Kay Laurell c. 1910s
June 28, 1890
Erie, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Died||January 31, 1927
Cause of death
|Died during childbirth|
|Other names||Kay Laurel|
|Occupation||Actress, model, stage performer|
|Spouse(s)||Winfield Sheehan (m. 1916–27)|
Laurell began her career as an artists' model. After catching the eye of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., she was cast in the Ziegfeld Follies where she debuted in 1914. A popular performer who was noted for her beauty, she was called "one of the most beautiful women on the stage". In 1918, Laurell left the Follies to embark on an acting career. She went on to appear in stage productions on Broadway and in vaudeville, and made three silent films. In the 1920s, Laurell moved to Europe where she continued her stage career. She died during childbirth at the age of 36 in London.
She was born Ruth Leslie in 1890 (some sources state 1894) in Erie, Pennsylvania. She left Erie at the age of 16 to pursue a career in show business in New York City. After taking the stage name Kay Laurell, she worked as telephone operator and then found work as an artists' model. During her stint as a model, she posed for artists and illustrators including Howard Chandler Christy and William Glackens.
She was later seen by Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. while appearing in a tableau staged at the annual Illustrators' ball. Ziegfeld was impressed by Laurell's appearance and offered her a spot in the Ziegfeld Follies.
Laurell made her stage debut in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1914. The following year, she caused a sensation when she appeared in the opening scene of the 1915 Follies as a semi-nude Aphrodite. Designed by Joseph Urban, the elaborate set featured a pool surrounded by greenery. Laurell rose out of the water flanked by two golden elephants with raised trunks from which water poured. According to Doris Eaton Travis' 2003 autobiography The Days We Danced, Laurell became known for "those naked-above-the-waist poses". At that time, performers were permitted to appear nude onstage as long as they did not move. This loophole in the law inspired producers and set designers to come up with more inventive and elaborate ways to feature nudity in their shows. Eaton Travis later recalled, "The story was that Ziegfeld asked for a volunteer to be naked above the waist, and Kay Laurell was the first to consent. Hers became the most revealed breasts on Broadway in that era." During this time, Laurell's popularity grew and she was often noted for her physical beauty and perfect figure. She was referred to as "one of the most beautiful women on the stage" and "the prettiest chorus girl on Broadway." Florenz Ziegfeld stated that Laurell was the embodiment of feminine beauty.
In May 1916, Laurell married Winfield Sheehan, the former secretary to Rhinelander Waldo, in London. Shortly after the marriage, Laurell retired. In July 1917, she filed for legal separation from Sheehan citing "cruelty".
After separating from Sheehan, Laurell resumed her career and returned to the Follies in June 1918. She was again featured in the opening scene, this time posing as "The Spirit of the Allies" atop a lighted, spinning globe. As World War I was still on, the globe showed Europe in flames. One of the more memorable tableau scenes of that year's Follies featured patriotic and war imagery designed by Ben Ali Haggin. Social historian Allen Churchill later described the scene, "Actors in battle dress stood frozen in the act of tossing grenades, bayoneting cringing Huns...Follies Girls as Red Cross nurses, waifs in war-torn undress and goddess of war. Dominating the vivid scene was Miss Kay Laurell representing the Spirit of the Allies, her costume in enough disarray to expose one...breast." While the Follies typically featured light-hearted themes, audiences enjoyed the war-theme scene of the 1918 Follies, and it ran up until the Armistice with Germany in November 1918.
Stage and films
Like many other Ziegfeld girls, Laurell attempted to parlay the success she found in the Follies into an acting career. In 1919, she made her film debut in The Brand, opposite Russell Simpson. Later that same year, she played a supporting role in The Valley of the Giants, starring Wallace Reid. Laurell received positive reviews for her acting, but would only make one more silent film, Lonely Heart, in 1921.
Laurell focused mainly on stage work for the remainder of her career. In 1922, she joined the production of Ladies Night. She remained with the play for a season before headlining the vaudeville circuit with stock companies in Yonkers and Washington. In December 1924, she joined the cast of Quarantine. The play ran for a total of 151 performances at Henry Miller's Theatre through April 1925. Laurell then co-starred in Nocture, which premiered at the Punch and Judy Theatre in New York on February 16, 1925. The play ran for three performances before closing later that month.
She later moved to Europe where she found work in a French stock company in Paris. Laurell then moved to London. By this period, her career began to decline and her roles were no longer reported in theater trades.
On January 31, 1927, Laurell died in London at the age of 36. Laurell's death was first attributed to pneumonia, but in 1930, the press discovered that Laurell had actually died while giving birth to her first child. The child, a boy named Joseph K. Boyle, survived.
Before her death, Laurell drew up a will leaving her property and personal effects to Joseph Whiteside Boyle (who was presumed to be the child's father) and named him the executor of her estate. Laurell left her $100,000 estate to Boyle because she was unaware that her son, who was born out of wedlock, could legally inherit her assets. However, the Legitimacy Act 1926 was passed in England weeks before her death which allowed her son to inherit her assets. A similar law in New York (where Laurell also had bank accounts and property) also allowed Joseph K. to Laurell's estate.
Concerned for the child's welfare, Laurell's brother Raleigh J. Leslie, sought a letter of administration for her estate naming Joseph K. as her next of kin. He later dropped the matter after discovering that Boyle had been caring for the child since birth and had no plans to claim Laurell's estate.
One month after Laurell's death her mother, Mrs. A.A. Leslie, died in Erie, Pennsylvania. Laurell's mother was never told of her daughter's death as she was dying at the time. Upon Mrs. Leslie's death, she left her Erie, Pennsylvania home and assets to Laurell which were subsequently inherited by Laurell's son, Joseph K. Boyle.
|June 1 - September 5, 1914||Ziegfeld Follies of 1914||Performer|
|June 21 - September 13, 1915||Ziegfeld Follies of 1915||Performer|
|June 18, 1918 - date unknown||Ziegfeld Follies of 1918||Performer|
|December 16, 1924 - April 27, 1925||Quarantine||Pamela Josephs|
|February 16, 1925 - February 1925||Nocturne||Jenny Blanchard|
|1919||The Brand||Alice Andrews|
|1919||The Valley of the Giants||Moira McTavish|
In popular culture
H.L. Mencken said Laurell possessed "all the arts of the really first-rate harlot" and was "the most successful practitioner of her trade of her generation in New York." He said, "Much of what I got from her, in fact, went into In Defense of Women", his 1918 book. Playwright Channing Pollock wrote, however, "Kay could have gone far if she had been willing to exchange her favors for advancement, but she didn't 'want to get ahead that way'."
- "Kay Laurel to Be Buried in London". The New York Times. February 3, 1927.
- Rogers, Will (1992). Wertheim, Arthur Frank, ed. Will Rogers: At the Ziegfeld Follies. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 247. ISBN 0-806-12357-5.
- The New International Year Book. Dodd, Mead and Company. 1928. p. 570.
- Vazzana, Eugene Michael (2002). Silent Film Necrology (2 ed.). McFarland. p. 303. ISBN 0-786-41059-0.
- "The Frugal Follies Girl's Fortune for her Love-Child". The Miami News. November 30, 1930. Retrieved November 24, 2012.
- Adams, Katherine H.; Keene, Michael L.; Campbell Koella, Jennifer (2011). Seeing the American Woman, 1880-1920: The Social Impact of the Visual Media Explosion. McFarland. p. 75. ISBN 0-786-46661-8.
- Eaton Travis, Doris; Eaton, Charles; Morris, John Randolf (2003). The Days We Danced: The Story of My Theatrical Family from Florenz Ziegfeld to Arthur Murray and Beyond. Eaton, Joseph. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 62. ISBN 0-806-19950-4.
- "The Picture World". Evening Post. September 16, 1916. p. 11. Retrieved November 24, 2012.
- "Here's A Prize Beauty From Top To Toe". The Evening Independent. February 8, 1924. p. 10B. Retrieved November 24, 2012.
- "Do Actresses Make Good Wives?". Evening Tribune. February 9, 1919. Retrieved November 24, 2012.
- Rodgers, Marion Elizabeth (2005). Mencken:The American Iconoclast. Oxford University Press. p. 593. ISBN 0-195-07238-3.
- "The Battle for the Beauties". Evening Tribune. September 10, 1916. Retrieved November 24, 2012.
- "Kay Laurell Seeks Divorce". Youngstown Vindicator. July 14, 1917. p. 8B. Retrieved November 24, 2012.
- Bush Jones, John (2003). Our Musicals, Ourselves: A Social History of the American Musical Theater. UPNE. p. 41. ISBN 0-874-51904-7.
- "Kay Laurell With Reid". Providence News. April 10, 1919. Retrieved November 24, 2012.
- Theatre Magazine, Volumes 35-36. Theatre Magazine Company. 1922. p. 322.
- Quarantine at the Internet Broadway Database
- Nocture at the Internet Broadway Database
- "Son Survives Follies Beauty". The Pittsburgh Press. October 3, 1930. p. 48. Retrieved November 24, 2012.
- "Kay Laurell Is Taken By Death". Painesville Telegraph. February 22, 1927. Retrieved November 24, 2012.
- "Young Son Claims Estate Of Former Yonkers Beauty". The Yonkers Statesman. January 8, 1931. p. 15. Retrieved November 24, 2012.
- "Kay Laurell Dead. Ex-'Follies' Star. Victim of Pneumonia in London. Recently in Comedies and Moving Pictures". New York Times. February 2, 1927. Retrieved September 11, 2012.
- "Death of Helen Walsh Seventh 'Follies' Tragedy". The Pittsburgh Press. July 30, 1931. p. 31. Retrieved November 24, 2012.
- "Former Follies Beauty Left Rich Estate". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. October 30, 1930. p. 26. Retrieved November 24, 2012.
- "Actress Left $100,000". The Milwaukee Sentinel. October 3, 1930. Retrieved November 24, 2012.
- Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, Mencken: The American Iconoclast, Oxford University Press, 2005, pages 241-2.
- Channing Pollock, Harvest of My Years - An Autobiography, page 356
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