Loftus, Cissie (1876–1943)

views updated

Loftus, Cissie (1876–1943)

Scottish actress and impersonator. Name variations: Marie Cecilia Loftus; Marie Cecilia McCarthy. Born Marie Cecilia Brown on October 22, 1876, in Glasgow, Scotland; died of a heart attack on July 12, 1943, in New York City; daughter of Marie Loftus (1857–1940, a Scottish music-hall singer) and Ben Brown (an actor in a minstrel show); educated at the Convent of the Holy Child in Blackpool, England; married Justin Huntly McCarthy (a writer), on August 29, 1894 (divorced 1899); married Alonzo Higbee Waterman (a physician), on June 9, 1909 (divorced); children (second marriage): Peter John Barrie Waterman.

Made stage debut in Belfast, Scotland (October 1892); most significant roles included Viola in Twelfth Night (1900), Hero in Much Ado About Nothing (1900), Katherine in If I Were King (1901), Ophelia in Hamlet, and the mother in Three-Cornered Moon (1933). Films: East Lynne (1930s); The Old Maid (1930s).

A gifted impersonator with a vocal range that enabled her to sing soprano, contralto, tenor, or bass, Cissie Loftus was known for her expert mimicry. The multitalented Loftus appeared in vaudeville as well as theater, doing comedy as well as Shakespeare and Ibsen, and she could reproduce the breathing and voice patterns of such 19th- and 20th-century stage personalities as Sarah Bernhardt and Ethel Barrymore with such precision that those who saw her were entirely convinced by her impersonations.

Born into a theatrical family in Glasgow, Scotland, on October 22, 1876, Marie Cecilia Brown was the daughter of the world-renowned Scottish music-hall singer Marie Loftus . Her father, Ben Brown, was part of the minstrel act of Brown, Newland, and LeClerc, who performed for 45 years in a skit called "Black Justice." Cissie Loftus was educated at the Convent of the Holy Child in Blackpool, England. She also attended school at the age of six in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when her mother was on tour in the United States. Loftus took her mother's name when she began her stage career, debuting in Belfast, Scotland, in October 1892 to immediate acclaim for her superb mimicry. In July 1893, she appeared at the Oxford Music Hall in London.

On August 29, 1894, Loftus eloped to Edinburgh with the writer and ex-member of Parliament Justin Huntly McCarthy. McCarthy was the son of the Irish Nationalist party leader Justin McCarthy, who served in the House of Commons. Although both Loftus and McCarthy were Catholic, the marriage was performed in a civil ceremony. The couple divorced in 1899. Loftus was then married on June 9, 1909, to Chicago physician Alonzo Higbee Waterman; they had one son before the marriage ended in divorce.

Performing on the American stage for the first time on January 21, 1895, Loftus appeared in vaudeville at Koster and Bial's Music Hall in New York. From then on, she crossed the Atlantic many times, alternating appearances in England and America and switching from variety roles to traditional theatrical performances. She was often torn between her own ambition as a serious actress and the demands of her music-hall audience. As a member of Helena Modjeska 's company, she played her most memorable dramatic roles between 1900 and 1906. Her Shakespearean performances included Viola in Twelfth Night, Hero in Much Ado About Nothing (both in 1900), and Ophelia in Hamlet. In 1901, she appeared as Katherine in If I Were King, under the direction of Daniel Frohman, a part written for her by her first husband. In 1902, she appeared in London as Marguerite in Faust, and also in another of McCarthy's plays, The Proud Prince. One of her greatest triumphs was her Peter Pan in London, December 1905.

By 1905, the always frail Loftus began to show signs of ill health and stress and may have been in the early stages of narcotics addiction. She argued with managers and became unreliable, dropping out of productions, losing her voice, and withdrawing from bookings. Rumors circulated that she had drowned or had been involved in suicide attempts disguised as accidents. By 1915, her stage career was all but behind her. In 1922, she was indicted on a narcotics charge. Her attorneys argued that her addiction was the result of a nurse's carelessness in administering medication during Loftus' illness, and a number of loyal theater friends continued to support her. Many of the stage personalities she had at one time or another impersonated—Nora Bayes, Laura Hope Crews, Jeanne Eagels , and John McCormack—helped Loftus revive her sinking career. In 1923, she enjoyed a brief success in vaudeville at the prestigious Palace Theater in New York. Still in poor health, however, as she would be for the rest of her life, she was forced to end her engagement after a few weeks.

After a brief foray into film acting during the 1930s, including parts in the movies East Lynne and The Old Maid, Loftus made another comeback. Her performance in a Broadway comedy, Three-Cornered Moon, brought accolades in 1933. In 1938, she returned to New York for a final series of impersonations of contemporary Broadway performers and stage personalities from the past. The critic Alexander Woollcott called it one of the century's greatest theatrical performances, and so she left the theater world as she had entered it, widely acclaimed for her gift of mimicry. On July 12, 1943, Loftus died of a heart attack in New York at the Hotel Lincoln. She was buried at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York, following a funeral service at the Little Church around the Corner, an Episcopal church long popular with Broadway actors.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Lolly Ockerstrom , freelance writer, Washington, D.C.