|Date of Birth||19 August 1883, New York City, New York, USA|
|Date of Death||15 November 1961, New London, Connecticut, USA|
|Birth Name||Elsie Louise Ferguson|
|Nickname||"The Aristocrat of the Screen"|
|Height||5' 5" (1.65 m)|
Mini Bio (1)
The great Broadway stage actress and silent film star Elsie Louise Ferguson was born on August 19, 1883 in New York City, the only child of prominent lawyer Hiram Benson Ferguson and his wife. Due to her father's wealth, hers was a privileged childhood, though she developed a penchant for socialism in her late thirties.
Educated in Manhattan, Elsie made her theatrical debut as a chorus girl in the musical comedy "The Belle of New York" at the Madison Square Theatre in 1900. Her early flirtation with the stage was linked to a friend importuning her to join the chorus, which she did out of curiosity. She also was a chorus girl in "The Liberty Belles" the following year. Allowed to speak one line in "Belles," she made up her mind to become a stage actress. Elsie was quite beautiful, as well as talented, and she worked her way up from the chorus to become a Broadway star for three decades. She made her Broadway debut, proper, at the end of 1903 in the musical The Girl from Kay's at the Herald Square Theatre. In 1904, she then appeared in the play "The Second Fiddle.
Between the time Elsie appeared on Broadway in the musical "Miss Dolly Dollars" and in Arthur Conan Doyle's play "The Brigadier," one of the major scandals that periodical rock America to its core occurred. On June 25, 1906, Pittsburgh millionaire Harry K. Shaw, the husband of Elsie's friend Evelyn Nesbitt, shot and killed renowned architect Stanford White while he was attending a public performance at the Garden Theatre situated atop Madison Square Garden, the penultimate arena bearing that name actually located on New York City's Madison Square. White's Garden, which he had designed, housed the Madison Square Theatre, where Nesbitt had appeared in the 1903 musical "The Girl from Dixie." Though the show was her last appearance in a legitimate Broadway production, she had earlier been appearing in private shows for White, the man whom she called "Stanny," at his spectacular multi-floor apartment snug inside the Garden building's tower, on top of which the rooftop theater sat.
White had first espied the young red-headed woman would become his mistress and Lorelei in 1901, when she was in the chorus of the musical "Florodora" at Broadway's Casino Theatre, in a time when girls from the leg-line were as famous as supermodels are today. The Pittsburgh native was 16 years old. Before taking to the stage, she had made her living as a model for artists and photographers. After an introduction, White played sugar daddy to her and her family, eventually purloining Nesbitt's maidenhead in an act she variously described as a rape and seduction.
Many men, including the young John Barrymore, who proposed to her, wooed Evelyn. But White intervened, and she became involved with fellow Pittsburgh native Thaw, an emotionally unstable man addicted to cocaine and morphine, who had hated White for years, due to some snub involving showgirls that had transpired before either man had made the fiery young redhead's acquaintance. White, something of a Humbert Humbert, gradually cooled towards the maturing Evelyn, though he still played sugar daddy to her. Gradually, he took up with other, younger chorines, and Evelyn, who had revealed the details of her affair to her other suitor, made a "reluctant" marriage to Thaw. She did so despite her fear of the man, who had a violent and bizarre streak that had expressed itself once in his beating her with a dog whip during a sojourn in Europe.
Evelyn moved to Pittsburgh, but she was ostracized from society due to her reputation as a showgirl. Theatrical people simply were not respectable in those halcyon days of Victorian morals and mores. She grew her bored and lonely, ad was wary of her husband, who was prone to tantrums and fits or rage. During a planned1906 trip to Europe, she and her husband stopped off in New York, where they, by chance, met up with Evelyn's former lover. It was just a matter of time before Thaw stalked White to the sybaritic aerie atop his Garden and put three bullets into his face. Adam had slain his Eve's snake, all in the name of "the unwritten law" that held a man had the moral right to slay his wife's seducer.
The press had a field day. Nesbitt became known as "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing" when the news of her private whoopee-making with White became public knowledge. The press revealed the double-life of the respected architect, who was unmasked as a libertine and voluptuary who shared the taste for showgirls with the Gilded Age plutocrats with whom he hobnobbed. They mass-circulation rags ran tearful, hand-wringing and utterly salacious articles about the other showgirls whom White had corrupted, all the while inveighing against the immorality of show people while doing their utmost best to profit by it by. Anthony Comstock, for 30 years the Lord General Cromwell in America's campaign against smut in the mails, praised Thaw for avenging his wife's honor, claiming that America would be better off with more Thaws taking the law into their own hands and executing "the unwritten law." President Theodore Roosevelt reportedly closely followed the case in the press.
Unfortunately, the press dragged Elsie into the scandal revolving around the murder, an affair immortalized in the book, motion picture and Broadway musical "Ragtime." A journalist revealed that Elsie had known about her friend Evelyn's affair with White, which brought unwanted attention. The two Thaw murder trials (the first one having ended with a hung jury) constituted the first "Trial of the Century" in that new century, and Elsie was anxious to avoid being subpoenaed as a witness as it might generate more bad publicity. To be tarred as one of the loose showbiz girls the press was reveling in, boosting its circulation while sanctimoniously condemning their immorality while covering their yellow pages with the skinny on their antics, could prove fatal to a career in those more-outwardly Puritanical times. Elsie accepted an offer to appear in "The Earl of Pawtucket" at the London Playhouse in England, which proved to be a hit.
Returning to her home country, she appeared in melodramas on Broadway, such as Edgar Selwyn's "Pierre of the Plains" in 1908. The next year, she was hailed for her performance in the title role of "Such a Little Queen." In the following decade, she became the 'Toast of Broadway' and earned the reputation as 'the most beautiful woman on the spoken stage.' Elsie rejected offers from movie producers as she considered the primitive photoplays of her time to be inferior to the stage. She continued to act on Broadway, appearing in a string of successes, including the revival of "Arizona."
She distinguished herself playing Portia opposite Shylock of the great English tragedian Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree in a 1916 production of "The Merchant of Venice." Elsie next appeared as the eponymous heroine of "Shirley Kaye." At this time, she surrendered to the blandishments of Paramount-Artcraft sachem Adolph Zukor, who had offered her a very lucrative three-year contract that would pay her $5,000 per week to appear in 18 pictures.
Maurice Tourneur helmed her fist picture for Paramount, "Barbary Sheep" (1917), which also featured the movie debut of George M. Cohan, later immortalized on film in James Cagney's Oscar-winning turn as the master showman in "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (1942). Initially, Elsie hated the experience, but she had a good working relationship with Tourneur, who became her favorite director during her relatively brief movie career. She later told an interviewer, "I shall never forget my state of mind during the making of `Barbary Sheep.' My experience before the camera was the most painful thing I have ever known in life. It seemed to me that the little black box became a monster that was leering and scoffing at my feeble efforts to register an emotion before it. I went home in tears. But the next morning I returned.... It is so different and not at all as I expected.... I am fortunate in being under Mr. Maurice Tourneur's direction and presume I shall soon look upon the work as blandly as those to whom it has become a habit, though now it is quite strange."
Maurice Tourneur relayed a story about Elsie's debut in films in an interview in a Paramount media guide. "Downstairs the studio manager declared 'Miss Ferguson is a wonder. When she came over here the first day, she candidly said, 'I don't know film work, but I'm willing to learn.' Other stars and stage folk dash in with that 'I-know-it-all-need-no-director-look-who-I-am' air, and their first screen work shows how little they actually know." Tourneur predicted that Elsie would become a major star due to her beauty and talent.
"Barbary Sheep" was a hit with critics and audiences, and Tourneur directed her next two pictures, "The Rise of Jenny Cushing" (1917) and "Rose of the World" (1918), the latter of which Elsie declared was her favorite among her first batch of movies. In 1918, Tourneur also directed her with less stellar results as Nora Helmer in a cinematic adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's masterpiece "A Doll's House." It was the third movie version of the play, which had also been filmed in 1911 and 1917, the latter with Dorothy Phillips as Nora and Lon Chaney as Nora's nemesis, Nils Krogstad.
Ibsen's masterpiece had been frequently revived on Broadway since its New York debut in 1889, starring the likes of the great Ethel Barrymore and Alla Nazimova, who portrayed the tragic heroine three times on Broadway between and 1907 and 1918. (The flamboyant Nazimova would play the role in her own adaptation of the play in Charles Bryant's 1922 film version, co-starring Alan Hale, the father of The Skipper from "Gilligan's Island," as her Torvald.) Elsie had not yet played in anything with the gravity of Ibsen, on stage or screen. The photoplay, which was changed from the play but retained the basic story, displeased both the director and his star, and it flopped at the box office. As the `Moving Picture World' had written about the failure of the 1917 version to live up to Ibsen's play, "[T]he fine shades of meaning in the dialogue without the aid of speech render the task of the actors in the cast doubly hard...." If the great pantomimist Chaney could not put the meaning across, it is doubtful that Elsie and her less stellar supporting cast could, which likely abetted the failure of her picture..
Marshall Neilan directed her in a remake of her old stage hit "Pierre of the Plains," which had first been filmed in 1914 by the Selwyn brothers, called "Heart of the Wilds" (1918), while George Fitzmaurice directed her in four films. A fashion maven, Elsie earned the sobriquet "The Aristocrat of the Screen" for her many portrayals of aristocrats and high society women in her pictures.
Elsie refused Paramount's offer for a new, more lucrative contract, and returned to the Broadway stage with the play "Sacred and Profane Love" (1920), which was a huge hit. In this period, she admitted to an interest in socialism in an October 1921 `Motion Picture Magazine' interview. "All the while, the middle classes and the lower classes, people are struggling and worrying and fretting their lives away over questions of food and education for their children and the wherewithal for the essentials of life. When a man has accumulated more than, say, a million, the moneys made should revert back to those who have contributed to the amassment." The statement is surprising, not because of her wealthy background and lifestyle, but because the United States had been in the grip of its first "Red Scare' for two years.
Paramount managed to sign Elsie to a two-year, four-picture contract in late 1921, and she filmed a movie version of her stage success, "Sacred and Profane Love" (1921), with director by William Desmond Taylor, a man who himself would fall victim to a bullet at the beginning of 1921, as had Stanford White almost two decades earlier. Supporting player Maxine Elliott Hicks, who described her leading lady in "Love" as `ritzy' in a 1990 interview, said, "She wouldn't allow anyone on the set, including Momma, but she was a darling to me."
George Fitzmaurice directed her in a screen adaptation of George du Maurier's novel "Peter Ibbetson" called "Forever" (1921), co-starring Wallace Reid, the silent movie superstar addicted to morphine who would die in an asylum in January 1923 while withdrawing from narcotics. Containing her best screen performance, this third film of her two-year Paramount contract was a big hit, as was her last, "Outcast" (1922). She then returned to the Broadway stage in the 1923 hit "The Wheel of Life," but she refused Paramount's offer of a new contract, which would have included filming her latest success. She instead appeared in "The Grand Duchess and The Waiter" on Broadway.
Elsie would later take her "Wheel" and "Duchess" co-star, British stage actor Frederick Worlock, as her third husband. Earlier, she had been married to businessman and Adams Express Co. heir Frederick C. Hoey, then married bank executive Thomas Clarke, Jr. in the mid-1910s. Elsie divorced Clarke in the late 1920s, married Warlock, and then shortly divorced him in 1930. But that lay in the future.
After appearing in a supporting role to Adolphe Menjou and Norma Shearer in the Monta Bell-directed movie "Broadway After Dark" for Warner Bros., she made one more silent flicker, Vitagraph's "The Unknown Lover" (1925), a film she detested and would never discuss. Elsie continued her stage career with great success throughout the decade, but retired at the end of the Roaring `20s. Five years later, she appeared in First National Pictures' "Scarlet Pages" (1930). The movie, a talkie, was based on the play of the same name that Elsie had appeared in on Broadway in 1929. The 47-year-old actress played a lawyer defending a young woman accused of murder. Elsie's speaking voice on film was lower-pitched than her fans expected, but she had clear and precise diction, as did man of the stage actors dragooned into the talkies in that period. Her first talkie would prove to be her last appearance on film.
Elsie's friend Lowell Sherman, who was developing a cinematic version of William Makepeace Thackeray's "Vanity Fair" at R.K.O. for David O. Selznik's friend and future business partner, multi-millionaire John Hay "Jock" Whitney, cast her as the Duchess of Richmond. The movie, "Becky Sharp" (1935), made cinematic history as the first feature film shot in three-strip Technicolor. It was not directed by Sherman, however, as he died before filming began and was replaced by Rouben Mamoulian. With her friend gone, Elsie dropped out of the film, and Billie Burke played the Duchess instead.
On March 17, 1934, the 51-year-old Elsie married wealthy Irishman Victor Augustus Seymour Egan. They bought a farm in Connecticut that same year, where she spent her retirement. They also maintained a home in France. Elsie came out of retirement to appear on Broadway in the 1943 production of "Outrageous Fortune," which was a hit with the critics, but a flop at the box office, playing only 77 performances. She retired from acting for good, splitting her time between Connecticut and France.
Elsie's husband, Victor Egan, died in France in 1956. Widowed for five years, Elsie died at the age of 78 on November 15, 1961. With no surviving heirs, she left $1,000,000 to New York City's Animal Medical Center.
None of Elsie Ferguson's silent films are known to exist, although a 35mm print of "Forever" (1922) that had been owned by Dorothy Davenport Reid, Wallace Reid's widow, may have made it into the hands of a private collector. Her sole talkie, "Scarlet Pages," does exist and is part of the Time-Warner library of films. It occasionally is shown by the cable movie network Turner Classic Movies and remains the sole legacy of this great actress' spectacular career in the first part of the last century.
- IMDb Mini Biography By: Jon C. Hopwood
|Victor Augustus Seymour Egan||(17 March 1934 - 1956) (his death)|
|Frederick Worlock||(1924 - 1930) (divorced)|
|Thomas Clarke, Jr.||(14 June 1916 - 26 July 1923) (divorced)|
|Frederick C. Hoey||(19 August 1907 - 1914) (divorced)|
Personal Quotes (3)
|Barbary Sheep (1917)||$5,000 per week|