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Beatrice Lillie, as photographed by Yousuf Karsh, 1948.
|Birth name||Beatrice Gladys Lillie|
May 29, 1894|
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
|Died||January 20, 1989
|Medium||Stage, motion pictures|
Beatrice Gladys "Bea" Lillie (May 29, 1894 – January 20, 1989) was a Canadian-born British actress, singer and comedic performer.
She began to perform as a child with her mother and sister. She made her West End debut in the 1914 and soon gained notice in revues and light comedies, becoming known for her parodies of old-fashioned, flowery performing styles and absurd songs and sketches. She debuted in New York in 1924 and two years later starred in her first film, continuing to perform in both the US and UK. She was associated with the works of Noël Coward and Cole Porter. During World War II, Lillie was an inveterate entertainer of the troops. She won a Tony Award in 1953 for her revue An Evening With Beatrice Lillie.
Lillie was born in Toronto to John Lillie and wife Lucie-Ann Shaw. Her father had been a British Army officer in India and later was a Canadian government official. Her mother was a concert singer. Beatrice performed in other Ontario towns as part of a family trio with her mother and older sister, Muriel. Eventually, her mother, Lucie, took the girls to London, England where she made her West End debut in the 1914 Not Likely. She was noted primarily for her stage work in revues, especially those staged by André Charlot, and light comedies, and was frequently paired with Gertrude Lawrence, Bert Lahr and Jack Haley.
In her revues, she utilized sketches, songs, and parody that won her lavish praise from The New York Times after her 1924 New York debut. In some of her best known bits, she would solemnly parody the flowery performing style of earlier decades, mining such songs as "There are Fairies at the Bottom of our Garden" and "Mother Told Me So" for every double entendre, while other numbers ("Get Yourself a Geisha" and "Snoops the Lawyer", for example) showcased her exquisite sense of the absurd. Her performing in such comedy routines as "One Dozen Double Damask Dinner Napkins", (in which an increasingly flummoxed matron attempts to purchase said napkins) earned her the frequently used sobriquet of "Funniest Woman in the World". She never performed the "Dinner Napkins" routine in Britain, because British audiences had already seen it performed by the Australian-born English revue performer Cicely Courtneidge, for whom it was written.
In 1926 she returned to New York City to perform. While there, she starred in her first film, Exit Smiling, opposite fellow Canadian Jack Pickford, the scandal-scarred younger brother of Mary Pickford. From then until the approach of World War II, Lillie repeatedly crisscrossed the Atlantic to perform on both continents. She was long associated with the works of Noël Coward (giving, for instance, the first public performance of "Mad Dogs and Englishmen"), though Cole Porter and others also wrote songs for her. She made few appearances on film, appearing in a cameo role as a revivalist in Around the World in Eighty Days and as "Mrs. Meers" (a white slaver) in Thoroughly Modern Millie.
She won a Tony Award in 1953 for her revue An Evening With Beatrice Lillie and made her final stage appearance as Madame Arcati in High Spirits, the musical version of Coward's Blithe Spirit. In 1954 she won the Sarah Siddons Award for her work in Chicago theatre.
Throughout her career as a revue performer, Lillie's contracts almost invariably stipulated that she would not make her first entrance onstage until at least half an hour into the show; by that point, every other act in the revue had made its first appearance and the audience would be keenly awaiting the entrance of Miss Lillie, the star of the evening.
After seeing An Evening with Beatrice Lillie, critic Ronald Barker wrote, "Other generations may have their Mistinguett and their Marie Lloyd. We have our Beatrice Lillie and seldom have we seen such a display of perfect talent." Sheridan Morley noted in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography that "Lillie's great talents were the arched eyebrow, the curled lip, the fluttering eyelid, the tilted chin, the ability to suggest, even in apparently innocent material, the possible double entendre".
Marriage and offspring
She was married, on January 20, 1920, at the church of St. Paul, Drayton Bassett, Fazeley, Staffordshire, to Sir Robert Peel, 5th Baronet. Following her 1920 marriage to Sir Robert Peel in England, she was known in private life as Lady Peel. She eventually separated from her husband, but the couple never divorced. He died in 1934. Their only child, Sir Robert Peel, 6th Baronet, was killed in action aboard HMS Tenedos (H04) in Colombo Harbour, Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) in 1942.
During World War II, Lillie was an inveterate entertainer of the troops. Before she went on stage one day, she learned her son was killed in action. She refused to postpone the performance saying "I'll cry tomorrow." In 1948, while touring in the show Inside USA, she met singer/actor John Philip Huck, almost three decades younger, who became her friend and companion, and she boosted his career. However, Huck proved to be possessive.
Retirement and death
Lillie retired from the stage due to Alzheimer's disease. Julie Andrews remembered that Lillie, as Mrs. Meers in Thoroughly Modern Millie (filmed in 1966 and released in 1967), had to be prompted through her lines and was often confused on set. Millie was Lillie's final film.
Lillie died on January 20, 1989, which was also the date of her wedding anniversary, at Henley-on-Thames. Huck died of a heart attack 31 hours later and is interred next to her in the Peel family estate's cemetery near Peel Fold, Blackburn.
- Exit Smiling (1926)
- The Show of Shows (1929)
- Are You There? (1930)
- Dr. Rhythm (1938)
- On Approval (1944)
- Around the World in 80 Days (1956) as London revivalist leader
- Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967)
- Short Subjects
- Beatrice Lillie (1929)
- Beatrice Lillie and Her Boyfriends (1930) Vitaphone Varieties short released May 15, 1930
- Broadway Highlights No. 1 (1935)
- Broadway Highlights No. 2 (1935)
- Not Likely (1914) (London)
- 5064 Gerrard (1915) (London)
- Samples (1916) (London)
- Some (1916) (London)
- Cheep (1917) (London)
- Tabs (1918) (London)
- Bran Pie (1919) (London)
- Oh, Joy! (1919) (London)
- Now and Then (1921) (London)
- Pot Luck (1921) (London)
- The Nine O'Clock Revue (1922) (London)
- Andre Charlot's Revue of 1924 (1924) (Broadway)
- Andre Charlot's Revue of 1926 (1925) (Broadway and US national tour)
- Oh, Please (1926) (Broadway)
- She's My Baby (1928) (Broadway)
- This Year of Grace (1928) (Broadway)
- Charlot's Masquerade (1930) (London)
- The Third Little Show (1931) (Broadway)
- Too True to Be Good (1932) (Broadway)
- Walk a Little Faster (1932) (Broadway)
- Please (1933) (London)
- At Home Abroad (1935) (Broadway)
- The Show Is On (1936) (Broadway)
- Happy Returns (1938) (London)
- Set to Music (1939) (Broadway)
- All Clear (1939) (London)
- Big Top (1942) (London)
- Seven Lively Arts (1944) (Broadway)
- Better Late (1946) (London)
- Inside U.S.A. (1948) (Broadway)
- An Evening With Beatrice Lillie (1952) (Broadway and London)
- Ziegfeld Follies of 1957 (1957) (Broadway)
- Auntie Mame (1958) (replacement for Greer Garson) (Broadway and London)
- A Late Evening with Beatrice Lillie (1960) (Edinburgh Festival)
- High Spirits (1964) (Broadway)
Radio and television
She was the star of three radio programs:
- The Beatrice Lillie Show on NBC January 4 – June 28, 1935
- The Flying Red Horse Tavern on CBS February 7 – May 22, 1936
- Broadway Merry-Go-Round on the Blue Network January 6 – July 28, 1937
Awards and Honors
- 1945: New York Drama Critics Award for Best Femme Performance in a Musical – Seven Lively Arts
- 1948: New York Drama Critics Award for Best Femme Performance in a Musical – Inside U.S.A.
- 1953: Special Tony Award – An Evening With Beatrice Lillie
- 1954: Sarah Siddons Award
- 1958: Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical – Ziegfeld Follies of 1957 (nominee)
- 1964: Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical – High Spirits (nominee)
For her contributions to film, in 1960 Beatrice Lillie was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6404 Hollywood Blvd. Her portrait, painted by Neysa McMein about 1948 or 1949, is in the collection of The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in England.
- Stevens, Christopher (2010). Born Brilliant: The Life Of Kenneth Williams. John Murray. p. 363. ISBN 1-84854-195-3.
- Civil Registration event: Marriage; Name: Lillie, Beatrice G.; Registration District: Tamworth; County: Staffordshire; Year of Registration: 1920; Quarter of Registration: Jan-Feb-Mar; Spouse's last name: Peel; Volume No:6B/Page No: 773
- Dunning, John. (1998). On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-507678-3. p. 76.
- "Beatrice Lillie (1898–1989)". Your Paintings. BBC. Retrieved April 3, 2015.
- Lillie, Beatrice, with John Philip Huck and James Brough, Every Other Inch a Lady (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1972).
|Neysa McMein, Neysa McMein, Beatrice Lillie (1898–1989), c. 1948–1949, Central School of Speech & Drama|
- Beatrice Lillie at the Internet Broadway Database
- Beatrice Lillie at the Internet Movie Database
- Records in the Theatre Archive at the University of Bristol of stage performances by Beatrice Lillie
- on YouTube
- Beatrice Lillie papers, 1911–1995, held by the Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
- Beatrice Lillie at Find a Grave
|Awards and achievements|
|Sarah Siddons Award (Sarah Siddons Society, Chicago)