Lillie, Beatrice (1894–1989)

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Lillie, Beatrice (1894–1989)

Popular Canadian-born comedian of radio, stage and screen. Name variations: Lady Peel. Born Beatrice Gladys Lillie on May 29, 1894, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada; died on January 20, 1989, in Henley-on-Thames, England; daughter of John Lillie and Lucy Shaw Lillie; married Sir Robert Peel, in 1920 (died 1933); children: one son, Robert (died 1942).

Formed a singing trio at age 15 with her mother and sister Muriel (1909); made her debut on the London stage (1913) and on Broadway (1924); enjoyed a 50-year-long career as "the funniest woman in the world" on stage and on radio, while becoming known equally as well for her friendships with royalty and with such entertainment notables as Noel Coward and Charlie Chaplin; elevated by marriage to the British peerage (1920), becoming Lady Peel; published autobiography (1972) before retiring from show business (1977).


Exit Smiling (1926); The Show of Shows (1929); Are You There? (1930); Dr. Rhythm (1938); On Approval (1944); Around the World in Eighty Days (1956); Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967).

One night in the late 1920s, an imposing vision swept into the lobby of the English Speaking Union in St. Louis, Missouri. It was a woman of aristocratic bearing, wearing a fashionable pillbox hat and a luxurious mink coat. She peered suspiciously at the lobby attendant who swept forward to inquire politely if Madam wished to check her coat. "Certainly not!" the woman retorted. "No one's seen it yet!" Lady Peel, known to most of the world as Beatrice Lillie, "the world's funniest woman," had arrived. The encounter was typical of Bea Lillie's delight in poking fun at society's pretensions and hypocrisies. Her marriage to a British peer gave her access to new and fertile ground for her material, but she had been examining human foibles to hilarious effect since childhood.

"I wasn't born, I was won on the playing fields of Eton," Lillie once declared in a bald attempt to divert attention from her birth into a middle-class family in Toronto, Ontario, on May 29, 1894. Her father John Lillie was an Irishman from County Cork who had settled in Canada after serving Her Majesty's government in India. He found work in Toronto as a guard at the city jail and was known for two traits which he would pass on to his youngest daughter Beatrice—a wry sense of humor and a jaundiced eye for the preening, ostentatious displays of the upper classes. His wife, the former Lucy Shaw , was ten years his junior and the daughter of a prosperous clothing retailer from Manchester, England, who had retired to a farm outside of Toronto. In contrast to her husband, Lucy had an outspoken, sometimes explosive temperament and considered herself a product of the upper classes which John ridiculed, much to her annoyance. John and Lucy had settled after their marriage in a section of Toronto then known as "Cabbage Town" because of its large Irish immigrant population. It was in a modest house on Dovercourt Road that their first daughter, Muriel, was born in 1893, followed the next year by Beatrice Gladys.

Lillie's earliest memories were of her mother's musical voice. Lucy, who entertained dreams of becoming a concert singer, trilled continually around the house and even sang her way through everyday conversation. "She used to run straight up the scale just saying hello," Bea once remembered. After John lost a good deal of money investing in a failed scheme involving an employment service for English and Irish immigrants, Lucy helped make ends meet by teaching singing and piano in the family parlor and was delighted to discover that her elder daughter Muriel had real talent as a pianist, while Bea seemed to have inherited her own predilection for singing. Lillie quickly turned her ability to good use, entertaining the local laundryman and greengrocer by singing for them until they handed over a few coins. At the George Street School, where the sisters attended classes, Bea's imitations of her mother's singing or Muriel's piano playing made her a popular student. When Lucie (who by now had decided to make her name more aristocratic by changing its spelling) was hired as the choir director at Cooke's Presbyterian Church, Muriel quickly became the choir's accompanist. Bea, much to Lucie's embarrassment, had to be removed from the choir after making the other children giggle.

Lillie's first formal education in the mimicry that would become the basis of her humor came from Harry Rich, an erstwhile music-hall entertainer who had set himself up in business as the Rich Concert and Entertainment Bureau. Although Bea disliked Rich intensely, it was from him that she first learned the art of the "character song," for which Rich himself had once been famous. Baldly trading in ethnic stereotypes and social stigmas, Lillie perfected her impersonations of everything from geisha girls to organ grinders to Irish clog dancers, trying them out on the audiences at her mother's Wednesday night musicales presented in the living room, and building the repertoire of gestures and facial expressions which would become her stock-in-trade. Rich was delighted with her progress. By the time Muriel and Bea had entered the Gladstone Avenue High School, Rich was sending the two girls out with their mother as The Lillie Trio. The act was such a success that Rich widened the territory, booking the women into a revue called The Belles of New York, which played mining camps and railroad towns in rural areas. Lucie, who felt such audiences were below the act's standards, changed its name for such bookings to The Francis Trio, while Bea appeared as "Gladys Montell," the name she intended to use for the film career she was sure lay ahead.

While the girls were in high school, the act was appearing across the border in New York State, playing to great response in such towns as Coburg, New York, a summer resort on Lake Ontario for Manhattan's upper crust. Bea had her own "window card" placed in storefronts and public spaces where the act was appearing, identifying her as "Miss Beatrice Lillie, Character Costume Vocalist and Impersonator." She was already attracting attention in the press, with the Toronto Globe noting that "Miss Beatrice Lillie … is a remarkable and clever artist with a sweet, powerful voice," and the Drayton Advocate reporting that "her very appearance was a signal for applause, and she was repeatedly encored." When the girls graduated, the Lillie Trio was reluctantly disbanded. Muriel entered the Toronto Conservatory of Music and seemed headed for a distinguished concert career, while Lucie accepted an offer to direct Coburg's choir, leaving John to turn the family home in Toronto into a boarding house. Bea enrolled at St. Agnes' College in Belleville, Ontario, commuting to Coburg on school holidays to be with her mother.

Muriel's surprise announcement in 1912 that she had left the conservatory and married without her parents' consent threw Lucie into a fit of angry recrimination. Convinced that Muriel was throwing away a promising future, Lucie left her job in Coburg and hustled her eldest daughter onto a ship bound for Europe, determined to enroll Muriel at a German music academy. Bea, stranded at St. Agnes', soon learned that the ship had been diverted to England as the outbreak of war on the Continent seemed imminent. Later that year, after begging her father for the money, Bea made the first of scores of transatlantic crossings and arrived in London determined to find work in the theater.

I'm not making this up, you know!

—Beatrice Lillie

Lillie's first recorded appearance on the London stage came as an "extra turn" in a music-hall revue at the Camberwell Empire in 1913. Such semi-professional acts were often inserted between the main attractions as a way of filling out an otherwise skimpy program. Bea was given time for three numbers, for which Lucie wrapped her in three different layered costumes, the idea being that after each number, Lillie could quickly strip off one layer in the wings and run back onstage for the next. The public's response after the first number indicated that she needn't have hurried, with the audience chatter almost drowning her out. Desperate, Bea walked on for her third number, called for silence, summoned up the tears she had learned to produce copiously under Harry Rich's guidance, and chokingly announced that she would like to dedicate her next number to Irving Berlin who, as was well known to music-hall and vaudeville audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, had recently been left a widower by the death of his first wife. Bea's ploy, while it may not have made her a star, at least brought a respectful silence to the hall for her teary rendition of Berlin's "When I Lost You." The appearance was to be her last for some time. Bea made unproductive rounds to London agents, while Muriel earned money playing piano in silent movie houses and Lucie taught piano in the small flat the three shared in Chelsea.

Finally, in August 1914, on the day war was declared in Europe, Lillie was given her first contract by the man who would guide her career for the next 20 years. André Charlot had arrived in London from Paris some time earlier, had become famous for his "intimate revues" presented in London's smaller theaters, and would eventually become the English Flo Ziegfeld. Charlot offered Bea a three-year contract at £15 a week and put her in a show of his already running called Not Likely, into which a coy number, "I Want a Toy Soldier," had been inserted for her. Audiences noticed her low-cut, sleeveless costume more than anything else, and Lillie was promptly assigned to a number of touring productions in which Charlot hoped Bea would gain some experience. Since his roster of male performers was being greatly shortened by the demands of the military, Charlot began to cast Lillie in male roles, her slim figure and slight build being ideal for a male impersonator. Lucie was horrified but powerless to break Bea's contract.

It was during the next year, as Lillie stumped from one smoky, beer-laden music hall to another in a dreary round of gray industrial towns, that she refined the abilities Harry Rich had recognized back in Toronto. She learned to trust an audience's reaction as the only guide in developing an act, and loathed the vacuum of a rehearsal hall and the chore of learning lines, which she found especially difficult. Many of her bits of business, in fact, grew from genuine mistakes during a performance, brought about by her aversion to rehearsing. She learned how to deliver a double entendre with maximum effect in front of an audience of working men and women who were more interested in each other than what was happening on stage. By the end of 1914, Charlot decided Bea was ready for the London stage and cast her in a male role in his 5064 Gerard (a reference to a telephone number which figured in the typically sparse plot). She appeared in formal evening suit and striped cravat, singing Berlin's "I Want to Go Back to Michigan" with such success that she was called back for several encores. Her next Charlot revue, Now's the Time, happened to open on the first night of bombing raids by German zeppelins, and it was a tribute to Lillie's skill that she managed to keep a decidedly edgy audience in their seats while the distant rumble of bombs punctuated her numbers. The experience inspired her to introduce a new song the next night, "Where Did That One Go, Herbert?," which became a favorite with wartime audiences who would supply their own bomb effects if the real thing happened to be lacking. Charlot was now sure he had a star on his hands.

Bea's life at home, however, was not as encouraging. Muriel's concert career, once so promising, was now moribund and a constant source of friction between mother and daughter. Lucie, for her part, seemed jealous of Bea's success and continually harped on the career lost by her marriage to John, still living in Toronto. Dreading the domestic atmosphere that awaited her after the gaiety and laughter of the theater, Bea would often bring friends home with her for the night. One of them was the understudy Charlot had hired for her, Gertrude Lawrence , who would soon become Lillie's equal in popularity on the music-hall stage and her closest friend. Bea would often call in sick so that Gertrude could go on for her, although Charlot discovered the trick when he found himself sitting next to Lillie at another show during one of her "sick" nights. Through Lawrence, Lillie met Noel Coward, a young lyricist looking for his first break, and hobnobbed with royalty and the Bright Young Things of London society at parties given by composer Ivor Novello, who wrote the score for Charlot's 1918 revue, Tabs (which included the song that became a virtual second anthem for the British, "Keep the Home Fires Burning"). Lillie shocked proper London by appearing in Oh, Joy as a young actress who ends up in a man's bedroom wearing his pink pajamas—a risqué stage device that was the delight of audiences and critics. "Miss Lillie wears [the pajamas] with such grace and discretion that there is nothing outré about them," wrote one reviewer, who could not resist adding, "In fact, she is the very pink of piquant propriety." It was also during this period that Lillie began the first of her many affairs, embarking on a passionate amour with the dance director of a 1919 Charlot show in which she appeared.

By the end of the war, Lillie had assumed an assured place on the list of London music-hall stars, along with Gertie Lawrence, Jack Buchanan, George Robey, and Gladys Cooper , in whose company she could be found most nights after the show at any number of choice London watering holes like the Ivy, Rules, or Simpson's. It was at Simpson's that Lillie met

Robert Peel, the youngest in a line of Peels named Robert stretching back to the 18th century which included the Robert who had established London's Metropolitan Police, ever after called "Bobbies." Bea's friend, Phyllis Monkman , who had been dating Peel before she introduced him to Bea, described him as "a sweet boy; very, very good looking [but] weak as water." It was no secret that the Peels of late had fallen on hard times, and that Robert had little else to offer besides the title of 5th baronet that he would inherit on the death of his father. He was, in fact, selling cars for a living when Lillie met him and the two began going about London together, Peel being smitten with theater types in general and fancying himself a playwright manqué. Not long after they began dating, Bea wandered into one of her costars' dressing rooms. "You know," she said, "I think I should marry Bobby Peel. He's an important man, a big name, and I should seriously do something about my life." It did not seem to occur to Lillie to wonder if she was actually in love with him. The engagement was announced in October 1919, the nuptials taking place in January 1920 in the chapel of Peel's ancestral home, Drayton Hall, not far from London. Muriel was bridesmaid, John traveled from Toronto to give his daughter away, and the pews were filled with London theater folk, the only ones missing being Peel's parents, who chose to remain at their alpine retreat in Switzerland but who sent several pieces of the family's jewelry for Bea's use.

The newlyweds honeymooned in Monte Carlo, where Peel promptly lost all their money at the gambling table. Peel's "champagne tastes," as Bea tactfully put it, would leave the couple entirely dependent on Lillie's income from the theater throughout their marriage. "He was known," she once wrote, "to buy a new dress shirt every morning for that evening's wearing and throw yesterday's away rather than bother sending it to the laundry. A fascinating concept, really." When Peel announced he had completed a screenplay which he was sure Hollywood would be eager to buy, the couple embarked with great fanfare for New York not long after their honeymoon. But Bea's reputation preceded her, helped by the thousands of American doughboys who had seen her in London after America had joined the war in 1917. She was besieged in New York with offers for appearances, especially from an eager Flo Ziegfeld, which she turned down to everyone's surprise by announcing she was pregnant. Returning to London, Lillie gave birth to a son—named, inevitably, Robert—in December 1920.

Although now the wife of a socially prominent man and the mother of a newborn son, Lillie longed to return to the sheltered world of the stage. John Gielgud, who as a struggling young actor appeared with Bea, once noted that her genius stemmed from an almost childlike view of a world from which the bright glare of footlights shielded her. The world in which Lillie now found herself, playing the real-life roles of mother and society wife, was not to her liking. "I was bored," she admitted many years later, "and every night at eight o'clock I became fidgety and nervous. Something important seemed to be missing from my life, so I went back to the stage determined never to leave it again." Placing her son's upbringing in her mother's care and accepting her relationship with Peel as a marriage in name only, Lillie returned to the stage in another Charlot revue, Up in Mabel's Room, and returned to her life of greasepaint, outrageous costumes, and after-show parties, where she traded cocktails and witticisms with the likes of her old friend Noel Coward, fresh from his first success as a playwright with The Vortex; Charlie Chaplin, already an international film star; and those two royal theater enthusiasts, the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) and his brother (the future George VI).

Late in 1923, Lillie traveled once again to New York, having accepted an offer for her American debut in a Charlot revue imported to Broadway by the Selwyn Brothers, second only to Ziegfeld as purveyors of lavish vaudeville entertainment. Headlining with her were her old friends Gertie Lawrence and Jack Buchanan. Refusing the Selwyns' demands to Americanize the show by including songs written by American composers, Charlot gave Bea ten numbers written by Novello and Coward, including "March with Me," in which Lillie paraded around the stage dressed as Britannia, complete with shield, helmet, and sword. As usual, Lillie had paid only the slightest attention during rehearsals and consequently took a wrong turn, plowing into the line of chorus girls marching behind her and creating such total chaos that the exuberant audience was naturally convinced it had all been carefully choreographed beforehand. Despite the Selwyns' misgivings, the show was an instant hit with American audiences who were used to seeing hordes of anonymous chorines rather than three troupers who appeared in nearly every sketch. "In Charlot's revue," wrote one critic, "the stars do a great deal more and appear so often you feel that you know them very well at the end of the performance." Lillie attracted so much attention in the show that performers in other shows up and down Broadway began to imitate her. "There is no one in New York comparable to Beatrice Lillie," claimed The New York Times, which especially admired her willingness to sacrifice her aristocratic features and vocal talents in the interest of humor.

Just as she had in London, Lillie became the darling of New York's cultural and social elite. She was embraced by the Round Table, that infamous collection of wits and wags that gathered at the Algonquin Hotel each week. Playwright Marc Connelly, a member in good standing of the Round Table, found Bea and Gertie a duplex apartment on 54th Street that became the theater world's official party headquarters, and Bea herself began an affair with journalist Charles MacArthur that ended only when MacArthur, soon to become famous by cowriting The Front Page, announced his engagement to Helen Hayes . As the Charlot revue's run was extended through the summer of that year, Lillie was swept into a round of weekend house parties in Southampton and invitations to visit her hosts in Palm Beach during the winter. Lucie brought young Robert to visit his mother in New York, to Bea's great delight, although their time together was cut short when the Charlot revue ended its run late in 1924 and Lillie set off on a tour with Gertie Lawrence.

Bea returned to London only briefly, in February 1925, after learning that Robert had officially become the 5th baronet on the death of his father, making her Lady Peel. She was delighted at the dramatic possibilities, played to the hilt when reporters swarmed around her as she boarded her ship in New York harbor. "I was playing it terribly grand, very Lady Peel all over the place," she once gleefully recalled, although trouble came along in the person of one of her fellow actors, also taking ship for the Old Country, who drunkenly teetered up the gangplank, yelled out a Cockney greeting, and slapped her on the back, sending the demure Lady Peel sprawling onto the deck. "I was livid," she remembered, not because of any disrespect to a peer of the realm, she said, but because her act had been spoiled. Bea's title, observed Kenneth Tynan at the time, "sits on her like a halo on an anarchist."

During the years between the wars, Lillie sailed back and forth across the Atlantic in a nearly continuous round of hybrid British-American shows. She quickly noted the difference between American and British audiences when a skit that had brought howls of laughter in New York fell flat during her first appearance at London's venerable Palladium, saved only when she changed into an outrageous costume and galumphed around the stage. "I don't know why it is," she complained, "but most Englishmen are from Missouri. They have to have their humor laid out on a table." Nonetheless, she was at the peak of her career, appearing regularly in André Charlot's yearly revues, touring on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit through the American Midwest and then traveling on to California to make her first film in 1926, Exit Smiling, during which she was sued for $100,000 by the wife of the film's writer, with whom Lillie was accused of having an affair. (The suit was later dropped.) Bea never felt as comfortable in front of a camera as she did in front of a live audience and would appear in only a handful of pictures during her long career. It was during these heady years that she bobbed her hair, prompting one New York department store to offer its female patrons an "Eton Crop, as worn by Miss Beatrice Lillie in Charlot's Revue." She never failed to wear one of the growing collection of pillbox hats she ordered en masse each year from Bergdorf-Goodman, as much a part of her act as the ubiquitous silver cigarette holder she brandished with aplomb. She filled music halls in England and vaudeville houses in America with audiences who flocked to see her growing repertoire of misguided characters crashing, stumbling and warbling their way through songs like "It's Better with Your Shoes Off" and "Roses Always Remind Me of What a Girl Should Always Forget." In New York, she could be found most evenings after a show at Dinty Moore's on 46th Street or the old Reuben's further uptown, often

in the company of Fanny Brice , with whom she became great friends, or with her latest lover; and in London, she hobnobbed with royalty and fellow peers when her marriage to Robert Peel required it, although the two saw little of each other outside of these social responsibilities. Lillie saw young Bobby as often as her schedule allowed, but continued to leave his upbringing in Lucie's hands. Her drinking grew to legendary proportions. Bea offered two explanations for her peculiar sensitivity to even small amounts of alcohol—either the metal plate she claimed had been inserted in her skull as the result of a shrapnel wound from World War I London bombings, or, in a second version, because of a skull fracture suffered in a fall from a horse in Hyde Park. Although few believed her, everyone loved to hear her recount such insults to her person, punctuated by her beloved cry of shocked outrage, "I could have eaten parsnips, darling!"

In April 1933, Sir Robert Peel died of peritonitis. Lillie mourned his passing as she would that of any good friend, but she frankly admitted to feeling no stronger emotion and told friends years later that she and "Big Bobby" would probably have been divorced if he had lived. She stayed in England for the remainder of that year, but returned to New York in the spring of 1934 to begin preparing for the premiere of her own radio program on NBC in January of 1935, on which she introduced such characters as The Honest Working Girl and Auntie Bea, a parody of New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia's weekly radio reading of comic strips for children. The year 1935 also brought to Broadway Vincente Minnelli's production of At Home Abroad, billed as a "musical travelogue" in which Lillie appeared as a shopper attempting to order, with great difficulty, "one dozen double damask dinner napkins"; as a mountain-climbing golddigger whose lament for her lost lover, "Oh, Leo," turns into an unearthly yodel; and in a parody of The Merry Widow. "She is one of the greatest woman funmakers on the English-speaking stage," wrote one critic, while another noted that "no one else can hover so skillfully between beauty and burlesque."

Lillie returned to England just before Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939 and remained there for much of World War II. Young Bobby, who was now the 6th baronet, enlisted and shipped out for Asia in 1942, bringing a more personal meaning to the appearances Bea made for the country's Entertainment National Service Association, the British counterpart of America's USO shows. She was a great favorite with wartime audiences. "It was as if she sensed our loneliness," an American GI who attended one of Lillie's shows recalled after the war. "I know I speak for every soldier in that large theater when I say she cheered our hearts for days, even weeks, afterwards." One of her more successful ENSA shows was Big Top, which opened in London not long after Bobby had sailed, and then toured throughout the country. It was during the show's run in Manchester that Bea was informed by the Defense Ministry that Bobby was missing in action in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where he had arrived just days earlier on the HMS Tenedos. The ship had received a direct hit during a Japanese bombing raid. Big Top's producer offered to close the show, but Lillie insisted that she go on in that evening's performance. Even so, one cast member remembered that "the cold steel in her eyes was absolutely terrifying." Bobby's body was never found, and for months afterward Lillie clung to the belief that he was still alive, perhaps suffering from amnesia in some military hospital. She ran ads in newspapers and made sure to visit every hospital on the show's tour, despite the Ministry placing his name on the official deceased list and her own visit to the military cemetery in Ceylon containing a memorial to those lost in the disaster, on which she tearfully read her son's name. It wasn't until 1944 and the war's end that Lillie was forced to accept the truth when a shipmate of her son's, who had been onshore at the time of the attack, told her that Bobby's station had been only five feet from the site of the explosion that tore the ship apart.

Lillie's only solace lay in her work, but it was obvious to anyone close to her that she would never be the same. "The day Bobby died, Bea began her own death," one of them later wrote. The "futile waste," as she once described it, of her son's life drained away whatever happiness there had been in her own. Her drinking worsened, forcing stage managers and fellow performers to ply her with cups of black coffee in her dressing room before the curtain went up. She was as hilarious as ever onstage, appearing to great acclaim in 1948's Inside U.S.A. on Broadway and winning a Tony Award in 1953 for An Evening With Beatrice Lillie, which ran for 275 performances at the Booth Theater before going on a world tour that stretched over the next two years. Returning to England at the end of the tour, Lillie bought the small house in Henley-on-Thames in which she would settle after 50 years on the road. While she was rehearsing for her next show, Milady Dines Alone, Lucie died, leaving Bea to look after Muriel, who would spend the next 20 years suffering from various alcohol-related illnesses before passing away in 1973.

Although Lillie would not marry again, her constant companion was now John Philip, whom she had met in New York not long after the war. Philip had been hired during the run of Inside U.S.A. to carry Lillie to and from her dressing room for a number in which she was required to appear as a mermaid, and was thus immobilized. Philip had changed his name from the original John Huck after deciding to become an actor, although he spent most of his time offstage looking after Bea. By the early 1960s, it was increasingly apparent that Lillie needed someone like Philip. During the Broadway run of High Spirits—a musical version of Coward's Blithe Spirit, in which Bea took the role of the addled medium, Madame Arcati—Bea was often nearly late for her calls, missed her cues, and flubbed her lines, all of which the audience naturally took as more of Lillie's famous stage antics. "God bless Miss Lillie," effused one critic during the show's run, "the most durable and delightful comic of our era!" The situation worsened during the filming of what would be Lillie's last picture, the 1967 musical Thoroughly Modern Millie. Director George Roy Hill, along with Philip, had to gently coax her through take after take for the simplest of scenes, while Bea continually inquired "Who's that girl who keeps singing?," pointing to one of the film's female leads, Julie Andrews . Still, audiences made up of young people who had barely been born when Lillie was at the peak of her fame fell in love with her off-beat portrayal of a scheming 1920s landlady attempting to sell two of her flapper tenants (Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore ) into white slavery. The less predictable atmosphere of a live television broadcast proved particularly troublesome. During a guest appearance with Johnny Carson on the "Tonight Show," Lillie seemed to have difficulty following the thread of conversation; and she forgot the expected formality of signing in when she was a mystery guest on What's My Line? Then, instead of walking offstage after her identity was discovered, Lillie wandered down into the audience and had to be escorted out of the studio. Restaurateur Vincent Sardi noted sadly in the early 1970s that while Bea was still a regular at his establishment, "she no longer knows it's Sardi's."

Two strokes suffered in the mid-1970s further reduced her abilities, and in 1977, Beatrice Lillie announced her retirement from show business, via a press release issued by Philip. One of the last to see her before she moved back to England was Helen Hayes, who had lived next door to Lillie on Manhattan's East End Avenue for many years. Hayes later wrote that Bea was too weak to raise her head, "unable to lift that proud, cocky carriage … that had so distinguished her." Indeed, Bea didn't seem to know who Helen was until Hayes mentioned Charlie MacArthur, Lillie's one-time lover and Hayes' husband, who had died more than 20 years before. "Slowly, Bea stretched a hand toward mine, took my hand, and touched it to her lips," Hayes recalled. A few days afterward, Lillie was taken home to England in the company of Philip and three nurses, and lived on in near seclusion until her death on January 20, 1989, at 94 years of age.

Although she is often cited as the originator of "camp" and the inspiration for the work of such performers as Carol Burnett, Bette Midler , and Carol Channing , Bea Lillie's greatest legacy was the laughter she brought to a world torn apart by two world wars. "Bygone days. Halcyon days," she once wrote of the years between those tragic conflicts. "We were convinced that the future stretched endlessly ahead of us into ever sunnier, happier times." Whenever she stepped onto a stage, for however short a time, that conviction came true.


Hayes, Helen, with Katherine Hatch. My Life In Three Acts. NY: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1990.

Laffey, Bruce. The Funniest Woman in the World. NY: Winwood Press, 1989.

Lillie, Beatrice, with John Philip and James Brough. Every Other Inch a Lady. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York