Monday, July 5, 2010

Lily Elsie, le Belle Epoque Beauty no.3 in my series Beauties of le Belle Epoque

Lily Elsie had a flawless face, true perfection in my estimation. She was one of the most photographed women of le Belle Epoque. She was born Elsie Hodder on April 8, 1886 in Leeds, Yorkshire, England. On her birth certificate, her mother, Elizabeth Hodder, was listed as a dressmaker. There was no father recorded. Then in 1891 her mother married William Cotton and Elsie took the Cotton name at that time. William Cotton gave his occupation as a theatrical baggage master. By the 1901 census Elizabeth Cotton the dressmaker was listed as an actress. Elsie herself began acting as a child and soon the precocious yet painfully shy child became known as Little Elsie in the world of music hall and theatrical entertainment. She traveled from theater to theater throughout England as she grew starring in many popular shows of the period including, The Arabian Nights, Little Red Riding Hood,  King Klondike,  as Aerielle, the Spirit of the Air, McKenna's Flirtation, Dick Whittington, The Forty Thieves, Blue Beard, The Silver Slipper and the Three Little Maids. From about 1900 she adopted the name "Lily Elsie", not too different from her previous Little Elsie. Having grown into a beautiful young woman, Elsie joined a company at Daley's Theater in London as a chorus girl. Soon she was acting again appearing in fourteen musicals from 1900 to 1906.

Real success did not come to Elsie until she appeared in the starring role in The Merry Widow at the operetta's London premiere in June 1907. The hit show ran for 778 performances at Daley's Theater. The show was a triumph as was Lily Elsie. Overnight she had become a legend. Her face was soon featured on many products  and advertisements from chocolate and biscuit tins to cosmetics. Magazines produced special supplements about her. Clothing designers sold more when their garments were associated with Miss Lily Elsie. Every fashionable woman of the time wanted the plumed hats she wore in The Merry Widow so much so that they became an extraordinary fad. After The Merry Widow, Elsie appeared in 16 more shows always receiving many accolades.

Many of the most prominent, wealthy would-be suitors, mostly from the nobility of London, were met with a casual and elusive disinterest that just fueled her beguiling sense of mystery and nevertheless, did not stop them from sending her the most exquisite gifts of jewelry emblazoned in diamonds and rubies and more. Elsie was quoted as saying, "I have never been fool enough to give my heart to one of them, and so they think it must be worth having!" and "I'm always rude to men. And the ruder I am the more they like me!"

After just a few short years of fame, Elsie married Major Ian Bullough, the twenty-six year old son of a millionaire textile manufacturer in November 1911 and relished spending time out of the public eye. She did return to the stage periodically for roles in Malvourneen, The Admiral Chrichton, and Pamela. She appeared in 2 films, in 1918 a cameo in The Great Love with Lillian Gish, and in 1919 in the silent movie Comradeship. Then in 1920 she and her husband moved to a village in Gloucestershire for a number of years away from the stage enjoying social events and fox hunting. In 1927 she appeared in The Blue Train and in 1928 her last show, The Truth Game. Her health was said to have been poor throughout her life and she reportedly had several operations during her life on stage. She found the eight performances a week of The Merry Widow especially grueling and found excuses for not appearing in matinees. She was said to have become "difficult". Speculation exists about possible problems with anemia and/or an early onset menopause at age 22. Her husband had problems with alcoholism. She and her husband divorced in 1930.

In her later years she was said to have become a hypochondriac and spent much of her time in nursing homes and Swiss sanatoria. She was said to have become so quarrelsome that even her most devote supporters left her. Luckily, she had the finances to be cared for in style for the rest of her life. Her mental health seriously deteriorated to the point that she underwent brain surgery, a frontal lobotomy, a practice common at the time but since then considered barbaric. She spent the last two years of her life living at St. Andrew's Hospital in London happy in her anonymity. She died December 16, 1962 at age 76 of heart failure and bronchopneumonia.

You have now seen 3 of my Belle Epoque beauties. Does anyone have a favorite so far? Evelyn Nesbit? Lina Cavalieri? Or Lily Elsie?


  1. Another wonderful biography, Maureen. I really enjoy these! Don't think I can pick 1 favorite though.

    In some of the photos she reminds me of the actress Rachel Weisz (something in the nose & eyes I think)

  2. Well the hats have me hooked on your story and photos of Lily, and my Mother used to play a music box with the Merry Widow Waltz, brings back such fond memories for me. So what can I say, not the best reasons but I've so enjoyed reading everyone of your le Belle Epoque articles, so I really love them all!

  3. Rachel Weiz and a little bit of Kate Winslet too.

  4. My personal favorite!
    greetings from Holland!
    with love,

  5. Very interesting. Thank you I enjoyed this very much.


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