Tilly Bébé

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Tilly Bébé
Portrait of a woman seated on the ground holding three lions in her lap in front of a backdrop of trees and mountains.
Bébé and her lions, 1907
Mathilde Rupp

(1879-03-27)27 March 1879
Died11 April 1932(1932-04-11) (aged 53)
Other namesMatilda Rupp, Tilli Bébé
Occupationanimal trainer
Years active1897–1931

Tilly Bébé (27 March 1879 – 11 April 1932) was the stage name of the Austrian circus performer Mathilde Rupp. She was noted for her performances with large predators and is considered a pioneer in the performance aspects of lion taming. In addition to live performances, she participated in making silent films. Rupp was born in Vienna and initially trained to be a typist. Against her father's wishes, she left a position in a law firm to work with snakes in the Vienna Vivarium [de]. She began performing with hyenas around 1897 and her father accepted her career choice, becoming her manager two years later. Bébé performed in many European capitals throughout her career with both lions and polar bears. She also toured South America in the 1920s. Performing into her 50s, she died in Vienna in 1932.

Early life[edit]

Mathilde Rupp was born on 27 March 1879 in Perchtoldsdorf, Austria-Hungary.[1] Her father, Franz Xaver Rupp, was a greengrocer and her grandfather was the teacher and composer Ambros ­Rieder [de]. She grew up in the school building on the town square and her mother died when she was nine years old.[2] Rupp initially trained to be a typist at the Commercial Institute of Vienna.[1][3] She obtained a job in a law firm but left to pursue a career caring for animals.[1] Initially her father opposed the career choice, but in 1899 he gave in to her wishes, not only providing his approval but becoming her manager.[4]


A poster depicting various scenes of lions performing circus tricks with their handler, who is a young girl, dressed in a blue pinafore.
A poster announcing a performance by Bébé at the Varieté-Orpheum, in Graz (1902–03)

Rupp was first hired by the Vienna Vivarium as a snake handler in the herpetarium. Wanting to expand her skills, she trained under R. Falk to work with hyenas and began circus work around 1897.[1] Her first performance, at the Vivarium with hyenas, was followed by a hit show in Vienna at the Varieté Ronacher [de] with lions.[1][5] Circus performing offered many opportunities that were unavailable to other women at the time and Rupp took advantage of them. She was able to choose her work, become financially independent and travel internationally.[6] Thanks to her affection for her lions, she spent a lot of time with them; it was reported that she even slept with them.[7][8] Her alternative lifestyle created considerable attention and led to the perception that she was in love with her animals, replacing life at home with a husband by her animals.[9][10] By some accounts, she turned down suitors because of her love for her lions who vied for her caresses.[11] Because of these erotic overtones in her act, she attracted press wherever she traveled and experienced the kind of fame that Mae West would have a decade later.[9]

Black and white photograph of a diminutive woman wearing a light-colored dress and dark stockings surrounded by a pride of seven lions.
Bébé and her lions, 1905

In 1901, she trained in Bonn at the Tierpark (animal park) with Contessa X, the stage name of the daughter of Joseph-Bertrand Abadie, who not only taught her how to work with lions but, intending to retire, sold Rupp part of her pride.[1][12] It was the Contessa who gave Rupp the stage name Tilly Bébé (literally, "baby Tilly"). Because of her diminutive stature, Bébé performed dressed in the garb of a little girl, using her doll-like appearance to contrast with the ferocity of her pride of lions.[6] A master of publicity, she used the press to enhance her stage persona, with stories of her demure nature and her kindness to animals.[6][13] It was frequently reported that she was a teenager, that she had been a society figure[8][14] and had suffered injuries.[4][15] On Christmas Day 1901, while performing at a circus in Essen, Bébé freed a fellow lion tamer from an attack by a lion, but the tamer died. Despite this incident, Bébé was soon engaged at a show in at the Cirque Medrano in Paris[16] and by the end of the year was a regular feature at the Rembrandt-Theatre in Amsterdam.[4] Performing at the Belgian Circus Krembser, at the climax of her act she put her head inside a lion's mouth before carrying him out of the arena on her shoulders.[1][17]

In circular inset portrait of a woman in the upper left corner, imposed over a group of polar bears perched on grand-stand like stairs
Bébé and her group of polar bears, 1907

In 1908, she began making silent films. The first, Tilly Bébé, die berühmte Löwenbändigerin (Tilly Bébé, the Famous Lion Tamer), featured Bébé as a young girl cuddling with her giant cats before prying open the mouth of a lion to show his teeth. The film is one of the best examples of the "exotic-erotic-escapist" genre that became popular at the time.[9][18] That year, it was reported that Bébé was mauled by a lion which laid its paws on her and was about to bite her throat during a performance in the Nymphenburger Volksgarten [de] in Munich. She hit it on the snout and moved away, dripping with blood. It turned out it was just an act as when it was repeated a few days later, she explained to the audience: "I just couldn't let him see I was frightened of him".[19][20] In 1913, she began performing in the colder months with a group of 20 polar bears.[5][21] While performing with Carl Hagenbeck's circus in Germany, she handled a group of 40 polar bears.[22] As with her lion performances, the press carried reports that the polar bears were docile in her care. She performed with them in the Circus Hagenbeek in The Hague in 1918.[Notes 1][24]

In 1923, Bébé went on tour with the Sarrasani Circus which performed throughout South America for two years.[25] In Buenos Aires, when a lion escaped from its cage, she prevented it from being shot by grabbing it by the mane and returning it to the cage.[7] She performed into her 50s, having lost little of her drive. In 1928, she was working with Wilhelm Hagenbeck in Saxony.[16] By 1930, it was reported that only three of the women who had previously worked in circuses with predators were still employed — Bébé, Mabel Stark, and a woman who performed as "Miss Texas".[Notes 2][27]

Death and legacy[edit]

Bébé died in poverty,[11][28] in Vienna on 11 April 1932.[1] She is noted as a pioneer in lion taming and for her innovations in the docile training of predators.[17] Roman Proske published Lions, Tigers, and Me in 1956, a memoir of his years as a lion tamer, including stories about Bébé and other noted circus people with whom he had performed.[29] In 2018, Pauline Maudy founded a jazz musicians' association in Australia named in honor of Bébé. The Tilly Bébé Project aims to improve the under-representation of women, particularly instrumentalists, in the jazz genre.[30]



  1. ^ Several sources indicate that Bébé quit working during the war and then suffered from a lengthy illness until her death.[1][23] Her film productions and later career, documented by numerous articles, show that this was not the case.
  2. ^ This is not Mrs. Herman Haupt, who performed in the 1910s as "Texas Girl". Haupt was killed in an accident with her lions in 1914–1915.[26]




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  • Brandlmeier, Thomas (1996). "Early German Film Comedy, 1895-1917". In Elsaesser, Thomas; Wedel, Michael (eds.). A Second Life: German Cinema's First Decades. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. pp. 103–113. ISBN 978-90-5356-172-0.
  • Campbell, Eden (3 October 2019). "Pauline Maudy Is Ready To Show Who She Is at Brisbane's Women in Voice". Scenestr. Fortitude Valley, Queensland: Eyeball Media Enterprises Pty. Ltd. Archived from the original on 3 October 2019. Retrieved 8 May 2020.
  • Friedman, Robert (20 June 1956). "Between Book Ends". The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. St. Louis, Missouri. p. 2C. Retrieved 8 May 2020 – via Newspapers.com.
  • Gruber, Gerhard (2016). "Tilly Bébé, die berühmte Löwenbändigerin (1908)". stummfilm.at (in German). Vienna: Stummfilm Archiv [Silent Film Archive]. Archived from the original on 4 November 2019. Retrieved 7 May 2020.
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  • Kober, A. H. (30 March 1930). "Frauen in der Manege" [Women in the Ring]. Das Kleine Blatt (in German). Vienna: Druck- und Verlagsanstalt Vorwärts Swoboda & Co. 4 (88): 3. Retrieved 8 May 2020.
  • Kraus, Doris (26 May 2012). "'Zirkusfrauen': Babydoll im Löwenkäfig" ['Circus Women': Babydoll in the Lion Cage]. Die Presse (in German). Vienna. Retrieved 7 May 2020.
  • Kraus, Doris (2 March 2013). "'Zirkusfrauen': Babydoll im Löwenkäfig" ['Circus Women': Babydoll in the Lion Cage] (PDF). Perchtoldsdorfer Rundschau (in German). Perchtoldsdorfer, Lower Austria. pp. 4–5. Retrieved 7 May 2020. Article notes that it is a reprint of 26 May 2012 article from Die Presse; however, in a sidebar on page 5 gives information that was not in the original article. It also notes that Wikipedia.de was used as a source, but as neither her father, grandfather, nor the fact that Rupp was orphaned appear in the wp.de article on 7 May 2020, it does not result in wp.en citing wp.de as the source.
  • Lang, B. (1988). "Rupp, Mathilde; Ps. Tilly Bébé (1879-1932), Artistin [Rupp, Mathilde; pseudonym Tilly Bébé (1879-1932), artist]" (PDF). In Obermayer-Marnach, Eva; Santifaller, Leo (eds.). Österreichisches Biographisches Lexikon 1815–1950 [Austrian Biographical Lexicon 1815-1950] (in German). 9. Rázus Martin–Savić Šarko. Vienna: Verlag d. Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften. p. 329. ISBN 978-3-7001-1483-3.
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  • Thétard, Henry (March 1951). "Les reines des fauves" [The Queens of the Fawns] (PDF). Revue des deux mondes (in French). Paris: 325–340. ISSN 0035-1962. Archived from the original (PDF) on 6 May 2020. Retrieved 6 May 2020.
  • "A Girl Among Lions". The Chicago Tribune. Chicago, Illinois. 1 March 1903. p. 44. Retrieved 8 May 2020 – via Newspapers.com.
  • "Am 17. Mai erscheint: Der Sultan von Johore" [Appears on 17 May: The Sultan of Johore]. Neue Kino-Rundschau (in German) (62). Vienna. 11 May 1918. p. 23. Retrieved 7 May 2020.
  • "Auslande" [Abroad]. Westliche Post (in German). St. Louis, Missouri. 30 June 1908. p. 4. Retrieved 9 May 2020 – via Newspapers.com.
  • "Für die gemäß Punkt 6, Absatz 3, der Verordnung der k. k. n. ö. Statthalterei vom 13. Juni 1916..." [For Accord with Point 6, Paragraph 3, of the Ordinance of the K. K. Governor's Office of 13 June 1916...]. Neue Kino-Rundschau (in German) (40). Vienna. 8 December 1917. p. 62. Retrieved 7 May 2020.
  • "Little Tilly Bebe Sleeps with Her Lions". The Spokane Press. Spokane, Washington. 10 March 1903. p. 4. Retrieved 8 May 2020 – via Newspapers.com.
  • "Mlle Tilly Bebe and Some of Her Pet Lions". The Oakland Tribune. Oakland, California. 25 April 1911. p. 12. Retrieved 8 May 2020 – via Newspapers.com.
  • "Miß Tilly Bébé" [Miss Tilly Bébé]. Illustrierte Kronen Zeitung (in German) (4921). Vienna. 13 September 1913. p. 8. Retrieved 7 May 2020.
  • "Raubtiere im Film" [Predators in Film]. Der Filmbote (in German) (41). Vienna. 13 October 1923. pp. 11–12. Retrieved 7 May 2020.
  • "Sarrasani komt naar Nederlands" [Sarrasani Comes to the Netherlands]. De Sumatra Post (in Dutch) (309). Amsterdam. 8 January 1931. p. 10. Retrieved 8 May 2020.
  • "Theater und Varieté" [Theater and Variety]. Das interessante Blatt (in German) (39). Vienna. 25 September 1913. p. 26. Retrieved 7 May 2020.
  • "Tilly Bébé en hare Leeuwen" [Tilly Bébé and her Lions]. De Telegraaf (in Dutch) (3701). Amsterdam. 20 November 1902. p. 2. Retrieved 8 May 2020.
  • "Tilly Bébé: La domadora de leones" [Baby Tilly the Lion Tamer]. La Ilustración artística (in Spanish). Barcelona: La bibliotecha universal ilustrada. XXI (1092): 791. 1 December 1902. Retrieved 6 May 2020.
  • "Uit Scheveningen: Circus Hagenbeek" [From Scheveningen: Circus Hagenbeek]. Het Vaderland (in Dutch) (196). Amsterdam. 17 July 1918. p. 6. Retrieved 8 May 2020.
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  • "Vom Auslande" [From Abroad]. Mississippi Blätter (in German). St. Louis, Missouri. 12 July 1908. p. 31. Retrieved 9 May 2020 – via Newspapers.com.
  • "Wenn das Herz in Haß erglüht" [When the Heart Glows in Hatred]. Der Kinobesitzer (in German) (40). Vienna. 10 June 1918. p. 6. Retrieved 7 May 2020. Article incorrectly identifies Bébé as Lydia, rather than Tilly.

Further reading[edit]

Haerdle, Stephanie (2007). Keine Angst haben, das ist unser Beruf!: Kunstreiterinnen, Dompteusen und andere Zirkusartistinnen [Don't Be Afraid, That's Our Job !: Artistic Riders, Tamers and Other Circus Performers] (in German). Berlin: AvivA. ISBN 978-3-932338-29-8.