Beatrice Lillie   1894-1987
"The Funniest Woman in the World"

In April 1964, Noel Coward made a diary notation: “Bea Lillie ... is mad about playing Acati. She will bring to it star quality, moments of genius and little or no acting talent, but I’ll settle.” The entry was typical of the relationship between Toronto-born Lillie and Coward who wrote numerous revues and shows for the woman who was to become globally known as “the funniest woman in the world.”

Beatrice Lillie played to the troops during World War II. Recognized for her patriotic efforts, she was decorated by France's Gen. Charles de Gaulle. Her zany stage humour made her an international sensation. She published an amusing autobiography in 1972 called Every Other Inch a Lady. [Photo, courtesy Metropolitan Toronto Library Photo Collection]

Bea was approaching 70 when she played Acati in High Spirits, the musical version of Coward’s play, Blythe Spirit. She had first appeared on the London stage fifty years earlier singing a boy’s role in the André Charlot revue Not Likely. Before that, she had appeared in Toronto and numerous other Ontario towns as part of a family trio made up of her older sister Muriel, who was something of a child prodigy at the piano, and her musically ambitious mother, Lucy, who pushed Bea into taking singing lessons.

Bea went to Harry Rich, who had been a comedian before an accident confined him to a wheelchair. He taught Bea how to sing comic songs as well as gesture and grimace – her later repertoire trademarks. He also became booking agent for Lucy and her two daughters and got them engagements throughout the province. By her mid-teens Bea was attracting positive reviews. The Toronto Globe commented that she was a “remarkable clever artist with a sweet, powerful voice.” The Galt Reformer reported that she “proved a great favourite and won much applause for all her numbers.” Her mother’s main interest, however, was in Muriel as a pianist. In 1913, she took Muriel to study in Germany but the threat of war caused them to settle in London. When Bea finished St. Agnes College in Belleville in 1914, she too wanted to try out for stage work; her father, John Lillie, saw her off to England but remained steadfastly in Toronto.

She got a part in an André Charlot revue and the following year, when she played a boy, one critic called her “one of the most dapper and accomplished of contemporary male impersonators.” Other Charlot revues followed and, in 1917 when she appeared in Cheep, Noel Coward affirmed that “Beatrice Lillie appeared in her true colours as a comic genius of the first order.”

The revues of Beatrice Lillie (1894-1987) incorporated sketches, songs, and monologues parody and witty satire. Her uncanny ability to become intimate with audiences made her a stage success for over 50 years. This photograph was taken in New York city in the 1930s. By this time she was known as Lady Peel. [Photo, courtesy Charles J. Humber Collection]

Early in 1920 she married Robert Peel, the extravagant heir of Lord Peel, and by year’s end their only son, Robert Jr., was born. Bea continued on stage, partly to keep her husband financially sound. Leaving her son much of the time with her mother over the next four years, she appeared in revues and vaudeville, including the 1922 hit, The Nine O’clock Revue, that featured music written by Muriel. The show lasted a full year.

Her New York debut in another Charlot revue won her instant recognition from the New York Times in January 1924. “There was no one in New York quite comparable to Beatrice Lillie.” The show, originally booked for six weeks, lasted for nine months and went on tour for another six. She was in Chicago when, on the death of her father-in-law, she and Robert became Lord and Lady Peel.

Work as Beatrice Lillie continued unabated. In 1926 she was back in New York in another revue, made her first film with Mary Pickford’s brother Jack, began performing in cabarets and in December appeared in Oh Please, a performance that caused critic Brooks Atkinson to write, “She is a comedienne with a divine spark, a mimic of the highest skill and everything she does is shot through with a piercing sense of humour.” Walter Winchell also applauded her while panning the supporting cast, musical conductor, and stage crews. For the next decade Bea flitted between London and New York performing in numerous productions. She appeared in Coward’s This Year of Grace and After Dinner Music, in some of Charlot’s revues, and in Bernard Shaw’s Too True To be Good opposite Claude Rains. Of this the Herald Tribune reported, “the Shavians speak of it with proper respect but unregenerate outsiders call it Beatrice Lillie’s show.”

In 1934 when her husband died of peritonitis, he left behind large debts. Beatrice had no choice but to continue her stage career. In 1935 she was at London’s Palladium and that September at the Winter Garden in New York with Reginald Gardiner and Ethel Waters in At Home Abroad. Cole Porter wrote a song for her and Bert Lahr was her co-star in The Show is On which lasted almost a year. In 1936 she tried the movies again appearing with Bing Crosby in Dr. Rhythm.

Beatrice Lillie and Billy de Wolfe combined in 1957 to produce a smash hit golden anniversary revue of the Ziegfeld Follies at New York's Winter Garden. [Photo, courtesy Charles J. Humber Collection]

Movies, however, were not her forte. Critics felt she needed a live audience, and she got that in abundance by volunteering for troop shows one month after World War II was declared. She performed in England, the Mediterranean and the Middle East until illness forced her to quit in 1944. By then she had also learned that her son, reported missing in action in 1942, had been killed while serving in the Royal Navy.

In December 1944 she was back in New York and won the Donaldson Award for Seven Lively Arts. Then it was London again for Better Late, and New York in 1948 for Inside USA with Jack Haley, a revue in which Bea instituted her pearl-twisting bit. It was also during that revue that she met 26-year-old John Philip Huck, both a singer and actor, who became her manager and, despite their age difference, her companion for the rest of her life.

In the summer of 1952, she launched An Evening with Beatrice Lillie and for the next four years won rave reviews in the USA, Canada, and Great Britain. It was as a result of this show that the fabled Brooks Atkinson called her “the funniest woman in the world,” and British critic Ronald Barker wrote, “Other generations may have their Mistinguette and their Marie Lloyd. We have our Beatrice Lillie and seldom have we seen such a display of perfect talent.”

When that show had run its course, she appeared in the Golden Jubilee edition of the Ziegfeld Follies with Billy de Wolfe in 1956, then took over Rosalind Russell’s role in Auntie Mame in 1958. As predicted by Coward and confirmed by Atkinson, she soon made “Mame her own.”

By the early 1960s, however, the revue was becoming passé and so was Lillie. Following Coward’s musical, High Spirits, in 1964, Bea made cameo appearances in two movies: Around the World in 80 Days and Thoroughly Modern Millie but it was obvious she was losing her memory. In 1967 when she shared double billing at Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre, audiences found her material dated. Failing to make a comeback, she became more eccentric – she once attempted a striptease when one was neither intended or expected – and drifted into private life. In 1974 and 1975 she suffered strokes and was moved to a retirement apartment in New York where Huck, who had a fiery temper and was never popular with her friends, attempted to plead poverty on her behalf. Later they moved to a home she had purchased at Henley-on-Thames outside London. There, now blind, she lived as almost a total invalid, until her death in her 93rd year on January 20, 1987. Next day, Huck, her companion for almost 40 years, suffered a fatal heart attack and they were buried side by side near her mother and sister in a small cemetery near Peel Fold.

Mel James