Roth, Lillian (1910–1980)

views updated

Roth, Lillian (1910–1980)

American actress-singer whose life was portrayed in the movie I'll Cry Tomorrow. Born Lillian Rutstein on December 13, 1910, in Boston, Massachusetts; died on May 10, 1980, in New York City; oldest daughter of Arthur Rutstein and Katie (Silverman) Rutstein (later changed to Roth); attended the Professional Children's School, New York City; married David Lyons (died); married William Scott (divorced); married Judge Benjamin Shalleck (divorced); married Eugene Weiner (divorced); married Edward Goldman (divorced); married Mark Harris (divorced); married Thomas Burt McGuire (divorced 1963); no children.

Broadway plays:

The Inner Man (1917); Penrod (1918); The Betrothed (1918); Shavings (1920); Artists and Models (1923); Padlocks of 1927 (1927); Harry Delmar's Revels (1927); Earl Carroll's Vanities of 1928 (1928); Midnight Frolics (1929); Earl Carroll's Vanities of 1931 (1931); Earl Carroll's Vanities of 1932 (1932); Revels of 1935 (1934); I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1962); 70 Girls 70 (1971).

Selected filmography:

Pressing's Crusaders (1918); Illusion (1929); The Love Parade (1929); The Vagabond King (1930); Animal Crackers (1930); Sea Legs (1930); Paramount on Parade (1930); Madame Satan (1930); Honey (1930); Take a Chance (1933); Ladies They Talk About (1933); Alice, Sweet Alice (Communion, 1977); Boardwalk (cameo, 1979).

Actress-singer Lillian Roth is probably remembered more for her fall from grace than for her successful performing career, which included vaudeville, the Broadway stage, and early sound movies. As the result of personal problems and alcohol abuse, the former child star disappeared from the limelight in the 1930s, then made a modest comeback after the publication of her autobiography I'll Cry Tomorrow (1954), which was filmed a year later starring Susan Hayward . Hayward was nominated for an Academy Award for her efforts. Rebuilding a career, however, was difficult for Roth, who was never able to recapture the glory of her early years.

Lillian Roth, who was named for Lillian Russell , was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1910, the oldest of two daughters of Arthur Rutstein and Katie Silverman Rutstein , Russian immigrants who would change their name to Roth. When she was six, her mother took her and her sister Ann to Educational Pictures in New York, hoping to find work for them in the movies. Neither child was hired to act, although Lillian was drafted to pose for the company trademark, the statue of a child holding the lamp of knowledge. Katie Roth had better luck at Goldwyn Studios, then located in Fort Lee, New Jersey. There, the girls appeared primarily in bit parts and as extras. Meanwhile, Lillian also found employment on Broadway, making her debut in August 1917 in The Inner Man, as the daughter of Wilton Lackaye. Subsequently billed as "Broadway's Youngest Star," she went on to appear in Penrod and The Betrothed (both 1918), then signed with B.F. Keith to tour in vaudeville with her sister. During this period, Lillian introduced the songs "When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin' Along" and "Ain't She Sweet," both of which went on to become standards.

As Roth approached adulthood, she continued in vaudeville and on Broadway, where she became a popular attraction in Earl Carroll's Vanities (1928, 1931, and 1932), and in Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolics (1929), among other shows. Her film career was launched with the advent of talkies, when the industry began looking for stage personalities who could sing as well as act. Roth made her movie debut in the musical short Lillian Roth and Piano Boys (1929), singing "Ain't She Sweet," then signed a contract with Paramount. Her first feature film was Illusion (1929), in which she appeared as herself and offered up a captivating rendition of the song "When the Real Thing Comes Your Way." Her first acting role of note was as Lulu the maid in The Love Parade (1929), with Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier. As James Parish and Michael Pitts point out, most of Roth's film appearances were as a specialty act

rather than as an integrated part of the plot. In the Marx Brothers comedy Animal Crackers (1930), for example, in which she played the daughter of a rich hostess who is in love with an artist, the narrative goes on hold while she sings "Why Am I So Romantic?"

By 1930, Roth was beginning to tire of her film assignments and quit Paramount. Later, when offered a contract with Warner Bros., she turned it down, preferring to work in vaudeville. In the summer and fall of 1934, she also starred on her own radio program, "The Lillian Roth Show," on CBS.

It was during the 1930s that Roth's personal life seriously began to undermine her career. After the death of her first husband David Lyons, she started drinking. There followed a string of marriages and divorces throughout the decade, which only caused increasing emotional pain and fueled her alcoholism. While her film and Broadway career gradually slipped away, she was for a time able to pull herself together for occasional work in nightclubs and vaudeville, but by the 1940s, her health was seriously deteriorating, and she was finally convinced by doctors to enter a rehabilitation facility. She emerged in 1946, at which time her friend Milton Berle attempted to get her back to work, but she suffered several setbacks that made it difficult to reestablish her career.

In Alcoholics Anonymous, Roth met Thomas Burt McGuire, whom she married in 1947. McGuire took over managing her career, which began a slow turn-around with several nightclub bookings. Her comeback was further aided by her appearance on the Ralph Edwards television program "This Is Your Life," in 1953. As a result of response to the program, Roth, in collaboration with Mike Connolly and Gerold Frank, wrote her autobiography I'll Cry Tomorrow, which sold over a million copies and was eventually translated into 20 languages. The book, combined with the hit movie a year later, ignited renewed interest in Roth and created a slight surge in her career. She made several dramatic appearances on television, played in summer stock, and made two bestselling record albums, I'll Cry Tomorrow and Lillian Roth Sings. She published a second, less-successful autobiography, Beyond My Worth, in 1958, and in 1962 returned to Broadway in the musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale, which ran for 301 performances. However, the following year her marriage to McGuire ended, causing her to resume drinking and to lose the momentum she had gained.

In the late 1960s, Roth moved back to New York, where, between sporadic club dates and occasional appearances on the television talk-show circuit, she worked at various menial jobs to make ends meet. She did a final turn on Broadway in 1971, in the unsuccessful Kander and Ebb musical 70 Girls 70, and had brief roles in the horror film Alice, Sweet Alice (1977) and in Boardwalk (1979). The singer-actress died in a nursing home on May 10, 1980, following a massive stroke.


Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Kinkle, Roger D. The Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz 1900–1950. Vol. 3. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1974.

Lamparski, Richard. Whatever Became of …? 3rd series. NY: Crown, 1970.

Parish, James Robert, and Michael R. Pitts. Hollywood Songsters. NY: Garland, 1991.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts