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
Moama, New South Wales, Australia
Died October 20, 1942(1942-10-20) (aged 84)
Beverly Hills, California, U.S.
Resting place Flushing, New York
Occupation Actress
Years active 1908-1942
Spouse(s) Charles L. Gore (1875–c. 1883)
Augustus H. Brown (1889–1920; his death)
Children 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)

Mary Jeanette Robison (19 April 1858 – 20 October 1942) known professionally as May Robson, 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.[1] She was also the earliest-born person to receive an Oscar nomination, for her leading role in Lady for a Day in 1933.

Personal life[edit]

In an autobiographical sketch appearing in The Theatre magazine of 1907,[2] Mary Robison starts by saying "I was born in the Australian bush". Mary Jeanette Robison was born on 19 April 1858 in Moama, New South Wales, Australia. Her parents were Henry Robison (1810-1860) from Penrith, Cumberland, England and Julia Schlesinger (1824-1914) from Liverpool, Lancashire, England who were married in Liverpool on 21 October 1847.

Henry Robison was a merchant navy seaman with the East India Company and received his Master’s Certificate of Service on 21 February 1853. However, in 1848 (after his marriage) he was listed as a watch and clock maker living at Church Street, Liverpool; a jeweller in 1850; and a silversmith in 1852. At the census of 1851 Henry, a jeweller, was visiting his brother, James Robison, wine merchant of Newton, Penrith.

Julia was the eldest daughter of Casper Wolfe Schlesinger (born c. 1801) and Adelaide Leman (born c. 1804). Casper was listed as a watch and clock maker at Pleasant Street, Liverpool in 1834; a land and house agent at Anne Street, 1848; and by 1850 he and his family were resident at Brooklyn City, New York, US. In 1848 Adelaide and Julia were listed as artists at Anne Street, Liverpool. At the 1851 census Julia (Bobson) was a silversmith living at Church Street with their two sons.

Captain Henry Robison and Julia boarded the SS Great Britain at Liverpool on 11 August 1853 for a 65-day voyage to Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. They took with them their three young children: William Henry Robison (born 1848), James Leman Robison (1850–1920); and Adelaide Fanny Julia Robison (1852–1930). By April 1855 Henry and Julia had established a new business in Melbourne: "HENRY ROBISON, watchmaker, jeweller, silversmith and ornamental hairworker, 7 Bourke street, next the Post office, late of Church street, Liverpool, England, and of Penrith, Cumberland…".

It was announced in August 1857 that the large brick mansion built by James Maiden at Moama (formerly known as Maiden’s Punt), New South Wales, was to be opened as a first-class bush inn by Mr Henry Robison. Henry had purchased the mansion at the auction held on 4 August 1857. The new inn was called the Prince of Wales Hotel and became the premises of "Robison and Stivens", coach proprietors for the Bendigo - Moama - Deniliquin service. Mary Jeanette Robison was born there on 19 April 1858.

Henry Robison died in Moama on 27 January 1860 as reported in The Argus (Melbourne) on 2 February 1860: "On the 27th ult., in his 49th year, at his residence, Prince of Wales Hotel, Maiden's Punt, Murray River, New South Wales, Henry Robison (of the firm of Robison and Stivens), late of Bourke-street, Melbourne, deeply regretted by a large circle of friends, leaving a wife and four children to lament their loss." His youngest daughter, Mary, was 1y 9m old.

On 19 November 1862 at St Pauls, Melbourne, Julia married Walter Moore Miller, Solicitor and Mayor of Albury, New South Wales. Walter Miller (1830-) was born in Norwich, Norfolk, England and admitted as a Solicitor there in 1854; declared insolvent in 1855; moved to Victoria, Australia and was admitted as a Solicitor in 1857 practicing in Belvoir (Wodonga). The family were living in Albury when administration of the will of Henry Robison was granted on 2 September 1865 in England.

In the 1907 article Mary Robison remembers fishing from the St Kilda Pier in Melbourne. She would have been there in the period about 1866 to 1870 when she was between 8 and 12 years old. Walter Miller was a partner with De Courcy Ireland in the firm of "Miller and Ireland" at 100 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne in November 1867. The partnership was dissolved by mutual consent on 20 January 1870 with James L. Robison acting as witness to the legal notice.

Later in the article Mary describes the family’s next move from Melbourne to England across the Pacific –"We sailed in a vessel modeled after my grandmother's rocking chair in movement. She was so unsteady that she was known as ‘The Rolling Moses’". The Rolling Moses was the nickname for the 1,000-ton SS Moses Taylor, which in the period 1871 to 1873 was used by William H. Webb's San Francisco-Honolulu-Australia Line on the Honolulu to San Francisco section. No relevant passenger list has been located but it is likely that the family, including Mary who was 13 years old, traveled from Melbourne to London, via San Francisco, Panama Canal (opened in 1869), and New York arriving in England after the 1871 census conducted on 3 April 1871.

In London Mary Robison attended La Sainte Union Catholic School on Highgate Road. "From the Sacred Heart Convent, Highgate, I was sent to school at Brussels, and there I studied the languages. I went to Paris for my examinations in French and returned to my home for a vacation. I ran away from home to marry a boy of eighteen, and this English Romeo and Juliet, aged eighteen and sixteen, went to Fort Worth, Tex[as]., and tried to live up to their dignified name as inscribed on their new cards, ‘Mr. and Mrs. Charles Livingston Gore’".

In the marriage allegation signed by Charles Leveson Gore (1856 – c. 1881) on 28 October 1875, Mary gave her residence as her married sister Adelaide’s address at Medbourne, Leicestershire, claiming that she was 20 years old (she was 17 and he was 19). They were married on 1 November 1875 at Camden Town, London. His full name was Charles Edward Frederick Collier Leveson Gore. Their first son, Edward Hyde Leveson Gore, was born in Leicestershire on 2 December 1876.

Charles and Mary were attracted by stories of limitless business opportunities in Texas, USA and on 17 May 1877 the family arrived in New York on the steamer Vaderland and traveled to Fort Worth, Texas, to establish a cattle ranch. They purchased 380 acres of land and built a substantial house. "The Gores survived two years in their prairie manor house before homesickness, rural isolation, and repeated bouts of fever convinced them to sell and try their fortunes in the more settled east."[3] A second son, James Beryl Gore, was born about May 1879.

Sending Mary and the children ahead to New York, Charles Gore accepted an offer to trade the land and house for seven hundred horses. But most of the herd died on the way to market and the remainder were sold at a loss. Charles joined Mary in New York, where a daughter, Nellie Candler Gore, was born on 28 April 1880. At the 1880 census, Charles, ‘Poppy’ and three children were living at 36th Street.[nb 1] Mary says "We came to New York, my husband, my three children and myself, and began life over again practically without a dollar. Shortly afterwards my husband died." 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.[3]

Mary produced crocheted hoods and embroidery, designed dinner cards and taught painting to support her three children.[2] Her youngest son died on 26 April 1882 and her daughter died shortly after on 1 May 1882. One died of diphtheria and the other from scarlet fever. During these difficult times no mention is made of any family support for Mary. She had grandparents who were living in New York in 1850, and she may have had uncles, aunts and cousins still there in the early 1880s. She may also have had her brother James nearby.

James Leman Robison was naturalized in Newark, New Jersey, on 11 April 1877 and lived in San Francisco from about 1880 to his death in 1920. In 1880 he was listed as a teacher, as a journalist in 1886 and as an attorney in 1896. His mother, Julia, and step-father, Walter Miller, were defendants in a court case in England in 1875 and 1878, but by 1880 Julia is recorded as living in California with James. Julia is also recorded in California from 1912 to her death in 1914.

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

Mary Robison's son, Edward Hyde Gore, was her business manager.[4]


On 17 September 1883, she became an actress in Hoop of Gold at 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".[5] Over the next several decades, she flourished on the stage as a comedian 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.[3]

She appeared as herself in a cameo in the 1915 silent film, How Molly Made Good.[6] Robson starred in the 1916 silent film A Night Out, an adaptation of the play she co-wrote, The Three Lights.[7]

In 1927, Robson attended the University of Edinburgh, then went to Hollywood where she had a successful film career as a senior aged woman.[8] Among her starring roles was in The She-Wolf (1931) as a miserly millionaire businesswoman based on the real-life miser Hetty Green.[9][10]

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.[11] She played the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland (1933), Countess Vronsky in Anna Karenina (1935), 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.[9][12][13]

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;[14][15] both actresses appeared in the Hepburn-Grant classic film, Bringing Up Baby.[16]

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.[14][15]


May Robson died in her Beverly Hills, California home at age 84.[17] In its obituary of Robson, the Nevada State Journal stated that Robson died of "a combination of ailments, aggravated by neuritis and advanced age."[18][nb 2] Her remains were cremated[19] and buried at the Flushing Cemetery in Queens, New York, next to her second husband, Augustus Brown.

The New York Times obituary for Robson called her the "dowager queen of the American screen and stage".[1]



The following is a partial list of her stage performances:[20]

  • 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)

Partial filmography[edit]



See also[edit]


  1. ^ The information recorded in the 1880 Census is inaccurate as it shows Charles L. Gore, aged 35 [24], Lawyer; Poppy [Mary] Gore, 20 [22]; Charles [Edward] Gore, 3; Alexander [James] Gore, 1; Nellie C. Gore, 0
  2. ^ She was critically ill for three weeks before her death and in ill health for months before. A biographical sketch of Robson in the Notable American Women, 1607-1950 stated that she died of cancer.[17]


  1. ^ 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. 
  2. ^ a b Robson, May (November 1907). "My Beginnings". The Theatre. 7 (81): 305–310. Retrieved 1 June 2015. 
  3. ^ a b c 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. 
  4. ^ "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. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ 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. 
  7. ^ "Screenplay Info for A Night Out (1916)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved June 1, 2008. 
  8. ^ 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. 
  9. ^ 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. 
  10. ^ Hall, Mordaunt (May 28, 1931). "The She-Wolf (1931)". The New York Times. Retrieved August 3, 2012. 
  11. ^ Hall, Mordaunt (December 3, 1932). "If I Had a Million (1932)". The New York Times. Retrieved August 3, 2012. 
  12. ^ John C. Tibbetts, James M. Welsh, ed. (2010). American Classic Screen Features. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press. p. 253. ISBN 978-0-81087678-1. 
  13. ^ 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. 
  14. ^ 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. 
  15. ^ a b Edwards, Anne (2000) [1985]. Katharine Hepburn: A Remarkable Woman. New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 456. ISBN 0-312-20656-9. 
  16. ^ Leonard Maltin (August 4, 2009). Leonard Maltin's 2010 Movie Guide. Penguin Group US. p. 425. ISBN 978-1-101-10876-5. 
  17. ^ a b 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. 
  18. ^ "Hollywood's Oldest Film Queen Dies; May Robson's Age is Revealed as 78". Nevada State Journal. Reno, Nevada. October 21, 1942. 
  19. ^ "Robson Burial Services Set". Reno Evening Gazette. Reno, Nevada: 5. October 22, 1942. 
  20. ^ 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. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]