Bessie Marbury: Social Trailblazer

Elisabeth “Bessie” Marbury (1856-1933) is an important cultural figure for you to know about, for about a dozen different reasons. She was an important New York literary agent and theatrical producer who helped establish the framework of the Broadway system as we now recognize it. She did all this not only as a woman, but as what we would now call an out lesbian.

Bessie was from a New York Society family, a descendant of Rhode Island co-founder and religious leader Anne (Marbury) Hutchinson. (I am thus distantly related to her; I am descended from Anne’s sister Katherine Marbury Scott.) It was through her society activities that Bessie began dabbling in amateur theatricals and met her longtime companion Elsie de Wolfe, America’s first interior designer. She began serious theatrical activities in the mid 1880s. An early client (1888) was Frances Hodgson Burnett. She later went on to represent Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Clyde Fitch, Victorien Sardou, Georges Feydeau, Edmond Rostand, James M. Barrie, and on the performance end of things Vernon and Irene Castle (it was she who introduced the Castles to society, sparking Castlemania). She also promoted work of many Harlem Renaissance artists.

In 1888, her book Manners: A Handbook of Social Customs was published. Her play Merry Gotham was produced by Daniel Frohman in 1892.

In 1903, Marbury, de Wolfe, Anne Tracy Morgan (daughter of J. Pierpont Morgan) , and Anne Harriman Vanderbilt established the Colony Club, New York’s first woman’s social club.

Marbury began producing on Broadway in the mid teens, starting with several of Jerome Kern’s Princess Theatre musicals and Cole Porter’s first musical See America First (1916), which featured another distant relative of mine in the chorus. 

Marbury’s homes were fashionable gathering spots. She first lived with de Wolfe at the former Washington Irving house, near Gramercy Park, between 1892 and 1911. In the early 1920s they moved to what became Sutton Place, followed by Morgan and Vanderbilt, transforming the neighborhood to the fashionable enclave it remains. In 1923 Marbury wrote her memoir My Crystal Ball: Remiscences. In 1926, de Wolfe married Sir Charles Mendl, but quickly returned to Marbury. Meanwhile, de Wolfe’s brother, Edgar de Wolfe, married the young lady who became Rambova (a.k.a. Mrs. Valentino), which is what initially sent me down this fascinating rabbit hole.

Unusual for someone of her class, Marbury became a Democrat and an enthusiastic, involved Roman Catholic convert.

Marbury’s last theatrical credit was a 1930 Broadway production of Electra. She passed away in 1933. I’ve only told a tiny portion of this remarkable woman’s life. Feel free to research her on your own!