Lillian Russell (December 4, 1860 – June 6, 1922), born Helen Louise Leonard, was an American actress and singer. She became one of the most famous actresses and singers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, known for her beauty and style, as well as for her voice and stage presence.
Russell was born in Clinton, Iowa but raised in Chicago. Her parents separated when she was eighteen, and she moved to New York with her mother.
She quickly began to perform professionally, singing for Tony Pastor and playing roles in comic opera, including Gilbert and Sullivan works. She married composer Edward Solomon in 1884 and created roles in several of his operas in London, but in 1886 he was arrested for bigamy. Russell was married four times, but her longest relationship was with Diamond Jim Brady, who supported her extravagant lifestyle for four decades.
In 1885, Russell returned to New York and continued to star in operetta and musical theatre. For many years, she was the foremost singer of operettas in America, performing continuously through the end of the 19th century. In 1899, she joined the Weber and Fields’s Music Hall, where she starred for five years. After 1904, she began to have vocal difficulties and switched to dramatic roles.
She later returned to musical roles in vaudeville, however, finally retiring from performing around 1919. In later years, Russell wrote a newspaper column, advocated women’s suffrage and was a popular lecturer.
Russell was born Helen Louise Leonard in Clinton, Iowa. Her father was newspaper publisher Charles E. Leonard, and her mother was author and feminist Cynthia Leonard, the first woman to run for mayor of New York City. Her family moved to Chicago in 1865, where she studied at the Convent of the Sacred Heart from age 7 to 15 and then at the Park Institute.
Her father became a partner in the printing firm of Knight & Leonard, and her mother became active in the women’s rights movement. Russell, called “Nellie” as a child, excelled at school theatricals. In her teens, she studied music privately and sang in choirs. In December 1877, she performed in an amateur production of Time Tries All at Chickering Hall in Chicago.
When Russell was eighteen, her parents separated, and she and her mother moved to New York City. Lillian soon became engaged to Walter Sinn, but broke off the engagement when she was quickly engaged by the Brooklyn Park Theatre, in the chorus of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera H.M.S. Pinafore. She married the orchestra leader, Harry Graham, after she became pregnant.
She gave birth to a son, but the baby died after being stuck with a diaper pin by his nanny; the pin penetrated his stomach.
She studied singing under Leopold Damrosch and considered pursuing an operatic career. In November 1879, she made her first appearance on Broadway at Tony Pastor’s Theatre, billed as an “English Ballad Singer”. Pastor, known as the father of vaudeville, was responsible for introducing many well-known performers. In the summer of 1881, she toured with Pastor’s company.
In 1881, she played the leading soprano role of Mabel in a burlesque of The Pirates of Penzance at Pastor’s theatre. She next played at the Bijou Opera House on Broadway as Djenna in The Great Mogul and with the McCaull Comic Opera Company played Bathilda there in Olivette.
She also played the title role in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience and Aline in The Sorcerer in 1882 at the Bijou. At the Casino Theatre in 1883, she played Phoebe in Billee Taylor, composed by Edward Solomon, who was serving as music director for Pastor.
Russell married Solomon in 1884, a year after their daughter, Dorothy Lillian Russell, was born, and travelled with him to England.
There, she played Virginia at the Gaiety Theatre in Solomon and Stephens’s Paul and Virginia, followed by the title characters in Solomon’s Polly, or the Pet of the Regiment and Grundy and Solomon’s Pocahontas. While in London, she was engaged to create the title role in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida, but she clashed with W. S. Gilbert and was dismissed during rehearsals.
She then returned to America in late 1885, touring for Pastor in Solomon’s comic operas, such as Pepita; or, the Girl with the Glass Eyes, and playing in New York theatres or on tour in Gilbert and Sullivan and in operettas. In 1886, Solomon was arrested for bigamy, since his previous marriage had not been dissolved. Russell obtained a divorce from Solomon in 1893.
Russell continued to star in comic operas and other musical theatre. She toured with the J. C. Duff Opera Company between other engagements for two years beginning in 1886.
In 1887, she starred as Carlotta in Gasparone by Karl Millöcker in New York City at the Standard Theatre, together with Eugene Oudin and J. H. Ryley.” Later the same year, she was back at the Casino Theatre in the title role of Dorothy, and over the next several years, she continued to star in operettas and musical theatre on Broadway.
Her parts at this time included the title role in The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, Fiorella in The Brigands (in a translation by W. S. Gilbert), Teresa in The Mountebanks, Marion in La Cigale and Rosa in Princess Nicotine, among others. In 1891 she opened at the Garden Theatre as the star of the Lillian Russell Opera Company.
For many years, Russell was the foremost singer of operettas in America. Her voice, stage presence and beauty were the subject of a great deal of fanfare in the news media, and she was extremely popular with audiences. Actress Marie Dressler observed, “I can still recall the rush of pure awe that marked her entrance on the stage. And then the thunderous applause that swept from orchestra to gallery, to the very roof.”
When Alexander Graham Bell introduced long distance telephone service on May 8, 1890, Russell’s voice was the first carried over the line. From New York City, Russell sang “Sabre Song” to audiences in Boston and Washington, D.C. She rode a bicycle custom made for her by Tiffany & Co.
It was a gold-plated machine that displayed the jeweler’s art at its most opulent and unconventional – the handlebars inlaid with mother-of-pearl and the wheel spokes featuring her initials set in diamonds. She had “a cream serge leg-of-mutton sleeve cycling suit with the skirt shortened by three inches, which caused a sensation and set a trend.”
She married tenor John Haley Augustin Chatterton (known professionally as Signor Giovanni Perugini) in 1894, but they soon separated, and in 1898, they divorced.
In the spring of 1894, she returned to London to play Betta in The Queen of Brilliants by Edward Jakobowski and then played the same role in the New York production at Abbey’s Theatre.
She remained at Abbey’s, playing several roles, but when that theatre shut down in 1896, she played in other Broadway houses in more operettas by Offenbach (such as The Princess of Trebizonde and many others), Victor Herbert and others, such as the Erminie (at the Casino Theatre) in 1899.
In 1899, Russell joined the Weber and Fields’s Music Hall, where she starred in their burlesques and other entertainments until 1904. Her first production there was Fiddle-dee-dee in 1899 which also featured De Wolf Hopper, Fay Templeton and David Warfield.
Other favorites were Whoop-de-doo and The Big Little Princess. Before the 1902 production of Twirly-Whirly, John Stromberg, who had composed several hit songs for her, delayed giving Lillian Russell her solo for several days, saying that it was not ready. When he committed suicide a few days before the first rehearsal, sheet music for “Come Down Ma Evenin’ Star” was discovered in his coat pocket.
It became Russell’s signature song and is the only one she is known to have recorded, although the recording was made after Russell’s voice had deteriorated significantly.
Leaving Weber and Fields, she next played the title role of Lady Teazle in 1904 at the Casino Theatre and then began to play in vaudeville. After 1904, Russell began to have vocal difficulties, but she did not retire from the stage. Instead, she switched to non-musical comedies, touring from 1906 to 1908 under the management of James Brooks.
In 1906, she played the title role in Barbara’s Millions, and in 1908 she was Henrietta Barrington in Wildfire. The next year she was Laura Curtis in The Widow’s Might. In 1911, she toured in In Search of a Sinner. Russell then returned to singing, appearing in burlesque, variety and other entertainments.
In 1912, she married her fourth husband, Alexander Pollock Moore, owner of the Pittsburgh Leader, and mostly retired from the stage. The wedding was held in Pittsburgh at the grand Schenley Hotel, which today is a national historic landmark and the University of Pittsburgh’s student union building. Russell lived, for a time, in suite 437 of the hotel, now located in the offices of the student newspaper, The Pitt News.
The same year, she made her last appearance on Broadway in Weber & Fields’ Hokey Pokey. In 1915, Russell appeared with Lionel Barrymore in the motion picture Wildfire, which was based on the 1908 play in which she had appeared. This was one of her few motion picture appearances. She appeared in vaudeville until 1919, when ill health forced her to leave the stage entirely, after a four-decade long career.
Beginning around 1912, Russell wrote a newspaper column, became active in the women’s suffrage movement (as her mother had been), and was a popular lecturer on personal relationships, health and beauty, advocating an optimistic philosophy of self-help and drawing large crowds.
In 1913, she declared that she would refuse to pay her income taxes to protest “the denial of the ballot to women.” Nevertheless, she recruited for the U.S. Marine Corps during World War I and raised money for the war effort. Russell became a wealthy woman, and during the Actors’ Equity strike of 1919, she made a major donation of money to sponsor the formation of the Chorus Equity Association by the chorus girls at the Ziegfeld Follies.
In March 1922, Russell traveled aboard the R.M.S. Aquitania from Southampton, England, to the Port of New York on the March 11 to March 17 crossing. According to The New York Times, she “established a precedent by acting as Chairman of the ship’s concert, the first woman, so far as the records show, to preside at an entertainment on shipboard.”
Russell died at her home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on June 6, 1922, shortly after a completing a fact-finding mission to Europe on behalf of President Warren Harding. The mission was to investigate the increase in immigration. She recommended a five-year moratorium on immigration, and her findings were instrumental in the content of the Immigration Act of 1924.
She suffered apparently minor injuries on the return trip, which, however, led to complications, and she died after ten days of illness. Thousands of people lined the route of Russell’s military funeral, attended by many actors and politicians, and President Harding sent a wreath that was set on top of her casket. She is interred in her family’s private mausoleum in the Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
A full-length portrait of Russell was painted in 1902 by the Swiss-born American artist Adolfo Müller-Ury (1862–1947) who also painted another oval half-length, but both portraits are missing.
A 1940 film was made about Russell, although it presents a sanitized version of her life. It was directed by Irving Cummings who, as a teenager starting his career, had acted with Russell in the play Wildfire in 1908. It stars Alice Faye, Henry Fonda, Don Ameche, Edward Arnold and Warren William.
The Lillian Russell Theatre aboard the City of Clinton Showboat is a summer stock theatre named after Russell in her hometown of Clinton, Iowa.
The University of Pittsburgh’s student activities building, the William Pitt Union, has a Lillian Russell Room on its fourth floor, in the offices of The Pitt News, in the same location where Russell lived when the building was the Schenley Hotel. The room contains a portrait of Russell.