Maxine Elliott: The Beauty as Builder

Theatre is ephemeral. We often think of architecture as it’s opposite, the most enduing form of human expression, but here is a reminder that it, too, is temporary at best. I’d long known the name Maxine Elliott only in the context of the Broadway theatre that bore her name. Opening in 1908, Maxine Elliott’s was the site of the American premieres of Synge’s Riders to the Sea and The Playboy of the Western World; Noel Coward’s Hay Fever; Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Wife; Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour; and Brecht’s Galileo. Cole Porter’s first musical See America First premiered there. And the Federal Theatre Project produced plays there; it’s where Orson Welles‘ put on Horse Eats Hat and Dr. Faustus, and was supposed to put on The Cradle Will Rock (in a famous theatrical anecdote, its doors were closed to him just prior to opening night; the company made the show go on at another theatre in a bare bones version which we won’t digress to tell today). In 1941 The Elliott became a radio studio; in 1948, it converted to television. It’s where the earliest live broadcasts of The Ed Sullivan Show originated. The building was finally demolished in 1960.

A lot of theatre and broadcast history happened at Maxine Elliott’s. But who’s this Maxine Elliott, when she’s at ‘ome? Turns out amusingly that this immortal name was a pseudonym, adopted as the stage name of one Jessie Dermott (1868-1940), the daughter of a Maine sea captain. She briefly attended Notre Dame Academy, a convent school in Roxbury, Massachusetts, but had to leave at age 15 when she was impregnated by a man named George MacDermott, over a decade her senior. The cloud has a silver lining, though; MacDermott brought her to New York City. She divorced him in 1889 (he was abusive), took the name Maxine Elliott and began studying acting with Dion Boucicault. She made her debut in a play called The Middleman in 1890, followed by several years of touring, then a quarter century of stardom on Broadway in nearly two dozen productions.

Some notable moments: In 1894 she appeared with Harry Davenport in The Voyage of Suzette. In 1895 Augustin Daly hired her to support Ada Rehan in The Heart of Ruby; they appeared together again in The Transit of Leo later that year. In 1896 she met popular actor Nat C. Goodwin on a trip to Australia. In 1898 they married, and Elliott became his co-star for awhile in such plays as Nathan Hale (1899) and The Cowboy and the Lady (1899-1900), the latter of which became 1938 film with Gary Cooper and Merle Oberon. She made a splash (and a pile of dough) as Portia in The Merchant of Venice in 1901 (Goodwin was Shylock). She got top billing in the appropriately titled Her Own Way (1903), which then transferred to London in 1905, where she is said to have had a liaison with King Edward VII. 

Assistance from J.P. Morgan allowed her to grow her wealth many times over. She divorced Goodwin and opened her own theatre in 1908. Thereafter she produced her own vehicles. Elliott was a great beauty; it was the making of her fame and fortune. Other men she was said to have been involved with included heavyweight champ James J. Corbett, and baseball star John Montgomery Ward (she was named as correspondent in his divorce from Helen Dauvray.) She began dating tennis champion Anthony Wilding (15 years her junior) in 1913 and was due to marry him but he was killed in the trenches two years later while fighting in France. Elliott retired for a time to assist in the war effort.

Elliott starred in five silent films: Slim Driscoll, Samaritan (1913); A Doll for the Baby (1913); From Dusk to Dawn (1913): Fighting Odds (1917); and The Eternal Magdalene (1919). Her last performance was in the play Trimmed in Scarlet (1920), which featured a young Sidney Blackmer. 

Elliott was 52 years old when she retired. In 1932 she built a modernist villa in the South of France called the château de L’Horizon, designed by Barry Dierks. It became a magnet for society. Winston Churchill was a frequent guest during the years when he was out of power, and is said to have had his affair with Doris Catlerosse there. Lloyd George, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and Noel Coward were also among the frequent visitors during Elliott’s lifetime. After she died in 1940, the place was rented by American millionaire couple Norman and Rosita Winston, who continued its life as social gathering spot. In 1948 it was purchased by Prince Ali Khan, who held his wedding reception to Rita Hayworth there the following year. In 1979, the villa was acquired by King Fahd of Saudi Arabia; it continues to be owned by the Saudi royal family to this day.

Such interesting bookends to her life and this essay! Begins on the rocky coast of Maine, ends at the French Riviera. Her first husband was over ten years years her senior; her last fiance, 15 years her junior. And we go from Maxine Elliott’s Theatre to the château de L’Horizon. Ah, architecture, ah, symmetry!