The next year, she played Nora in a charity production of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, and the performance, which won critical acclaim, not only signaled Fiske's return to the stage, but a new commitment to plays of substance.

Throughout the next two decades, Fiske gained a reputation as a serious actress as well as a champion of Ibsen, whom she considered the genius of the age. It was largely through her efforts that Ibsen and the realistic movement gained a foothold in America. In addition to A Doll's House, she starred in Ibsen's Hedda Gabler (1903), Rosmersholm (1907), The Pillars of Society (1910), and Ghosts (1927). Fiske reached the height of her popular success, however, in two adaptations of English novels: Lorrimer Stoddard's dramatization of the Thomas Hardy novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1897) and Becky Sharp (1899), a play based on William Thackeray's novel Vanity Fair. Fiske's performance as Becky Sharp, which ultimately became her favorite role, was glowing. Though Lewis C. Strang thought the play was colorless, he nonetheless rhapsodized over the actress: "One is tempted to spread on paper a synonym book of adjectives—brilliant, sparkling, scintillating, that sort of thing—but these, after all, are merely superficialities … they give no notion of the spirit of Mrs. Fiske's characterization."

Fiske, a wisp of a woman, with red hair and intense blue eyes, was generally noted for her understated "realistic" acting and impeccable technique, though there were some who considered her more of a personality than a great talent. Her wit and style were most apparent in her comic portrayals, which, like her more serious roles, were subtle and controlled. She was most often criticized for her staccato diction, and occasionally was accused of downright unintelligibility. Franklin Pierce Adams wrote in the New York Tribune:

Somewords she runstogether
Some others are distinctly stated.
Somecometoofast and sometooslow
And some are syncopated.
And yet no voice—I am sincere—
Exists that I prefer to hear.

In 1923, fledgling actress Helen Hayes had the opportunity to see Fiske in Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary. Hayes recalls in her autobiography the absolute perfection of Fiske's performance. "It was immediately apparent," she wrote, "that I was witness to one of those performances of which every actor dreams, and which he may achieve only once in a lifetime." Hayes was so impressed that she returned to the theater every Thursday for the rest of the play's run. The consistency of Fiske's performance amazed her. "There wasn't a smile or a shrug that was a fraction of a second early or late. A crumb was brushed off her jabot at precisely the same moment as she was fashioning a particular syllable. All that incredible spontaneity was calculated to a sigh."

Fiske, who until 1899 performed almost exclusively at the Fifth Avenue Theater, was engaged in a running battle with the Theatrical Trust or Syndicate, which had a monopoly on most of the nation's major theaters by 1896. In 1901, weary of competing with Trust productions and seeking independence, she asked her husband Harrison Fiske to acquire the lease on the Manhattan Theater and had it renovated at great cost. Minnie Maddern Fiske opened the attractive new facility with a production of Miranda on the Balcony. For the next six years, she appeared there, and occasionally elsewhere, in a string of modern plays that included The Unwel-come Mrs. Hatch (1901), Mary of Magdala (1902), Hedda Gabler (1903), Leah Kleschna (1904), The New York Idea (1906), Rosmersholm (1907), and Salvation Nell (1908), the first play to make it to Broadway from George P. Baker's famous "47 Workshop" at Harvard. Although Fiske continued to attract large audiences, the prolonged fight with the syndicate had cut deeply into finances, and in 1911 her husband was forced to sell the Dramatic Mirror. By 1915, he had declared bankruptcy and was increasingly unfaithful, leaving Fiske both emotionally and financially stranded. After a brief foray into films—Tess (1913) and Vanity Fair (1915)—she returned to the theater, appearing in a string of hits, including an American tour of Out There (1917), an all-star fund-raiser for the Red Cross.

In 1922, perhaps regretting an earlier decision not to have children, Fiske adopted a baby boy, Danville Maddern Davey. Although she took him on tour when he was a baby, she later entrusted his care to her secretary. Much of her life outside the theater was involved in the prevention of cruelty and abuse to animals, the only cause to ever rival Fiske's devotion to her career. During her later years, the actress was honored with several honorary degrees and was named as one of the 12 greatest living American women by the League of Women Voters in 1923, and again by Good Housekeeping magazine in 1931.

Fiske revived the 1910 Mrs. Bumpstead-Leigh in April 1929 and, despite increasing ill health, embarked on a two-year tour. In November 1931, she collapsed during a performance of Against the Wind in Chicago and died three months later, on February 15, 1932, at her home in Hollis, Long Island. By her direction, funeral services were private and her body was cremated. Summing up her extraordinary career, the New York critic Brooks Atkinson called it "one of the most honorable on Broadway. At a time when nearly everyone else was content with humbug, she acted on the stage in a sharp, naturalistic style, and she was the champion of intelligence in the theater." Her fame, however, came at a price. At the end of his tribute, Atkinson wrote: "A brilliant public figure had a joyless private life and few of the comforts of companionship and devotion."


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

Morley, Sheridan. The Great Stage Stars. London: Angus and Robertson, 1986.

Wilmeth, Don B., and Tice L. Miller. Cambridge Guide to American Theater. NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

suggested reading:

Binns, Archie. Mrs. Fiske and the American Theater. NY: Crown Publishers, 1955.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts