Eleonora Duse (1858–1924) was an Italian actress, often known simply as Duse. Duse was born in Vigevano, Lombardy, and began acting as a child. Both her father and her grandfather were actors, and she joined the troupe at age four. Due to poverty, she initially worked continually, traveling from city to city with whichever troupe her family was currently engaged. She came to fame in Italian versions of roles made famous by Sarah Bernhardt. She gained her first major success in Europe, then toured South America, Russia and the United States; beginning the tours as a virtual unknown but leaving in her wake a general recognition of her genius. While she made her career and fame performing in the theatrical "warhorses" of her day, she is today remembered more for her association with the plays of Gabriele d'Annunzio and Henrik Ibsen.
In 1879, while in Naples, she met journalist Martino Cafiero, and became involved in a fast paced love affair with him. However, less than a year later, while she was in mid-pregnancy, he left her. The baby did not survive birth, and shortly thereafter Cafiero died as well. Duse then joined Cesare Rossi's theater company, and met actor Teobaldo Checchi. The two married in 1881. By 1885, the couple had one daughter, Enrichetta, but divorced after Duse became involved with another actor, Flavio Ando.
By this time, her career was in full swing and her popularity began to climb. She travelled on tour to South America, and upon her return a year later she formed her own company, meaning that she would assume the additional responsibilities of both manager and director. Between 1887 and 1894 she had an affair with the Italian poet Arrigo Boito, perhaps best remembered as Verdi's librettist. Their relationship was carried out in a highly clandestine manner, presumably because of Boito's many aristocratic friends and acquaintances. (Despite this, their voluminous correspondence over the years survives.) In later years the two remained on good terms until his death in 1918.
In 1895 she met Gabriele d'Annunzio, who was five years her junior, and the two became involved romantically as well as collaborating professionally. Gabriele d'Annunzio wrote four plays for her. In contrast to her relations with Boito, her association with d'Annunzio was widely recognized. When d'Annunzio gave the lead for the premier of the play La Città morta to Sarah Bernhardt instead of Duse, there was a furious fight, and Duse ended her affair with him. In contrast to Bernhardt's outgoing personality, which thrived on publicity, Duse was introverted and private, rarely giving interviews – preferring instead to let her artistic performances speak for her. The two were unspoken rivals for many years.
George Bernard Shaw saw both actresses in London within the span of a few days, in the same play. Shaw gave his nod to Duse and defended his choice in an adamant oratory quoted by biographer Frances Winwar. In regard to her general character, it is important to note that reading was a life-long passion. Anton Chekhov, said about Duse as a "remakable actress" also. While Moscow's critics and audience went delirious with admiration, Anton Chekhov explained Bernhardt`s success by hard work, but not talent.
In 1896, Duse completed a triumphant tour of the United States; in Washington President Grover Cleveland and his wife attended every performance. Mrs. Cleveland shocked Washington society by giving in Duse's honor the first-ever White House tea held for an actress. In 1909 Duse retired from acting, and near to that same time she met and became involved in a lesbian affair with Italian feminist Lina Poletti, a former lover of writer Sibilla Aleramo. The two lived together in Florence, Italy for two years before ending the relationship.
Duse's relationship with the dancer Isadora Duncan was also rumored to be sexual. Duse spent several weeks with her at Viareggio, the seaside resort, in 1913, shortly after the dancer's two children drowned in a tragic accident.
She was also known for mentoring many young actresses in her company, most notably Emma Gramatica; and she shared a lasting and intimate friendship with the singer Yvette Guilbert. She also savored a long friendship with the costume designer Jean Philippe Worth, who was utterly devoted to her. Her biographer, Frances Winwar, records that Duse wore little make-up but, "...made herself up morally. In other words, she allowed the inner compulsions, grief and joys of her characters to use her body as their medium for expression, often to the detriment of her health." Setting a new precedent from actors who previously used set expressions to convey emotions, Duse was the innovator of a technique she described as "elimination of self" to internally connect with the character she was portraying and allow expression to occur.
Over the course of her career, Duse became well-known and respected for her assistance to young actors and actresses during the early stages of their careers. Among diverse artistic geniuses who acknowledged being inspired by Duse are modern dance pioneer Martha Graham and Imagist poetry pioneer Amy Lowell.
Duse suffered from ill health (largely pulmonary) throughout most of her adult life, and the many years of touring had taken their toll.
by John Singer Sargent c.1893
She retired from acting in 1909, but returned to the stage in 1921 in a series of engagements in both Europe and America. During this interval, in 1916, she made one film ("Ashes"), prints of which still survive. There was also a certain amount of professional correspondence between Duse and D. W. Griffith, though ultimately nothing came of this. On July 30, 1923, Duse became the first woman (and Italian) to be featured on the cover of the nascent Time magazine. Duse died of pneumonia at the age of 65 in Pittsburgh in Suite 524 of the Hotel Schenley, while on the eastward return leg of a tour of the United States. She is buried in Asolo – where she had made her home for the last four years of her life – at the cemetery of Sant' Anna.