A post in celebration of Women’s History Month.
Wowsa! This one’s a labor of love, one of the few posts on this site that’s nearly all primary research. That’s of necessity; there ain’t nothin’ on her by way of an online article — ’til now! I’ve managed to assemble her story, mostly from references in digitized newspapers. I think it’s fairly accurate.
Vaudeville encyclopediast Anthony Slide lists Carrie Swain as one of the first female acrobats in variety. She was that indeed, but she was much more. She was also one of the first women in the country to have her own theatre company. She tumbled, yes, but as a kind of enhancement of her performances as an actress. She was also what they called back then a “Protean Actress” (another euphemism for Principal Boy, or male drag.) She also performed in blackface**, sang (reportedly with a rough sort of belt) and danced. She also became a millionaire. The story gets even wilder, and you can imagine the thrill of putting it together piece by piece.
Born in Baden Baden, Germany in 1863, Caroline Wisler moved to Philadelphia with her family when she was very young. At age 9 her father died, and her step-mother brought her to San Francisco, where only a few months later she was cast in a production of Coriolanus. Her career upon the stage proceeded from there. By 1882 she was back in Philly, where a young Eddie Foy joined the company run by herself and her new husband Sam Swain. Somewhere in there, she and Swain split up and Carrie began touring with her own company, playing in cities like Philly, New York and the towns of New England. The company’s repertoire included shows called Jack-in-the-Box; Cad, the Tom Boy (in which she played the title character); and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which she was Topsy. As we have said, SOMERSAULTS were said to have been the key to all these performances. In Carrie’s own words, “I been gymnastisizin’ ever since I can remember”. Now, that’s the kind of acting I like to see.
Somewhere long about 1887 in London she hooked up with a gentleman (I use the term loosely) named Frank Gardner, who became her manager and (apparently) common-law husband. (More on that in a bit). Gardner seems to have abandoned an existing wife and children and run off with Carrie to Australia — where they made a fortune, first with a smash hit tour of Australia and New Zealand, and then by investing in mines, which made them millionaires.
By 1903, they had had been living in Paris for some time and separated. Gardner had told her that he was still married to the first wife and that prosecution for bigamy was a possibility. She obligingly returned to San Francisco for a time (with 32 trunks, the local paper breathlessly reported), only to learn that Gardner’s real motive was to shack up with a third “wife”. (Fortunately, Carrie’s share of the millions was in her own name). By the following year, Gardner had gone bankrupt, thanks to several shady investment schemes, some of which seem to have been race horses. In 1905 they were all in court in Paris, trying to sort out this whole “three wives” mess, and who owed whom what money.
At any rate, RootsWeb has Carrie dying in Paris in 1944. I’d like to blame it on Vichy or the Nazis or something, but the woman was 81, so it was probably natural. I have not learned how she spent her last four decades, although people who have millions of dollars have been known to do very little for even longer periods of time.
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.