Beatrice Lillie, 1948
"The Funniest Woman in the World", "The Canadian Catastrophe", "Queen Bea" and of course "Lady Peel", are all titles, both official and unofficial, associated with comedienne Beatrice Lillie.
On May 29, 1894, in the downtown Toronto neighbourhood of Parkdale, Beatrice Gladys Lillie was born to John and Lucy Lillie. Lucy Lillie, who had her own show business ambitions, made sure that her daughters received musical training from an early age. Beatrice studied voice and drama while her older sister Muriel spent many hours at the piano.
By the time the sisters were in high school, they began to appear in local theatres and then toured around the province of Ontario. Billed as the "Lillie Trio - High Class Entertainers", the act consisted of mother Lucy singing classical arias and Beatrice performing comic songs in costume, with Muriel accompanying them and having an opportunity to play solos on the piano.
As Muriel's promising career as a pianist grew with the aid of frequent lessons at the Toronto Conservatory of Music, Lucy Lillie decided to take Muriel to Europe to finish off her education. Beatrice stayed behind in Canada to complete her own formal education at St. Agnes College in Belleville, Ontario.
In 1914, Beatrice followed Lucy and Muriel to London. André Charlot, a producer of revues, soon recognized her comedic talents during an audition. Beatrice Lillie made her début that year on the London stage at the Alhambra Theatre in a production called Not Likely.
She worked regularly from this point, appearing in many shows including 5064 Gerrard and Now's the Time in 1915; Samples in 1916; Some and Cheep in 1917; Oh Joy! in 1918 and Bran Pie in 1919.
With her slim build and her hair cropped in the latest fashion, she was often cast in male roles due to the fact that so many men were being called to war.
During her time on the London stage, she crafted her unique comedic style as well as one of her trademarks: twirling a long string of pearls. Beatrice needed to work in front of an audience because it provided her with immediate feedback and could allow her the latitude to improvise as the mood of the audience suited. This did not always amuse the other actors or the producers prompting André Charlot to post a note backstage after one of her improvisations: Beatrice Lillie Fined Five Shillings for Trying to be Funny.
In 1920, Beatrice married Robert Peel and gave birth to her only son Bobbie soon after. Her career did not slow down, and she appeared in Up in Mabel's Room in 1921 and in the year-long run of Nine O'Clock Revue in 1922.
Appearing in her first film role in the 1926 silent film Exit Smiling, Beatrice did not enjoy the process of making films due to the lack of a live audience. In her autobiography, she comments: "For the longest time I refused to see Exit Smiling. It's an awful feeling to sit watching yourself, knowing there's nothing you can do about it."
Most of her time was now being spent in New York appearing in musical comedies. Her very good friend Noel Coward co-starred with her in his play This Year of Grace in 1928 and they played to large and enthusiastic audiences that brought Beatrice even more notoriety. They worked again together in 1932 when Beatrice introduced Coward's song "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" in The Third Little Show.
Her husband Sir Robert Peel, from whom she had separated but never divorced, died suddenly in 1934, leaving her with large debts. She continued to work, starring in the revue At Home and Abroad with Vincente Minnelli as director in 1935 and then The Show is On with co-star Bert Lahr. In 1936, she appeared in films again with Bing Crosby in Dr. Rhythm.
During the Second World War, she entertained the troops in a variety of locations including England, Germany and Africa. This was a difficult period for Beatrice as her son Bobbie, who was serving aboard the H.M.S. Tenedos, was reported missing in action in 1942. She seemed to find comfort in her work and her schedule was as busy as ever.
After the war, she performed in a revue called Inside the USA where she met an actor and singer named John Philip Huck. Although he was a much younger man, he became her companion and also her manager.
In October 1952, she created her own show; incorporating her greatest bits in An Evening with Beatrice Lillie which opened on Broadway. This show garnered rave reviews and she toured with it across Canada three times. She won a Special Tony Award for her performance in 1953.
She appeared in Around the World in Eighty Days as a revivalist in 1957 and in 1958 she was nominated for a Tony Award for her part in Ziegfeld Follies, which played in 1957, but had a short run on Broadway. She also succeeded Rosalind Russell in the title role in Auntie Mame in 1958.
In 1964, at the age of 70, Beatrice Lillie played the part of Madame Arcati in High Spirits in New York. This musical adaptation of Noel Coward's 1941 comedy Blithe Spirit was directed by Coward himself in New York. She was again nominated for a Tony Award for her performance.
With her memory failing, and showing signs of Alzheimer's disease, Beatrice's last on-screen performance was as Mrs. Meers in Thoroughly Modern Millie in 1967. She also was able to complete her autobiography Every Other Inch a Lady in 1972 before suffering strokes in 1974 and again in 1975.
After six decades as an entertainer, Beatrice died on January 29, 1989 of natural causes at her home at Henley-on-Thames in England. Within 31 hours, her longtime companion John Philip Huck also died of a heart attack.
On March 14, 1989 in the Parkdale neighbourhood of her childhood, the public health office at 1115 Queen Street West in downtown Toronto was named the Beatrice Lillie building, dedicated by H.R.H. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
Baxter, A.B. "Girl who had no talent". Maclean's. (February 1, 1955). P. 4, 42-3
Dugan, J. "Ungilded Lillie". Maclean's. (July 15, 1948). P. 20, 33-36
Laffey, Bruce. Beatrice Lillie : the funniest woman in the world. New York, N.Y. : Wynwood Press, c1989. 296 p.
Lillie, Beatrice. An evening with Beatrice Lillie [sound recording]. [England?] : London, [1955?] 1 sound disc : analog, 33 1/3 r/min.
Lillie, Beatrice. Queen Bea [sound recording] : a musical autobiography. New York : DRG Archive, p 1979. 2 sound discs : analog, 33 1/3 r/min.
Lillie, Beatrice ; Brough, James. Every other inch a lady. Aided and abetted by John Philip. London : W.H. Allen, c1972. 318 p.
Martin, Linda ; Seagrave, Kerry. "Beatrice Lillie". Women in comedy. Secaucus, N.J. : Citadel Press, c1986. P. 121-128
Moore, James Ross. "Lillie, Beatrice". American National Biography Online [online]. [Cited June 18, 2003]. Access : www.anb.org/articles/18/18-03546.html
On approval [videorecording]. Produced by Clive Brook. New York, NY : Kino on Video, c1996
Thoroughly modern Millie [videorecording]. Universal City, Calif. : MCA Universal Home Video, c1990. Beatrice Lillie as Mrs. Meers