Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Miss Lily Elsie

There are some faces that almost take your breath away when you look at them in pictures. Names that come to mind are Maude Fealy and Sharon Tate. Yes, they were from eras very far apart from one another, but they are those rare breeds that never seem to take a bad picture or have a bad angle. Another lady to add to that bunch is the lovely Edwardian stage actress, Lily Elsie. I mean, you look at her pictures and wonder how this woman was even real? She looks like a beautiful painting or statue. I can only imagine what a treat it was to see her perform on stage...or even on film!

Lily Elsie was born Elsie Hodder on April 8, 1886 in Armley, West Riding of Yorkshire, England. Her mother, Charlotte, worked as a dress maker and it isn't clear who Elsie's real father was. The most likely candidate is a former opera tenor named Arthur Borrows who died in 1928. In his death notice from the New York Times, it lists him as having three daughters, one of them being Lily. When she was still a child, her mother married a theatre worker named William Cotton who adopted Elsie as his own.

She began to act on the stage when she was still a child, working under the name "Little Elsie." It seems her act was to impersonate famous stars of the day which was a popular act at the time...and I guess it still is! When she was around 14 years old, she started using the stage name that would later appear all over the world in lights and in playbills, Lily Elsie.

During the course of six years, Lily appeared in around 14 shows. She was a hard worker, but remember, she was still a child. She was once fired from a show for laughing on stage, but was soon hired back.

Her biggest success was starring in The Merry Widow in 1908. She didn't think she was up for the role after seeing the original German version but with a little training and some new attire from the best designer at the time, Lucille Duff-Gordon, she was soon well on her way. One of the costume pieces Lucille designed for her was a huge hat with feathers and other adornments which soon became all the rage among society ladies. Soon Lucille was designed Lily's clothes in real life so she could be a fashion plate while out on the town.

Lily's face eventually was seen on postcards, advertisements, and men from all over wrote to her proclaiming their love for her.

The next year, in 1909, Lily left her famous production and went on to appear in 16 other shows before she took a break to concentrate on her personal life. She liked being out of the limelight and only appeared in stage productions that were for charitable causes. She returned to the stage full time in 1916 and appeared in around four more shows before taking an even longer break from acting. But, yet again, she would return for a few sporadic shows.

During her break from the stage, Lily made two silent films. The first one was the 1918 D.W. Griffith film, The Great Love, with Lillian Gish. The second was Comradeship in 1919 starring some people that I really don't know, but it was apparently a quite popular picture. From what I have read, the Griffith film is lost and the second one is in archive at an institute in England.

Lily Elsie passed away on December, 16, 1962 in Cricklewood, London, England. She was cremated and her ashes were either interred or scattered at Golders Green Crematorium in England.

Lily was married once, to Major John Ian Bullough in 1911. Of course, Lucille designed her wedding dress, which later on Lily called "hideous." She was happy for awhile, being able to live a quiet life away from the life of a stage actress, but her health had always been on shaky ground so eventually illness began to eat away at her tranquil life. It also didn't help that Bullough was rumored to be an on and off again alcoholic. They split up and got back together a few times before finally calling it quits for good in 1930. They never had children, which is probably for the best if you examine all the evidence.

What exactly was wrong with Lily? Well...a few things, so sit back! She always had "weak nature" from growing up in poverty and having to undergo several surgeries. The toll from this and working non-stop on shows exhausted not only her mind but her body as well. She was extremely fatigued, was anemic, and could even have begun menopause in her early twenties, which could explain why she never had children. After her divorce, she spent time in and out of hospitals and sanitariums but it was mostly for a vacation of sorts seeing as she became a bit of a hypochondriac. Doctors thought they would perform a radical new surgery on her to see if it would help. The surgery? A lobotomy. Did it help? No (did they ever?) It made her calmer but not 100% fit as a fiddle.

According to Cecil Beaton, Lily was a smoker.

According to sources at the time, Lily may have suffered from the same "don't show up-itis" as Marilyn Monroe. If Lily was billed as the star of the show, she wouldn't show up, and her understudy would have to step in.

Her family and friends always called her Elsie.

Major Bullough had been married previously to another actress/showgirl named Maude Darrell. They were married in 1909 but sadly, she passed away the next year. She was a beauty from the picture I saw too!

Her step-aunt , Ada Reeve, was a famous stage actress (she was one of the original Floradora Girls) and later had a film career.

"To see her merely walk across the stage was a poem." ~~ Cecil Beaton [on Lily Elsie]

** most of the info and the pictures were from this amazing website dedicated to Lily. Check it out!


  1. Hi Jessica,
    I hope you enjoy the article I post on your Virgina Lee Corbin entry. Here is a link to see Lily Elsie's wedding dress,it's on a postcard and you scroll down bit:


  2. Hello Theresa! I have seen her dress, but I don't see exactly why she thought it was hideous. The fur wrap is a little overkill and maybe in color it looked worse.

  3. Hi Jessica,
    I read in couple newspaper articles the color of the dress was a pale pink embroidered with pearls and trimmed with ermine (short tail weasel)which around fall/winter it's fur turns white.