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Billie Burke

Biography: 

(1885-1970)

Comedienne Billie Burke, the second wife of Florenz Ziegfeld, was the child of an heiress and a singing clown. Red-haired, tempestuous, and thoroughly schooled in all the arts and graces of the stage to suit her mother's ambition that she be a star, Billie Burke debuted in 1903 as a teenage singer and was a sensation. Producer Charles Frohman made her a protege, starring her in a series of light plays in which her girlish charm and quick wit, and her feigned English accent could communicate high-toned frivolity.

On New Year's Eve 1913, Burke encountered Florenz Ziegfeld at a ball and their extraordinary romance began, despite the opposition of everyone associated with either party. They eloped in 1914 and produced their only child, Patricia, in 1916, while a disgruntled Frohman managed her career. Frohman's death permitted Ziegfeld to direct his wife's career, and he encouraged her entry into movies. She was remarkably successful as a screen performer, voted the public's favorite actress in 1922.

She returned to the stage when anxieties about her husband's philandering compelled her to stay in New York. She bailed her husband out financially in one crisis and struggled after his death in 1932 to clear his debts, even selling the Follies to her husband's long time enemies, the Schuberts.

Now remembered by most people for her role as good witch Glinda in "The Wizard of Oz," Burke enjoyed four decades of success as an ingenue and character actress on the stage, and as a featured actress in movies. She was the first major actress to undertake a regular physical training regimen, working with Indian clubs & speed walking five miles a day. In the late 1910s and early 1920s only Mary Pickford's image was more ubiquitous in American magazines. David S. Shields/ALS