Lily Elsie was the most celebrated and revered stage actress of the Edwardian era. Growing up in the Salford music halls, she rose to fame as the child singer “Little Elsie” before arriving in London as an adult. She won the hearts of Victorian and Edwardian audiences with her thick, lustrous brunette locks and doe eyes as a child star and remained there throughout her life. Born Elsie Hodder in West Riding, Yorkshire, in 1886, she made her stage debut as a child impersonator as “Little Elsie” in the mid-1890s. Though her voice was thin but sweet, and her stage presence was undeniable, she remained utterly shy despite her great success.
Performing in pantomimes and concerts, Little Elsie played the title role in Little Red Riding Hood at age ten, which ran on stage for six weeks and was successful on tour for another six weeks. In 1898, Elsie made her London debut and toured with the musical comedies that would define Edwardian theatre. Around 1900, she changed her name to “Lily Elsie” and joined George Edwardes’ company at Daly’s Theatre in London. In 1903, when she played “Princess Soo-Soo” in the hit musical A Chinese Honeymoon, she caused a stir by wearing a Chinese costume. Until then, white actors portraying characters of color always wore only ethnic costumes to indicate their non-European heritage. Edwards briefly fired her after he caught her playing a prank on stage, but he quickly rehired her in more minor roles, finishing her career in fourteen productions between 1903 and 1906.
Despite her best efforts, her big break came by accident. When Edwardes decided to do ‘The Merry Widow,’ he brought Elsie to Berlin to watch Die Lustige Witwe, the original German version. The production ran for an astonishing 778 performances at Daly’s Theatre, with English lyrics by Adrian Ross. Lucile designed her costumes and coached her in movement and grace after he convinced her to participate – she demurred, believing her voice was too small. The operetta went on tour in 1908, and Elsie became the most photographed actress of the Edwardian era, associated with Lucile’s wide-brimmed Merry Widow hat. Elsie performed in sixteen more musical comedies following ‘The Merry Widow,’ including ‘The Dollar Princess’ in 1909, ‘A Waltz Dream’ in 1911, and ‘The Count of Luxembourg’ in 1911.
Elsie married Major John Ian Bullough, the son of a wealthy textile manufacturer. During the Great War, Bullough wanted her to retire from the stage, which the shy Elsie did. After moving to Gloucestershire in 1920, Elsie enjoyed country society. Still, her marriage was never happy, and she returned to touring in the late 1920s before retiring for good in 1929 after playing against Ivor Novello in his The Truth Game. Elsie was plagued by illness and hypochondria as she drifted through nursing homes and Swiss sanatoriums during what could have been her golden years. Elsie died at age 76 in 1962 after undergoing brain surgery, which improved her health.