Morris, Clara (1847–1925)
Morris, Clara (1847–1925)
American actress. Born on March 17, 1847 (some sources cite 1846 or 1848), in Toronto, Ontario, Canada; died of chronic endocarditis on November 20, 1925, in New Canaan, Connecticut; daughter of Charles La Montagne (a French-Canadian cab driver) and Sarah Jane Proctor (a servant); received about one year of formal schooling; married Frederick C. Harriott, on November 30, 1874; no children.
Man and Wife (Fifth Avenue Theater, September 1870); L'Article 47 (1872); appeared in Alixe, Jezebel, Madeleine Morel, No Name, Delmonico's, and The Wicked World (Union Square Theater, November 1873); Camille (1874); The New Leah (1875); Miss Multon (1876); Jane Eyre (1877); The New Magdalen (1882); The Two Orphans (1904).
A Silent Singer (1899); Life on the Stage: My Personal Experiences and Recollections (1901); A Pasteboard Crown (1902); Stage Confidences (1902); The Trouble Woman (1904); The Life of a Star (1906); Left in Charge (1907); New East Lynne (1908); Little Jim Crow, and Other Stories for Children (1900); A Strange Surprise (1910); Dressing-Room Receptions (1911).
Clara Morris was born in 1847 in Toronto, Canada, the oldest of three children born in the bigamous marriage of Charles La Montagne and Sarah Jane Proctor . Upon the discovery of her husband's other marriage, Proctor left her two younger children for adoption and fled with Clara to Cleveland, Ohio, where she took her grandmother's maiden name of Morrison. Clara received very little formal schooling during her childhood in Ohio and Illinois. At 13, she became a ballet girl in the stock company of the Cleveland Academy of Music, and shortened her name to Morris for stage purposes. Although she never rose in rank during her nine years there, she played many roles and appeared with touring actors. In 1869, she played a season as leading lady at Wood's Theater in Cincinnati, spent the summer acting in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and then appeared in Louisville with Joseph Jefferson.
Morris made her New York City debut in September 1870 in Man and Wife, an adaptation of the Wilkie Collins novel directed by Augustin Daly, at the Fifth Avenue Theater. She so impressed Daly that during the next three years she starred in a number of his other plays, including No Name (also adapted from a Collins novel), Delmonico's, L'Article 47, Alixe, Jezebel, and Madeleine Morel. She was proclaimed the greatest "emotional" actress of her time for her portrayal of Cora, a disfigured and betrayed octoroon in L'Article 47 (1872). Leaving Daly after they argued in 1873, she appeared in November of that year in The Wicked World at the Union Square Theater in New York, under the management of A.M. Palmer. Her portrayal in 1874 of the title role in Camille (Alphonsine Plessis ) as a "winning gentle girl, more pure than worldly," also won much praise. That year Morris married
Frederick C. Harriott, a wealthy young descendant of two old New York families, who became her agent. In 1875 an attempt to establish herself as a tragic actress at Booth's Theater in Evadne, Macbeth, and Jane Shore failed. The following year, she returned to her "domestic emotionalism" and met with great success in Miss Multon, an adaptation of the bestselling novel East Lynne by Ellen Wood (Mrs. Henry Wood). Morris also appeared in The New Leah (1875), Jane Eyre (1877), based on the Charlotte Brontë novel, and The New Magdalen (1882).
Clara Morris continued to tour extensively, enchanting her audiences with her performances; reportedly she had a power of repressed feeling and passionate outburst that was startling. She was especially adept at portraying the long-suffering heroines of French and British melodrama. The taste for this particular type of theater waned, however, and changing fashions coupled with health problems brought her career to a close in the early 1890s.
After her retirement, Morris gave occasional lectures and began to write, contributing many articles on acting and theater to McClure's, the Century, and other magazines between 1900 and 1906, and writing daily articles for a newspaper for the following ten years. Some of this material appears in her books, which include A Silent Singer (1899), A Pasteboard Crown (1902), The Trouble Woman (1904), Left in Charge (1907), New East Lynne (1908), A Strange Surprise (1910), and Dressing-Room Receptions (1911). She also wrote a children's book, Little Jim Crow, and Other Stories for Children (1900), and three volumes of personal reminiscences and thoughts: Life on the Stage: My Personal Experiences and Recollections (1901), Stage Confidences (1902), and The Life of a Star (1906). The money she received from writing was instrumental in preventing the loss of her home, The Pines, in Riverdale, New York.
Morris performed in a revival of The Two Orphans in 1904, and did some work in vaudeville after that. In 1914, her husband died, and her mother, who had always lived with her, died in October 1917. Clara Morris died of chronic endocarditis eight years later, on November 20, 1925, in New Canaan, Connecticut. Her funeral was held at New York City's Little Church Around the Corner, a particular favorite among actors.
James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.
McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.
Morris, Clara. Stage Confidences: Talks about Players & Play Acting. Lothrop, 1902.
Wilson, Garff B. "Queen of Spasms: The Acting of Clara Morris," in Speech Monographs. November 1955.
Jo Anne Meginnes , freelance writer, Brookfield, Vermont