Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Born Today In 1856, Theatrical Producer Bessie Marbury, Helped Develop Modern Broadway Musical

Elisabeth "Bessie" Marbury was born today, June 19, in 1856.  She was a pioneering American theatrical and literary agent and producer who represented prominent theatrical performers and writers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and helped shape business methods of the modern commercial theater. She was the longtime companion of Elsie de Wolfe (later known as Lady Mendl), a prominent socialite and famous interior decorator.

Marbury was born and raised in the affluent and cultured home of one of 19th-century New York's oldest and most prominent "society" families. She was reputedly a descendant of Calvinist Anne Hutchinson (née Marbury), who co-founded Rhode Island after her banishment from Massachusetts Bay Colony. Bessie Marbury both used and defied these connections during the Victorian era to establish herself as an important literary and theatrical talent agent and theatrical producer, helping to define and create these very professions as they emerged in the new world of mass production, advertising, and popular culture in post-Civil War American society.

For many, Marbury remains a bundle of contradictions. Although she was the embodiment of female independence in almost every way, she initially opposed suffrage. She made a bold reversal once women in the United States did receive the right to vote, and in 1918 she became active in the Democratic Party, serving as a delegate. In 1923 she published an autobiography, My Crystal Ball:Reminiscences

Marbury never married, but lived openly for more than 30 years with Elsie De Wolfe (shown at right with Marbury on the left) in what many observers accepted as a lesbian relationship.

Marbury's clients ranged from the French Academy of Letters to playwrights Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw; to the dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle. She was an early promoter of African American writers of the Harlem Renaissance. She also played an instrumental role in developing the modern "Book Musical" that audiences came to know as defining "Broadway" in the 20th century, notably of Cole Porter's first musical, See America First, and Jerome Kern (Nobody Home (1915), Very Good, Eddie (1915), and Love O' Mike (1917)) through her American Play company.

Marbury and de Wolfe discovered their careers amidst the amateur theatrical performances in high society in late Victorian New York. Both would end up defying this world's rules and expectations for women by making their interest in theater professional, and in no small way helped pave the way for many other "respectable ladies" that followed, both in the previously frowned upon world of the professional theater as well as independent careers and financial autonomy for women in general. Thus it was at an 1885 successful benefit theatrical performance that she had organized that Marbury was inspired to try her hand at theater management. In 1888 she persuaded Frances Hodgson Burnett, who had written a dramatic version of her best-selling Little Lord Fauntleroy, to hire her as business manager and agent. The association quickly proved highly profitable to both women.

In 1891 Marbury traveled to France, and for 15 years she was the representative in the English-speaking market for playwright Victorien Sardou and the other members of the Société des Gens de Lettres, including Georges Feydeau, Edmond Rostand, Ludovic Halévy, and Jean Richepin. Her work on their behalf included securing suitable translations, sound productions with leading actors, and full royalties. She also represented George Bernard Shaw, and James M. Barrie (whom she prevailed upon to rewrite The Little Minister for Maude Adams).

Marbury was instrumental in assisting her companion Elsie de Wolfe in creating a career in interior decoration and in 1903 restoring Villa Trianon in Versailles, France, where she, de Wolfe, and Anne Tracy Morgan (youngest child of the powerful financier, J.P. Morgan) held court and became noted hostesses, affectionately referred to as "The Versailles Triumvirate." 

During World War I, Marbury devoted much time to relief work for French and later American soldiers, and spent several months in France working in military hospitals and giving talks to the troops. She translated Maurice Barrès's The Faith of France (1918) and was decorated by the French and Belgian governments. 

De Wolfe announced her wedding to Sir Charles Mendl, a British diplomat in 1926, after at least 30 years of living with Marbury. According to biographies of de Wolfe, the Mendl-de Wolfe marriage was platonic, with the couple keeping separate apartments in Paris and usually only appearing together at social functions. Both de Wolfe and Mendel assured an understandably enraged Marbury that the marriage was purely one of convenience. Weeks after the marriage, de Wolfe traveled to New York to reconcile with Marbury. Their relationship lasted another 7 years until Marbury's death.

Marbury died on January 22, 1933. Her funeral at St. Patrick's Cathedral was attended by an impressive array of the most important American leaders and dignitaries of the day. De Wolfe was noticeably absent from the funeral, despite the fact that she was the prime beneficiary of Marbury's will.

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