Russell, Lillian (1861–1922)
Russell, Lillian (1861–1922)
Comic opera singer, actress, and political activist who was widely hailed as the embodiment of American Beauty. Name variations: Nellie; Diamond Lil. Born Helen Louise Leonard on December 4, 1861, in Clinton, Iowa; died on June 6, 1922, at her home in Pittsburgh from "complications" (some sources report her death as the result of a fall that did not, at the time, seem serious); daughter of Charles Egbert Leonard (a newspaper and book publisher) and Cynthia Leonard (a political activist and women's rights advocate); attended private schools in Chicago: Convent of the Sacred Heart grammar school and Park Institute, a finishing school; studied voice privately with Leopold Damrosch, a well-known Brooklyn voice coach; married Harry Braham (an orchestra conductor), in 1880 (divorced); married Edward Solomon (a musician), in 1883 (divorced); married John Haley (an actor), in 1894 (divorced); married Alexander Pollock Moore (a newspaper publisher), in 1912; children: (first marriage) son who died in infancy; (second marriage) Dorothy Solomon.
Family moved to Chicago, Illinois (c. 1863–65); moved to New York City with her mother to study for an opera career (1878); made first stage appearance as a chorus girl in H.M.S. Pinafore (1879); made professional debut at Tony Pastor's, billed as "The English Ballad singer" (1880); first comic opera "The Pie Rats of Penn Yann" (a parody of The Pirates of Penzance) was a hit at Tony Pastor's (1881); sang in genuine Gilbert and Sullivan productions, such as Patience and The Sorcerer, as well as other musicals; lived and worked in England (1883–85); returned to New York to play at the Casino where she enjoyed some of her greatest successes, including Princess Nicotine and An American Beauty; was at the peak of her singing career (1890s); shifted from comic opera to burlesque, working with the famous comedy team of Weber and Fields (1899); endured voice problems (1906), making a shift from singing to acting a necessity; joined Weber and Fields again in production of Hokey-Pokey (1912); appeared in her only film, Wildfire, with Lionel Barrymore (1914); during last few years, concentrated on political and personal concerns, campaigning actively for Theodore Roosevelt (1912) and Warren G. Harding (1920), and wrote a column for two Chicago papers; sold war bonds during World War I; though not a union officer, helped negotiate a settlement for the first Actors Equity strike (1919); worked for women's suffrage and appointed to investigate immigration problems.
Because she was known for both her good nature and her beauty, comic-opera singer Lillian Russell was often sought out for important "firsts." In May 1890, she took part in the first long-distance telephone call by singing a song from Offenbach's The Grand Duchess into the funnel of a New York telephone. By a miracle of science, the president and other dignitaries heard her lovely voice in Washington, D.C. A short time later, Thomas A. Edison asked Russell to sing, this time for one of his first voice recordings. She was then asked to test the now-famous acoustics of the nearly completed Carnegie Hall, but when asked to sing the "Star-Spangled Banner" neither she nor any of the other wealthy elite in the room knew the words. A German immigrant painter came down off a scaffold and wrote the lyrics on his brown paper lunch sack so she could continue with the test. Russell ruefully admitted that she went home and memorized the song so she would never again be caught in that embarrassing situation. Ironically, in her later years, she would campaign to severely limit immigration in a nativist attempt to keep America "American" and not have it culturally influenced by immigrants. Her unflinching willingness to share her failings with the American public, paired with her belief that some people were more fit than others to be "Americans," illustrates the complex nature of the woman who was known simply as "Lil" and also as the "American Beauty."
On December 4, 1861, Lillian Russell was born Helen Louise Leonard, but the family just called her Nellie. The youngest of five daughters, Russell enjoyed a close relationship with both her mother Cynthia Leonard , a prominent and outspoken women's rights activist and suffragist, and her father Charles E. Leonard, a quiet newspaper and book publisher. While Russell was expected to mind her manners and obey her parents, she was also encouraged to think independently. Cynthia was a radical political activist who enjoyed the close friendship of such women as suffragist Susan B. Anthony . Charles, from whom Russell got her easy-going nature, published the works of the "great agnostic" Robert Ingersoll at a time when few publishers would dare to bring on the public's wrath by doing so.
Charles Leonard dubbed his daughter "airy, fairy Nellie," a nickname that stayed with her throughout her life, although it later changed to "airy, fairy Lillian" to match her stage name. Cynthia Leonard tried to instill in her daughters a respect for their own ability, truth, and God. The last two concepts were a bit vague, however, for five-year-old Nellie. When told that God would hear her if she lied, Russell replied indignantly, "I don't think He can amount to much if He's snooping around trying to catch little girls in lies." As an adult, she avoided lying. She also kept others from snooping by being charmingly frank about what she wanted to share and simply omitting the things that she did not wish to discuss. For her entire life, she remained "airy fairy," or somewhat unearthly, to those who loved her.
Russell attended school at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, where at age ten she made her stage debut as a child captured by Gypsies (Roma). She danced, played a tambourine, and had a few spoken lines. The mother superior warned Cynthia that her daughter was talented: "Dangerously talented; she will require careful watching." While Russell's mother did not take the caution to heart, it was well known to the family that Nellie intended to become a great actress. During the next few years, Nellie decided instead that she would become an opera singer. Her clear soprano voice led her family to believe her dream was possible. After she left "finishing school" (the Park Institute on the west side of Chicago), her mother took her, along with one of her sisters, to New York so that Russell could train for an opera career with Professor Leopold Damrosch. The relocation effectively separated Russell's mother and father. Few clues exist as to why the move became a permanent one.
While studying for the opera, Russell played a chorus girl in the operetta H.M.S. Pinafore in order to become familiar with the "essentials of the stage." This was supposed to be a short stint to boost her stage confidence, but, without her mother's knowledge, Nellie accepted an offer from Tony Pastor to sing for $75 a week at his theater. Pastor billed her as "Lillian Russell, the English Ballad Singer," to keep her mother in the dark. So, while Cynthia attended her evening meetings on women's rights, Russell would sneak out to the theater. For awhile, she kept her secret, until her mother went to Tony Pastor's theater one night and saw her daughter on the stage. While Cynthia had hoped Nellie would make her career in opera, she did not strenuously object to the career shift. Nellie, who thought that her new name sounded musical, would be Lillian Russell for the rest of her life.
In 1880, Russell married Harry Braham, a much-older orchestra conductor, but career conflicts and the tragic death of their infant son ended the union. Her career, however, was a success, and her salary rose accordingly. Various theater managers tried, with increasingly better offers, to lure her into signing a contract. Russell wrote in her autobiography that in 1883, "I began to think it was fun to sign contracts promiscuously." Indeed, she signed five contracts with five different managers for the same season. Her response to the legal tangle that ensued was to elope to England with a musician, Edward Solomon. While there, she performed in a number of musical revues, had a daughter Dorothy Solomon , and, for a short time, lived in near poverty. She returned to the stage, and her career was in full force by the time she traveled back to the United States. Shortly after, Edward Solomon, who unbeknownst to Russell had one wife too many, was arrested for bigamy. Russell was shocked. Though she announced an annulment of the marriage to the press in 1886, she was very much in love with her husband and did not actually file until 1893.
At the peak of her popularity, Lillian Russell symbolized American femininity. She was tall and blonde, with a fair complexion and the ample, hour-glass curves that late 19th-century Americans loved. Her physical characteristics appealed to those who based nationalistic identity on Yankee tradition. From the 1870s on, the American public seemed intent on finding an embodiment of American beauty. Charles Darwin's Origin of Species: The Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Existence was often used to "prove" that certain ethnic groups were physically and mentally superior to others. This line of thinking led many Americans to believe that North Americans from Anglo-Saxon stock were in the process of evolving into a superior type. They thought that English-speaking Anglo-Saxons would soon control the world, and so were interested in finding men and women who illustrated this superiority and "proved" the theory. While American women from many ethnic backgrounds were beautiful, the popular press dubbed Lillian Russell the "American Beauty"; she personified what was then considered the ultimate expression of American womanhood.
Russell had not sought this type of approval, but because of her enormous popularity, she could affect public opinion on many topics. She was able, for example, to support women's suffrage and women's rights while reassuring the public that having the vote would not make a woman less feminine. If Lillian Russell could advocate women's suffrage and still retain her femininity, so could others. As a child, she had charmed everyone with her manners and beauty but physically fought with the neighborhood boys who suggested that girls were not equal to them. As an adult, she continued to charm and also continued to fight for gender equality.
In 1890, Russell met and befriended "Diamond Jim" (James Buchanan) Brady, a businessman
who had worked his way up from poverty to become one of the richest men in America. Always platonic, this friendship would continue for the rest of her life. Brady, who was known for his enormous appetite and his public display of wealth, showered Russell with so many diamonds that the press dubbed her "Diamond Lil." They would regularly meet for late suppers after her evening performance, often with an interesting array of companions. Although Brady consumed course after course, Russell often matched his consumption. Particularly fond of corn on the cob, they fascinated fellow diners during the Chicago World's Fair with the huge pile of corn cobs that accumulated nightly at their table. Although public taste ran to full-figured women, this sort of hobby tended to overpad Russell's already well-cushioned curves. She retained her celebrated beauty by turning to diet and exercise.
What has Life meant to me? Just a waiting game for something better. Doing as much good as possible, finding as much pleasure as possible, being as just and generous in thought and deed as possible.
Russell manifested an interesting combination of abandon and discipline. While she accumulated extravagant clothes and belongings, lived a lavish lifestyle, and matched Brady corn cob for corn cob, she also routinely worked hard to maintain her voice and beauty, and never stinted on her political beliefs. She seldom drank more than half a glass of champagne because it was bad for her voice. In court, she demanded that she never be made to wear revealing tights on stage, supposedly to keep warm in drafty theaters and therefore protect her voice, but perhaps also because of the caloric results of those late night suppers. Exercise and sports for women rapidly gained popularity at the end of the 19th century, but the press often compared athletic women unfavorably with preferred passive femininity. Russell, who had an iron-clad will when it came to exercise, became a vocal proponent of active lifestyles for women.
As soon as the safety bike was mass-produced in the 1890s, allowing women to ride a bicycle without becoming tangled up in their skirts, Lillian Russell hit the streets with flying pedals. In many circles, a woman riding a bicycle was still considered shocking, but Russell's popularity helped make the bicycle acceptable for women. Brady gifted Russell with a gold-plated bicycle with her initials formed from diamonds and emeralds on the handlebars. She reported she made use of the machine "every morning, rain or shine," often riding with her good friend and fellow actress Marie Dressler . She also took the bicycle with her whenever she toured, even in Europe. Frequently asked about her beauty secrets, Russell gave interviews that praised exercise as a beauty necessity. While exhibiting manners and refinement, she reminded the American public that women were strong, vigorous, and capable of action.
While the 1890s brought much critical acclaim and wealth to Russell, it was also a period of personal disappointment. In 1894, she wed for the third time, but the marriage was a disaster from the start. Her new husband, John Haley, had met and courted her only to advance his own acting career. By all accounts, Haley was unwilling, or unable, to consummate the marriage, and their relationship swiftly deteriorated into hostility. For awhile, they continued to work together, but friends and then the press became increasingly aware of their marital difficulties. After five months, the couple separated for good. When Haley aired petty complaints about Russell, the press responded by ridiculing her three failed marriages. Parodying the title of her successful role, "The Queen of Brilliants," they called her the "The Queen of Divorces." Though the public clucked over her private life, they flocked to hear her clear soprano voice soar effortlessly to high C. She was at the peak of her popularity. Women and men alike adored her.
In the 19th century, the theater was not a diversion for "nice" women, particularly those in the middle to upper class. Comic opera, at which Lillian Russell excelled, bridged the gap between serious opera and other theatrical entertainments, raising their level of respectability. At the turn of the century, Russell helped make another form of entertainment acceptable to both sexes of all classes. In 1899, she joined the popular vaudeville comic team of Weber and Fields. Vaudeville was on its way to expanding its audience.
Russell often remarked that she continued to study throughout her career, first with her voice, and later with her acting. In 1906, her flawless voice began to show signs of wear. Although she was warned that she was overusing it (serious opera performers sang fewer high C notes in order to protect their throats), Russell had continued to delight her audiences night after night with difficult music. Her voice now needed serious rest. In a risky career move, Russell took on her first non-singing role in a play, and, although her next few plays received mixed reviews, the American public seemed as enthralled with her speaking performances as they had been with her singing performances. In 1912, she rejoined Weber and Fields, who had recently reunited after a bitter feud, and they enjoyed renewed commercial success.
The year 1912 saw increased political activism from Russell. She stumped vigorously for Theodore Roosevelt's unsuccessful presidential campaign, during which she stressed such reforms as the eight-hour work day. The year also brought happiness when she married Alexander Pollock Moore, a newspaper publisher and prominent progressive Republican. Russell and Moore enjoyed both marital contentment and a shared commitment to political activism. She continued her stand on women's suffrage with renewed activism, walking behind Inez M. Boissevain in the 1913 Washington, D.C., suffrage parade which resulted in street rioting when the police refused to protect the 8,000 women marchers. Russell publicly addressed the unfairness of a democratic nation that would not allow some of its citizens the ballot, pointing out that she paid a great deal of taxes and had zero "representation" to show for it.
During an interview with journalist and author Djuna Barnes in 1915, Russell requested that Barnes "begin the interview with the name of Lillian Russell but end it with the name of such as was Cynthia Leonard." Russell seems to have based her career on the same sentiment. She began as Lillian Russell, the singer, and was cherished for her voice and beauty. She ended her career, however, with her concern over public issues and with the activities that were important to both her parents. Following her father's interest in the written word, Russell began her own newspaper column. Though she wrote for the Chicago Daily Tribune and the Chicago Herald, her commentary was read nationally through syndication. The publishers wanted her to give beauty tips. When Russell stressed that beauty came from within, not from the way people looked to others, her editor wired, "Write less about soul and more about pimples."
With America's entry into World War I, Russell volunteered time and money to sell war bonds. Addressing thousands, she held rallies for recruitment, urging young men to come forward and enlist; many followed her call. When some of those same young men came back from the war wounded, they joined her on stage to sell more war bonds. In recognition of her work, Russell was appointed an honorary sergeant of the U.S. Marine Corps and wore her new uniform to public events and photo calls. Like many other women, Russell tied her patriotic efforts to women's suffrage. If it were appropriate for women to take on patriotic roles, then it was appropriate for them to vote.
In 1920, Russell campaigned for Warren G. Harding, and following his election he appointed her a commissioner for the study of immigration. Coming at a time when mass immigration to the States had increased urban crowding and other problems, her 1922 report suggested stopping immigration for five years, then, if immigration were resumed, to severely limit it. In order to lessen foreign influence on American life, the report proposed that immigrants live in the United States for 21 years before they were allowed to become citizens. "Our melting pot is overcrowded," wrote Russell, and she warned that unless something was done, "there will no longer be an America for the Americans." Social Darwinists, including many prominent Americans, felt that unless Anglo-Saxon traditions as well as genes remained dominant in the U.S., the country would no longer be "American."
In preparation for the report on immigration, Russell traveled to Europe to see firsthand the postwar conditions that made so many Europeans eager to come to America. On the return trip, she fell onboard ship. Although she admitted she was injured, she did not consider the fall important, and it is doubtful she received much medical attention. Shortly thereafter, back at home in Pittsburgh, she became ill. Lillian Russell died on June 6, 1922. It was reported that she died of "a complication of diseases." There is no evidence to pinpoint what that might mean, though most accounts assume the fall caused internal injuries that led to her death. At President Harding's order, she was buried with full military honors.
Auster, Albert. Actresses and Suffragists: Women in the American Theater, 1890–1920. NY: Praeger, 1984.
Banner, Lois. American Beauty. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.
McArthur, Benjamin. Actors and American Culture, 1880–1920. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1984.
Morell, Parker. Lillian Russell: The Era of Plush. NY: Random House, 1940.
Russell, Lillian. "Lillian Russell's Reminiscences," in Cosmopolitan. February–September 1922.
Burke, John. Duet In Diamonds: The Flamboyant Saga of Lillian Russell and Diamond Jim Brady in America's Gilded Age. NY: Putnam, 1972.
Harvard Theater Collection, Harvard University (clippings); papers from 1878 to 1886, University of Rochester Library, New York (letters); Robinson Locke Dramatic Collection, New York Public Library Performing Arts Research Center at Lincoln Center (scrapbooks).
JoAnne Thomas , Instructor of History and Women's Studies, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan