Frances Vining Davenport was born in London of a transatlantic theatrical family. Her father Edward Loomis Davenport was an actor of the first rank. Her stage education took place in Boston and in Augustin Daly's Stock Company. In 1869 at the Fifth Avenue Theater in New York City, she won a reputation for comedy in classic repertoire. Lady Gay Spanker in "London Assurance" was her first signature role. She could play classic repertory and contemporary roles with equal ease, and her Nancy Sykes in "Oliver Twist" and Mabel Renfrew in "Pique" were regarded as triumphs of character creation.
In 1877 Davenport became an independent player contracting for lead roles among producers. Distressed at the piecemeal quality of her hires, she organized her own company and added to her fame in dramas by Dumas and Sardou ("Tosca" and "Cleopatra")--"Feodora" was generally regarded as the masterwork of "star" period. As a producer she became known for her lavish stagings of plays, her attention to detail, and her concern for the dramatic arc of the whole play. Her direction often restrained performers from over-emoting early in plays in order to build to a proper climax. Her memory remained vivid at the dawn of the 20th century, a professional standard against which aspiring actresses measured themselves. David S. Shields/ALS