Monday, December 4, 2017

Born Today December 4: Lillian Russell

1860 (or 1861)-1922

Born Helen Louise Leonard in Clinton, Iowa, the operatic singer/vaudevillian that the world came to know as Lillian Russell was raised in Chicago, Illinois.  She was born into a fairly prominent family--father a print-executive and mother a prominent social feminist (which she would later take up herself). She is not known from silent film primarily however; rather, she is known from her stage fame and later activist work on social issues that were progressive on the one hand and isolationist on the other.  She was a talented singer who was discovered around the age of 18 when her mother moved her and her sister to New York City when her parents marriage broke down.  She became a very successful operatic singer of "low opera" and musical shows (she was in many an American production of Gilbert and Sullivan, both on an off Broadway and on tours).  She also appeared in numerous vaudeville acts and was quite the accomplished stage actress from natural talent.  She also possessed a love (many would say too much of a love) of the "finer things" in life and was known to be a show boater. She was married several times and conducted numerous affairs with "men of means," including a forty year affair with one wealthy man that kept her in solid comfort.  Nevertheless, by the mid-1890's she was a what we would term a "super star."  She, for example, was the first voice heard on the very first long distance song call made when Alexander Graham Bell introduced it to world in an 1890 call out of New York to Boston and Washington D.C..  It could be said that in the world of the first mass media environment (communications around the globe), Russell was one of the first persons to be famous because of her fame...not unlike the Kardashians today.  While she is well known in the world of silent film for her appearance in the 1915 World Film production of Wildfire, which she had starred in on the stage in 1908, she had made minor film appearances before this (her first dramatic role--1 of only 3--came in a filmed short of the play La Tosca  in 1911)  She mostly appeared in film as herself in documentary shorts, the first of which was the 1906 short about her, and named for her, Lillian RussellWildfire was a major film project for World, starred Lionel Barrymore, and was filmed at the Peerless Studio lot in Fort Lee (the film survives in part, though it's missing key parts and so far the missing third reel has yet to turn up).  A highly sanitized version of her life was made into a film in 1940 starring Alice Faye also simply called Lillian Russell.  Russell retired to private life not long before her death (she had previously been so very well known on the lecture circuit).  She returned from a trip abroad (that had supposedly been a fact finding mission for President Harding) injured in some way; these injuries were said to have developed into complications which lead to her death on the 6th of June in 1922 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  She was 61 years old.  She was given a military funeral, whether she deserved it or not (she had recruited for the Marines and raised money during World War I).  Thousands of people turned out to line the street on the day of her funeral procession, and the president sent of wreath that adorned her casket.  She was interred in the private family crypt/mausoleum in the Allegheny Cemetery located in Pittsburgh.  The trip that apparently led to her death, also directly--and shamefully-- led to the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924--banning all immigration from Asia, highly restricting immigration from Europe (especially eastern Europe) and was a contributory factor in the lead up to the second world war.  

Wikipedia (the only known recording of her singing can be heard here, the recording was made in 1912--by 1904 she had begun to experience voice degradation in her singing, so it is not a good example of a voice that many lauded as excellent.)

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