Today is the birthday of Mrs. Leslie Carter (Caroline Louise Dudley, 1857-1937).
The daughter of a wealthy dry goods merchant, she married Chicago lawyer Leslie Carter in 1880. Since girlhood she had harbored theatrical ambitions, but neither her straightlaced father nor her traditional husband would permit her to pursue them. She did anyway, resulting in a protracted and ugly divorce from her husband in 1889. Out of spite, she continued to use his name professionally.
The vivacious redhead began acting on Broadway in 1890. Midway through the decade, she became a sensation in several popular David Belasco productions: The Heart of Maryland (1895), Zaza (1899), DuBarry (1901), and Adrea (1905). Such was her fame that she was known during these years as “the American Sarah Bernhardt” and “the first star of the 20th century”.
In 1906, she married actor Louis Payne, broke with Belasco, and began touring with playlets in vaudeville. This was to be the main pillar of her career for the next quarter century, with occasional self-produced forays back onto Broadway. By 1910, her old-fashioned acting style (which had been a sensation only a few years before) was considered passe on Broadway. It went over just fine with vaudeville audiences, who were glad for a chance to see the famous socialite and star.
In 1915, she made silent movie versions of her earlier stage triumphs DuBarry and The Heart of Maryland. They weren’t big enough hits to ignite a film career. Her last Broadway part was in the ensemble of a brief run of She Stoops to Conquer in 1928.
She essentially retired after that, although she did take two small film roles in 1935: in the Randolph Scott western Rocky Mountain Mystery and in the screen adaptation of Becky Sharp. In 1940, a film about her life was released called The Lady with Red Hair, starring Miriam Hopkins.
To learn more about vaudeville and touring actors like Mrs. Leslie Carter, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever great books are sold.