Ward, Geneviève (1838–1922)

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Ward, Geneviève (1838–1922)

American actress and opera singer who was the first actress to be named a Dame Commander of the British Empire (1921) . Name variations: Genevieve Ward; Lucy Geneviève Teresa Ward; Ginevra Guerrabella; Dame Geneviève Ward. Born Lucy Geneviève Teresa Ward on March 27, 1838 (one source cites 1837), in New York City; died on August 18, 1922; daughter of Samuel Ward (a planter and businessman) and Lucy Lee (or Leigh) Ward; studied with San Giovanni, Lamperti, and Fanny Persiani; married Count Constantin de Guerbel, on November 10, 1856.

Geneviève Ward was born Lucy Geneviève Teresa Ward in New York City, the daughter of Lucy Ward and Colonel Samuel Ward and the granddaughter of Gideon Lee, former mayor of New York. In the course of her education in Europe, Ward sang for composer Gioacchino Rossini, who urged her to study with an opera director in Florence, Italy. In addition to developing her voice under such teachers as San Giovanni and Lamperti, Ward became involved with a Russian count she met there, Constantin de Guerbel. They were married in a civil ceremony in 1856 at the American consulate in Nice, France, but the groom failed to appear for the church ceremony in Paris which would have made their marriage legal in Russia. Her outraged parents tracked him down in Warsaw, where government intervention forced him to proceed with the church wedding. It was essentially meaningless, however, as Geneviève never saw her husband again after the Ward family returned to Italy.

Ward continued to train her with various instructors, including diva Fanny Persiani , and made her opera debut in the title role of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia at La Scala in Milan in 1857. Singing under the stage name Ginevra Guerrabella, she toured throughout Europe for the following five years in such roles as Elvira in Don Giovanni, Maid Marian in Robin Hood, and Elvira in I Puritani, which was her first performance of an Italian opera in London. She also returned to the United States in 1862 to play Violetta in La Traviata at the Academy of Music in New York.

During the winter of this same year, Ward contracted diphtheria while touring Cuba, and, although she recovered, the disease destroyed her singing voice. She taught singing for several years, but so missed performing that she decided to pursue a career as a stage actress. Within ten years, she had established a second successful career. Performing under her real name, in 1873 Ward traveled to England and made her first dramatic stage appearance as Lady Macbeth at Manchester's Theatre Royal to rave reviews. Her careful study of the craft resulted in a highly successful acting career in that country as well. In 1875, she appeared in two plays written expressly for her: Lewis Wingfield's Despite the World and William G. Willis' Sappho . She experienced one of her greatest early successes with the dual role of Blanche de Valois and Unarita in The Prayer in the Storm, a performance she repeated 162 times. Her repertoire and popularity continued to grow with such roles as Julia in The Hunchback, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, the Countess Almaviva in The School for Intrigue, Rebecca in Ivanhoe, Margaret Elmore in Love's Sacrifice, and Emilia in Othello, the last of which, according to American National Biography, caused her to be hailed as the "best Emilia of our generation." Although she received many offers to act on the Continent (and did, in fact, play Lady Macbeth in Paris to strong reviews in 1877), Ward preferred the English stage, where she spent the majority of her acting career, returning to America only for brief engagements.

Ward expanded her international reputation after obtaining the rights to Herman Merivale's Forget-Me-Not, which opened in London in 1879. Her performance as Stephanie de Mohrivart in the play was a huge success and made her famous in the United States, Canada, India, South Africa, and Australia. She spent the next 13 years on a world tour before settling down with Henry Irving's Lyceum company in 1893.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Ward devoted her skill and energy to teaching young actors, although she continued to appear on stage sporadically until 1922, when she gave a final performance at St. James's Theater in London as Queen Margaret in Shakespeare's Richard III. In 1921, she became the first actress to be conferred the order of a Dame Commander of the British Empire for her accomplishments as a tragic actress. The honor, which is usually announced on New Year's Day, was so unique that it was issued in the form of a personal greeting from Windsor Castle on the morning of Ward's 83rd birthday. The selection was controversial since it was the first to be given to an actress, and George V had chosen an American to receive it. Many British subjects felt the honor should have gone to Ellen Terry , an adored English actress of the day. On August 18, 1922, Geneviève Ward died, at the age of 85.


Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes, eds. American National Biography. NY: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Johns, Eric. Dames of the Theatre. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1974.

Who Was Who in the Theatre: 1912–1976. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1978.

Judith C. Reveal , freelance writer, Greensboro, Maryland

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Ward, Geneviève (1838–1922)

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