Sunday, May 29, 2022

Nikita: a monster of musical 'publicity'


NIKITA, Mlle [NICHOLSON, Margaret Louise Putnam] (b Washington, DC 18 August 1872; d unknown)


Many Victorian singers, and particularly some of those from the left hand side of the Atlantic Ocean, suffered sadly from being ridiculously over-hyped by their entourage, their managers and, on occasion, themselves, but it is hard to think of one other who was rendered quite so foolish by such posturings, pretences and pretensions as ‘Mademoiselle Nikita’. 


Unjustifiably over-publicised in her life and not lengthy career, she nevertheless survived into a number of books of reference, where the descriptions of that life and that career reek decidedly and obviously of the publicity pages. One of the most amazing of these semi-ficticious articles is that in the respected Baker’s Dictionary, where the lady is credited with a whole line of operatic performances which she never played. Otherwise, she is said to have been born in Philadelphia, or was it Virginia…?


Ah, Virginia. The Virginia story is the first and most fatally ghastly piece of all the fakery that would surround ‘Nikita’. Quite who invented it and when, I have yet to discover, but it seems to have gone with the cutesy name, which I first spot when the young lady was launched on Europe, under the aegis of Moritz Strakosch, at the age of 14 years and 8 months.

‘Mlle Nikita’, born in Virginia, got carried off by marauding Indians, at Niagara, when just a tiny tot. She was brought up by the Indians, and only returned to her mother, at the age of 10, when the tribe’s big chief, Nikita, died. Alas, her father had died, not knowing that his babe would ever come home…


Robert Joseph Nicholson, from Maryland, formerly a brass-moulder, but latterly a prison warder in Washington DC, would certainly have been surprised to hear that he was dead, also that he had not supported little Maggie (along with her brothers and sister) through her childhood without the help of a tribe of Indians.

However, someone, somewhere, was daft enough to think that this fairytale – splashed over half a column of paid advertising when the moppet first showed her little head in London – would ever be believed by any but the most gullible. One paper snorted ‘they must have a very good Conservatoire on the Niagara reservation’. Had she had no talent at all, Nikita would have been a bad joke of Florence Foster Jenkins proportions. The pity of it was, she was – at least to start with -- a competent vocalist and – of course – as a pretty child prodigy, she had her attractions. But, to those who weren’t gulled by the stories, she was dragged up as something of a silly freak show.

Once Maggie Nicholson gave up the Indian story (which would never, sadly for her, ever be forgotten), she gave a different version of the ‘facts’ of her early days which, for all that it was still pretty gushing, had a little more verisimilitude to it. But there were two things that never changed. Her age and her date of birth. They didn’t have to, for Maggie was a genuine child performer, born in 1872, and she never had to lie about her age. There she is, in the 1880 census of Washington, with her mother Sarah Rebecca (b Baltimore, 16 February 1846), her brothers Joshua B (‘works navy yard’) and Robert jr, and an elder sister who seems to be called Renie or Benie, and she is eight years of age.

The new story went that Renie or Benie had been taking singing lessons from an uncle, a Mr Le Roy, and little Maggie had supplied the high note that her sister could not reach. Mr Le Roy promptly put her into training, and also into concert, taking her on the road in New England, aged twelve, as ‘The miniature Patti, Louise Marguerite the wonderful child singer and actress’.

The ultimate result was that, on 16 December 1885, with the backing of a group of New York ladies, Mrs Sarah Rebecca Nicholson and 13 year-old Maggie set sail for Europe. In Paris, Maggie was taken under the wing of Herr Moritz Strakosch, all haloed still, a quarter of a century on, with his ‘discovery’ (if not necessarily his teaching) of Adelina Patti, and now, somewhat foolishly, famed as a finder of great talent. 

Strakosch introduced Maggie – now yclept ‘Nikita’ and equipped with her Indian story – at Nice, in April 1887, on the occasion of a charity concert for the sufferers by the recent earthquake. The local music critic was suitably sceptical of ‘le dernier astre découvert par M Strakosch’, and even more sceptical of the foolish publicity, but he liked Maggie, and was particularly impressed that, given the stable she came out of, she was not put up to sing lashings of roulades and coloratura, but instead gave simple renditions of ‘Connais-tu le pays’, ‘Deh vieni non tardar’, Giordani’s ‘O sanctissima vergine’ and a piece of Lohengrin (‘Wagner? We did not know the Indians were so up to date’): ‘La voix de cet enfant de 14 ans, bien que complètement formée, prendra encore de la force certainement, mais le timbre en est déjà si pur, si frais, il y a tant de charme dans sa manière de phraser, tant de hardiesse dans son expression quand elle lance sa note au publique, comme si elle le jetait un bouquet de fleurs ..’


The try-out satisfactorily accomplished, Nikita was taken to London, and there, on 20 August, she made another debut, at Arditi’s Her Majesty’s Theatre Proms. This was an occasion for the embarrassing four-paragraph advertisement referred to above (Times) and there was, of course, a nice quote from Adelina Patti to the effect ‘My child at your age I could not sing as you do…’.

It was tempting fate. Reynolds Magazine shot back, after opening night, ‘In one sense this was true. Mme Patti, we believe, to have saved her life, could not have sung as Mlle Nikita does, but if the diva meant the expression of her opinion to be flattering... The newcomer may have a very wonderful history but her voice is an ordinary one ...’

The Times referred to ‘the ridiculous cock and bull story’ it had printed and pursed that she ‘still has some of the rudiments of her art to learn’ but, behind all the fuss, noted an attractive and very youthful appearance and a small, but not disagreeable, voice ... intelligent phrasing and perfect production …’

Nikita was kept on the bills (to some expressed surprise in some quarters), braving appearances alongside such as Clarice Sinico, and featuring, alongside ‘Batti batti’, ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ and a slice of Salvator Rosa, a run of Arditi songs: ‘L’Estasi’, ‘Fior di Margherita’ (‘The Daisy’ ‘sung with great success by..’), ‘The International Song’.

From London, she continued on to Paris. Her entourage had not taken the hint about the advertisements, and brochures were issued in advance telling the tale of her life with the Indians: ‘une reclame echevelée digne du grand Barnum avait essayé de nous la presenter comme la merveille des merveilles’ ... ‘la fée de Niagara’.. ‘ As a result ‘The public came with a bit of scepticism and a bit for a joke, and was agreeably surprised ... [she is] not a huge talent but has an agreeable voice and a way of singing that is a little cute but sometimes exquisite’. ‘Il y a peut-être chez cette petite sauvage l’étoile d’une grande artiste…’.

If there were, it would soon be extinguished. And Moritz Strakosch died.


Accompanied by lashings of publicity and advertisement ‘die neueste Wundermädchen’ went next into Germany (Berlin Singakademie 12 October 1887, Hamburg, Leipzig 25 November) and, under the aegis of Alfred Fischoff, Austria. Herr Fischoff got the Red Indian tale into the press all round Europe, along with Maggie’s portrait, as ‘Moritz Strakosch’s last pupil’ delivered her ‘Elsa’s Dream’ round Europe. The publicity claimed London, Berlin, Hamburg, Lübeck, Bremen, Hannover, Magdeburg, Leipzig, Dresden, Wiesbaden, Düsseldorf, Brussels. And why not? The columnists leaped gratefully upon the Nikita-train for colourful copy, and when they referred to the ‘neuste Gesangswunder’ it was for the reader to decide whether their tongues were in their cheeks or not.


In spite of the fact that Mapleson had announced that he would be hiring the ‘Gesangswunder’ for Zerlina and Cherubino for the coming London opera season, when she turned up again in London it was for more concerts, this time at the Albert Hall. And the ‘wonder child’/’huge success’ publicity was beginning to show signs of baffling even some who ought to have known better.


On her 1 March 1888 reappearance, she was large billed – ahead of such artists as Janet Patey, Mary Davies, Edward Lloyd and James Sauvage – and her rendition of ‘Deh vieni’, ‘Home Sweet Home’ and ‘I Dreamt I dwelt in marble halls’ was ‘warmly applauded’. The Times, who decided ‘she returns to London much improved in voice and in manner of delivery’, devoted the entirety of its review to her.

She followed up – sharing the big billing with Sims Reeves, and with Patey, Sterling, Lloyd and Santley amongst the alsos – in further concerts at the Albert Hall (Eckert’s ‘Echo Song’, ‘Voi che sapete’, Braga’s Serenata, ‘Aubade française’ by de Nevers. ‘Jewel Song’, ‘Batti, batti’), and then at St James’s Hall, and in August she was featured at Freeman Thomas’s Covent Garden Proms. ‘She is singing everywhere and coining money...’ reported the papers back home.


She returned to Europe (I spot a ‘Nikita-Konzert’ in Brussels in December) and, in early 1889, the Nikita outfit headed for Russia. Reports oozed back of sensational triumphs for ‘die vielgenannte Sängerin’ in ‘her stage debut’ in opera in Moscow (Zerlina, 22 March) and in concert in Odessa. The New York Times printed a (translated?) notice of one such: ‘(March 16) dateline Odessa  No singer has, in my recollection, so entirely captivated the musical public of this city, which is at all times somewhat severely critical of the claims of foreign prime donne, as the youthful and gifted American singer, Mlle Nikita…’ The Musical Courier printed another and different one: ‘Nikita, the soprano singer, made a very poor impression’.

She gave Dion Giovanni another whirl at the Deutsches Theater in Prague, and apparently added Fra Diavolo and Cherubino to her operatic register, but by May, she was back in London where on the 19th of the month she presented her own concert (‘her reappearance after her triumphant success on the Continent’) at St James’s Hall. The Era found her ‘Ernani involami’ was given ‘with great command of vocal resources and with excellent tone and style. The florid passages required a little more finish, but the command of execution was great, and the general rendering gave promise of Nikita becoming ere long a more effective vocalist still’. But the Nikita bandwagon were still overdoing it. The floral tributes that crowded the stage during the evening were way over the top, ‘All ‘the flowers that bloom in the spring’ will not make a great singer, but a good voice and musical sensibility will and, as Nikita has these qualifications, there is no doubt that she will do well, and be popular with the musical public’.

The Times however, was not to be hornswoggled. When she moved on to the Albert Hall, where another youngish vocalist was currently singing, they wrote: ‘A miniature edition of the Cuzzoni-Faustina warfare is, it would appear, being waged at the Albert Hall, where the claims of two young sopranos are hotly contested at certain concerts of a not very high order. Although neither has reached maturity of style, the voice of ‘Nikita’ – the omission of the ordinary prefix is one of the young lady’s lesser affectations – shows distinct signs of wear, such are caused inevitably by the tremolo in which she indulges almost perpetually. She compares unfavourably with Miss Josephine Simon whose voice is rich, sympathetic and remarkably even throughout its compass, and whose style is entirely unaffected…’

When she sang at Otto Hengler’s October concert, the press reported ‘She sang the everlasting ‘Ernani involami’ by Verdi, most notable for her faulty Italian pronunciation and the way in which she took her breaths’.

But it wasn’t just the British press. The Musikalisches Wochenblatt devoted half a column by its Odessa correspondence deprecating ‘die Trompetenfanfaren der Reclame’ around the singer. ‘After such publicity’ it ended ‘we expected a second Patti, and Fräulein Nikita certainly isn’t that!’.

But she continued her rounds: Leipzig, New Deutsches Theater in Prague (‘Ernani Involami’, Echo song, Roméo et Juliette waltz song), 16 November at Brauns Hotel, Lemberg, Dresden, 21 November 1889, at Vienna’s Bösendorfer Salon, Olmütz, in the company of pianist Arthur Friedheim and the cellist Eduard Rosé.

Much of the next year or two were spent ‘touring in Russia’, with time out to appear as Juliet in Roméo et Juliette at Warsaw and in 1890 she went to Coburg after which she began advertising herself as ‘Court Singer to the Duke of Coburg-Gotha’. She played a short tour in the British provinces – the
Belfast Philharmonic Society announced her coming in vast lettering (equal to Patti and above Patey and Titiens) as ‘the prima donna whose career has been one of the most extraordinary series of triumphs ever known’ -- and the Duke was shoved off her posters by the announcement that she was to be married to Prince Mirza Riza Khan, aide de camp to the Shah of Persia. Unfortunately, there were only two gentlemen of that name current in Persian court circles and both were married. The French press promptly pointed this out. Perhaps she was intending to point to Prince Malcom Khan of Holland Park, but he was married too.


During 1890 she travelled round Germany with the pianist Georg Liebling, giving her Ernani and Roméo and Juliette arias to cities and towns and spas on the usual bursts of publicity. Which didn’t stop the less susceptible critics from noticing ‘die Incorrectheit des Trillers und eine kleine Unebenheiten in der Colorature’. Back in Britain, the Nikita interviews and the Nikita quotes turned up regularly: ‘having completed her Continental tournée she has gone to Paris to meet M Gounod to study Marguerite and Juliette for her debut at the Paris opera next spring…’ and hey ho.

In December 1891 she is in Moscow, in April 1892 I spot her in Amsterdam, in December 1892 she advertised in the London Times that she was singing in Faust at Kiev. Russia, Chicago, Manchester… but not the Paris Opéra.

In fact, she got her greatest publicity when, having accepted an engagement to appear at the Trocadero in Chicago, for Dr Ziegfeld, according to the press, for the nice round sum of $50,000, she and her mother caused such trouble and put on such airs about ‘singing in a beer hall’, that the manager told her some home truths. Miss Nicholson loudly sued him for impugnations of intemperance and for suggesting that she had ever ‘sung in a beer hall’. Ziegfeld assured the press that it was all publicity, but she didn’t sing.


She headed back to Russia and central Europe, now billed as ‘Die amerikanische Nachtigall’, fulfilled a concert tour with the pianist Harold Bauer and – the Persian Prince having been exploded – again began being ‘cantatrice de la cour du Duc de Saxe-Gotha’. The press had a good laugh at that one. But, alas, good singer or not – and Russia seemed to like her - ads in the Times informed Britain that she was singing Romeo and Juliette, Mignon and Faust at Warsaw  – that was what Nikita had become. A good laugh. She could be nothing else. Alas, her next claim was that she was ‘a direct descendant of Daniel Boone’.


Ultimately, in 1894, at the end of the indentures which she had signed with Strakosch and his heirs, Maggie Nikita did get to the Parisian stage. It was not, however, the Paris Opéra, nor indeed the Italiens, but the Opéra-Comique. Allegedly, she was signed for three years, and she hastened into print with a long list of the leading roles she was going to play. She didn’t. She also hastened into print with a paragraph telling how Ambroise Thomas said she was the only singer who could correctly deliver the finale of his Mignon.

It was, in fact, as Mignon that Mlle Nikita (‘a direct descendant of Daniel Boone’ ‘$200,000 of diamonds’, 104 concerts at the Word’s Fair’, ‘déjà célèbre dans les deux mondes…’) made her appearance at the Opéra-Comique on 15 October 1894, alongside Mons Féraud. The earth didn’t end. Or open. Le Ménestral said she was pretty, that her upper voice was good if peculiar, and the middle fair. But that she approached all her notes from underneath which was deeply unpleasant. All in all, she was just another soprano, with no special qualities. Noel and Stoullig, the ultimate chroniqueurs of the Parisian theatre, referred to her as ‘une jeune et brune Américaine qui a désiré faire consacrer par les Parisiens une réputation ...’


At the same time, the American press reported ‘They think they have found a phenomenal tenor in the brother of Miss Nikita, the young woman whose brief America tour accomplished more circus than the tour of a regular prima donna. All the advertising about her being stolen by Indians and Turks and having champagne sent to her rooms and fighting with her managers did not give her the prestige to which she might seem to be entitled, and now she has discovered a brother…’.


Mr M Le Roy (‘35 Avenue Macmahon, Paris’ ‘successor of Maurice Strakosch’), who had resumed the control of the Nikita operation once the Strakosches were out of the picture, led her off to Russia. She would return, he said, to play Lakmé in the new season. Well, she played Lakmé all right, but not in Paris. She played in it Riga. And Mignon at Mannheim. But she was back at the Opéra-Comique in 1895, and the Paris music press was not impressed: ‘Mlle Charlotte Wynn se voit sacrifiée à une Polonaise vaguement Allemande de mérite indécouvrable, de valeur pour tous mysterieuse, et denommé Mlle Nikita…’, ‘Les journaux annnocaient la rentrée de Mlle Nikita dans Mignon. Et en effet Mlle Nikita est rentrée. Faut-il s’en feliciter? Mlle Nikita nous a à peine paru supportable’.



But the announcements continued to come ‘Ambroise Thomas’s ideal Mignon’, it was reported, was being coached by the susceptible Massenet in the role of Anita in La Navarraise ...  he was begging her to sing his Manon… she was to star at Mapleson’s new London opera house …

She didn’t. She did visit Britain and, there, joined Mr Harrison of Birmingham for a concert tour. Birmingham apparently hadn’t heard her before. Just, like the whole world, heard ‘of’ her.  On her first appearance, she shared the platform with Margaret McIntyre – Miss McIntyre was met with ‘acclaim’, Nikita with ‘disappointment was felt in the direction of voice quality’.


But on it went. ‘Mlle Nikita speaks and writes no less than seven languages; is an excellent portrait painter, a talented pianist, a regular contributor to the literary page of the (undecipherable) of Vienna, a first-rate billiard-player, and a daring bicyclist. She has never tasted champagne nor smoked a cigarette …’ More Kings, more Daniel Boone … ‘far superior to Melba ….’


Maggie Nicholson was now 24 years of age. Her career (give or take Russia?) does not appear to have been the success expected and announced. You can’t fool all of the people. But it seems here and now to have ended. It is not that she disappears, far from it. She just doesn’t seem to sing any more.

One website which I have passed by says that she damaged her throat in a bicycling accident. That sounds a bit like the Red Indian saga, but who knows? Maybe it is true. I still see her, in 1898, proposing a tour of the German spa towns with Moritz Mayer-Mahr (piano).

Did mother die? No, she didn’t. Did Mr Le Roy die? Who knows? What I know did happen, is that Maggie Nicholson got married. But I don’t believe for a moment that that marriage ended her career.  She didn’t marry a Prince or a Czar or an Indian chief, she married a gentleman by name James O’Hara Murray (d 1 February 1943), an engineer as young as she, who hailed from Demerera, Georgetown, in the West Indies. The marriage, which took place in London in 1898, was apparently a short-lived one. Which was foolish of Maggie, because Mr Murray went on to be a very successful businessman (J O’Hara Murray and Company, contracting engineers, Hatton Garden), with another wife (née Hylda Constance Blendel), and a truly top-class tennis player. He lived latterly in my favourite little village of Niton, Isle of Wight.

Where Nikita lived, I can’t be sure. She remained an American citizen, so thanks to the US passport office we can follow her around a bit. In 1897, when she’s supposed to be bicycling (‘a bicycling accident in 1897 crushed her throat and ended her career’), she is in Paris. In 1899 she is ‘living in Berlin’ and comes to America to visit her dying stepfather. Good heavens, Sarah Rebecca was getting through husbands fast. In 1900 it is still Berlin, and still in the company of Mr Murray (‘Mrs Nikita-Murray’), but – surprise – in 1915, she bills herself as of 80 West 40th Street, NYC. When she applied for a passport in 1918 she chopped five years off her age. You would think they could have checked, even in the pre-computer age. In 1921, she says that she has lived in France since 1895. Yet previously she had admitted only 1912-1918. And her reason for going to France in 1919 was to ‘marry a Frenchman’. Perhaps she wasn’t meaning a specific Frenchman, just any one… but she did. In the pages of the Brooklyn Eagle for 18 April 1923 I find the announcement of her marriage to Georges Masdusheil (?) de Colange ‘a French manufacturer belonging to an ancient Norman family’. Of course. ‘About thirty years ago [she] had a brilliant career in grand opera in Paris, Berlin, St Petersburg and Vienna’. And the American papers parroted ‘A Frenchman named Georges Masdusheil de Colange has married an American girl who is a direct descendant of Daniel Boone’. Sigh.


I’d find the story of ‘Nikita’ Nicholson rather sad, were it not that it seems that she was, at least, more than partly to blame for her own ridiculous image. But at least it seems that she had a happy ending. M et Mme George de Colange can been seen on the social pages of the 1920s (‘M le Roi de Suède honorait de sa présence, à Monte-Carlo, un grand déjeuner donné par Mme Georges de Colange’), and I imagine that’s them in Cisai-St-Aubin in the ‘thirties, breeding prize cattle and pekinese dogs. And, heavens, there she is in 1944 suing the US Customs for charging her duty on her late husband’s diamond (!) ring ‘worn by his widow since his death’. And again, 1950, Louise de Colange of 62 West 58th Street, sailing out of New York on the Queen Elizabeth …


And, so … could she sing?

Well, she has left to posterity a cylinder recording of the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor ... it seems it’s not bad. But it has probably got a purple label with sequins on it.


Just for the record, she was apparently claimed as a sometime pupil by Clarice Ziska of Paris.

Another record is found in Grove: ‘studied in Paris, won renown in Germany and in 1894 became a leading singer at the Opéra in Paris’. Oh dear, if you tell lies long and loud enough, like the frog-prince, they metamorphose into ‘fact’. Shame on you, Mr Grove. 

Sunday, May 22, 2022

The Lost Laird or, Never a Nun


Wandering amongst a rather interesting bundle of old photos put up for sale by 'seangler 12' today, I found this rather appealing wee lass labelled:  VICTORIAN CDV - NOVICE NUN - TO REAR, FLORA CAMPBELL AGED 18 - 1888

A nun? And eighteen? Turn over the card ...

First obvious spot -- she is, as she looks, ten years old, not eighteen ...

I don't think you become a nun at ten.

Second spot. Malvern and Cheltenham. We are talking hupper class here.

Flora Campbell?  Sounds pretty Scottish to me. 

Oh look, here she is again! And a little brother ..

'little Archie'

'little Flora'

OK, in Worcestershire at birth, at Cheltenham later ...  I was only momentarily stymied by the fact that 'Flora' was actually christed Augusta Annie Mary Flora ... and there they were ...

Augusta Annie Mary Flora CAMPBELL born Malvern Link 14 March 1878
Archibald John Lochnell CAMPBELL born Powick 24 February 1879

children of Archibald Argyll Lochnell Campbell Esq, 13th Campbell of Lochnell, JP and DL, descendant of the Dukes of Argyll and James I of Scotland and his wife Anne Constance, youngest daughter of John Francis Fitz-Gerald, Inspector General of Asylums, of Glenlee Lodge, Cheltenham ..

Archie was educated at the Abbey School, Fort Augustus. Flora at The Convent, Powick. Where the school uniform was evidently the mini-nun garb in the photo.

The story of the Campbells of Lochnell is an oft-told one so I don't intend to tell it again. I don't know what Flora did with her life. She died 5 March 1942 at Lochnell Lodge, Taynuilt, Argyllshire. Unmarried. The same Lochnell Lodge as the family demesne?  I imagine so, for that was brother Archie's address in 1912. But Lochnell Castle and estates were long gone from the possession of the Campbell family. 

After the death of their father in 1897, Archie became the head of the family, the 14th Lochnell. Whatever happened next I have no idea, but in 1913 the whole estate and castle was advertised for sale.  

Although it is insisted on the www that the estate was sold in 1912, Archie was still there in 1914 -- the present Mr Campbell of Lochnell, the fourteenth, is a Roman Catholic -- mumbled the press, discussing the inheritance of the Duke of Argyll ... and Archie was, indeed, a pallbearer at the old Duke's funeral 'of Lochnell'.
When the estate was offer up for auction in July 1914, there were no bids. And in March 1915 a 'Captain J A Lochnell Campbell, of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders' died of his wounds. Was it our Archie? It seems not. This one is said to be of 'the Campbells of Jura'.  Right family, wrong man. In 1918, another extended attempt was made to sell Lochnell ...   The Earl of Dundonald finally took it on ...  

Where were the Campbells? Notably, where was Archie? Did he die in the war? Was he shut away for some reason? He just vanishes. Even those volumes which chronicle minutely the family details of the Lords and Lairds of the nation don't tell us. He just simply vanishes.  We are just told that at some stage his younger brother succeeded to the Lairdship. And when that brother married, in 1920, he was referred to as 'second son of ..', not 'eldest surviving son of'.

And Flora? Back at Lochnell ... for how long?  Soon after she died, Dundonald put the whole lot up for sale again ...

Either I hav'n't been looking in the right places, or there is a curious tale in here somewhere. Why were the every doings of a family like this not reported in the society press ...?  Why is there not a word about Archie? Ah .. here's his 51st birthday in 1930 ....

And answers came there!  Archie died in May 1947 at Lochnell. Thanks Gina Ambridge and Angela Heron!

Friday, May 13, 2022

A Gaiety Girl, or how to write a sensational headline.


Today, I bumped into this article ...

My! A Gaiety Girl? Whatever that means. One of the Big Six? Or a walk-on? Clearly a little bit iffy ... all this business with jewellery and bouncy cheques.  Let's have a wee investigate ..

Nellie Stanton. Ellen Agatha Ursula née Cassidy (b Mile End 20 October 1882; d Farnborough 10 February 1966). Daughter of an Irish County Council schoolmaster. 'You common, horrible little person' to a Bond Street jeweller seems a bit ... um .. round the wrong way.

A Gaiety girl. Really? Well, I have every Gaiety show programme from night one. No Miss Cassidy or Mrs Stanton that I can see, even though the showponies and 'thinking roles' are all listed. But yes, there she claims, in the 1911 census, to be 'an actress'. Maybe the Gaiety Theatre, Hastings? 

Well, perhaps she married a moneyed swell ('L600 for the builders') and climbed from Mile End to Bond Street via Earl's Court.  Let's have a peep at Mr Herbert Stanton (b Nether Heyton, Northants 21 January 1877). There he is, in 1901, living in the Anchor Inn, Stamford, working as a 'brewer's clerk'. In 1907 he was sentenced to three years' imprisonment for embezzlement as 'an habitual criminal'.  The records show that he was 5ft 2 3/4ins.  Horrible little person!

Well, Nellie can't have had very high aims to have married him! The episode of the jewels seems to bear all the marks of some kind of scam. And no, I don't imagine that Mr Freedman was entirely clean of the odd bit of shady doings. But I also suspect he was a class or two above the gushing, then furious Nellie. I rather get the feeling that she was a bit of an amateur con lady, and no match for 'Cecil' who had, doubtless, seen it all.

I'm still not quite comfortable with this story. Just what was the relationship between 'Nellie' and 'Cecil' which, after a dozen years of acquaintanceship ended in a totally stupid lawsuit?

Bzzzzzing!!!!!!  Cecil Freedman of 13-14 New Bond Street and 16 Park Lane. Wife Henrietta Maud née  Haeberlin ...  

Courtesy of ebay: Miss Haeberlin as a baby. And her mother (née Louisa Maud Webster), wife of a wealthy iron ore merchant ...

'Cecil' was actually Moses Tobias Freedman ...  I see he died 20 August 1931 in Frankfurt, aged 52.

End of investigation.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Mr Walton of the Princess's Theatre


Work in progress!  

WALTON, Thomas James (b ?Barnsley ?1799; d Warren Street, Tottenham Court Row 17 July 1847)


A while back, one of the world’s top theatre historians asked me ‘who was this Mr Walton of the Princess’s Theatre?’ I could only answer, ‘well, he was Mr Walton of the Princess’s Theatre’. So I thought I had better find out more.


Tom Walton was apparently born in Yorkshire. Or somewhere up thataway. His death registration says it was in 1799, but other sources (including some alarmingly incorrect www family trees!) say anything back to 1793. On his early life I have no information, but I assumed that he was, at some stage, a provincial actor and singer. 


However, he makes a first appearance in any document, to me, at Leicester, 29 August 1822, when he married a Miss Sophia Hafford, of Hinckley. He was described, for the occasion, as a ‘commercial traveller of Barnsley’. So, the singing -- as a day job -- was not for just yet.


But it was soon. By May 1825 there he is at the Theatre Royal, York, stepping in for Bellamy in My Native Land. And then in August singing 'Friendship and Love' between the pieces 'in very spirited style' 'Mr Walton has a fine voice and only wants judicious teaching to attain a high rank in the profession'.


He went in pursuit of that rank in 1827. I see him sailing for America on the brig Billow, in the company of wife, infant son, and Henry James Finn, of the Boston Theatre. He had been engaged as singing gentleman for that house. Tom played several seasons in Boston – roles from Henry Bertram to Prince Felix --  and, over the next decade, left, as legacy, his name on a sheaf of songs and arrangements, often penned by local poets, ‘sung by Mr Walton at …’. 'O life hath its seasons' (Fdk S Hill), 'O welcome the moment' (Rufus Dawes), 'With a Helmet on his brow', 'Come brothers arouse', 'Some Love to Roam', 'The Regatta Boat Song' (Samuel F Glenn), 'A Hunter's Life', 'Mary of the Wild Moor', his own arrangements of 'A Sailor Returned from a Cruise' and of Rossini as 'Hark the Lovely Bugle Sings' and occasionally a borrowed hit from across the seas ...


In 1828, he seems to have appeared at Richmond Va, Rhode Island, at the Chatham Theatre (Zekiel Homespun in The Heir at Law), and later at the Sans Souci (Belleville in Rosina), at Castle Gardens ('Bound Prentice to a Waterman', 'The Bonnie Breast Knot', 'The Banner of Freedom') 

and the Bowery Theatre (Guy Mannering), and he acted and took part in the management of Philadelphia’s Arch Street Theatre and, subsequently, of the Baltimore Theatre and, briefly, Washington’s National Theatre.

Providence, RI 1828

 I spot him in Philadelphia as Figaro to Elizabeth Feron’s Rosina, Felix to her Cinderella and Adolf (!) to her Linda in Der Freischütz (1833), in Boston playing the title-role in John of Paris, teamed with Mr and Mrs Wood as Figaro, in Love in a Village and as Cedric in The Maid of Judah (1833), with Mrs Austin in The Beggar’s Opera, The Duenna, Cinderella, Abon Hasan, Music and Prejudice (1834) and with the Woods, once more, as Lorenzo in Fra Diavolo, in Der Freischütz, The Duenna et al.


He moved from comedy, to drama and to opera -- from Jabber in Second Thoughts to Colonel Jarvis in The Fall of the Alamo to The Mountain Sylph ... accompanying Miss Graddon (La Sonnambula, John of Paris), Caradori Allan (Don Giovanni, The Barber of Seville, Love in a Village, Cinderella, La Sonnambula) or, ultimately, Jane Shirreff and John Wilson (1839) … from New York's Park Theatre to Philadelphia's Chestnut Street Theatre, to Boston, Washington or the Holliday Street Theatre, Baltimore.


And then, after over a decade, in which he had established himself as one of the most useful operatic supporting players in America, and also as a popular singer and songwriter, he turned on his tracks and headed back to England.


He made his first appearance on his return 1 April 1839 at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in Lodoiska, but I don’t confirmedly see him again (there are a few 'Mr Walton's about) until he turns up at the Surrey Theatre, in 1841-2, playing opera, burlesque (Adalgisa in Norma 'with Bellina's music') and comedy (Dick in My Spouse) and drama (Jack Junk in Jack Junk, Friberg in The Miller and his Men).

In 1843, however, he found his niche. Mr Maddox opened the new Princess’s Theatre as a home for English and foreign opera, and Mr Walton was engaged for the company. He opened in La Sonnambula (Alessio), played Lockhart in Lucia de Lammermoor, in the pantomime The Yellow Dwarf, the drama Duprez, returning to opera in Tancredi (Ruggiero), I Puritani (Walter Walton), Der Freischütz (Kilian), La Gazza Ladra, Geraldine (Lord Nottingham) as well as the musical plays The Swedish Ferryman, The Flower of Lucerne, Twice Killed and with Rebecca Isaacs, Paul Bedford and Mrs Grattan in the pantomime The Magic Mirror, or The Hall of Statues.

The Princess’s second year saw reprises of pieces such as Fra Diavolo and La Sonnambula, the production of Lucrezia Borgia (Gubetta) and the advent of Anna Thillon to play The Syren (Duke of Popoli). A play version of Don Caesar of Bazan was also mounted, in which Walton played King Charles II, and the year ended with Balfe’s Les Quatre Fils Aymon with Walton as the Baron de Beaumanoir.

In 1845, Le Duc d’Olonne (Mugnoz) was brought into the repertoire, and 1846 saw Richelieu, the spectacular masque The Ruins of Athens, The Merry Wives of Windsor (Justice Shallow), and The Welsh Girl (David) as prelude to Loder’s new opera The Night Dancers (Godfrey) and Rodwell’s The Seven Maids of Munich (Baron de Bristlebach).

Walton directed the masque, and I suspect that as stage manager and acting manager of the house, he may have been responsible for the mounting of others of their productions.

1847 started with more of the same. A production of Anne Boleyn (Rochefort) and the lighter The Barcarolle (Marquis di Felino), the play The King of the Brigands in which Walton sang a glee, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, more The SyrenKing Lear (King of France), Werner, a musical drama The King and the Piper, and the inevitable Guy Mannering.


In July, Tom was off, ill, for a few days. And then he was dead. The official verdict was ‘died by poison improperly administered’. Just that. No details. Administered by whom? What poison? Well, a friend turned this paragraph up in an American newspaper: ‘The inquest found that Walton suffered from a painful disease, and to relieve the pain had taken large doses of opium and morphia. Mr Walton compelled his widow to buy and give him on two separate occasions double the quantity prescribed by his medical attendant. Mr Parker, a surgeon, said Walton took 16 and 1/2 grains of opium.  Parker had known people to be killed by 4 and 1/2 grains, and 6 to 10 grains were considered deadly poison. The verdict was suicide by overdose of laudanum taken to relieve the suffering caused by his disease.’.


Sophia remarried in 1854 (14 February) a chemist and druggist (!) by the name of George Fowke. A witness was Thomas James Walton. That was her son ..  The marriage ended in divorce. But the son lived till 1907 and bred freely, so I guess there are some Waltons around today ... 


And that is the story – or as much of it as I have been able to exhume -- of ‘Mr Walton of the Princess’s’. And a lot of other places. 



Tuesday, May 10, 2022

The Arnot Sisters, or reopening a shut-down mine

The brain of my computer is bulging with Stuff. Unfinished and abandoned books and projects, sketched articles and fun research going back to the days before computer were invented. Many, many thousands of pages of diggings from closed-down mines.

My own brain, happily and however, is still sufficiently functional to remember vaguely what is stored away in the tailings of my working life, and sometimes and for some reason I go back and quarry in one heap or another. Today was one such.

Amongst a pile of non-theatrical Victorian cartes de visite, I came upon one labelled 'Jeannie Arnot'. Photographed in India. The brain went "click" ...

Some years ago, I researched and part-wrote a little book about the Lydia Thompson 'British Blondes'. But I got sidetracked into another project. Then, I was asked to write a piece for a learned Franco-German journal, so I gutted my text for the Blondes book and published its heart of some 30 pages. 

The left-overs still sit amongst those tailings, and they include a biographical sketch of 'Miss Jennie Arnot' and her sister Lou. So, today I snipped out the section in question, updated it, and here it is, twinned with its relevant photo.

Talking about the American girls who joined the Thompson troupe:

"Amongst the newcomers were two American sisters. Amazing how often there were sisters…

This pair were a somewhat better bargain than the multiple Logans, and they had been in show business with some success since an early age. They called themselves Louise and Jennie Arnot, but their real name was McLaughlin and they had begun their theatrical careers in the 1850s as members of the Marsh Children’s Comedians troupe ‘every one under 13 years of age’. Louise, who was with the company from 1854, latterly wasn’t under 13, but ‘Little Jenny Arnot[t]’, who seems to have joined up in 1859, was. In the 1860 census, when the troupe is playing Nevada, she is listed as 8 years old to Louise’s 15. Tut! Her date of birth was 11 July 1850. 

Well, they were born in Rochester, NY, the daughters of and Irish boatman by name John McLaughlin and his wife Mary Jane. The Mc Laughlins were trusting parents, for their daughters traipsed off, in the care of Mr and Mrs Marsh, not only to New Orleans, Nevada and San Francisco – where Louise played leading lady, from burlesque princes to Lady Macbeth, opposite the Marsh’s hugely puffed young son -- but thence to Australia (December 1860) and New Zealand, where they stayed for a number of years.

The troupe of children, the ‘Arnot’ girls at their head, was highly successful, but Mrs Marsh proved less than efficient as a duenna. In 1863, Louise climbed down an alleged knotted sheet, provided by her little companions, into a carriage occupied by a handsome star wire-walker, and zoomed off to get married. The wire-walker and all-round acrobat was a man of some notoriety who called himself ‘Henri (or Henry) Bartine’. The Australian records tell us he was actually named Mahan[y] or something approximating that, and that he couldn’t decide whether he was English or American. I see he actually arrived in Australia ('equestrian' 'aged 24') along with the Stoneham family, travelling steerage, in 1862. The previous year he had been, for three weeks, a 2nd Lieutenant in the New York Infantry. And between times he had been in gol. And I do see a record for a Henry Mahan and a Mary S McLaughlin getting wed in Sydney in 1863. I think that might be Mary Louise.

Anyway, Henry and Louise had a daughter, Jennie Mahany (b Fitzroy 18 February 1864), and apparently two sons, Henry James ?Mahony Bartine (1865), who died aged one, and Henry (1867) who died as an infant, before Henry apparently caught his wife in an act of seeming infidelity, whacked her, and she fled, in 1868, to a ship which was heading back to America. Bartine had her luggage unloaded, Louise went to court and got it reloaded, got a protection order … End of marital chapter, but not of her career.

‘Little’ Jennie apparently stuck with Louise, and we are told that she, too, acquired a brief Australian husband before they finally did quit the country. By 1869, they were back in San Francisco with the forgiving Mr Marsh, his son and the latest version of the troupe. By the 1870 census, the two siblings, all husbands shed, can be seen in New York: Miss Louise Arnot (26) and daughter Miss Jennie ?Barnot (6), plus Miss Jennie Arnot (20) and Mary Arnot (48), who, I guess, was mother. 

And their adult careers are about to begin. It is 1870 when I spot the two girls joining up with the Lydia Thompson troupe. Louise had been a leading lady with Marsh and in Australia, but as a full-blown performer she had to retreat to supporting roles behind somebody such as the Queen of Burlesque. Jennie had specialised in sprightly soubrette parts both in the juvenile troupe and, from her early teens, in burlesque: and she carried right on playing the same sort of parts with the best burlesque troupe in the country. For both girls were decidedly useful. Marsh’s training had covered all aspects of theatre: acting, singing, dancing. The fine-looking Arnot girls could play in the burlesques, in the supporting comedies, deliver song and or dance solos, and Louise, with her strangely ‘mannish’ and deep voice was a natural for pants parts.

The troupe opened at Wood’s Museum, with Jennie cast as Cupid in Paris, Ochobrand in The Forty Thieves, and Brunette in St George and the Dragon, before heading out on the road.

In January 1871 the company presented Paris, Sindbad, Richard III or Bad Dickey and Lurline at New Orleans. Behind Eliza Weathersby, Lizzie Kelsey, Minnie Walton and Kate Heathcote, Louise took the part of the heroine’s attendant, Wavelet, originally played by pretty Nellie Hope, but since by none other than Willie Edouin in travesty. ‘She is justly becoming a great favourite with our people’ commented the local press. She played William in Black-Eyed Susan and five characters in In and out of Place, appeared as the Sultan in Sindbad and Jupiter in Paris, and later took up the part of the Count to Jennie’s Lady Una in Lurline as the company went through its usual changes of personnel. She ‘possesses the happy facility of doing everything she touches well’ agreed the newspapers.

Minnie Walton

‘The captivating’ Jennie played in the afterpieces, supporting Lydia in A Day in Paris. The tour ended in June, and so did the Arnot girls' time as Blondes. Lydia and her husband headed to England to stock up on ‘real’ British blondes, and the girls moved onwards to the next part of their long career."

That was where my original piece stopped. But not my curiosity. So when the photo of Jennie surfaced on ebay, I reactivated my search for the whatever happened to of the Arnot girls.

Louise quickly found a new husband. Quite when and where she acquired him I haven’t yet tracked down, but in February 1870, already, the Clipper states that she is the wife of John Wilson, a well-known Scots circus proprietor. Even though Tony Pastor seems to have continued to bill her as 'Louise Bartine'. Wilson died in Hamburg in 1876, and Louise subsequently became Mrs Thomas Patrick Gunn, wife of her much younger partner in her vaudeville sketches and sometime 'stage director of the Lafayette Theatre'.


I have found her will. She died in Manhattan 19 August 1919 and her legatees were husband Thomas (b 30 December 1872); daughter Jane or Jennie originally 'Bartine' or Mahanna (!), later Gunn, in 1860 Mrs Edwin Frank Mayo (eig Maguire, son of the actor Frank Mayo), at some stage 'wife of Frank David of the Conried Co', then, it seems, Mrs Jane Rasmussen (d Brooklyn 10 January 1929); and sister Jennie Bebus ...

I have also found a marriage listing for 10 May 1920 for Thomas P Gunn and Jane Rasmussen! Marriage with deceased wife's daughter! Well, she was, nevertheless, a decade older than he. Thomas went on with a stage and silent screen career and I guess it is he playing Sherrif Ike Vallon in the original Show Boat. He also went on to a third wife (a much younger one, this time!), and died in New York, 1 December 1943. 

After her putative divorce from her mysterious Australian husband, Jennie married the actor, Davenport Bebus (b 1848; d NYC 10 July 1897). Bebus was a gambler, convinced he could break the bookmakers' bank, and when his losses got too great, he threw himself terminally into the North River at 81st Street ... he was buried by the Actors' Fund. There were a daughter, Edith (b NYC 6 January 1887; d Dunellen 1960, Mrs Schaefer) and a son Davenport (b NYC 2 October 1888; d Bridgewater NJ 1959), from the marriage. Jennie Elizabeth Bebus aged 65 can be seen in the 1915 census of New York living in Church Avenue, Kings, listed as 'mother' of either one L P Kerr or his wife Daisy. Odd. Or just an error? In 1920 she's in Franklin, NJ, then, till 1931, in Dunellen, Plainfield NJ where she died in the April at the age of 81.

Well, that's the facts and figures (e&oe) all tied up pretty neatly. Both girls had plenty more career after their spell as Lydia Thompson satellites, but little which would match those glory days. Louise was touring the vaudeville circuits with a company in sketches (Fun on the Bristol, Coon Hollow, Charles Horwitz's Regan's Luck, My Friend from India) up till 1907 and her sixties. Jennie seems to have retired in the 1880s after her (re-?) marriage and motherhood.

Oh, I wonder what became of 'Henry Bartine'.