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Jeffreys Lewis

Biography: 

(1853-1926)

A British actress who came to America in 1873 as a member of the Lyceum Company in New York, Jeffreys Lewis enjoyed a decade of popularity on both coasts of the United States, playing with Manhattan's two great theatrical impresario's Lester Wallack and Augustin Daly. Her debut role, Esmerelda in "Notre Dame," provoked the following observation by a dramatic critic: "Miss Lewis evinces cool intelligence and correct training rather than a flow of natural emotion. She captivates more by her personal appearance than her acting or her voice."

In an age when Clara Morris was making the spasm a hallmark of sincerity on stage, Lewis employed understatement as an alternative mode of performing. Her other chief roles during her initial engagement were as Desdemona in "Othello" and Parthenia in "Ingomar, the Barbarian." While in New York she learned the role of Clara Douglas in "Money," presenting it in February of 1874. By the end of the run of "Money" critics concurred that Jeffreys Lewis was a "clever artiste of very limited talents, lacking both the strength and the range of ability to supply that house with a leading lady."

When Wallack shuttered the Theatre in June he advised that Lewis join the "Great Star Company" and secure more experience over the summer on the West Coast; she next appeared at the Maguire's New Theatre in San Francisco in Victor Hugo's "Ruy Blas." Californians favored Lewis's manner more than New Yorkers, and she cemented their popularity in "School." Her West Coast season finished with "Lady of Lyons," another marked success.

On the strength of her California showing, Wallack reengaged her for the 1874-75 season, but hired Ada Dyas from Daly's company to cover the more demanding lead roles. Lewis's pronounced success of the season was in Dion Boucicault's "The Shaugraun." Augustin Daly paid Wallack back by hiring Jeffreys Lewis for his company in fall of 1875, and it was while with Daly that "Jeff," as she became known, matured as an actress, making a powerful impression in Daly's 1875-76 hit "Pique."

In 1878 Lewis became an star, spending substantial time on the West Coast and touring Australia and Europe, periodically teaming with other performers, such as McKee Rankin, before returning to being an actress-manager. Her hits - "Diplomacy," "La Belle Russe," "Forget me Not" - were sufficiently lustrous to propel her career into the 20th century. As she aged, she made the transition to matrons and aunts in good grace, only regretting that the hefty adventuress characters popular in the 1870s had vanished by the 1890s. David S. Shields/ALS