Lillie was born in Toronto, where she performed, along with other Ontario towns as part of a family trio with her mother and older sister, Muriel. Eventually, her mother, Lucie, took the girls to London, England where she made her West End debut in the 1914 Not Likely. She was noted primarily for her stage work in revues, especially those staged by André Charlot, and light comedies, and was frequently paired with Gertrude Lawrence, Bert Lahr and Jack Haley.
In her revues, she utilized sketches, songs, and parody that won her lavish praise from the New York Times after her 1924 New York debut. In some of her best known bits, she would solemnly parody the flowery performing style of earlier decades, mining such songs as "There are Fairies at the Bottom of our Garden" and "Mother Told Me So" for every double entendre, while other numbers ("Get Yourself a Geisha" and "Snoops the Lawyer", for example) showcased her exquisite sense of the absurd. Her performing in such comedy routines as "One Double Dozen Double Damask Dinner Napkins", (in which an increasingly flummoxed matron attempts to purchase said napkins) earned her the frequently used sobriquet of "Funniest Woman in the World". She never performed the "Dinner Napkins" routine in Britain, because British audiences had already seen it performed by the Australian-born English revue performer Cicely Courtneidge, for whom it was written.
In 1926 she returned to New York city to perform. While there, she starred in her first film, Exit Smiling, opposite fellow Canadian Jack Pickford, the scandal-scarred younger brother of Mary Pickford. From then until the approach of World War II, Lillie repeatedly crisscrossed the Atlantic to perform on both continents. She was long associated with the works of Noel Coward (giving, for instance, the first ever public performance of "Mad Dogs and Englishmen"), though Cole Porter is among those who also wrote songs for her. She made few appearances on film, appearing in a cameo role as a revivalist in Around the World in Eighty Days and as "Mrs. Meers" (a white slaver) in Thoroughly Modern Millie.
She won a Tony Award in 1953 for her revue An Evening With Beatrice Lillie and made her final stage appearance as Madame Arcati in High Spirits, the musical version of Coward's Blithe Spirit. This was Lillie's only performance in a book musical: that is, a musical with a plot; all her other stage appearances had been in revues although in 1958 she briefly stepped into the role of Mame Dennis during the original Broadway run of Auntie Mame succeeding Rosalind Russell and Greer Garson, before taking the lead in the first London production.
Throughout her career as a revue performer, Lillie's contracts almost invariably stipulated that she would not make her first entrance onstage until at least half an hour into the show; by that point, every other act in the revue had made its first appearance and the audience would be keenly awaiting the entrance of Miss Lillie, the star of the evening. After seeing An Evening with Beatrice Lillie, critic Ronald Barker wrote, "Other generations may have their Mistinguett and their Marie Lloyd. We have our Beatrice Lillie and seldom have we seen such a display of perfect talent." In 1954 she won the Sarah Siddons Award for her work in Chicago theatre.
She was married, on January 20, 1920, at the church of St. Paul, Drayton Bassett, Fazeley, Staffordshire, to Sir Robert Peel, 5th Baronet. She eventually separated from her husband (but the couple never divorced); he died in 1934. Their only child, Sir Robert Peel, 6th Baronet, was killed in action aboard HMS Tenedos in Colombo Harbour, Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) in 1942.
During World War II, Lillie was an inveterate entertainer of the troops. Before she went on stage one day, she learned her son was killed in action. She refused to postpone the performance saying "I'll cry tomorrow." In 1948 she met singer/actor John Philip Huck, almost three decades younger than she, who became her friend and companion. Lillie met John Phillip Huck while touring in the show Inside USA. She and Huck later married.
She retired from the stage due to Alzheimer's disease and died on January 20, 1989, which was also the date of her wedding anniversary, at Henley-on-Thames. Huck died of a heart attack 31 hours later, and is interred next to her in the Peel family estate's cemetery near Peel Fold, Blackburn.
For her contributions to film, Beatrice Lillie has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6404 Hollywood Blvd.
Burial: St Margaret Churchyard, Harpsden, Oxfordshire, England
Numerous artists of the 1920s and 1930s, some of them widely known to be gay within the gay world if not beyond it, produced work that fairly bristled with gay meanings. "Noel Coward was the Mount Everest of double entendre," recalled one gay fan playwright, and Cole Porter's songs were mainstays in gay culture. Some performers were so well known for the gay-tinged double entendre of their lyrics that their performances drew large audiences of gay men. Whether or not the other memebers of the audience noticed them, they were aware of their numbers in the audience and often shared in the collective excitement of transforming such a public gathering into a "gay space," not matter how covertly. Judy Garland's concerts would take on this character in later years; Beatrice Lillie's concerts were among the most famous such events in the early 1930s. "The Palace was just packed with queers, for weeks at a time, when Lillie performed," remembered one man who had been in the audience. One of her signature songs, "There Are Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden," was a camp classic in the gay world, and twenty years later Lillie noted that she still "always" got requests for it from her audience. Her rendition of "I'm a Campfire Girl" was also always a hit. --Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 by George Chauncey
Lillian Faderman notes that many women prominent in New York theater, such as Beatrice Lillie, Jeanne Eagels, Tallulah Bankhead, and Libby Holman, established public reputations as sexually adventuruos women with both female and male partners. Their association with respectable Broadway theater gave them economic security as well as the social freedom to live their lives outside the cultural and sexual mainstream. --A Queer History of the United States by Michael BronskiFurther Readings:
Beatrice Lillie: The Funniest Woman in the World by Bruce Laffey
Hardcover: 296 pages
Publisher: Wynwood Pr; First UK Printing edition (November 1989)
Amazon: Beatrice Lillie: The Funniest Woman in the World
Every Other Inch a Lady: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY BY BEATRICE LILLIE Aided and Abetted by John Philip. Written with James Brough
Publisher: Doubleday; 1St Edition edition (1972)
Amazon: Every Other Inch a Lady
100 Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces by Merna Forster
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Dundurn Press (November 1, 2004)
Amazon: 100 Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces
In 100 Canadian Heroines you'll meet remarkable women in science, sport, preaching and teaching, politics, war and peace, arts and entertainment, etc. The book is full of amazing facts and fascinating trivia about intriguing figures. Discover some of the many heroines Canada can be proud of. Find out how we're remembering them. Or not!
More LGBT History at my website: www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Gay Classics
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