May Robson

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May Robson
May Robson in Broadway to Hollywood trailer.jpg
Robson in Broadway to Hollywood (1933)
Born Mary Jeanette Robison
(1858-04-19)April 19, 1858
Melbourne, Victoria
Died October 20, 1942 (aged 84)
Beverly Hills, California, U.S.[1]
Resting place
Flushing, New York[2]
Occupation Actress
  • Charles L. Gore (1874/1875–1883)
  • Augustus H. Brown (1889–1920; his death)
  • Edward Hyde Leveson Gore (1876–1954)
  • 2 others who died during their childhood
May Robson, early in her career
May Robson in A Star is Born (1937)
May Robson in Four Daughters (1938)

May Robson (April 19, 1858 – October 20, 1942) was an Australian-born American-based actress, whose career spanned 58 years, starting in 1883 when she was 25 years of age. A major stage actress of the late 19th and early 20th century, Robson is best known today for the dozens of 1930s motion pictures she appeared in when she was well into her seventies, usually playing cross old ladies with hearts of gold.

Robson was the earliest-born person to enjoy a major Hollywood career and receive an Academy Award nomination.[3]

Personal life[edit]

Mary Jeanette Robison was the fourth child born to Captain Henry Robison and his wife, Julia, in Melbourne, Victoria. Capt. Robison served in the British Royal Navy[4][5] and retired in Australia for his health. He died when Mary was seven years old and Julia Robison moved her family back to London.[5] Mary was educated in Australia, London, Brussels, and Paris.[4]

At age 16 Mary married her first husband, Charles Leveson Gore, in London.[5][nb 1] The couple first ran a cattle ranch in Fort Worth, Texas, and later moved to New York City, and Charles Gore died in the early 1880s.[5] Biographer Jan Jones stated that Gore wanted to return to England after his financial losses, and the couple divorced when Robson decided to stay in New York. Jones further said that Gore returned to London, but died soon after.[9]

Without her husband, Mary did embroidery work and gave painting lessons to support her three children.[5]

By the time she began her acting career in 1883, two of Robson's three children had died. One of her young children died of diphtheria and another from scarlet fever.[10][nb 2] The surviving child was Edward Gore, Jr.[12][nb 3]

Six years after beginning her stage career, Robson married Augustus Homer Brown, a police surgeon, on May 29, 1889. They remained together until his death on April 1, 1920.[8][16]

May Robson's son, Edward, was her business manager.[4]


On September 17, 1883, she became an actress on the Brooklyn Grand Opera House stage. Her name was incorrectly spelled "Robson" in the billing, which she used from that point forward "for good luck".[17] Over the next several decades, she flourished on the stage as a comedienne and character actress. Her success was partly due to her affiliation with powerful manager and producer Charles Frohman and the Theatrical Syndicate. She established her own touring theatrical company by 1911.[7]

She appeared as herself in a cameo in the 1915 silent film, How Molly Made Good.[18] Robson starred in the 1916 silent film A Night Out, an adaptation of the play she co-wrote, The Three Lights.[19]

In 1927 Robson attended Edinburgh University, then went to Hollywood where she had a successful film career as a senior aged woman.[20] Among her starring roles was in The She-Wolf (1931) as a miserly millionaire businesswoman based on the real-life miser Hetty Green.[21][22]

She also starred in the final segment of the anthology film If I Had a Million (1932) as a rest home resident who gets a new lease on life when she is given a $1,000,000 check by a dying business tycoon.[23] She played the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland (1933), Countess Vronsky in Anna Karenina (1936), Aunt Elizabeth in Bringing Up Baby (1938), Aunt Polly in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938), and a sharp-tongued Granny in A Star Is Born (1937). Robson was top-billed as late as 1940, starring in Granny Get Your Gun at age 82. Her last film was 1942's Joan of Paris.[21][24][25]

Academy Award nomination[edit]

In 1933, Robson was nominated for an Academy Award at age 75 in the Best Actress category for Lady for a Day but lost to Katharine Hepburn;[26][27] the two actresses both appeared in the Hepburn-Grant classic film, Bringing Up Baby.[28]

Robson was the first Australian-born person to be nominated for an acting Oscar, and for many years she held the record as the oldest performer nominated for an Oscar.[26][27]


May Robson died in her Beverly Hills, California home, aged 84.[1] In its obituary of Robson, the Nevada State Journal stated that Robson died of "a combination of ailments, aggravated by neuritis and advanced age."[29][nb 4] Her remains were cremated[30] and buried at the Flushing Cemetery in Queens, New York, next to her second husband, Augustus Brown.[2][8]

The New York Times obituary for Robson called her the "dowager queen of the American screen and stage".[3]



The following is a partial list of her stage performances:[8][31]

  • Called Back (1884)
  • An Appeal to the Muse (1885)
  • Robert Elsmere (1889)
  • The Charity Ball (1890)
  • Nerves, adapted from Les Femmes Nerveuses (1891)
  • Gloriana (1892)
  • Lady Bountiful (1892)
  • Americans Abroad (1893)
  • The Family Circle (1893)
  • The Poet and the Puppets (1893)
  • Squirrel Inn (1893)
  • No. 3A (1894)
  • As You Like It (1894)
  • Liberty Hall (1894)
  • The Fatal Card (1895)
  • The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)
  • A Woman's Reason (1895)
  • The First Born (1897)
  • His Excellency, The Governor (1900)
  • Are You a Mason? (1901)
  • Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1904)
  • Cousin Billy (1905-1907)
  • The Rejuvenation of Aunt Mary (1907)
  • The Three Lights (A Night Out) (1911)


The following is a partial list of the more than 60 films that Robson made during her career:[32]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Public records loaded into a genealogical database state that she was married in late 1875.[6] Her husband's name was also given as Charles Leveson Gore[7] and Edward H. Gore.[8]
  2. ^ Axel Nissen also states the causes of death as diphtheria and scarlet fever.[2] Who's Who on the stage states that the children's death came about as the result of poverty (i.e., not a specific cause of death, but an influencing factor).[11]
  3. ^ Her son, whose full name was Edward Hyde Leveson Gore, was born on December 2, 1876[13] and died September 23, 1954[14] Her son Edward and daughter-in-law were alive at the time of his mother's death.[1] They had a son, Robson Gore.[15]
  4. ^ She was critically ill for three weeks before her death and in ill health for months before.[15] A biographical sketch of Robson in the Notable American Women, 1607-1950 stated that she died of cancer.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d Edward T. James; Janet Wilson James; Paul S. Boyer (January 1, 1971). Notable American Women, 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Harvard University Press. p. 185. ISBN 978-0-674-62734-5. 
  2. ^ a b c Axel Nissen (2007). Actresses of a Certain Character: Forty Familiar Hollywood Faces from the Thirties to the Fifties. McFarland. p. 189. ISBN 978-0-7864-2746-8. 
  3. ^ a b Nissen, Axel (2007). Actresses of a Certain Character: Forty Familiar Hollywood Faces from the Thirties to the Fifties. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. p. 184. ISBN 978-0-7864-2746-8. 
  4. ^ a b c "May Robson, Stage, Screen Star, Is Dead: Character Actress Began Long Career in 1883". Berkshire Evening Eagle (Pittsfield, Berkshire, Massachusetts): 1. October 20, 1942. 
  5. ^ a b c d e Nissen, Axel (2007). Actresses of a Certain Character: Forty Familiar Hollywood Faces from the Thirties to the Fifties. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. p. 185. ISBN 978-0-7864-2746-8. 
  6. ^ "Charles Leveson Gore (also click on possible wives name to verify same couple)". England and Wales, Marriage Registration Index, 1837-1920. FamilySearch. Retrieved July 4, 2014. 
  7. ^ a b Jones, Jan. Renegades, Showmen & Angels: A Theatrical History of Fort Worth, 1873-2001. Texas A & M University Press. pp. 37–38. ISBN 0-87565-318-9. 
  8. ^ a b c d Edward T. James, Janet Wilson James, Paul S. Boyer (1971). Notable American Women, 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary, vol 2. Radcliffe College. p. 185. ISBN 0-674-62734-2. 
  9. ^ Jan Jones (2006). Renegades, Showmen & Angels: A Theatrical History of Fort Worth from 1873-2001. TCU Press. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-87565-318-1. 
  10. ^ "Two Brilliant Women, They are Both Bright Ornaments of the Stage: Viola Allen and May Robson". The Olean Democrat (Olean, New York): 6. November 29, 1892. 
  11. ^ Walter Browne; Fredrick Arnold Austin (1906). Who's who on the stage; the dramatic reference book and biographic al dictionary of the theatre. W. Browne & F. A. Austin. p. 191. 
  12. ^ Alison McKay (July 30, 2008). Bayside. Arcadia Publishing. p. 96. ISBN 978-1-4396-2027-4. 
  13. ^ "England and Wales, Birth Registration Index, 1837-1920". FamilySearch. Retrieved July 4, 2014. 
  14. ^ "California, Death Index, 1940-1997". FamilySearch. Retrieved July 4, 2014. 
  15. ^ a b Nielsen Business Media, Inc. (October 31, 1942). Billboard. Nielsen Business Media, Inc. p. 26. ISSN 00062510. 
  16. ^ New York State Medical Association, Medical Society of the State of New York (1920). New York State journal of medicine, Volume 20. p. 170. 
  17. ^ Nissen, Axel (2007). Actresses of a Certain Character: Forty Familiar Hollywood Faces from the Thirties to the Fifties. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. pp. 184–185. ISBN 978-0-7864-2746-8. 
  18. ^ Grey Smith and James L. Halperin (Editor). Heritage Vintage Movie Posters Signature Auction #603. Heritage Capital Corporation. p. 3. ISBN 978-1-932899-15-3. 
  19. ^ "Screenplay Info for A Night Out (1916)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved June 1, 2008. 
  20. ^ Nissen, Axel (2007). Actresses of a Certain Character: Forty Familiar Hollywood Faces from the Thirties to the Fifties. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-7864-2746-8. 
  21. ^ a b Palmer, Scott (1988). A Who's Who of Australian and New Zealand Film Actors: The Sound Era. p. 142. ISBN 0-8108-2090-0. 
  22. ^ Hall, Mordaunt (May 28, 1931). "The She-Wolf (1931)". The New York Times. Retrieved August 3, 2012. 
  23. ^ Hall, Mordaunt (December 3, 1932). "If I Had a Million (1932)". The New York Times. Retrieved August 3, 2012. 
  24. ^ John C. Tibbetts, James M. Welsh, ed. (2010). American Classic Screen Features. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press. p. 253. ISBN 978-0-81087678-1. 
  25. ^ Nissen, Axel (2007). Actresses of a Certain Character: Forty Familiar Hollywood Faces from the Thirties to the Fifties. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. pp. 3, 187–8. ISBN 978-0-7864-2746-8. 
  26. ^ a b Nissen, Axel (2007). Actresses of a Certain Character: Forty Familiar Hollywood Faces from the Thirties to the Fifties. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. pp. 3, 187. ISBN 978-0-7864-2746-8. 
  27. ^ a b Edwards, Anne (2000) [1985]. Katharine Hepburn: A Remarkable Woman. New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 456. ISBN 0-312-20656-9. 
  28. ^ Leonard Maltin (August 4, 2009). Leonard Maltin's 2010 Movie Guide. Penguin Group US. p. 425. ISBN 978-1-101-10876-5. 
  29. ^ "Hollywood's Oldest Film Queen Dies; May Robson's Age is Revealed as 78". Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada). October 21, 1942. 
  30. ^ "Robson Burial Services Set". Reno Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada): 5. October 22, 1942. 
  31. ^ Brown, Thomas Allston (1903). A History of the New York Stage from the First Performance in 1732 to 1901, Volume 3. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company. pp. 42, 63, 180, 217, 263, 265, 267, 349, 352, 366, 425–6, 427, 429, 431, 439, 523, 533, 536, 538. 
  32. ^ "May Robson IMDb - list of roles". Retrieved August 3, 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Margherita Arlina Hamm (1909). "May Robson". Eminent Actors in Their Homes: Personal Descriptions and Interviews. J. Pott. pp. 115–124. 

External links[edit]