This is one of a series of posts in honor of Women’s History Month. Our guest blogger today is Anne Boucher. Anne is a fan of early 20th century entertainment who became an independent vaudeville researcher after stumbling on some Nat M. Wills recordings and becoming instantly smitten. She hopes to one day learn what became of La Belle Titcomb.
In a profession in which self-promotion, youthful good looks, and continuous reinvention have always been paramount, Heloise McCeney, a/k/a La Belle Titcomb, was a master of her art. Born January 19, 1876 in Washington, D.C., she spent part of her youth in the San Francisco bay area following a family relocation. After a brief marriage to and divorce from San Francisco dentist Charles Titcomb, she took to the stage as a showgirl before going abroad and working around the world as a photographic model, entertainer, and beauty queen, winning beauty contests in multiple countries. On her return to the U.S., she initially claimed to be Spanish, South American, or French, and barely able to speak English, going so far as to affect an accent. Reporters who remembered her from her showgirl days often busted her for this, and eventually she was forced to stop.
Not content to be a simple singing act, she hit on a winning gimmick: her act consisted of performing songs and dances in a revealing white outfit atop a white stallion while colored lights and lantern slides created special effects. She sometimes got less than stellar reviews for her singing ability, and she particularly irritated a reviewer who took exception to her use of the American flag as the background for a cape that transformed into a dress train, as the flag then touched the ground. But she generally received positive reviews and was consistently a headliner and successful vaudeville performer.
Heloise married vaudeville, stage, and recording star Nat M. Wills in 1910 a mere ten days after obtaining a quickie divorce from the entertainingly named Waine Weinerbet. After a working honeymoon abroad, the couple toured on the vaudeville circuit until Wills became entangled with a Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl following his appearance in the 1913 show. In early 1914 Wills sued Heloise for an annulment, citing Illinois divorce law as prohibiting Heloise from marrying him so soon after her divorce. No doubt stung by the infidelity, Heloise fought back, requesting substantial alimony, even having Wills served with an order for arrest that cost him $3,500 in bail and a night of house arrest. Newspaper reports insinuate that the marriage was not the happiest, and Wills was quoted at the time as saying “I should have married the horse.” Wills ultimately got his divorce, remarried, and became a father in short order. The alimony battle continued until Wills’ untimely death from carbon monoxide poisoning in 1917.
After the divorce and Wills’ death, Heloise toured as a headliner of a (horseless) revue for a few years, but by the early 1920s she had reinvented herself as “Zorondo La Bella,” a Mexican soprano with a new gimmick: transforming her stage costumes in full view of the audience. Passport records show that she toured all over the world with this new act, but no real records of her after 1925 have yet been found by this researcher.
It’s a shame there were no paparazzi in the early 20th century, as Heloise could have been a tabloid staple. She caused minor scandals abroad, including horseback riding around London in a revealing, low-cut gown, the sight of which is reported to have caused Winston Churchill to fall off his horse. She became part of a group of “theatrical” women who partied with infamous Russian playboy Grand Duke Boris Vladimirovich. Long before Mick Jagger experimented with gemstones on his teeth, Heloise sported a diamond as a filling in an upper front tooth. A bizarre detail in a New York Times article from 1914 claims that Heloise had had her pet horse stuffed and placed in the hallway of her home, where it was used as a hat rack. No stickler for facts, over the course of five years or so she managed to shave a full ten years off her age, even giving her revised birthdate on official documents such as passport applications. One can only dream of what she could have done with today’s plastic surgery. At any rate, she will always be an American original.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.