The Gilded Age, in which Lillian Russell flourished, was known for the large hats that ladies wore and for the parasols which shaded their fair skin from the sun. You see, ladies of that day wanted to be neither ruddy of complexion nor excessively skinny. Those were signs which distinguished common folk, who often worked outdoors and couldn’t afford proper food, from a well-fed upper class. Oddly, there was little anorexia or skin cancer in those days! Lillian, like many ladies, was a bit plump and wore corsets to effect her hour-glass figure.
Helen “Nellie” Leonard was baptized in St. John’s Episcopal Church, Clinton, Iowa, in May of 1861. Eventually, the family moved to Chicago and then, after the Chicago Fire, on to New York. She was highly talented and ambitious and soon was the belle of the ball. Her show business career rocketed to the very top.
Lillian was trained in violin, piano, and voice. She, Mom, and her sister Susie went on to New York. She was ever the beauty and carried herself as such, designing all her own clothes including the “sheath dress.”
The exquisite movie about her life focuses on achievements, while mentioning more tragic aspects in a sympathetic manner. She chose her first three husbands poorly, with one a known bigamist! Her first child died in infancy. Yet, she rebounded from each adversity as an even bigger star.
The early 40’s film, (whose World Premiere was held in Clinton at the Orpheum), depicts a string of happenstances, that caused an emotional roller coaster ride, to which our heroine always responded admirably! In troubled times, she merely threw herself into her next Broadway show at The Casino or the next party at Delmonico’s.
In the movie, Don Ameche plays her first husband, Harry Brahms, who dies tragically, and Edward Arnold is very well-cast as the infamous Diamond Jim Brady, her lifelong friend. Henry Fonda plays her fourth husband, a wealthy Pittsburgh gentleman who follows her career for decades and, finally, wins her hand as the love of her life. Alice Faye, in the title role, sang some of Lillian’s most famous songs, as well as one which probably wasn’t hers. After the Party’s Over, is played hauntingly throughout the old score. A modern movie remake of her life, with contemporary staging and audio technology, might make a box-office smash, even today!