In the Gay Nineties, Lillian Russell reigned as the great beauty of the American stage. On December 4, 1861, she was born Helen Louise Leonard in Clinton, Iowa. Four years later, her family moved to Chicago, where she attended finishing school. The youngest of five daughters, Helen received her earliest musical training at home. She later recalled, “Our family was a musical one. . . . All my sisters had exceptionally fine voices, which were carefully trained.”
Her mother, an ardent feminist, divorced her husband in 1877 and moved the girls to New York City. There, Leonard took formal voice lessons with the intention of becoming an opera singer. To her mother’s chagrin, she instead made her stage debut in the chorus of a Brooklyn Academy of Music production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. Two weeks into its run, she married orchestra leader Harry Braham. After the death of their infant son, the couple divorced. Hearing Leonard sing at a party, producer Tony Pastor hired her to sing at his theater. He renamed her Lillian Russell and billed her inaccurately as “the English Ballad Singer,” grandly adding that she was “a Vision of Loveliness” with “a Voice of Gold.” Certainly, from her 1880 debut, she was as much a sensation for her beauty as for her soprano singing. After appearing in The Pie Rats of Penn Yan (a burlesque of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance), she found great success in comic operas such as The Snake Charmer (1881) and Patience (1881).
Early in her career, Russell showed a tendency to sign whatever contracts came her way, paying little attention to how they might confiict with one another. To escape various commitments she made, Russell traveled to England in 1883, bringing showman Edward Solomon in tow. They married in 1884 and had one child, Dorothy, before it was discovered that he was not divorced from his first wife. Russell denounced Solomon during the ensuing scandal and had their marriage annulled in 1893. Russell returned to New York in 1885, having taken the English stage by storm. She was offered an extraordinary $20,000 a season to perform at the Casino, the city’s leading venue for light opera. Russell won kudos in a series of shows, particularly for her performance in The Grand Duchess (1890). During its run, she participated in the first longdistance phone call, singing a song from the show over the line to President Benjamin Harrison in Washington, D.C. Russell also won acclaim in The Princess Nicotine (1893). Her costar, tenor John Haley Augustin Chatterton, became her third husband. They separated only four months after their marriage, after viciously attacking each other in the press.
Russell also made news as the friend of “Diamond Jim” Brady, a wealthy financier with a taste for extravagant living. Together, they became icons of the conspicuous consumption rampant in 1890s New York. They held spectacular parties and maintained lavish homes. Published reports of their spending sprees only added to their celebrity. In 1896, Russell starred in An American Beauty, which along with “airy Fairy Lillian,” became a popular nickname for her. By this period, however, Russell was gaining weight just as fashion was beginning to favor a more waifiike physique in women. As her popularity as a musical star began to fade, she moved into a new career in burlesque. In 1890, she joined the company of comedians Joe Weber and Lew Field, appearing in such shows as Fiddle-dee-dee, Whoop-dee-doo, and Hoity Toity. While working for Weber and Fields, Russell became forever associated with the popular song “Come Down, My Evenin’ Star,” which she sang in nearly every show. In 1904, Weber and Field went their separate ways. After appearing in Lady Teazle, a musical version of The School for Scandal, Russell moved into vaudeville, where she was paid as much as $100,000 a season. She also appeared in nonsinging stage roles with varying success. Her greatest triumph was the melodrama Wildfire (1908). Russell’s only performance preserved on film was in the 1915 movie version of this play, in which she appeared opposite Lionel Barrymore. In 1912, Russell married Pittsburgh publisher Alexander P. Moore, who encouraged her interest in Republican politics. In addition to writing and lecturing on health and beauty, she spent her final ears lending her celebrity to war bond drives and the presidential campaign of Warren P. Harding. In 1922, Harding sent her to Europe to study immigration issues. Returning to United States, she suffered a fall on an ocean liner, from which she never fully recovered. On June 2, 1922, the actress still remembered as “the American Beauty” died in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at the age of 60.
Burke, John. Duet in Diamond: The Flamboyant Saga of Lillian Russell and Diamond Jim Brady in America’s Gilded Age. New York: Putnam, 1972.
Fields, Armond. Lillian Russell: A Biography of “America’s Beauty.” Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1999.
Schwartz, Donald Ray, and Anne Aull Bowbeer. Lillian Russell: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.