In September 1884, six weary journalists spent three unusually hot and humid days loitering around the New York harbor waiting for the world-famous entertainer Lotta Crabtree to arrive. Lotta was on her way to the city where she had perfected her career. The moment her steamship docked, the scribes rifled through their pockets for pencils and notepads. They scribbled Lotta’s name across the top of their notepads while anxiously waiting for her to appear. She had been away from the area for several years, performing on stages in New York, London and Paris.1
Devoted fans, curious about what she would say when she stepped off the steamship America and looked around at the city that favored her, had gathered at the harbor. That her remarks would be voluminous, spirited, and to the point, no reporter or fan doubted. Journalists had been furnished with a little information about what she would say from her energetic manager, J. K. Tillotson. Tillotson had sent a short message to several newspaper editors across the country informing them that Lotta would make mention of her time abroad and address rumors that she had married in France. Reporters familiar with Lotta’s mother, Mary Ann Crabtree, thought it highly unlikely the red-headed star would have been allowed to do such a thing, but they had to be sure.2
Mary Ann was the quintessential stage mother. She was dedicated to seeing that Lotta became the best, most beloved actress on any stage. Toward that effort she had halted every romantic overture young men had made toward her daughter. Falling in love and getting married could interfere with the success Lotta worked so long and hard to achieve.3
Lotta was among the men and women making their way down the gang plank when the steamship finally docked, and the passengers disembarked. According to various newspaper accounts, the thirty-seven-year-old star “looked very unassuming and was clothed like a little English servant girl out for a Sunday, in a loose blue dress without a suspicion of crinoline and a meek little Quaker bonnet. The only feature about the little lady which suggested her profession was her extraordinary red hair.”4
Lotta was greeted by a dozen or so lady fans that presented her with flowers and kissed her cheeks. The six weary reporters gathered around Lotta, and she looked up with surprise just as another woman had welcomed her with a kiss. “Miss Lotta,” a scribe said ambling forward, the September 4, 1884, edition of the San Francisco Call reported. “I’m a representative of the press come to interview you. These are my colleagues. We want to write up something you will like.” “I’ve nothing to say,” Lotta told them coldly. “Nothing whatsoever. Good afternoon.”5
“Miss Lotta,” said another,” “Mister Tillotson, your manager, wrote us letters about your arrival. Now, Miss Lotta, let us hear of your experiences. What of your recent nuptials?” “Really,” said Lotta, in a tone that was just as cold as her last comment. “I can’t help what Mister Tillotson told you. I have nothing to say and no time to say it.”6
For five years newspapers had erroneously reported that Lotta had exchanged vows with three different men. In December 1879, the Daily Democrat in Sedalia, Missouri, claimed she met and married a man named W. H. Smith, a manager of a San Francisco theatre. In July 1883, the Burlington Hawkeye in Burlington, New Jersey, reported that she married an O. Edwin Huss, and an article in the October 5, 1883, newspaper the Decatur Weekly Republican in Decatur, Illinois, read that she had wed Bolton Hulme.7
A musician from London was among two men who claimed to have met and married Lotta during her European tour. Although one of the men, Charles F. Morrow from Manchester, had posted a notice in the London Times announcing that “he and Miss Crabtree were never wed,” reporters persisted in asking about the incident.8
By September 1884, Lotta had grown tired of addressing the false reports and refused to dignify any more queries about such rumors with an answer.9
After the ordeal with the journalists at the ship’s arrival in New York, Lotta was transported by carriage to the home she shared with her mother on Twenty-Third Street. Her mother and manager then explained to Lotta that her treatment of the press was ill-advised. According to an article in the September 16, 1884 edition of the New York Times, “Lotta was seized with remorse at having neglected so good an opportunity to say something.” She sent word to the journalists that she would be home that evening and would be glad to see them. The reporters went to the house at the appropriate time and again prepared themselves to interview Lotta.10
“Mrs. Crabtree, the lady to whom Lotta owes her existence and who also returned by the America, was found in the dining room,” the New York Times article continued. “My daughter will be in very shortly,” said Mrs. Crabtree, adding by the way, that she was delighted to see them. “It is fifteen months come tomorrow since we left New York,” she said. “Dear me, how time flies. You know Lotta went over to play a ten week’s engagement and then protracted it to seven months. Isn’t that extraordinary? The Londoners were delighted with her.”11
At that moment Lotta entered the room, smiling prettily. She never once referred to the scene at the docks. She had a neat little stereotyped story of having taken London by storm and then left the poor metropolis to its fate. “I must confess,” she said, “that the English people did not like ‘Musette’ [the musical in which she starred] at first. But they were delighted with ‘Little Nell and the Marchioness’ and ‘Nitouche.’ They swear they’ll never have another Marchioness. Isn’t that sweet of them?” asked the little actress. “They’re such an enthusiastic nation.”12
“I only hope you’ll do as well here, love,” interposed Mrs. Crabtree. “Then you ought to be doubly delighted.” “Yes, ma,” said Lotta. “I ought.” “The Prince of Wales came to see Lotta,” Mrs. Crabtree continued. “He was delightfully kind and passed such a pleasant evening. “Did he call at the house afterwards?” one of the journalists asked. “Oh, no,” said Lotta, “Let me try and recollect exactly what happened. I want to be precise.” “He said you were very cleaver,” Mrs. Crabtree interjected.”13
Lotta elaborated on her time in London and the various dinners she had the fortune of being invited to attend. She shared with the reporters that she was a guest of Queen Victoria and Lord and Lady Londesborough (British politician and diplomat). “Now,” said Lotta in conclusion, “If only I do as well here as I did in Europe. I have a new play written for me by Ed Kidder called ‘Dorothy Dent’ I’ll be starring in and…. “Above all,” interrupted Mrs. Crabtree, “I must say that Lotta made beautiful headway in England and mixed in lovely society.”14
No further questions were posed about Lotta’s marital status. The interview ended on a pleasant note. Mary Ann thanked the journalists for coming Lotta waved graciously to them, and her mother and manager escorted her to her room.15
From the moment Lotta became the “Darling of the Mines” in 1853, her life both on and off the stage was the subject of much curiosity. Charlotte “Lotta” Mignon Crabtree was born in New York on November 7, 1847. She was the idol of hundreds of young men who only saw her as she dashed in and out of the theatre. Her parents, John and Mary Ann Crabtree, ran a bookstore. John, a tall man who wore beaver hats, ignored the business and spent much of his time trying to find a shortcut to getting rich and enjoying “the good life,” as he called it, in a saloon.16 Mary Ann kept the shop afloat, occasionally bringing in money by working as an upholsterer. Her serious, responsible nature was reflected in her manner of dress. She always wore a one-piece, black taffeta, Princess-style frock. She knew almost immediately that she had made a mistake when she married John, but she was determined to stick it out. Her husband was less dedicated to making it work.17
John came down with gold fever in 1851 and decided to move west to find a fortune. Little did he know his daughter would soon be bringing in more gold than he could ever acquire panning or mining for the riches. Mary Ann followed her husband to California in 1852. John was supposed to meet his family in San Francisco, but, true to his character, he never showed up.18
Mary Ann found herself alone in a booming metropolis with no prospects and a child to care for. She sat down on the docks next to the ship that had brought her there to think about what to do. Her situation wasn’t unique. Many wives and children were left stranded in the Gold Country by their husbands and fathers. Mary Ann stared down into the happy, smiling face of her daughter and realized she had to make the best of the circumstances. She appealed for help to a few people whom she had befriended on the ship. Mary Ann moved in with some of these generous new friends and tried to build a life for herself and her daughter.19
Theatrical shows were very popular in San Francisco. The various playhouses were always filled with bored miners looking to be amused. As the need for entertainment grew, more performers came to town daily. Variety shows sprung up overnight and featured acrobats, singers, and slapstick comedians. Child actors were held in particularly high regard because they reminded the miners of the sons and daughters they had left behind to search for gold.
Mary Ann loved the theatre and took Lotta to see the shows as often as she could. Early on in her life, Mary Ann had wanted to be a performer, but she had abandoned that dream to get married. She watched the actors, singers, and dancers with great admiration and kept a close eye on how many people were in the audience. She noticed that the forty-niners were willing to pay handsomely to see the shows, and she wanted to get in on the act. It wasn’t long before she became friends with a circle of the most popular actors of the nineteenth century. Her plan was to use them to transform her vibrant, talented, bubbly little girl into a star. Mary Ann enrolled Lotta in a dancing class and encouraged her daughter’s acting aspirations.
John Crabtree finally contacted his wife in 1853 and begged for her forgiveness. He confessed that he had found nothing but a few flakes of gold while panning in the creek beds around Sutter’s Mill. He pleaded with Mary Ann to join him in Grass Valley, California. He had it in his mind to run a boarding house for miners there. Mary Ann reluctantly agreed to follow her husband. She was less than impressed with the gold mining town when she arrived.
Grass Valley was no San Francisco. It had a population of only 3,500. Three hundred were women, and fifteen were school age children. The town was rustic and lacked many of the opportunities she wanted Lotta to have. She helped John open their second-class, two-story boarding house on Main Street and enrolled Lotta in the only dancing school around. The classes were conducted in the annex of a tavern.20
Jared Reynolds was Lotta’s dance instructor, and he was quite taken with her abilities. Many of the miners who stopped in the saloon for a drink gathered around to watch her twirl across the tiny stage. Tears would well up in their eyes as they thought of their own children. Half of California’s foreign-born population was Irish in the 1850s. Jared Reynolds knew this and made sure his pupil could dance jigs and reels-dances very popular in Ireland. One day, soon after she had mastered those dances, the dance instructor loaded Lotta in a buggy and, without asking her parents, took off for the gold fields.
It was the height of the California Gold Rush; the place was Rabbit Creek, and Lotta was six years old. She danced in the light of the candles, her red hair sparkling and her blue eyes flashing underneath the tall green hat she wore. Miners loved her act and tossed gold nuggets at her feet, starting a fortune that would eventually amount to more than $4 million when she died. When Lotta didn’t return home after class that evening, Mary Ann and John were frantic. The Crabtree’s first child, Harriet, had died in infancy, and this naturally made them very protective of Lotta.21
After a few hours, Jared returned the child to her home with news that her dancing was a huge hit with the miners in the hills. He wanted to organize a musical troupe and escort Lotta around the gold fields with them. Mary Ann wasn’t in the mood to hear his plan. She was furious with Jared for taking Lotta without permission and reprimanded him for his actions. John thought Jared’s idea had promise, but Mary Ann refused to listen to him.
Just as Lotta was refining her skills with her instructors, John moved his family out of Grass Valley and headed north to Rabbit Creek. (The same camp town Jared had taken Lotta to perform). After opening up another boarding house, John left his wife and two children to go on another gold search. Mary Ann was left to handle the business again. She resented cleaning up after unwashed, dirty miners. She knew Lotta was the answer to a better life.
During her stay in Rabbit Creek, Mary Ann met Mart Taylor, a musician and dancer who managed a saloon and crude theatre where traveling players often appeared. Mary Ann convinced him to let Lotta perform for his customers. Lotta danced and sang a couple of sentimental ballads. She was a hit, and Mart Taylor quickly took her under his supervision.
Mart Taylor and Mary Ann quickly put together a company of musicians and set off to travel the various mining camps with their pint-sized gold mine. Lotta was well received wherever the troupe went, and she earned about thirteen dollars a night dancing and singing. Still unable to strike it rich, Lotta’s father joined the troupe and toured with them for a time. He was amazed at the reaction his daughter got in the mining camps. She was greeted by thunderous applause followed by showers of coins and nuggets. He’d not seen that much gold in all the time he had been prospecting. Mary Ann knew Lotta’s act could earn more money in big city theatres. This time it was Mary Ann who decided to move the family back to San Francisco.
Lotta performed at variety halls and amusement parks and became known as the “San Francisco Favorite.” She was twelve and the sole supporter of her family, which now included two brothers.22
Mary Ann was in charge of every aspect of Lotta’s career. She made her costumes, applied her makeup, booked her into the various performance halls, and made sure the schedule allowed for Lotta to take parts in plays at the better theatres in San Francisco. She handled all of Lotta’s money as well, insisting on getting Lotta’s share after the box office closed each night rather than waiting until the end of the week. She had a mortal fear of theatre fires. A theatre’s gas footlights could, and often did, explode and cause a fire that would consume a building in a matter of minutes.
Lotta was devoted to her mother. Her high spirits and irrepressible good humor on stage reflected Mary Ann’s boundless confidence in her. Mary Ann prevented Lotta from having any intimate contacts or lasting friends, however. She wanted her daughter to be totally dependent on her.
Under the watchful eye of Mary Ann, Lotta was hustled directly to performances and home again. Although she was approaching sixteen, there were still no boyfriends. Mary Ann made a habit of intervening and heading off any romance that might come Lotta’s way. A supporting player in one of the stage plays Lotta performed in said she was “guarded like an odalisque in a harem.” Most people referred to the cheerful Lotta as “Miss Lotta, the Unapproachable.” Once, toward evening in the summer, a young man with a horse and carriage called to take her riding. Mary Ann sent him away quickly, but for days afterwards, following dinner, Lotta contrived to sweep the front porch in case he should return. Unhappily, he did not.23
Lotta Crabtree was a true pin-up girl, even in her teens. She was the most fully pictured actress of her time, and her diversified moods always displayed themselves in her pictures. They were as much a part of herself and her acting as the flaming hair and coal-black eyes. Her dancing was as light as gossamer, when she wanted it to be, or boldly primitive. She was an excellent mimic, both in song and dance. She knew how to play the banjo, and she had a beautiful, flexible soprano voice with incredible range.
Lotta Crabtree was a popular star and in constant demand. By 1863 she was earning more than forty-two thousand dollars a year. Mary Ann was a smart businesswoman and invested her daughter’s money in real estate. She walked the streets of the towns Lotta performed and bought vacant lots she believed would be highly sought after as the town grew. Lotta had no head for finances and counted on her mother to pay all her bills and support her act.24
At the peak of Lotta’s fame in California, Lotta, her mother, and her brothers, George and John, traveled east. Lotta captured the hearts of theatre goers in New York, Chicago, Boston, and the Midwest. She performed in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Jenny Leatherlungs. One of her most popular plays was an adaptation of Dickens’s the Old Curiosity Shop in which Lotta played two different characters. Lotta was fond of portraying young men. She had such a youthful face that she could get away with playing those kinds of roles, but Mary Ann objected. Not only did she think her child should be portraying queens and damsels in distress, but Lotta had an unladylike habit of plunging her hands into the pants of her costumes. Mary Ann sewed the pockets shut on her entire wardrobe.25
Her mother’s overbearing actions never dampened Lotta’s spirit. Lotta was thrilled with the praise she received from the audiences on the East Coast. In a letter to a friend in 1865 she wrote how she felt about the reception she was getting everywhere she performed. “I’m a continual success wherever I go. In some places I created quite a theatrical furor as they call it. I performed in Buffalo in a play called ‘Fanchon.’ The people were delighted and the theatre not big enough to hold them…. Why, friend Billie, your heart would jump for joy to see the respect I am treated with here among the theatre people. I’m a star and that is sufficient and making quite a name.”26
Even in her thirties Lotta always gave the impression of a young girl, never a woman, but a girl who delighted in flouting convention. She wore her skirts shorter than most, smoked thinly-rolled, black cigars, and sprinkled her hair with cayenne pepper in order to catch the reflection of the footlights.
Lotta’s brothers, specifically Jack Crabtree, took the place of the men Lotta could have loved if her mother would have allowed her to have a romantic life. Jack was a forerunner of the Broadway playboys. His guests at lavish dinner parties ranged from Sarah Bernhardt, the greatest actress of her time (outside of Lotta, in Jack’s opinion) to John Sullivan, heavyweight boxing champion of the world. He entertained all of the celebrities with Lotta playing on the bill.27
There were times when well-meaning friends scolded her for pampering her brother. Lotta’s stock answer was: “Jack is all I live for. If I can’t humor myself in this one way then I may as well stop living, too. I have no wants of my own.”28
But she was secretly doing other things. While she and her mother were accumulating tremendously valuable real estate in Manhattan, Lotta was carrying on her own philanthropies, helping the less fortunate without publicity or fanfare.29
By 1870, Lotta was earning more than eighty thousand dollars a year and was one of the most popular actresses on the American stage. She spent a great deal of the allowance her mother gave her on her family, lavishing them with gold watches, fine clothes, and sending her brothers to the best schools in the country. Mary Ann kept track of every dime Lotta spent and was convinced that if she didn’t keep a close eye on her, the very generous Lotta would give away all the money she had. She was so protective of Lotta and her fortune she would fight anyone to keep them both intact. Mary Ann once caught her husband stealing coins from the steamer trunk where she stored Lotta’s earnings. She was so outraged by his behavior that she had him arrested. Mary Ann felt John’s actions would have a negative effect on Lotta’s career and agreed not to press charges if he would leave the country. John reluctantly agreed. When Lotta and the rest of her family went abroad they met up with John in London.30
While touring Europe Lotta learned to paint, studied French, and took piano lessons. She drew attention everywhere she went. She would drive a pony cart up and down the streets dressed in white muslin and blue ribbons.31
When she returned to America in 1875, Lotta continued portraying children and playing younger parts in comical performances. She loved making people laugh and is considered by most historians as one of the theatre’s first comediennes. Lotta loved animals, and, when she finally returned to her beloved San Francisco to perform in yet another play, she purchased a fountain at the intersection of Kearney and Market Streets and donated it to the city so thirsty horses would have a place to get a drink.
Lotta retired from the theatre in 1891. A fall on stage in Buffalo, New York, prompted her decision to leave the acting profession at the age of forty-five. All of her energy was diverted to the administration of the charities she had established. She and her mother retreated to a summer cottage on Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey, that she named Attol Tryst. (Attol is Lotta spelled backwards). It was a gift from mother to daughter but built with Lotta’s money. It was one of the most elaborate homes in the area.32
Mary Ann Crabtree died in 1905. Lotta was beside herself with grief. Her constant companion and best friend was no longer at her side. Mary Ann didn’t leave a will, but Lotta found more than seventy thousand dollars in cash hidden throughout their home. Twenty thousand of that was hidden inside a granite coffeepot. Lotta also found financial statements that showed the amount of money she had earned off the investments her mother had made for her. Mary Ann’s investments had brought in more than two million dollars.33
Lotta sold the mansion on Lake Hopatcong and purchased the Brewster Home in Boston, where she lived a quiet, almost reclusive life. The remaining years of her life were spent painting and giving her money away. On many days she could be found on the streets of Boston fitting straw hats for horses to shade them from the heat.34
Lotta Crabtree died of arteriosclerosis in 1924 at the age of seventy-seven. She left her sizeable estate to veterans, animals, students of music and agriculture, needy children at Christmas time, and needy actors. She was buried next to her mother in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City. Regardless of the men who hoped to persuade Lotta to fall in love with them and spend the rest of their life in her company, she never married.35