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Marbury (right) with Mrs. John Sherwin Crosby
June 19, 1856|
New York City, New York
January 22, 1933 (aged 76)|
New York City, New York
|Occupation||Agent and Author|
Elisabeth "Bessie" Marbury (June 19, 1856 – January 22, 1933) was a pioneering American theatrical and literary agent and producer who represented prominent theatrical performers and writers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and helped shape business methods of the modern commercial theater. She was the longtime companion of Elsie de Wolfe (later known as Lady Mendl), a prominent socialite and famous interior decorator.
Bessie Marbury was born and raised in the affluent and cultured home of one of 19th-century New York's oldest and most prominent "society" families. She was reputedly a descendant of Calvinist Anne Hutchinson (née Marbury), who co-founded Rhode Island after her banishment from Massachusetts Bay Colony. Bessie Marbury both used and defied these connections during the Victorian era to establish herself as an important literary and theatrical talent agent and theatrical producer, helping to define and create these very professions as they emerged in the new world of mass production, advertising and popular culture in post-Civil War American society.
For many, Marbury remains a bundle of contradictions. Although she was the embodiment of female independence in almost every way, she initially opposed suffrage. She made a bold reversal once women in the United States did receive the right to vote, and in 1918 she became active in the Democratic Party, serving as a delegate. She was also a passionate convert to Roman Catholicism. She was likewise very active in the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization. In 1923 she published an autobiography, My Crystal Ball:Reminiscences (NY: Boni and Liveright, ). She had earlier published Manners: A Handbook of Social Customs in 1888.
Marbury never married, but lived openly for more than 20 years with Elsie De Wolfe in what many observers accepted as a lesbian relationship, first at Irving House and then at 13 Sutton Place.
Marbury had a long lasting friendship with Elizabeth Arden (1878-1966), a Canadian-born American businesswoman who founded what is now Elizabeth Arden, Inc. They spent many weekends at Marbury’s Maine home, Lakeside Farm. After Marbury’s death in 1933, Arden bought the property with the intention of fulfilling Marbury’s wish that it be turned into a home for working women—though it eventually became part of a luxury resort instead.
Marbury died in 1933. Her funeral at St. Patrick's Cathedral was attended by an impressive array of the most important American leaders and dignitaries of the day. De Wolfe was noticeably absent from the funeral, despite the fact that she was the prime beneficiary of Marbury's will.
Marbury's clients ranged from the French Academy of Letters to playwrights Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw; to the dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle. She was an early promoter of African American writers of the Harlem Renaissance. She also played an instrumental role in developing the modern "Book Musical" that audiences came to know as defining "Broadway" in the 20th century, notably of Cole Porter's first musical, See America First, and Jerome Kern (Nobody Home (1915), Very Good, Eddie (1915), and Love O' Mike (1917))through her American Play company.
Marbury and de Wolfe discovered their careers amidst the amateur theatrical performances in high society in late Victorian New York. Both would end up defying this world's rules and expectations for women by making their interest in theater professional, and in no small way helped pave the way for many other "respectable ladies" that followed, both in the previously frowned upon world of the professional theater as well as independent careers and financial autonomy for women in general. Thus it was at an 1885 successful benefit theatrical performance that she had organized that Marbury was inspired to try her hand at theater management. In 1888 she persuaded Frances Hodgson Burnett, who had written a dramatic version of her best-selling Little Lord Fauntleroy, to hire her as business manager and agent. The association quickly proved highly profitable to both women.
In 1891 Marbury traveled to France, and for 15 years she was the representative in the English-speaking market for playwright Victorien Sardou and the other members of the Société des Gens de Lettres, including Georges Feydeau, Edmond Rostand, Ludovic Halévy, and Jean Richepin. Her work on their behalf included securing suitable translations, sound productions with leading actors, and full royalties. She also represented George Bernard Shaw, James M. Barrie (whom she prevailed upon to rewrite The Little Minister for Maude Adams), Hall Caine, and Jerome K. Jerome, among British authors, and Rachel Crothers and Clyde Fitch among Americans.
Her office thus became a center of the New York theatrical business, and for many years Marbury worked closely with Charles Frohman and his Theatrical Syndicate in bringing order to a rapidly expanding field of enterprise. She later worked with the rival Shubert Brothers' organization. In both cases this drew criticism from those who fought the de facto monopoly held by these "Theater Trusts," particularly from the noted American actress Minnie Maddern Fiske, who unsuccessfully struggled in the 1890s to form an actors union to fight the numerous fees and censorship imposed on actors and theater professionals by the Theater Trust. In 1914, Marbury joined several other agents in forming the American Play Company, and she then turned to producing and helped stage Nobody Home (1915), Very Good, Eddie (1915), and Love O' Mike (1917), all with music by Jerome Kern, and See America First (1916) with music by Cole Porter. These works contributed significantly to the development of the characteristically American form of musical comedy. Marbury's other successes include bringing Vernon and Irene Castle, whom she had seen on one of her innumerable trips to Paris, to New York in 1913 and setting them up in a fashionable dancing school that was the springboard for their brief but spectacularly popular career.
Marbury put her life story into a book "My Crystal Ball" which was published in 1923. She had been told frequently that Hollywood would be interested – this during the Silent Film Era – in the story of her travels with her companions Anne Tracy Morgan (daughter of Jon Pierpont Morgan, the financier) and America's first interior designer, Elsie de Wolfe. Elizabeth convinced Miss Morgan to purchase the Villa Trianon in the town of Versailles, where the trio held court with Europe's elite and entertained with George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, two clients she represented theatrically in New York and London, until the German Army came calling. Anne, Elsie and Bess Marbury escaped the army's clutches in their Rolls Royce convertible after packing hastily. In 1920, Marbury and De Wolfe hired architect Mott B. Schmidt to remodel and update their recently purchased Italianate style brownstone that had been built by Effingham Sutton in the 1870s on what was then known as Avenue A. Schmidt created a simple, elegant home with a French flair. In 1921 Marbury and de Wolfe's friends, Anne Morgan and Anne Vanderbilt also purchased brownstones on the same block, recently renamed Sutton Place, and once again Mott Schmidt was hired to transform the old Italianate houses into an elegant colonial and federal style home, respectively. Sutton Place quickly became a fashionable enclave. It was from their new residence at Sutton Place that Marbury began to work with the greatest musical talents of the time to dominate Broadway.
Before her death, Marbury chose her nephew John Marbury to produce a picture based on My Crystal Ball. The rights passed through John's estate to his son, the late New York sculptor Peter Marbury. The rights are held currently by Peter Marbury's widow, Diana Marbury, a New York theatrical producer, director and actress.
On the domestic front, Marbury was instrumental in assisting her companion Elsie de Wolfe in creating a career in interior decoration and in 1903 restoring Villa Trianon in Versailles, France, where she, de Wolfe, and Anne Tracy Morgan (youngest child of the powerful financier, J.P. Morgan) held court and became noted hostesses, affectionately referred to as "The Versailles Triumvirate". In 1903, along with Morgan and Anne Harriman Vanderbilt, Marbury helped organize the Colony Club, the first women's social club in New York. This also served as de Wolfe's professional debut as interior decorator. This same coterie would go on to create the exclusive neighborhood of Sutton Place, along Manhattan's East River, which prompted gossip papers of the 1920s to loudly whisper of an "Amazon Enclave".
During World War I, Marbury devoted much time to relief work for French and later American soldiers, and spent several months in France working in military hospitals and giving talks to the troops. She translated Maurice Barrès's The Faith of France (1918) and was decorated by the French and Belgian governments, although she was notably disappointed to not be awarded by the French Legion of Honor, an honor given to de Wolfe for her work in the pioneering Ambrine Mission for Burn Victims. De Wolfe announced her wedding to Sir Charles Mendl, a British diplomat in 1926, after at least thirty years of living with Marbury. According to biographies of de Wolfe, the Mendl-de Wolfe marriage was platonic, with the couple keeping separate apartments in Paris and usually only appearing together at social functions. Both de Wolfe and Mendel assured an understandably enraged Marbury that the marriage was purely one of convenience. Weeks after the marriage, de Wolfe traveled to New York to reconcile with Marbury. Their relationship lasted another seven years until Marbury's death in 1933.
- Marbury, Elisabeth (1923). My Crystal Ball:Reminiscences. Boni and Liveright.
- Marbury, Elisabeth (1888). Manners;: A handbook of social customs. Cassell & company, limited.
Productions under aegis of Elisabeth Marbury
- Electra [Revival, Play, Tragedy]. Produced in association with Elisabeth Marbury Dec 26, 1930 – Jan 1931
- Say When [Original, Musical, Comedy]. Produced by Elisabeth Marbury Jun 26, 1928 – Jul 1928
- Revue Russe [Original, Musical, Revue, Vaudeville]. Produced by Elisabeth Marbury Oct 5, 1922 – Oct 22, 1922
- Girl o' Mine [Original, Musical, Comedy]. Produced by Elisabeth Marbury Jan 28, 1918 – Mar 9, 1918
- Love O' Mike [Original, Musical, Comedy]. Produced by Elisabeth Marbury Jan 15, 1917 – Sep 29, 1917
- See America First [Original, Musical, Comedy, Opera]. Produced by Elisabeth Marbury Mar 28, 1916 – Apr 8, 1916
- Very Good Eddie [Original, Musical]. Produced by Marbury-Comstock Co. Dec 23, 1915 – Oct 14, 1916
- Our Children [Original, Play]. Produced in association with Elisabeth Marbury Sep 10, 1915 – Sep 1915
- Nobody Home [Original, Play, Play with music]. Produced by Elisabeth Marbury Apr 20, 1915 – Aug 7, 1915
- Merry Gotham [Original, Play]. Written by Elisabeth Marbury Mar 14, 1892 – Apr 1892
- Elisabeth Marbury profile at Internet Broadway Database (IBDb)
- Aldrich, Robert; Garry Wotherspoon (2002). Who's Who in Gay and Lesbian History. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-15983-0. p. 494 ("famous lesbian relationship... openly received...")
- Bunyan, Patrick (2002). All Around the Town. Fordham University Press. ISBN 0-8232-1941-0. p. 204 ("Miss Marbury... was the lesbian lover of Elsie De Wolfe...")
- Von Drehle, Dave (2003). Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. Atlantic Monthly Press. ISBN 0-87113-874-3.
- See America First entry at IBDb
- Schnake,, Robert A.; Kim Marra (1998). Passing Performances: Queer Readings of Leading Players in American Theater. Michigan: The University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-472-09681-8. p. 124 ("Mendl...assured the enraged Marbury that he had no intentions of replacing her in de Wolfe's affections, and that marriage was purely one of convenience, and that perhaps as a business woman she could understand the social and commercial value of such a contract. A few weeks later, de Wolfe traveled to New York for a personal reconciliation with her long time companion, and the two continued their post-war pattern...until Marbury's death in 1933. ")
- Marbury, Elisabeth. Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 2 Feb. 2007 
- Sparke, Penny. Elsie de Wolfe: The Birth of Modern Interior Decoration. NY: Acanthus Press, 2005 ISBN 0-926494-27-9
- Lewis, Alfred Allan. Ladies and Not-So-Gentle Women: Elisabeth Marbury, Anne Morgan, Elsie de Wolfe, Anne Vanderbilt, and Their Times. Penguin, 2001. ISBN 0-14-024173-6