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Maxine Elliott

Biography: 

(1868-1940)

An arrestingly beautiful brunette with a ferocious will to power, an admirable financial acumen, and an altruistic streak that led to the selfless sacrifice of much of her fortune in 1915-18 aiding Belgian families displaced by war, Maxine Elliott was one of the more remarkable personalities of the early 20th century theater. According to her niece Diana Forbes-Robertson, she was seduced, impregnated and forced into an unwanted marriage at age 15. The loss of the baby by miscarriage and the disaffection of her husband fueled passions that would later receive vent on the stage. After divorce, she determined to appear on the stage, went to an acting school affiliated with Dion Boucicault, and only after great exertion secured a minor place acting with W.S. Willard in 1889.

Over the course of three years Elliott worked her way from a minor supporting actress to the leading part, Beatrice Selwyn, in "A Fool's Paradise." By 1892 numbers of persons had declared her the most beautiful woman in New York, enabling her to secure places in acting troupes that expanded her range of roles. In A.M. Palmer's Company she performed in J.M. Barrie's "The Professor's Love Story" (1892). With Rose Coghlan she played in Oscar Wilde's "A Woman of No Importance" (1894), Sardou's "Diplomacy," and "Forget-me-Not." In winter of 1895 she secured a place in Augustin Daly's extraordinary company at the 5th Avenue Theatre. Daly expended a good deal of energy refining Elliott's stage technique, developing her love of contemporary literature, and suggesting how to live an artistic, experimental, yet sane life. He probably is responsible for triggering the acquisitive desires that governed much of her twenties and thirties. Her greatest gift from Daly was an ability to perform comic roles.

Elliott stayed one year with Daly, a period she remembered with fondness until her death, before venturing out on her own in a Sydney Rosenfeld production, "The House of Cards" (1896). Elliott's volcanic temper turned on Rosenfeld when the financing of the venture collapsed. She signed on with the Frawley Stock Company, headed west, played San Francisco, but a month into her engagement was persuaded by Nat Goodwin to make an Australian tour in "The Prisoner of Zenda." Smitten with Elliott, Goodwin trumped up charges of intemperance against his wife and sought a divorce in the California courts. Mrs. Goodwin contested and the Good/Elliott romance became newspaper fodder. Elliott divorced her husband William McDermot concurrently. Jealousy of Elliott by Blanche Walsh, the leading lady of Goodwin's company, led to her departure. For the first time in her career, Elliott was installed as the lead performer in an acting troupe.

Upon Goodwin's return to America, he and Elliott performed "An American Citizen". In February 1898 they wed. For a period of four years they toured together in "Nathan Hale" and "The Cowboy and the Lady," before Maxine's ambitions had her chafing for a greater place in the theatrical firmament. Producer Charles Frohman supplied her with that place in 1903 giving her top billing in "Her Own Way," a place that made her a major star of the moment on Broadway. Only Maude Adams rivaled her for popularity. No one competed in terms of sex appeal. She repeated her triumph in London.

In 1908 Elliott terminated her marriage with Goodwin, began speculating in stocks and real estate, and quickly became the wealthiest performer on the American stage. One outlet for her wealth was the purchase (as a 50% partner) and management of a theatre on 39th Street. The Maxine Elliott theatre became a laboratory for her tastes from 1909 to 1915 when her romance with young tennis star Tony Wilding and his death in combat inspired Elliott into a heroic personal commitment to war relief in Belgium. She spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of her own fortune succoring the citizens of Belgium. When the war ended she signed on with Goldwyn Pictures to recoup her fortune, making two films, "The Eternal Magdalene" and "Fighting Odds" before turning her back on a method of performance she found distasteful. She returned to investment and real estate, restored her wealth and retired from the stage in 1920. In retirement amid books and pets she found a serenity that had eluded her for much of her professional life. David S. Shields/ALS