Did you know the classic 1921 Tin Pan Alley song “Peggy O’Neil” was about a real person? She was a stage and screen star in both the U.S. and U.K., although dividing her time between both nations and both media may ultimately be what prevented her from building a lasting legacy.
Born in Tipperary in 1898, O’Neil immigrated with her family to Buffalo as a baby and was orphaned at a young age. She was raised in a convent in Niagara Falls, and began a stage career starting around age 12 in Chicago. In 1913 she starred in eight films for the Philadelphia based Lubin Manufacturing Company. In 1914 she was cast as the lead in the Chicago edition of the Broadway hit Peg O’ My Heart, in the Laurette Taylor role. It ran six months. This brought her to Broadway, where she starred in The Flame (1916), By Pigeon Post (1918), Tumble In (1919) and the Shubert Gaities of 1919, with an interlude to appear in the film The Penny Philanthropist (1917) with Ralph Morgan. She was a striking looker, and also got lots of modelling work in print ads and the like. She plays artists models in the films Old Dutch (1915) and The Sleep of Cyma Roget (1920).
Her greatest stage success came in the the 1920 West End show Paddy The Next Best Thing, which played 850 performances — a run of over two years. This was followed by another London show called Mercenary Mary. It was during her London period when someone (presumably a spurned admirer, or just a nut case) attempted to murder her with a gift of arsenic-laden chocolates. She was indeed poisoned, but managed to survive the ordeal.
She returned to Hollywood to star in comedy shorts for Jack White, Mack Sennett and others from 1923 to 1926, opposite Lige Conley, Cliff Bowes, et al. There were a couple of dozen of these. There followed supporting parts in two features The Non-Stop Flight and The Checkered Flag, both 1926. She is quite far down in the billing in both of these. Then she returned to Broadway for The Ziegfeld Follies of 1927. That was essentially the end of her American career.
She then returned to London, the site of her previous triumphs, but outside of an early experimental television broadcast, she didn’t have much luck at getting back into the limelight. She continued to perform in nightclubs, but with nothing like her previous success. By the ’30s and the Depression she was broke, and was even busted in 1942 for shoplifting. She was wheelchair-bound and crippled when she died in 1960.
Want to learn more about Peggy O’Neil? Read my friend The Madcap Heiress, she’ll give ya the scoop, with lots of pictures besides!
To learn more about early stage history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on comedy shorts please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.