18 February 2011

Miss Lily Elsie

Miss Lily Elsie made her name on the opening night of The Merry Widow, in London, on 8th June 1907. Overnight she had the town at her feet. On the stage Elsie seemed mysteriously beautiful with her perfect Grecian profile, enormous blue eyes, and hauntingly sad smile. Tall, cool, and lily-like, she moved with lyrical gestures in a slow-motion grace.

She was a true 'star' of Edwardian times, although the word was yet to be used in that context. Magazines produced special supplements about her, adverts featured her picture.

Although her fame and fortune came entirely from public appearances she was painfully shy. After just a few years on the stage she retired to a quite life away from the public eye. Born Elsie Hodder on 8th April 1886 in the northern English county of Yorkshire, she was to become one of the biggest stars of the Edwardian musical theatre stage.  Her birth certificate records her mother, Elizabeth Hodder's, occupation as 'Dress Maker'.  No father is recorded.

Her mother was married on 1891 to William Thomas Cotton, in Manchester.  Young Elsie also took the name Cotton at this time.  The family lived first in Manchester, then in the neighbouring city of Salford. William Cotton gave his occupation as 'Theatrical Baggage Master'. A precocious child star, young Elsie Cotton appeared in music hall entertainments as a child impersonator known as 'Little Elsie'.

From about 1900 she adopted the stage name 'Lily Elsie'. George Edwardes, the manager at Daly's,
found his theatre unexpectedly empty, and needed a leading lady quickly for his stop gap, The Merry Widow, he took Elsie to Berlin to see the German version (Die Lustige Witwe, Berliner Theatre, from 1st May 1906). Edwardes asked Lily Elsie if she would play Sonia in London. 'Oh no, I couldn't possibly.' Lily Elsie was always shy and unsure of herself. But the Guv'nor (Edwardes) eventually cajoled Elsie into becoming his Sonia, and by accepting, she made history in the English theatre.

Cecily Howard, the last surviving member of the original company, remembered Elsie on the first night waiting for her final entrance in the third act. The house had cheered itself hoarse and were in a state of ecstatic hysteria.  Lily Elsie, with the typical modesty that was to remain with her all her life, turned and whispered: 'I think they like us!'

She could not understand that overnight she had become a living legend.  The public exposure gained through her leading roles, coupled with stunning looks and strong singing voice, made Lily Elsie the Edwardian equivalent of today's top national celebrities.  Her face adorned chocolate boxes, biscuit tins, and advertisements for cosmetics.  Designers of fashionable clothes sold more by being associated with her, and every society lady wanted her own version of a 'Merry Widow Hat'.

Her fame brought invitations from the greatest in the land but she never accepted them. One elderly gentleman (a Mr Tyser) - a distant admirer - sent her a duplicate of her stage jewellery - only in real diamonds. Lloyd George (1836-1945, British prime Minister 1916-22), a friend of Edwardes, formed a habit of watching Lily Elsie from the wings.  

It was only on the stage that she became less painfully shy. Many distinguished people had sent her interesting letters.  She had never been brought up to answer letters, and she was hopelessly casual in such matters.  She kept nothing of her past, except a few picture postcards. She always retained a certain mystery and even those fortunate to know her off-stage found her slightly elusive with this unattainable quality that was utterly romantic.  'I have never been fool enough to give my heart to one of them,' she said, 'and so they think it must be worth having'. 'I'm always rude to men,' she once confided,  'And the ruder I am the more they like me.'

For a long time her name was whispered in romantic connection with Willie Isaacs, a man-about-town said to have worldly charm, a gay humour, bravura, and vitality.  When he died he left Elsie a considerable fortune. It was however, six foot three inch Ian Bullough, the twenty-six year old son of a millionaire textile manufacturer of Accrington, whom Elsie eventually married in 1911.

Many aspects of her fame had frightened and exhausted her.  The opportunity to spend time away from the public eye suited her temperament.  She led a happy life surrounded by dogs, riding to hounds, fishing, and playing golf. 

Elsie was never strong, she had been a delicate sickly child starting life in conditions of some poverty. During her years on the stage she had to undergo several operations.  She found eight performances a week in the heavy singing role of the Widow, with much dancing as well, too physically taxing for her. She was said to have become 'difficult'.  She would make excuses for not appearing at matinées; she hoped to take next week off; her complaints of fatigue became tiresome.  The theatrical gossip pages of The Pelican referred to her as 'the occasional actress'.

It is quite probable that throughout her life her health was frail and that she suffered from anaemia.  It has been suggested that Elsie had the menopause at the early age of twenty-two and that the resultant frigidity may have contributed to her marriage being unsuccessful.  Allegedly her husband went through several phases as a serious alcoholic. They separated, returned to each other, but finally the marriage came to an end in 1930.

In later life her health deteriorated further.  She became a hypochondriac and spent much time in nursing homes and Swiss sanatoria. Eventually she became so quarrelsome that even their devoted supporters left her.  Fortunately, her finances were such that she could pay to be looked after to a high standard for the rest of her days.

Her last years were spent at St Andrew's Hospital, London. Elsie was extremely happy in her anonymity and would occasionally be taken by friends for a ride in a motor car and to have tea at Henley or Hampton Court. Miss Lily Elsie died at St Andrew's Hospital on 16th December 1962, aged 76. Her death certificate records the cause as 'Heart failure/bronchopneumonia'. 

lily-elsie bio


  1. A nice piece about Lily Elsie, here are some more pictures, well some of them of Lily Elsie from my collection


  2. summertime
    thank you so much for the link. Lovely pictures; Lily Elsie was so beautiful...

  3. Shirley Nicholson wrote a book called "An Edwardian Bachelor - Roy Sambourne 1878 - 1946" from his diaries, there a couple on "holiday snaps" with Lily Elsie and Gabrielle Ray" in 1906 and 1915


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