Julia Marlowe: National Treasure

Today we pay homage for one of the biggest stage stars of hers or any time, Julia Marlowe (Sarah Frances Frost, 1865-1950).

Marlowe was born in Cumberland, England. The legend is that her father fled to the States with their family for fear of reprisals after he’d blinded someone with a horsewhip. After moving about a bit, they finally settled in Cincinnati, a river town with a flourishing theatre scene. Her father changed the family surname to Brough. Her first professional name was Fanny Brough. She was only 13 when she made her debut in a production Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore. She continued to study voice and gain stage experience with a focus on Shakespeare in Cincinnati, touring the Northeast by the end of the decade.

In 1894 Marlowe married fellow actor Robert Taber, a veteran of the companies of Helena Modjeska, Richard Mansfield, and Augustin Daly. each had attained star status at this point, and they paired off in productions in which they co-star. They brought King Henry IV, Part 1 to Broadway in 1895, the first of Marlowe’s over 70 Broadway appearances. In 1896 they toured with The Rivals, a production which also featured Joseph Jefferson and Louisa Lane Drew. They returned to Broadway in the original production of For Bonnie Prince Charlie (1897). But they were competitive with each other, not a good basis for marriage, and they separated in 1899, divorcing the following year. Taber moved to London where he acted with the likes of Mrs. Patrick Campbell and Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree for a couple of years before coming down with pleurisy. Marlowe bought him a cottage in the Adirondacks in which to convalesce but he died there in 1904.

By that time she had begun her second and most successful partnership, this one with E.H. Sothern. After starring the original productions of Clyde Fitch’s Barbara Frietchie (1899-1900) and the stage adaptation of Charles Major’s When Knighthood Was in Flower (1900, 1904), Marlowe and Sothern paired off in popular Shakespeare productions on Broadway and elsewhere for the next 20 years, only occasionally appearing in contemporary plays such as Percy Mackaye’s Jeanne d’Arc. The couple were married in 1911. Initially they were managed by Charles Frohman, later by the Shubert Brothers.

Marlowe retired in 1924, citing ill health, at the relatively young age of 59. Going down the jaw-dropping list of productions she starred in, and all the work and travel that entailed, one can only conclude that she was exhausted and deserved a rest. What is unfortunate is that, though she lived another quarter century, well into the age of modern recording arts, she left very little record of her genius. She appeared in no movies, and didn’t do radio. Fortunately she and Sothern did make some records for Victor 1920-21. It’s a crude medium, but it’s all we’ve got. You can hear some of them on Youtube. Marlowe was 85 when she shuffled off the mortal coil.

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous