Miss Mary Anderson photograph with Lady of Lyons broadside c. 1870

Miss Mary Anderson photograph with Lady of Lyons broadside c. 1870


original photo  4 x 2.5

with advertisement for the play

14 x 5

anderson-m000.jpg - 20kb
Mary Anderson (1859-1940)

Mary Anderson was born in Sacremento, California, on July 28th, 1859 – the daughter of Charles Joseph Anderson and Marie Antoinette Leugers. Her mother was of German descent whilst her father traced his lineage back to England. When Mary was only six months old, the family moved to Louisville in Kentucky. When Mary was only three years old her father was killed at Mobile whilst serving in the Confederate Army, leaving her mother to raise Mary and her elder brother Joseph alone. In 1867, Mary’s mother remarried, to a local doctor Hamilton Griffin who had been a surgeon in the confederate army.

Mary was educated at the Ursuline Convent and the Academy of the Presentation in Louisville and inherited an interest in theatre from her stepfather who was a keen devotee of Shakespeare. Before long Mary was reading Shakespeare and in her early teens announced her ambition to become an actress. To encourage his young charge, Dr Griffin allowed her to give recitals at their home and even arranged for her to have acting, music and elocution lessons in Louisville and in New York.

Mary made her first public stage appearance as ‘Juliet’ at Macauley’s Theatre in Louisville on 27th November 1875, when she was but sixteen years of age. It was a hastily arranged benefit performance for an English actor of the company who had fallen upon hard times. The theatre manager, knowing of Mary’s ambitions, conceived the bold idea of casting the young novice in the lead role if only she could obtain her parents consent. Mary was wild with delight when they agreed and only three days after the proposition was put to her, during which there was time for one rehearsal, Mary took to the stage before a packed house. The following morning the ‘Louisville Courier’ said this of her “…we do not think that any man of judgment who witnessed Miss Anderson’s acting of Juliet, can doubt that she is a great actress. In the latter scenes she interpreted the very spirit and soul of tragedy, and thrilled the whole house into silence by the depth of her passion and her power…We see with but little further training and experience she will stand among the foremost actresses on the stage. We are charmed by her beauty and commanding power, and are justified in predicting great future success.”. Praise indeed for one so young and inexperienced.

Following this success, Mary was engaged to appear at Macaulay’s for a week the following February, in “Phasio”, “The Hunchback” and again as Juliet. After a short engagement at the Opera House in St. Louis, Mary accepted an offer to play in “Evadne” at the failing St. Charles theatre in New Orleans. The first night the house took only 48 dollars, by the end of the week it was standing room only and takings had risen to 500 dollars! That earned her an engagement at The Varieties in New Orleans, playing Meg Merrilies, a part long identified with the great southern actress Charlotte Cushman. This time the press assayed that Mary had outstretched her reach and confidently predicted failure. Mary’s confidence never wavered however, and the first night closed to a rousing ovation. So great was her success, that when the time came to return to Louisville she found to her astonishment that the railway company had provided a special train, complete with luxury carriage, just for her! Almost overnight, the beautiful young girl had become the darling of New Orleans.

After a short period back with her studies, Mary returned to New Orleans for a second successful and profitable engagement. She next appeared in San Francisco where, unaccountably, the press and public were as cruel to her as those in New Orleans had been kind. Mary returned home dispirited and downheartened, but her spirit was indomitable and she soon resolved to start over, taking an engagement with a small band of touring players. Obscurity did not last long however, by the end of the year she had been offered a starring position with John T. Ford’s touring company. As Mary had not yet reached her majority, her mother, step-father and even her brother travelled with her, for which she was no doubt grateful since most of the company, jealous of the prominence given to the untried youngling, refused even to talk to her.

After acheiving great success in the Southern and Western states, Mary made her debut before the more crirical audiences of the Eastern states at Pittsburg, during the furore of the Presidential election in 1880. Soon after, she came to Boston where she was to appear as Evadne in the vast 4000 seat Boston theatre, and where one single day of matinee and evening performance reaped the enormous of 7000 dollars! On 12th November, 1877, she opened for the first time in New York, in “The Lady of Lyons” at the Fifth Avenue Theatre. Again she was a great success, and the engagement was extended from two weeks to six.

The following year she played another season at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, then in the summer of 1879 embarked on her first visit to Europe. The trip was essentially a pilgrimage, she did not yet dream she was good enough to appear on the stages of Europe, the cradle of the craft she loved so well. In England she visited Stratford-upon-Avon to kneel by Shakespeare’s grave, whilst in Paris she met and conversed with Sarah Bernhardt at the Theatre Francaise. Back in America, the next few years brought successful tours of the USA and Canada.

Twice she turned down invitations to appear in London before finally accepting an engagement to play ‘Parthenia’ in “Ingomar” at the Lyceum opening on 18th September, 1883. Unusually, she was stricken with nerves and almost overcome with dread of failure, but on first night she found her dressing room bedecked with floral offerings and telegrams of support from greatest actors from both sides of the Atlantic. The warmth with which she was received when the curtain rose dispelled any last fears and again she was a brilliant success. The theatre-goers of London flocked to see her and night after night she played to a full house. During one of those early performances she received a note from the Prince and Princess of Wales that they wished to be introduced to her, and so duly at the end of the third act on her stepfather’s arm she presented herself in the anteroom of the royal box. Their highnesses were so taken with her beauty that they recommended her as a model to Count Gleichen, an accomplished sculptor. Whilst in London she developed a close friendship with Lord Lytton and had dinner with Tennyson.

When she toured the provinces she set new records for receipts at many of the theatres at which she played, and met with such success in England that she remained for some five years. W.S. Gilbert wrote “Comedy and Tragedy” especially for her (opening at the Lyceum on 26th January, 1884) and in 1887 toured in “A Winter’s Tale”, in which she was the first actress to double in the parts of ‘Perdita’ and ‘Hermoine’. Returning to the USA in November 1888, she produced “A Winters Tale” at Palmer’s Theatre in New York, repeating her success in England. The following March however, she fell gravely ill from nervous exhaustion, which forced her to disband her company and cancel all her upcoming engagements.

In April 1889 she returned to Europe to rest and recuperate, and was never again seen on the professional stage. On June 17th, 1890, she married Antonio F. de Navarro at St. Mary’s Chapel, Holly Place, Hempstead in England. The couple then settled at Court Farm, Broadway in Worcestershire where they raised two sons. Many theatrical managers tried to persuade Mary to return to the stage, but all to no avail. In 1896, prominent editor and publicist Edward Bok prevailed on Mary to write the first instalment of her memoirs, “A Few Memories”, and later she co-operated with Robert Hichens in co-authoring the play-script of his book “The Garden of Allah”. Just before the outbreak of the Great War she revisited her homeland to assist in the staging of that play, and during the war made a few charitable appearances, the only occasions on which she returned to the stage. In 1936 she published her second volume of memoirs, “A Few More Memories”. Mary died at her home in Worcestershire on 29th May, 1940 (eight years after the death of her husband).

At the height of her career she was the most prominent actress in the USA and one of the leading lights in England also. Despite her fame and success, she never forogt her origins and throughout her career was reknowned for her generosity to those less fortunate than herself. One christmas, whilst in london, when she learned that funds were lacking to provide a christmas dinner for the waifs and strays of Seven Dials she reached into her own pocket to provide an old-fashioned English dinner for three hundred underprivileged children. Today, she is remembered in the USA through the work of the Mary Anderson Center for the Arts, which is located at Mount St. Francis, a Franciscan Friary and Retreat Center, on lands which Mary donated to the friars.

During her career, Mary was known for the great power she possessed over the lower tones of her rich voice. She was, undoubtedly, a great actress, and one of the greatest tragediennes ever to appear on the stage.

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