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July 10, 2021

Lillian Russell: One of the Most Famous Actresses and Singers of the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries

Born 1861 as Helen Louise Leonard in Clinton, Iowa, American actress and singer Lillian Russell was known for her beauty and style, as well as for her voice and stage presence. She began to perform professionally by 1879, singing for Tony Pastor and playing roles in comic opera, including Gilbert and Sullivan works.

Composer Edward Solomon created roles in several of his comic operas for her in London. In 1884, they returned to New York and married in 1885, but in 1886, Solomon was arrested for bigamy. For many years, she was the foremost singer of operettas and musical theatre in the United States, performing continuously through the end of the 19th century.

In 1899, Russell joined the Weber and Fields’ Music Hall, where she starred for five years. After 1904, she began to have vocal difficulties and switched to dramatic roles. She later returned to musical roles in vaudeville and retired from performing around 1919.

Russell was married four times, but her longest relationship was with Diamond Jim Brady, who supported her extravagant lifestyle for four decades. In later years, she wrote a newspaper column, advocated women’s suffrage, was a popular lecturer, and contributed to the passage of the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924.

Russell died in 1922 at the age of 60. Take a look at these vintage photos to see the beauty of young Lillian Russell in the late 19th century.


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