Lillian Russell (December 4, 1860 – June 6, 1922) 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 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 the feminist Cynthia Leonard, the first woman to run for mayor of New York City. Her family moved to Chicago by 1865, where she attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart (from age 7 to 15) and 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. She soon became engaged to Walter Sinn, but broke off the engagement when she immediately found some success in the chorus of the Brooklyn Park Theatre. She studied singing under Leopold Damrosch. In November 1879, she made her first appearance on Broadway at Tony Pastor's Casino Theater, billed as "an English Ballad Singer." Pastor, known as the father of vaudeville, was responsible for introducing many well-known performers.
She joined the chorus of a touring production of Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera H.M.S. Pinafore in 1879 and two weeks later married the orchestra leader Harry Braham after she found she was pregnant. She gave birth to a son, also named Harry, but the baby died after being stuck with a diaper pin by his nanny; the pin penetrated his stomach. Returning to Pastor's 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 first played Virginia at the Gaiety Theatre in Solomon and Stephens's Paul and Virginia, followed by the title characters in Solomon's Polly and Grundy and Solomon's Pocahontas. While in London, she was engaged to create the title role of Gilbert and Sullivan's Princess Ida, but she clashed with W. S. Gilbert and was dismissed during rehearsals. She then returned to America, touring for Pastor in Solomon's comic operas 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.
During these years, Russell continued to star in comic operas and other musical theatre. 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 married tenor John Haley Augustin Chatterton (known professionally as Signor Giovanni Perugini) in 1894, but they soon separated and were divorced in 1898. In the spring of 1894, she returned to London to play Betta in The Queen of Brilliants by Jacques Offenbach 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, Victor Herbert and others.
For forty years, Russell was also the companion of businessman "Diamond Jim" Brady, who showered her with extravagant gifts of diamonds and gemstones and supported her extravagant lifestyle. Lillian was a close friend of "Diamond Jim" Brady who adored her and tried on several occasions to have Lillian accept his marriage proposals, one of which was dramatized by dumping one million dollars in $1,000.00 bills in her lap. However, Lillian always refused, claiming that marriage would only ruin their friendship. Lillian and her lover Jesse Lewisohn made a constant foursome with Brady and his mistress, Edna McCauley, whom Brady passed off as his "niece". True to form, Lewisohn eloped with McCauley leaving the two friends to drown their sorrows in an endless sea of food.It was the mutual enjoyment of good food that bonded Brady's and Russell's long relationship.
In 1899, Russell joined the Weber and Fields's Music Hall, where she starred in their burlesques and other entertainments until 1904. 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.
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 under the management of James Brooks. In 1912, she married her fourth husband, Alexander Pollock Moore, owner of the Pittsburgh Leader, and mostly retired from the stage.
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 of the same name in which she appeared. This was one of her few motion picture appearances. She sang in vaudeville until 1919, when ill health forced her to retire from the stage after a four-decade long career.
In later years, Russell wrote a newspaper column, advocated women's suffrage (as her mother had), and was a popular lecturer, advocating an optimistic philosophy of self-help and drawing large crowds. During World War I, she recruited for the U.S. Marine Corps 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.
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 a 1924 immigration reform law. She suffered apparently minor injuries on the return trip, which led to complications, and she died after ten days of illness. She was buried with full military honors.