Friday, April 19, 2013

Lily Elsie

Lily Elsie (1886-1962)

Brief details:
  • Real Name Elsie Cotton.
  • Born 8th April 1886 - Leeds area, Yorkshire (England).
  • Died 16th December 1962 - St Andrew's Hospital, London (England).
  • Married Ian Bullough.
  • Was a child star known as "Little Elsie".
  • Niece of actor/manager Wilfred Cotton (husband of actress Ada Reeve).

Lily Elsie was born on 8th April 1886, probably in or near the Wortley district of Leeds in the county of Yorkshire in the North of England (records are conflicting on this). She was the daughter (possibly step-daughter) of theatre manager William Thomas Cotton and his actress wife Elizabeth. She was also the niece of Wilfred Cotton, who married actress Ada Reeve.

Growing up in the Salford/Worsley region of Lancashire where her father was working, theatre was in her blood from the start and as child star known as 'Little Elsie' she appeared in many music hall productions in the Manchester area. She gained her first lead at the age of ten when she played the title role in the pantomime 'Little Red Riding Hood' at The Palace in Manchester.

As she grew older her acting career took her further afield, eventually arriving in the capital where she became a chorus girl at Daly's Theatre in the West End. By now she had adopted the stage name by which she would become famous - Lily Elsie.

It nearly did not happen however, a moment of petulance led to her falling foul of the famous theatrical producer and manager of Daly's George Edwardes who summarily dismissed her for insubordination. On discovering she was still out of work some time later however, Edwardes relented and took her back to play small parts in his many productions. Nor was his faith unrewarded, though still in her teens she soon began to attract attention.

When Edwardes found himself unexpectedly in need of a leading lady for a hurried production of 'The Merry Widow' to fill a gap in The Daly's schedule it was Lily he turned to. Taking Lily to Berlin to see a production of the piece almost proved a mistake when Lily was so overawed by the performance of the German lead Mizzi Gunther that she doubted her own ability to take on the part. With no-one else available however, and needing to begin rehearsals immediately, Edwardes eventually prevailed upon Lily to play the role and overnight a star was born.

The stop-gap production became a huge success which would run for over 700 performances. From the opening, Lily's dazzlingly beautiful features and strong singing voice made her the talk of London and the costumes, particularly the hats, started a new fashion. A string of successful roles followed as well as photographic and advertising contracts that made hers one of the best known, and most loved, faces in England.

For all of that, Lily remained always a private individual, painfully shy and unsure of herself off-stage, and never comfortable with her fame and resulting public exposure. Nor was she physically strong. Lily had been plagued by illness as child and as an adult the stresses of her situation and heavy physical demands of her profession led to her constantly complaining of fatigue. In fact she missed so many performances that some began to call the 'the occasional actress'.

In 1911 she married Ian Bullough, the son of a millionaire textile manufacter from Accrington in Lancashire. The wedding at All Saints Church, Ennismore Gardens in London on 7th November was a grand affair following which the couple honeymooned in Paris. The marriage was not a success however, over the years her husband was alleged to have had serious problems with alcoholism, and although it lasted almost twenty years (with some periods of seperation) it finally ended in divorce in 1930.
On stage, after playing the titular role in the play 'Pamela', which ended its run at The Palace Theatre in May 1918, Lily retired from the spotlight for a period of some nine years. Her triumphal return was in 'The Blue Train' which opened at The Prince of Wales Theatre in March 1927. The following year she opened in her last ever stage role playing leading lady to Ivor Novello in his own light comedy play 'The Truth Game'. Playing alongside Lily fulfilled a personal ambition for Novello who had long been her admirer (and kept a portrait of her on his piano). The show opened at The Globe but after a brief tour ended its run at Daly's where Lily's professional career had begun. So perhaps it was doubly fitting that this should be her final curtain call.

In later life Lily's health deteriorated further. She spent much time in nursing homes and Swiss sanitoria, and her moods and quarrelsome nature led to her becoming increasingly alienated from her friends and family until ultimately all had deserted her. Fortunately, her financial position was such that she could afford a high standard of care as well as her future security being assured. Later, brain surgery improved both her psycholigical and physical health and her last years were spent in anonymous contentment at St Andrew's Hospital in London. Lily Elsie died aged 76 on 16th December 1962.

No comments: