Between 1886 and 1890 Elsie Leslie [Elsie Leslie Lyde], a New Jersey girl born into a family with no theatrical pretensions, redefined the position of child actress in American theatre. A winsome blonde who at seven was a skilled junior horsewoman, an expert fencer, a talented graphic artist, and a nimble dancer, Elsie Leslie became a first rank star on the basis of the roles she created in three plays: "Editha's Burglar," "Little Lord Fauntleroy," and "The Prince and the Pauper."
While Lotta Crabtree of an earlier generation had established the ingenue repertoire in the United States, portraying a host of young ladies in their early teens, Elsie Leslie presented children between the ages of eight and eleven: the smart imaginative Editha, and a host of young boys including Fauntleroy, poor Tom Canty, and the Prince of Wales. She made all three plays riveting and established two of them firmly in the enduring repertoire of child-centered entertainments.
Discovered by Joseph Jefferson, and used as Little Meenie in "Rip Van Winkle," Leslie was hired by Daniel Frohman, who had playwright Augustus Thomas craft a family-friendly play for the Christmas season using as its basis a story that appeared in St. Nicholas magazine, "Editha's Burglar." Someone suggested they see Elsie Leslie; they did and looked no further. Her success exceeded every expectation and prompted Frohman to stage both "Little Lord Fauntleroy" and the stage adaptation of Mark Twain's "The Prince and the Pauper." In 1890 during the celebrated tour of "The Prince and the Pauper," Elsie Leslie began her growth spurt, which altered her physicality so suddenly and drastically that her parents insisted that she should take a hiatus from the stage, finish her education, and reenter the profession when she felt ready. This happened late in 1896.
From ages seventeen to twenty she served as leading lady in Joseph Jefferson's company starring in "The Cricket on the Hearth" and repertory staples such as "The Rivals." She left that company when given the opportunity to replace Viola Allen in the role of Glory Quayle in the hit "The Christian" in 1901. During her successful run, she married Jefferson "Percy" Winter, son of William Winter the great dramatic critic, occasioning a hiatus on stage that lasted until 1907 when she came under the management of Walter N. Lawrence and created the part of Nell Longacre in "The Man on the Case." Its lack of success postponed her full installation into Broadway life until 1910 when she replaced Laurette Taylor in "Alias Jimmy Valentine," and then appeared in "Disreali" (1911) in support of George Arlis at Wallack's Theatre.
Despite her success, Elsie Leslie had grown dissatisfied with her own work and the conduct of theater in general. She retired, divorced Percy Winter, remarried and spent the remainder of her life in world travel. David S. Shields/ALS