Cissie Loftus – The Mimetic Marvel by Michael Kilgariff

Though Ellen Terry remains by far the most renowned of Henry Irving’s stage consorts a notable roster of younger actresses such as Lena Ashwell, Jessie Millward, and Ethel Barrymore also enjoyed the privilege of playing opposite the most formidable actor of his time.

As ET aged her `usefulness’ to Irving waned. New plays with the Lyceum-style breadth of opportunities for them both were unforthcoming and by the mid-1890s the illustrious partnership was approaching its dissolution. One rôle which Ellen had outgrown was Margaret in W. G. Wills’s dramatisation of Faust; during the original run of 1885-6 Winifred Emery had gone on for her on many occasions during Ellen’s various illnesses both at the Lyceum and during the subsequent American tour, but by 1902 Emery was married to Cyril Maude and a leading lady in her own right. So for that year’s revival Irving, on ET’s recommendation, engaged Cecilia Loftus, a surprising choice since Cissie’s career had waxed not in the theatre but on the Halls and HI was known to look with disfavour upon the rackety world of variety. In her Recollections (1934) Vesta Tilley recounts his reaction to her husband Walter de Frece’s offer of an engagement on the Halls: `Sir Henry was most indignant, absolutely refused to consider the idea, and added that the conversation had spoiled his evening.’

There were two principal reasons for this animus: the much greater salaries offered to variety performers which tended to seduce promising talent away from the legitimate stage, and the practice of variety managers increasingly to encroach upon the exclusive right of theatres to present plays. Precisely what constituted a play had kept m’learned friends well feed ever since the Theatre Act of 1843. By the turn of the century the law was more honoured in the breach than the observance, and extravagantly mounted sketches had become established Music Hall fare. With palaces of variety also enjoying the advantage of serving alcoholic refreshments in the auditorium Irving was understandably bitter that they should be plucking importunately at the hem of the drama.

Cecilia Loftus was born 22nd October 1876 in Glasgow. Her mother, only eighteen years old at Cissie’s birth, was the serio-comique Marie Loftus and her father Ben Brown of the celebrated Brown, Newland & Le Clerq knockabout sketch team. Marie’s dramatic looks, stately presence, and superior talents led swiftly to prominence, and by 1877 The Sarah Bernhardt of the Halls, as she was billed, had made it to one of the West End’s finest and most prestigious Halls, the Oxford. Her considerable appeal is underlined by a review in The Era of her appearance at the Alhambra Theatre of Varieties, Belfast, in June 1899:

`It is indeed questionable if this charming burlesque actress and refined exponent of serio-comedy is a bigger favourite anywhere than in this city, and the welcome extended to her on the present occasion (of which Miss Loftus might well feel proud) was a splendid tribute to her striking abilities as a comedienne… On  Monday night Miss Loftus occupied the stage for no less than sixty minutes, singing nine songs, each impersonation being characterised with the finish associated with all her character studies.’

I have seen it stated that Marie Loftus was the first true female variety star, i.e. the first woman to top Music Hall bills nationwide. However debatable this assertion the fact that it was made at all demonstrates her stature and popularity. So we should not be surprised that her daughter possessed similar talents, especially of mimicry, though Cissie was to demonstrate far greater versatility than her progenitrix, gliding smoothly between the Halls, musical comedy, the theatre, and film.

After a convent education Cissie became her mother’s dresser, a job which gave her ready access to the wings where she could watch, listen and learn. Convinced that she could do better than the impressionists she had seen, and with her mother’s blessing, she made her début at the age of sixteen singing Molly Darling at the Belfast Alhambra, where as we’ve seen Marie was to be so warmly received. From the very start it was apparent that Cissie was a natural, with an instinct for performing that went straight to an audience’s viscera and which no amount of training could provide. The following July she followed in her mother’s footsteps by working the Oxford; her impersonations of performers of both sexes made an immediate impact, and the dark-haired, blue-eyed, slightly-built young girl with the strongly delineated features was a star virtually overnight. She was a particular favourite at the huge Alhambra in Leicester Square and at the Palace, Cambridge Circus, where her Yvette Guilbert was especially admired and did much to boost London’s acceptance of the French diseuse. Female impressionists were a rarity; a trawl through the more than two thousand seven hundred artistes who appeared at the Palace between 1892 and 1914 shows that only seven other women described themselves as impressionists or mimics. It is often opined that impressionism is a line of business only essayed by those with no imagination, originality, individuality or creative genius; mimics, it is claimed, are parasites feeding off the talents of others. This was certainly not the case with Cissie, who evinced extraordinary breadth of personality and appeal in her own right in so many spheres.

Another Hall in which the sixteen-year-old made a powerful impact was the Tivoli in the Strand, where a besotted Max Beerbohm, only six years her senior, gazed in rapture;

`Night after night, Max went au Tivoli to see Cissie, building up the minutiae of memory to last him until her next appearance…. She imitated, with exquisite delicacy, popular singers of indelicate songs; Max is riven by the thought of these ribaldries emerging from the lips of innocence….he wishes she could perform just for him, and he is exacerbated by the suspicion that possibly [she] understands the suggestive reference in the songs she is singing’ (S.N. Behrman).

After that first heady success Cissie was in constant demand; not only on the Halls but on the regular stage at the Gaiety, playing opposite Millie Hylton in Don Juan. In 1894, still only seventeen and living with her mother in Herne Hill, she eloped to Blackburn with the writer-playwright Justin Huntly McCarthy who at twice her age should have known better. In his autobiography Sir John Martin-Harvey wrote of Children of the King at the Court Theatre in Chelsea (now the Royal Court): `For my goose-girl, I had Miss Cissie Loftus. Poor Justin Huntly McCarthy, who had recently married her, used to mount guard over his bride in a private box and follow my every movement in our love scenes with baleful glances and flashes of forked eye-lightning.’ This was in 1897 so the marriage was hardly recent. Martin-Harvey presumably described McCarthy as `poor’ because the union lasted only five years, and Cissie was a free woman again at the age of twenty-two, her career seemingly unhindered by the taint of divorce.

In January 1895 Cissie again emulated her mother by travelling to New York under the aegis of Oscar Hammerstein, appearing in vaudeville at Koster & Bial’s. By April she was making her first essay into drama in a play called The Highwayman on West 45th Street. Within a couple of years Cissie had become a welcome and popular face on American boards of whatever stripe, appearing regularly not only in vaudeville at a reputed $1,000 a week but under the dramatic banners of Daniel Frohman, Mme. Modjeska, and E. H. Sothern, establishing a reputation as a `charming and womanly and gracious’ actress as well as an prodigiously gifted mimic. Although her powers in both disciplines were recognised on both sides of the Atlantic, in America she was more appreciated as an actor, whereas in England her mimicry gained her the greater renown. On 5th June 1895 The Sketch said of her return to the Palace:

`Not a bit nervous did she seem. Has she changed? A good deal. The youthful, gawky grace, that used to be delightful, has gone, and, in its place, a curious assurance and manner – Miss Cissie has suddenly grown into a woman – belle-femme, too, as the Yvette Guilbert dress showed. Her work has even improved. The Ada Rehan, a novelty, was the pick of the basket: indeed, it is a marvellous reproduction of the fascinating Ada. Eugene Stratton was, perhaps, as clever, though I do not like to see her distort her pretty face. The Hayden Coffin was very funny, as before, and the imitation of his comic manner irresistible…’

The Illustrated London News of 20th July was equally enthusiastic:

`The attraction at the Palace is Miss Cissie Loftus, who has returned from America with added beauty, confidence, and art. Her imitations of Ada Rehan, Sarah Bernhardt, and Letty Lind are little masterpieces in their way, examples of an extraordinary and graceful talent…’

Amongst other distinctions Cissie was painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, Sir Arthur Sullivan `thought it a privilege to accompany her on the piano’ (New York Herald Tribune obituary), and in 1898 she was one of the very first Music Hall performers to go into the recording studio. In 1905 she appeared as Peter Pan, a performance which impressed J. M. Barrie enough for him to stand as godfather to her son. But it was in America that Cissie was seen as Nora Helmer, as Juliet, Desdemona, Olivia, and Hero. In our time only Maggie Smith, famously snatched from revue by Olivier for his Desdemona, has made a comparable journey from inconsequential light comedy to full-blown tragedy, though – unlike Cissie – once established in the legit Dame Maggie stayed there.

Cissie’s incursions down so many avenues may not seem so exceptional today, but we must recall the prejudices and attitudes of the period. The piano-entertainer George Grossmith senior was most reluctant to accept W.S. Gilbert’s invitation to join the Savoy Opera company, fearing such a step would lose him his Y.M.C.A. connection (i.e. his non-theatregoing public); when the actor Albert Chevalier first tried out his ditties at the London Pavilion in 1891 he was warned at the Green Room Club that such a step would ruin him socially and professionally; Edward Lloyd, the finest English concert tenor of his generation, never set foot on the stage, because `my wife objected, and her word is law with me in such affairs’ (T.P. O’Connor); and when in 1900, after a disagreement with George Edwardes over a costume, Marie Tempest abruptly forsook musical comedy for the legit the event was front-page news.

So, for better or worse, this stratification was a fact of theatrical life, making it all the more remarkable that Irving should have chosen an artiste as his new Margaret. Or perhaps not; HI was never a man to let convention prevent him from doing what he wanted or what he thought was right, so for the 1902 eleven week spring season Cissie was paid £100 a week, half what she could have earned on the Halls. Ellen received the same,

 though her professional breach with HI was by now almost complete, and she only appeared at the Lyceum season in matinees of The Merchant of Venice and King Charles I – her evenings were spent as Mistress Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor for Beerbohm Tree at His Majesty’s.

Cissie Loftus
Miss Cissie Loftus as Margaret in Faust

According to some accounts Cissie played Jessica and Nerissa in The Merchant, though a search through the season’s programmes in the Bram Stoker collection in the British Library show these rôles being played by Mabel Hackney (HI’s daughter-in-law – Laurence Irving played Antonio) and Rosalind Ivan.

Faust opened at the Royal Lyceum on Saturday 26th April 1902. On the Monday The Times carried a review which can best be described as snide. Everything about the production is condemned (including, as Professor John Pick highlighted in our Annual Lecture last February, the ageing and predominantly male audience), though Cissie comes out of it reasonably well:

`One element of freshness there is at the Lyceum and that is the personality of Miss Cissie Loftus. In the cavalier scenes she seemed a little frightened, and no wonder, spoke with a catch in her breath, and was not so much the fawn as the toy-lamb. But in the end she awoke to her part, and made quite an affecting a thing of the death scene as Mr Wills’s heavy hand would let her. She may be trusted to enrich the character as she goes along, to put more heart into it, and if, at the same time, she can put a little more heart into Mr H. B. Stanford [Faust] – at present a very tame seducer – so much the better.’

The Stage review of 1st May was much more respectful to the Lyceum legend, though praise of Cissie was not unqualified:

`As Margaret Miss Cecilia Loftus came through a trying ordeal with a considerable measure of success. Nervousness, as well it might, marked the earlier stages of her work, but this gradually passed off. Miss Loftus indicated the innocence and simplicity of Margaret with much fidelity, but a seeming lack of imagination robbed the performance of colour. In the Prison Scene, however, Miss Loftus rose to the occasion, and gave a genuine dramatic touch to the distracted girl that roused the enthusiasm of her audience.’

H. B. Stanford was again castigated for lacking spontaneity: `The passionate scenes demand a more fervid rendering to convince’, and the report concludes with the customary allusion to HI’s curtain speech `to express his gratitude and that of Miss Loftus and the Lyceum company’ – unequivocal recognition from the Chief that Cissie was, for that production at least, the leading lady. In the reverential review in The Era of 3rd May Cissie was positively eulogised:

`Great interest was felt in Miss Cissie Loftus appearance as Margaret. Miss Loftus has only been known to the London public as a clever imitatress*, and the progress she has made since her visit to America astonished and delighted all her well-wishers. Miss Loftus takes a more natural and less conventional view of the character of Margaret than most of her predecessors, but preserves all the winning simplicity and artless sweetness of nature so indispensable in any reading of the rôle. In Margaret’s first interview with Faust she behaved as an innocent and untrained “girl of the people” naturally would be in being addressed by a handsome cavalier; the affected indignation and nervous “flurry” being admirably true to nature. In the more serious and “soulful” passages Miss Loftus was delightfully simple and sincere, and in the outbursts of remorse and distress later on she displayed an amount of dramatic expression and power that astonished her most sanguine supporters.’

Cissie’s performance received the accolade of being burlesqued both by Marie Lloyd in a revue at the Tivoli and, in his early days as a mimic, by Harry Tate on the Halls. On the internet I discovered another quite unexpected connection between Cissie and Our Marie in the words of one Mary Maclane, a New York journalist who had met everyone from Elinor Glyn to Mark Twain. In 1910 she wrote:

`More than prize-fighters and literary people… I like vaudeville people on and off the stage. I fall the quickest of all for the people from the London Music Halls. They are artists on the stage, in their own lines of business – people like Cecilia Loftus, Marie Lloyd, Alice Lloyd, and

*As we know she had in fact been seen in Don Juan at the Gaiety and in Children of the King at the Court.

Vesta Victoria – and off the the stage, sitting in Rector’s, with a pint of ‘alf-and-‘alf, they prove to be traditional British types of a most delectable brand. They combine a high-colored and high-seasoned domesticity with the thick local-color of the halls. They earn fabulous salaries over here, for they have a charm we cannot replicate in America, and as they sit in the gilded thick-padded seats of New York cafés they’ll tell you how they started twenty years ago in the Shoreditch hall at “ten-and-six the night”.’

Alice Lloyd was Marie’s sister, at one time the bigger name of the two in New York. Vesta Victoria specialised in disaster songs – Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-Wow! and Now I Have to Call him Father are still regularly heard.

In 1908 an accident during rehearsals led to a major operation and a second union (in Kensington) to American physician Alonzo Higbee Waterman in 1909 produced a son, John Peter Barrie Waterman, but also ended bitterly in dissolution in 1920. Cissie did not attempt a third trek down the aisle, though there were a number of romantic entanglements. Vocal problems in 1911 were sufficiently overcome for her to be selected to take part in the first Royal Music Hall Performance in 1912. In the last solo act before the famous Garden Party finale (which included her mother) she impersonated Yvette Guilbert and, daringly, Vesta Tilley. Daringly because Tilley had herself been received with acclaim earlier in the evening, despite which `Miss Loftus contrived to reproduce her best form, and the manners and voice of her two subjects were faithfully reproduced’ (The Stage 4th July 1912).

From around 1914, after a US tour with the William Faversham company presenting a round of the classics, Cissie’s ill-health and growing taste for alcohol and narcotics led to a reputation for unreliability and instability, and several dark years followed her return to England. Petite in stature she lacked physical robustness – one account even refers to her as `frail’. The problems seem to have started around the time of her second marriage; three operations were followed by the premature birth of her son and a fourth operation, all of which, combined with the early breakdown of the relationship, led to dependence on pain-killing drugs. In November 1922, a month after topping the bill at the Coliseum, Cissie was arrested and charged with possession of atropine and morphine. After a night in Tottenham Court Road police station she was bailed on a surety of £100 put up by Eva Moore, who with Dame May Whitty undertook to look after her. Upon hearing medical evidence the Great Marlborough Street magistrate accepted that the drugs were solely for Cissie’s own use and put the `pallid trembling shadow’ on probation for a year.

From this nadir Cissie slowly recovered her health if not her sobriety, for the bottle was to remain a continuing problem. The following year she left England’s shores for the last time, to make a sensational return to the Palace, New York, where she wiped the floor with her oldtimer co-stars Weber & Fields and Marie Cahill. On opening night the audience wouldn’t let her go and her scheduled twenty minute act stretched to a full hour. By 1928 she had also recovered her reputation as a straight actor and was starring in Diplomacy on Broadway and, the following year, as one of the more unpleasant Crawleys in Becky Sharpe. In the 1930s Cissie conquered yet another medium, talking pictures, and became a regular commuter between Hollywood and the Great White Way. Her first talkie was East Lynne (1930), and apart from an unsuccessful test for Aunt Pitty-Pan in Gone With The Wind her film career flourished, for she appeared on screen with such luminaries as Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins (The Old Maid 1939), Deanna Durbin and Walter Pidgeon (It’s a Date 1940), Ronald Colman and Ginger Rogers (Lucky Partners 1940), and Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi (The Black Cat 1941). These were Cissie’s golden years. As well as films she was in constant demand for stage rôles in such mostly forgotten pieces as The Devil Passes, The Holmeses of Baker Street, Merrily We Roll Along, The Patriarch, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Little Dark Horse, Lost Sheep, The Wooden Slipper, Abide with Me, and As Husbands Go. In a play called There’s Always a Breeze (1938) the New York Times critic praised her somewhat ambiguously as `the best scattered, grandmotherly alcoholic in the business’. That same year she enjoyed a last hurrah in her one-woman show An Evening with Cecilia Loftus at the Vanderbilt, of which Richard Sheridan Ames wrote `…there is probably no woman alive who could try what Miss Loftus attempted and come as near to complete success’ (Anthony Slide). Her final stage appearance was in a 1942 tour of Arsenic and Old Lace.

As a mimic Cissie Loftus has rarely, if ever, been equalled and certainly never surpassed. Her impersonations of Harry Lauder, Nora Bayes, and Irene Franklin were regarded as incomparable, and her astonishing repertoire included Ethel Barrymore, Caruso, Nazimova, Mrs Patrick Campbell, Eugene Stratton, Fanny Brice, Lynn Fontanne, Jeanne Eagels, Beatrice Lillie, Walter Huston, Dorothea Baird and both Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence. To Broadway Magazine of May 1899 she defined her technique as not `imitation, it is absorption…’

For the best part of half a century Cissie and Cecilia oscillated between variety and legitimate stages respectively on both sides of the Atlantic; she seemed able to slip effortlessly from one milieu to the other. All her memorialists claim that she would have preferred to work exclusively as an actor, that she yearned for respect and recognition as a dramatic star. Perhaps this was the reason she stayed in America. The offers kept coming, she found the life and the people congenial, and if cash ran out the coffers could be refilled with a few weeks in vaudeville, a form of entertainment not so déclassé as in Britain. And when all else failed, as from time to time it did – Cissie was never very good at hanging on to her hard-earned pennies – she was kept afloat by the Actors’ Fund.

If she never managed to consolidate her early fame and secure lasting stardom she was indisputably a class act, both as an actor and as an impersonator, and deserves to be better remembered. Three years after her mother’s death Cissie succumbed to heart failure and alcoholism at the Lincoln Hotel, New York, on 12th July, 1943. She was sixty-six.

Cecilia Loftus’ association with Henry Irving was brief; he was ill throughout that final Lyceum season and beset by cares. It is unlikely that we shall ever know the details of the relationship between The Mimetic Marvel and The Eminent Tragedian, but I like to think she helped lighten his burden. For as The Times said, `She came nearer to the magic charm and sunny vitality of Ellen Terry than any other actress of the time’.

*As we know she had in fact been seen in Don Juan at the Gaiety and in Children of the King at the Court.

References and Sources

American National Biography; S. N. Behrman Conversation with Max (1960); Austin Brereton The Life of Henry Irving (1908); Graeme Cruickshank’s private Theatre Collection; Evening News (London); Evening Standard (London); S. Theodore Felstead Stars Who Made The Halls (1946); Midge Gillies Marie Lloyd The One and Only (1999); Laurence Irving Henry Irving The Actor and his World (1951); Michael Kilgarriff Grace, Beauty & Banjos (1999) and Sing Us One of the Old Songs (1999); W. Macqueen-Pope Gaiety Theatre of Enchantment (1949) and The Melodies Linger On(1950); T. P. O’Connor In The Days of My Youth (1901) pp.128-9; Brian Rust British Music Hall on Record (1979); Anthony Slide Selected Vaudeville Criticism (1988); Who’s Who in the Theatre 3rd edition (1916) containing Who’s Who in Variety section; Who Was Who in the Theatre (1978) Thanks also to Brien Chitty for his enthusiastic devilling. MK.

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