By Gary Herrity
Special to the Herald
— 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!
Early in Lillian’s career, she wore purple tights and showed a little skin, but as she gained weight, she had it entered in her exceedingly lucrative contracts that she “never be required to wear” them. Her audiences scarcely noticed the difference, so exquisitely was she dressed -- much of the time in her own creations.
Lillian didn’t drink much because it was bad for her complexion and voice, but “dining”? Ah, that was quite another story. Just to summarize, I will mention just some of the famous five-course meals that she and Diamond Jim partook of: starting with soups, oysters, and sumptuous hors d’oeuvres; then a fish course, with lobster or crabs and shrimp; followed by a roast for the main entrée. Three or four vegetables were added as sides; and, the whole affair was finished with fancy cakes, Philadelphia Ice Cream or sherbet. The finishing touch would be Turkish and French coffee. Even with all of this good food, Lillian never lost her figure. Stout as she was, she never became fat. Her many activities and go-go lifestyle were helpful, and she was also an avid bicyclist, once taking the whole cast of her Clinton Show on a city-wide tour in the 1890’s. One such picture would have been a gem: Lillian, Diamond Jim, and Marie Dressler, on a three-person tandem! Another bicycle, given to her by the hulking Jim, was gold-plated, had diamond hub caps, and Mother-of- Pearl handle bars!
Interestingly, Lillian appeared in vaudeville with the comedy act of Webber & Fields, and they idolized her. She was a fine actor and comedienne, and Edison even captured her lovely voice on the phonograph. Webber & Fields also appeared in the movie of her life… 35 years after working with Lillian! A movie remade today might play better as the life of an ahead-of-her-time feminist, (businesslike, strong, talented), who was willing to do whatever it took to succeed in show business. Her life tragedies could also play better today. No longer would it be as scandalous, as when she first starred in 1880, that she was a married nineteen-year-old mother and not “a European songstress,” as she was then billed.
Lillian helped sell Liberty Bonds during the First World War and, in 1914, made a movie with John Barrymore which did not fare well. She was pretty much retired after 1912, taking on her mother’s trait of working for political and social causes.
During her heyday, however, Lillian made two appearances at Clinton’s magnificent vaudeville theaters, in 1896 and in 1908. During the first appearance, she stayed at the Revere House, which was only a block from her birthplace -- a house on the current post office lot.
Lillian’s last marriage was to Pittsburgh industrialist Alexander Moore. She died in Pittsburgh in 1922 and is buried there. She was rather an anomaly of her time, inasmuch as she had a fine mind and used it to execute her own excellent business decisions. She had a daughter, Lillian. Jr., who later wished to be called Dorothy.