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Fascinating Women: Lily Elsie

Lily Elsie
Lily Elsie

With her button nose, piles of heavy, lustrous brunette locks, and doe eyes, Lily Elsie walked across the stage as a child star and into the hearts of Victorian and Edwardian audiences, where she remained for the majority of her life. She was born Elsie Hodder to an unmarried seamstress in West Riding, Yorkshire in 1886, and made her debut in music hall and variety entertainments as “Little Elsie” as a child impersonator in the mid 1890s. Her voice was thin but sweet, and her stage presence undeniable, and yet, despite her immense success and talent, she remained hopelessly shy.

Little Elsie later acted in Salford theatres in pantomimes and concerts, and scored the title role in Little Red Riding Hood at ten, which remained onstage for six weeks, and met with success on tour for an additional six weeks. Elsie made her London debut in 1898, and toured in the music comedies which were to mark the history of Edwardian theatre. She changed her name to “Lily Elsie” sometime around 1900, and promptly joined George Edwardes’ company at Daly’s Theatre in London as a chorus girl. She caused a stir in 1903, in the role of “Princess Soo-Soo” in the hit musical A Chinese Honeymoon, when she was made up to appear Chinese, for until then, white actors portraying characters of color invariably played them with only an “ethnic” costume to denote their non-European ancestry. She was briefly fired by Edwards after he caught her pulling a prank while on stage, but he quickly rehired her in smaller parts, topping off her career between the years 1903 and 1906 in fourteen shows.

Her big break came by accident. Edwardes wanted to put on The Merry Widow and took Elsie with him to Berlin to see the original German version, Die Lustige Witwe. He convinced her to take the part–she demurred, thinking her voice too slight–and recruited Lucile to design her costumes and coach her in movement and grace. The production, with English lyrics by Adrian Ross, opened in June 1907 at Daly’s Theatre and ran for an astonishing 778 performances. Elsie’s celebrity was sealed when the operetta went on tour in 1908, and she became the most photographed actress of the Edwardian era, also becoming intrinsically linked to the wide-brimmed Merry Widow hat designed by Lucile.

According to the Atlanta Constitution newspaper in America, writing in 1915:

Perhaps her face is nearer to that of the Venus de Milo in profile than to any other famed beauty. There are no angles to be found about her any place…. If she came to America, she would undoubtedly be called the most beautiful woman In America. Nature never made a more brilliant success in the beauty business than she did with Lily Elsie. It was mostly from the nobility that her suitors came. Everyone agrees that Lily Elsie has the most kissable mouth in all England… she possesses the Cupid’s bow outline with the ends curving upward delicately, all ready for smiles…. Strangely enough, the women of the land were among her most devoted admirers.”

After her astounding success with The Merry Widow, Elsie performed in sixteen more musical comedies, including The Dollar Princess in 1909; as “Franzi” in A Waltz Dream; and as “Angèle” in The Count of Luxembourg, both in 1911. She left The Count of Luxembourg to marry Major John Ian Bullough, who was the son of a wealthy textile manufacturer. Bullough wanted her to retire from the stage, which the shy Elsie did, and she only returned to the stage for charity performances during the Great War. In 1920, Elsie and Bullough moved to Gloucestershire and she greatly enjoyed country society, but her marriage had never been happy, and she returned to touring in the late 1920s before retiring for good in 1929 after playing against Ivor Novello in his The Truth Game. She and Bullough’s painful marriage ended in 1930, and what could have been Elsie’s golden years were filled with illness and hypochondria as she drifted through nursing homes and Swiss sanatoriums. After brain surgery, which was said to have improved her health a little, Elsie spent her remaining years in St. Andrew’s Hospital in London, where she died at age 76 in 1962.

Read more about Lily Elsie’s life in Anything But Merry! The life and times of Lily Elsie by David Slattery-Christy

The Edwardian Publishing Industry


1877 typewriterMuch as today, the publishing industry of the Edwardian era wrestled with such familiar issues as distribution, declining interest in reading, literary fiction versus “trash” for the masses, competition for bookstores from cheap editions & used book sales, and the eternal assumption of an “us versus them” between aspiring authors and editors/literary agents of major publishing houses. Though things like iPods, television, the internet or video games were not distractions from reading, nonetheless around the turn of the century, the London correspondent of the New York Evening Post reported that the British bookseller was liable to tell a tale of woe: “The trade is not what was once, you know, sir, and what with the war and six-penny reprints, some of us are pretty well at the end of our tether,” and would then “proceed to show you a shelf after shelf of war-books which are not selling, and shelf after shelf of spring which we hoped to get rid of, but which is now so much old stock.”

At this time the industry was in a state of flux and readership was split amongst such disparate tastes as readers of popular novelists Marie Corelli, Elinor Glyn and Ouida, adventure novelists H. Rider Haggard and Rudyard Kipling, and the Ruritanian genre, and readers of a more serious vein of fiction–G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, or the Webbs–though Dickens, Eliot and Thackeray remained perinneal favorites. The quantity of books published during the 1900s advanced considerably, with the number of new publications doubling between 1901 and 1913 from 6,044 in the former year to 12,379 in the latter. This trend lay in the improvement in family incomes and the ever-increasing interest in education, which accelerated with the decline in illiteracy. Aligning with this increase were the sudden growth of public libraries, whose public expenditure jumped from 286,000 pounds in 1896 to 805,000 pounds in 1911. Also, during this time, publishers made an attempt to make the classics more accessible to the reading public, and Collins’ Classics and the Everyman’s Library, each sold at modest prices in relatively durable editions, did much to extend an interest in classic English novelists and essayists.

For the aspiring novelist hoping to break into this seemingly impenetrable market, a score of books nestled on the shelves, some written by popular authors of the day and others by publishers themselves, full of advice on not only how to submit a novel but on the actual publishing process itself. The typical course to publication was detailed as following:

1. First, the aspirant should see that the typewritten copy was accurate, fastened together securely, and most importantly, clean. Their name and address, the title and description of the manuscript, and the length of the manuscript in words, should be prominent on the first page. A letter offering a view to publication and a request for return should the manuscript be rejected accompanied the manuscript in the mail.

2. When the manuscript arrived at the publishers’ offices, a clerk enters the particulars of the book into a ledger and it was shoved aside with other manuscripts to await the casual inspection of a partner or manager. The book is then taken from the pile and handed to a reader. It was their job to sift through the chaff to get to the wheat, and authors were advised to remember that “Publishing firms flourish by making profits; and profits are made out of books that sell; and it is in the business of the reader to recommend not good books merely, but good books that will sell.” Even if the reader enjoyed the book, there was a chance for rejection from the publisher if the lists were full or the reader’s remarks weren’t eye-catching enough. However, should the publisher accept the novel, to the trembling author went a contract.

3. The author was advised that under no circumstances should they bear the whole or part of the expenses of publication–that was to be born entirely by the publisher–nor should he agree to be remunerated on the half-profit system. The newly acquired author would then be remunerated in one of three ways: the publisher buys the entire copyright of the book for a lump sum down, (b) the publisher buys the copyright for a term of years, at the expiry of which it reverts to the author, and (c) the publisher may acquire the right to publish during the whole term of copyright, or for a shorter term, by agreeing to pay the author a royalty on every copy of the book sold (generally 10%, though well-established authors could revieve 25-33%). However, unlike today, this latter system did not guarantee an advance, and first-time authors were advised against insisting on an advance until they made a reputation.

4. The proofs were sent to the author, which were either in long “slips” or in page form, according to arrangement. After the proofs were returned, the next time the author saw their book was when a parcel of six free copies arrived on the day of publication. The author was advised to subscribe to a press-cutting agency for cuttings of reviews. If the first book achieved a sale of a thousand copies it was considered to have done very well, as the average circulation of first books was nearer to five hundred or less. After this first book, the author was further advised to have books published on a moderate, but regular schedule to build their reputation, stating that “even mediocre talent, when combined with fixity of purpose and regular industry, will infalliably result in a gratifying success.”

5. The literary agent was someone to aspire for, as the more successful agents were loathe to take on unknown authors who could prove unprofitable. According to advice, when the aspirant has made a name for himself and has the ability to his work on his own, then was the time to go to an agent as now the popular author–via their newly acquired agent–could demand a higher advance, more publicity and better placement in the lists. The agents’ percentage hovered around 10%, though once the author’s income exceeded two thousand a year, the agent should be willing to accept 5% on all sums over that amount.

The author with a little success would be tempted to publish their books in other countries, and while first-time authors were advised against worrying over foreign copyrights, then as today, a book that was a smash hit in England frequently fizzled in the United States, and vice versa. But in the end, the aspiring novelist turned published, had as equal a chance for success as authors today. Worries over advances, publishing profits, and so on preoccupied everyone, but thankfully, not enough to mitigate such wonderful novelists whose works have remained timeless classics in our age.

Further Reading:
Edwardian England, 1901-1914, ed by Simon Nowell-Smith
1001 Places to Sell Manuscripts: A Complete Guide for All Writers by James Knapp Reeve
Authors and Publishers: A Manual of Suggestions for Beginners in Literature by George Haven Putnam & John Bishop Putnam
Practical authorship‎ by James Knapp Reeve
The Author’s Desk Book by William Dana Orcutt

The Care and Feeding of the First Family


housemaidAs “First Family,” the President, his wife and children, and any other dependents, had their needs and cares were catered to by a bevy of secretaries, secret service agents, and most important of all, domestic servants!

According to Helen Taft, “the management of the White House is a larger task than many women are ever called upon to perform.” During the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, the White House staff consisted of more than forty men and women, including the clerical force in the executive office, Mrs. Roosevelt’s social secretary and three maids, the steward, two butlers, the President’s family cook, the house cook and assistant, one pantry man, four cleaners, the gardener and his assistants, laundresses, firemen, watchmen, janitors, plumbers and electricians. All of these positions were paid for by the Government, with the exception of the family cook and the white maids–as most of the domestic staff (for most D.C. and Southern households) at this time were black. White House standbys included the Paymaster, the Doorkeepers, the Assistant Secretary, and the Telegrapher and “Chief Intelligence Officer.”

The most important position was the White House Steward. A virtual autocrat of the official table and cuisine at the President’s house, almost every question governing the State dinners was within their control. Receiving an annual salary of $1800, the steward supervised and accounted for every detail of the household; no piece of broken glass or china could be destroyed except upon the order of the Superintendent of Public Buildings and Grounds. Even the First Lady had little say in the culinary department of household affairs–though Mrs Taft promptly hired a housekeeper in lieu of a steward from the beginning of her husband’s presidency most likely in response to this lack of control.

For protection, the First Family was guarded by the Secret Service, and in addition, the White House itself had its guards in the form of policemen from the regular Washington Police Force. The actual number of Secret Service guards in attendance upon the President was never made public, but it was certain that at all receptions, a number of such guards were on duty within the house, while several more were stationed outside. The President never stepped outside the White House, never traveled even the shortest distance, without being followed by one or more Secret Service officers.

During dinners and other receptions hosted by the President, secret service men and police officers dotted the White House. When entering the White House, every person was closely scrutinized, particularly since Congressmen were in the habit of giving cards of admission to anyone who asked for the favor. The most important rule was to keep one’s hands in plain sight. It was the most rigid rule of the White House, and if a person happened to rest a hand in their pocket, or under their coat-tails, a low whisper immediately told them to take it out. Also in attendance upon the President, at all receptions and on all State occasions, were military and naval aids. Their duties were purely social, yet prestigious.

Despite the tumult of incoming and outgoing Presidents of different political persuasions, the cogs that kept the White House running always ran smoothly. Many White House staffers ended up working in there for many, many years, and cherished their time spent in the President’s House.

For more information:
Workers in the White House