May Irwin

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May Irwin
Irwin in an ornate white dress.
Irwin in 1905
Georgina May Campbell

(1862-06-27)June 27, 1862
DiedOctober 22, 1938(1938-10-22) (aged 76)
New York City, U.S.
Occupation(s)Actress, singer
Years active1870s–1922
Frederick W. Keller
(m. 1879; died 1886)
Kurt Eisenfeldt
(m. 1907)
May Irwin Kiss, recorded in April 1896 by Thomas Edison
Signed drawings of May Irwin by Manuel Rosenberg for the Cincinnati Post 1920

May Irwin (born Georgina May Campbell; June 27, 1862 – October 22, 1938) was an actress, singer and star of vaudeville. Originally from Canada, she and her sister Flo Irwin found theater work after their father died. She was known for her performances as a coon shouter and for her recordings.

Early life and career[edit]

Born on June 27, 1862, in Whitby, Canada West,[1] as Georgina May Campbell,[2][3][4] her father, Robert E. Campbell, died when she was 13 years old; her stage-minded mother, Sophoria Jane Draper, in need of money, encouraged May and her older sister Adeline Flora ("Flo" or "Addie") to perform. They created a singing act, billed as the "Irwin Sisters," that debuted at the Adelphi Theatre in nearby Buffalo, New York in December 1874. By late 1877, their careers had progressed and they were booked to appear at New York's Metropolitan Theater, then at the Tony Pastor Theatre, a popular New York City music hall.

Miss May Irwin

The sisters proved popular enough to earn regular spots for the ensuing six years, after which 21-year-old May set out on her own. She joined Augustin Daly's stock company from 1883 to 1887, where she made her first appearance on the theatrical stage. This comedian was known for her improvisation skills. An immediate success, she went on to make her London stage debut at Toole's Theatre in August 1884. By the age of 25, she was earning $2,500 a week.[5] In 1886, her husband of eight years, Frederick W. Keller, died unexpectedly. Her sister Flora married New York State Senator Thomas F. Grady.

By the early 1890s, Irwin had married a second time and developed her career into that of a leading vaudeville performer with an act known at the time as "Coon Shouting", in which she performed African American-influenced songs. In the 1895 Broadway show The Widow Jones, she introduced "The Bully Song", which became her signature number. The performance also featured a lingering kiss, which was seen by Thomas Edison, who hired Irwin and her co-star John C. Rice to repeat the scene on film. In 1896, Edison's Kinetoscope production, The Kiss, became the first screen kiss in cinematic history.[6]

Her own pieces included " The Widow Jones", " The Swell Miss Fitzswell", "Courted Into Court", "Kate Kip-Buyer", and "Sister Mary".[7]

The cover of sheet music featuring one of Irwin's songs originally performed in the Broadway musical Courted Into Court.

In addition to her performing and singing, Irwin also wrote the lyrics to several songs, including "Hot Tamale Alley", with music written by George M. Cohan. In 1907 she married her manager, Kurt Eisfeldt, and began making records for Berliner/Victor. Several of these recordings survive and give a notion of the actress's appeal.

Irwin's buxom figure was much in vogue at the time and, combined with her charming personality, made her one of America's most beloved performers for more than thirty years. In 1914, she made her second silent film appearance, this time in the feature-length adaptation of George V. Hobart's play, Mrs. Black is Back, produced by Adolph Zukor's Famous Players Film Company and filmed for the most part at her own sprawling home in New York. Still pictures showing May survive from this movie.

A highly paid performer, Irwin was a shrewd investor and became a very wealthy woman. She spent a great deal of time at a summer home on secluded Club Island, a small island off of Grindstone Island of the Thousand Islands, and at her winter home on Merritt Island, Florida, before retiring to a farm near Clayton, New York, where a street would eventually be named in her honor.

Irwin retired in 1925.[1]

Personal life[edit]

May Irwin was married twice. Her first marriage was to Frederick W. Keller, of St. Louis, from 1878 until his death in 1886. From 1907 to the end of her life, she was married to Kurt Eisfeldt. The couple lived at West 44th Street, New York.

Irwin had two sons by her first marriage, Walter Keller (born ca. 1879 - when she was 17) and Harry Keller (b. 1882 - when she was 20).[8]


May Irwin died in New York City on October 22, 1938, aged 76. She is interred at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, NY.


Year Title Role Notes
1896 The Kiss The Widow Jones Short
1905 The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog Mrs. Dam Short, uncredited
1914 Mrs. Black Is Back Mrs. Black
1915 The Incorrigible Dukane A Charwoman Uncredited
1936 Fashions in Love Short, archive footage


  1. ^ a b Foster 2000, p. 14.
  2. ^ Gracyk, Tim (2006). "May Irwin". Tim Gracyk's Phonographs, Singers, and Old Records. Archived from the original on July 8, 2019. Retrieved February 21, 2020.
  3. ^ de Lafayette, Maximillien. "World of Cabaret - American Music and the Birth of Cabaret from the Early Jazz Era to Present". International News Agency. Archived from the original on October 12, 2008.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  4. ^ Lunman, Kim (April 13, 2009). "May Irwin and her Keeper". Thousand Islands Life Magazine. Archived from the original on May 13, 2010. Retrieved December 28, 2009.
  5. ^ Callwood, June (1977). The naughty nineties, 1890-1900. Toronto: Natural Science of Canada. p. 79. ISBN 0-919644-21-X. OCLC 5172430.
  6. ^ Dirks, Tim. "Sex in Cinema: Pre-1920s Greatest and Most Influential Erotic / Sexual Films and Scenes". AMC Filmsite. Archived from the original on October 29, 2019. Retrieved February 22, 2020.
  7. ^ Morgan, Henry James, ed. (1903). Types of Canadian Women and of Women who are or have been Connected with Canada. Toronto: Williams Briggs. p. 172.
  8. ^ Edwards, Bill. "Georgina May (Campbell) (Keller) Irwin (Eisfeldt)". Archived from the original on September 15, 2018. Retrieved February 22, 2020.

Works cited[edit]

Further reading[edit]

Ammen, Sharon (2016). May Irwin: Singing, Shouting, and the Shadow of Minstrelsy. Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0252040651.

External links[edit]