Beatrice Lillie

Beatrice Lillie

Beatrice Lillie, as photographed by Yousuf Karsh, 1948.
Birth name Beatrice Gladys Lillie
Born (1894-05-29)May 29, 1894
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Died January 20, 1989(1989-01-20) (aged 94)
Henley-on-Thames, England
Medium Stage, motion pictures

Beatrice Gladys "Bea" Lillie (May 29, 1894 – January 20, 1989) was a Canadian-born British actress, singer and comedic performer.

She began to perform as a child with her mother and sister. She made her West End debut in the 1914 and soon gained notice in revues and light comedies, becoming known for her parodies of old-fashioned, flowery performing styles and absurd songs and sketches. She debuted in New York in 1924 and two years later starred in her first film, continuing to perform in both the US and UK. She was associated with the works of Noël Coward and Cole Porter. During World War II, Lillie was an inveterate entertainer of the troops. She won a Tony Award in 1953 for her revue An Evening With Beatrice Lillie.

Early career

Lillie was born in Toronto to John Lillie and wife Lucie-Ann Shaw. Although some theatre sources state that her birthname was Constance Sylvia Gladys Munston,[1] most of her obituaries and her autobiography do not mention this name, and the online birth registry at FamilySearch gives her birth name as "Beatrice Gladys Lillie".[2] Her father had been a British Army officer in India and later was a Canadian government official. Her mother was a concert singer. Beatrice performed in other Ontario towns as part of a family trio with her mother and older sister, Muriel. Eventually, her mother took the girls to London, England where she made her West End début in the 1914 Not Likely. She was noted primarily for her stage work in revues, especially those staged by André Charlot, and light comedies, and was frequently paired with Gertrude Lawrence, Bert Lahr and Jack Haley.

Scene from Oh Joy!, showing Tom Powers (as George Budd) with Lillie (as Jackie Sampson), London, 1919

In her revues, she utilized sketches, songs and parody that won her lavish praise from The New York Times after her 1924 New York début in André Charlot's Revue of 1924, starring Gertrude Lawrence.[3] In some of her best known bits, she would solemnly parody the flowery performing style of earlier decades, mining such songs as "There are Fairies at the Bottom of our Garden" and "Mother Told Me So" for every double entendre, while other numbers ("Get Yourself a Geisha" and "Snoops the Lawyer", for example) showcased her exquisite sense of the absurd. Her performing in such comedy routines as "One Dozen Double Damask Dinner Napkins", (in which an increasingly flummoxed matron attempts to purchase said napkins) earned her the frequently used sobriquet of "Funniest Woman in the World". She never performed the "Dinner Napkins" routine in Britain, because British audiences had already seen it performed by the Australian-born English revue performer Cicely Courtneidge, for whom it was written.

In 1926 she returned to New York City to perform. While there, she starred in her first film, Exit Smiling (1927), opposite fellow Canadian Jack Pickford, the younger brother of Mary Pickford. This was followed by The Show of Shows (1929).[4] After a 1927 tour on the Orpheum Circuit, Lillie made her Broadway Vaudeville debut at the Palace Theatre in 1928 and performed there frequently after that. She also played at the London Palladium in 1928.[4]

On stage, she was long associated with the works of Noël Coward, beginning with This Year of Grace (1928) and giving the first public performance of "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" in Coward's The Third Little Show (1931). Cole Porter and others also wrote songs for her. From the late 1920s until the approach of World War II, Lillie repeatedly crossed the Atlantic to perform on both continents. With Bobby Clark she appeared in London in Walk a Little Faster, and with Bert Lahr, she starred in New York in The Show is On (1936).[4] Lillie won a Tony Award in 1953 for her revue An Evening With Beatrice Lillie, which she had played both on Broadway and on tour, and she was nominated for another Tony in 1957 for a "golden jubilee edition" of the Ziegfeld Follies.[5] She starred in Auntie Mame in both New York (1956–1958) and London (1958), and in 1964 she made her final stage appearance as Madame Arcati in High Spirits, the musical version of Coward's Blithe Spirit, receiving another Tony Award nomination.[4][5]

In 1944, Lillie appeared in the film On Approval. Her few other film appearances included a cameo role as a revivalist in Around the World in 80 Days (1956) and as "Mrs. Meers" (a white slaver) in her last film, Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967).[4]

After seeing An Evening with Beatrice Lillie, critic Ronald Barker wrote, "Other generations may have their Mistinguett and their Marie Lloyd. We have our Beatrice Lillie and seldom have we seen such a display of perfect talent." Sheridan Morley noted in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography that "Lillie's great talents were the arched eyebrow, the curled lip, the fluttering eyelid, the tilted chin, the ability to suggest, even in apparently innocent material, the possible double entendre".[6]

Marriage and children

She was married, on 20 January 1920, at the church of St. Paul, Drayton Bassett, Fazeley, Staffordshire, England, to Sir Robert Peel, 5th Baronet.[7] Following the marriage, she was known in private life as Lady Peel. She eventually separated from her husband, but the couple never divorced. He died in 1934. Their only child, Sir Robert Peel, 6th Baronet, was killed in action aboard HMS Tenedos (H04) in Colombo Harbour, Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) in 1942.

During World War II, Lillie was an inveterate entertainer of the troops. Before she went on stage one day, she learned her son was killed in action. She refused to postpone the performance saying "I'll cry tomorrow." In 1948, while touring in the show Inside USA, she met singer/actor John Philip Huck, almost three decades younger, who became her friend and companion, and she boosted his career. As Lillie's mental abilities declined at the end of her career, she relied more and more on Huck, whom her friends viewed with suspicion. In 1977, a conservator was appointed over her property, and she retired to England.[4]

Retirement and death

Lillie retired from the stage due to Alzheimer's disease. Julie Andrews remembered that Lillie, as Mrs. Meers in Thoroughly Modern Millie (filmed in 1966 and released in 1967), had to be prompted through her lines and was often confused on set.

Lillie died on January 20, 1989, which was also the date of her wedding anniversary, at Henley-on-Thames. Huck died of a heart attack 31 hours later and is interred next to her in the Peel family estate's cemetery near Peel Fold, Blackburn.[4]



Short subjects

Stage appearances

  • Not Likely (1914) (London)
  • 5064 Gerrard (1915) (London)
  • Samples (1916) (London)
  • Some (1916) (London)
  • Cheep (1917) (London)
  • Tabs (1918) (London)
  • Bran Pie (1919) (London)
  • Oh, Joy! (1919) (London)
  • Now and Then (1921) (London)
  • Pot Luck (1921) (London)
  • The Nine O'Clock Revue (1922) (London)
  • Andre Charlot's Revue of 1924 (1924) (Broadway)
  • Andre Charlot's Revue of 1926 (1925) (Broadway and US national tour)
  • Oh, Please (1926) (Broadway)
  • She's My Baby (1928) (Broadway)
  • This Year of Grace (1928) (Broadway)
  • Charlot's Masquerade (1930) (London)
  • The Third Little Show (1931) (Broadway)
  • Too True to Be Good (1932) (Broadway)
  • Walk a Little Faster (1932) (Broadway)
  • Please (1933) (London)
  • At Home Abroad (1935) (Broadway)
  • The Show Is On (1936) (Broadway)
  • Happy Returns (1938) (London)
  • Set to Music (1939) (Broadway)
  • All Clear (1939) (London)
  • Big Top (1942) (London)
  • Seven Lively Arts (1944) (Broadway)
  • Better Late (1946) (London)
  • Inside U.S.A. (1948) (Broadway)
  • An Evening With Beatrice Lillie (1952) (Broadway and London)
  • Ziegfeld Follies of 1957 (1957) (Broadway)
  • Auntie Mame (1958) (replacement for Greer Garson) (Broadway and London)
  • A Late Evening with Beatrice Lillie (1960) (Edinburgh Festival)
  • High Spirits (1964) (Broadway)

Radio and television

She was the star of three radio programs:

In 1950 she appeared on The Star Spangled Revue with Bob Hope.[9] This includes the "One Dozen Double Damask Dinner Napkins" sketch.

Awards and honours

For her contributions to film, in 1960 Beatrice Lillie was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6404 Hollywood Blvd. Her portrait, painted by Neysa McMein about 1948 or 1949, is in the collection of The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in England.[10]


  1. Thomas S. Hischak (2008). The Oxford Companion to the American Musical: Theatre, Film, and Television. Oxford University Press. p. 439. ISBN 978-0-19-533533-0.
  2. Beatrice Gladys Lillie at, registration number 040861 May 29, 1894, daughter of John Lillie and Lucy Ann Sh[aw], registered June 25, 1894. Reference: "Ontario Births, 1869-1911" database with images, FamilySearch ( – 15 January 2016)
  3. Andre Charlot's Revue of 1924, Internet Broadway Database, accessed 10 September 2016
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Slide, Anthony. "Beatrice Lilly" The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2012, ISBN 1617032506, pp. 316–317
  5. 1 2 "Beatrice Lillie: Awards", Internet Broadway Database, accessed 10 September 2016
  6. Stevens, Christopher (2010). Born Brilliant: The Life Of Kenneth Williams. John Murray. p. 363. ISBN 1-84854-195-3.
  7. Civil Registration event: Marriage; Name: Lillie, Beatrice G.; Registration District: Tamworth; County: Staffordshire; Year of Registration: 1920; Quarter of Registration: Jan-Feb-Mar; Spouse's last name: Peel; Volume No:6B/Page No: 773
  8. Dunning, John. (1998). On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-507678-3. p. 76.
  10. "Beatrice Lillie (1898–1989)". Your Paintings. BBC. Retrieved April 3, 2015.


External links

External image
Neysa McMein, Neysa McMein, Beatrice Lillie (1898–1989), c.1948–1949, Central School of Speech & Drama
Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Helen Hayes
Sarah Siddons Award (Sarah Siddons Society, Chicago)
Succeeded by
Deborah Kerr
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