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Beatrice Lillie
BeatriceLillieByYousufKarsh.jpg
Beatrice Lillie, as photographed by Yousuf Karsh, 1948.
Birth name Beatrice Gladys Lillie
Born May 29, 1894(1894-05-29)
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Died January 20, 1989 (aged 94)
Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, England, UK
Medium Stage, motion pictures
Nationality British
Years active 1914–1989
Spouse Sir Robert Peel (1920-1934) (his death), 1 son (killed during World War II)
Tony Awards
Special Award
1953 An Evening With Beatrice Lillie

Bea Lillie (May 29, 1894 – January 20, 1989) was a comic actress. She was born as Beatrice Gladys Lillie in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Following her marriage in 1920 to Sir Robert Peel, she was known in private life as Lady Peel.

Contents

Early career

She began performing in Toronto and other Ontario towns as part of a family trio with her mother and older sister, Muriel. Eventually, her mother took the two girls to London, England where she made her West End debut in 1914.

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. Beatrice (or Bea) Lillie, as she would be known professionally, took advantage of her gift for witty satire that made her a stage success for more than 50 years.

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". Lillie 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 made very few films; her 1944 film, On Approval, also starring Clive Brook, who wrote the adapted screenplay, produced and directed, is an excellent example of Lillie in her prime. It is currently available on DVD.)

Lillie is associated particularly 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, British 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.

An amusing, but perhaps apocryphal story has it that a somewhat intoxicated Beatrice Lillie, upon returning to her hotel one evening, regally instructed the desk clerk to hand her "Lady Keel's Pee". Tallulah Bankhead actually made that remark. She and Bea had been out together and Tallulah believing she was the more sober one instructed the desk clerk to give her "Lady Keel's Pee Please."

Relationships and marriages

During her early career she is rumoured to have been involved in bisexual affairs with other actresses Tallulah Bankhead, Eva Le Gallienne, and Judith Anderson. [1] She was married, on January 20, 1920, at the church of St. Paul, Drayton Bassett, Fazeley, near Tamworth in Staffordshire, to Sir Robert Peel, 5th Baronet. She eventually separated from her husband (but never divorced him): he died in 1934. Their only child, Sir Robert Peel, 6th Baronet, was killed in action aboard HMS Tenedos in Colombo Harbour, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), in 1942.

During World War II, Lillie was an inveterate entertainer of the troops. Before she went on stage, she learned her son was killed in action. She refused to postpone the performance saying "she would cry tomorrow."

In 1948 she met singer/actor John Philip Huck, almost three decades younger than she, who became her friend and companion. Huck has been described by biographers and friends of Lillie's as a no-talent, obsessive control freak who used Lillie as his ticket to a brush with fame. Though apparently devoted to her, Huck isolated her from her friends and family in her later years and exerted almost total control over her life and financial affairs.

Retirement

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.

Trivia

Beatrice Lillie returned to England in April, 1944, by happenstance, on the same airplane that took Ernest Hemingway back to report on yet another war. Gertrude Lawrence was on the same plane.

Filmography

Features:

Short Subjects:

  • Beatrice Lillie (1929)
  • Broadway Highlights No. 1 (1935)
  • Broadway Highlights No. 2 (1935)

Awards

Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Helen Hayes
Sarah Siddons Award - Sarah Siddons Society, Chicago
1954
Succeeded by
Deborah Kerr

Tony Awards

References

  • Lillie, Beatrice, with John Philip Huck and James Brough, Every Other Inch a Lady (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972).

External links








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