30 May 2013

That's Peggy O'Neil

Peggy O'Neil, 1914. Photo from here.

Photographs of theatre performers from the past always intrigue me. So few of them are remembered now yet many were big stars in their day with legions of fans. One such star was Peggy O’Neil, an actress who was once so popular that she inspired a hit song. Yet she has slid into near oblivion, not even earning a Wikipedia entry.

She was born Margaret O’Neil on June 16, 1898 in Gneeveguilla, Co. Kerry, Ireland (note: there is conflicting information about her birth and early life so I'm going with what was reported by the New York Times). Her family immigrated to America when she was a child, settling in Buffalo, New York. She began performing when still little and in 1910 made her professional stage debut in Chicago as a dancer in The Sweetest Girl in Paris.

Peggy O'Neil with her co-star in Peg O' My Heart, 1914. Photo from here.

O'Neil had a few more small stage roles and starred in some film shorts for the Lubin Manufacturing Company before her big break on September 2, 1913. That day theatre producer Oliver Morosco auditioned more than 400 young girls for the lead in a road production of J. Hartley Manners' comedy Peg O’ My Heart. O’Neil won the part and the following year was sent to Chicago to star as Peg. The play was a hit and ran for 26 weeks.

The Chicago audience fell in love with the girl with the blue eyes, dark curls, and bubbly personality who embodied the quintessential Irish lass, a popular type on stage at the turn of the century. The play itself proved to be such a hit that at one point eight different versions were in production at the same time. Both Laurette Taylor (who originated the role) and Marion Davies would go on to star in film versions.

O'Neil's turn as Peg led to other roles. Morosco casting her in two other Chicago productions—A Tale With a Wag and Mavourneen. Back in New York she starred on Broadway in The Flame. After a run in Chicago with Patsy on the Wing, she returned to Broadway in 1919 for Tumble. The New York Times singled her out for that last performance as being “much of the life of the show” and Theatre Magazine said "the other performers might well benefit from watching her acting."

In 1920 she travelled to London where she had her greatest success playing the title role in the comedy Paddy The Next Best Thing. Adapted by William Gayer MacKay and Robert Ord from a novel by Gertrude Page, it was the story of a tomboy named Paddy (short for Patricia) whose father had wanted a son but got the next best thing. Opening on April 5, 1920, it ran for more than 850 performances at the Savoy Theatre, and O'Neil became the darling of London. One reviewer said of O'Neil's performance, "She has something of Ellen Terry's power of communicating her smiles and tears to the audience. I suspect that every young woman in the audience feels, in her heart, that she has been a Paddy."

Yet she had her detractors. On October 20, 1920, the papers reported that O’Neil had been sent a box of poisoned chocolates. She ate one and was ill for days. Her little dog was not so lucky. He died that evening after eating one of the candies. Tests later found that the chocolates contained arsenic and strychnine. No suspects were ever arrested.

In 1921, O’Neil inspired Harry Pease, Edward G Nelson, and Gilbert Dodge (two of whom were reportedly trying to court the actress who never married) to write a song in her honor. 

If her eyes are blue as skies, that's Peggy O'Neil
If she's smiling all the while, that's Peggy O'Neil
If she walks like a sly little rogue
If she talks with a cute little brogue
Sweet personality full of rascality
That's Peggy O'Neil

With its sweet melody and Irish tones, “Peggy O’Neil” proved to be a huge hit and at the Savoy, the song was played between the show's acts.

The success of Paddy was followed by a role in Mercenary Mary at the London Hippodrome. O'Neil would spend the 1920s primarily in London but did return to New York in 1927 for a part in the Ziegfeld Follies and again in 1930 to star in the comedy Unexpected Husband

Peggy O'Neil at the height of her popularity, May 1921. Photos from the National Portrait Gallery here.

On September 30, 1928, O'Neil tried out a new medium. She agreed to be "televised" as part of a demonstration of the Baird television system at the National Radio Exhibition outside London. For a half hour she told stories and sang the song "I'm a Little Bit Fonder of You." A couple years later in April of 1930 she gave the first live broadcast interview at the Ideal Home Exhibition in Southampton. 

The 1930s saw her star start to fade and her personal life in trouble. After making some bad investments, she declared bankruptcy in 1935. And in 1942 she made news of a different type when she was caught shoplifting a box of biscuits and a jar of chocolate spread from a London shop. She was fined £20.

She spent the war years entertaining the troops but her time in the spotlight was over, and O’Neil withdrew from the public eye. Crippling arthritis confined her to a wheelchair during the last years of her life, and she passed away on January 7, 1960 in London.

I'd like to find more stories about O'Neil. But in the meantime, there are these British Pathe clips of O'Neil that allow us to see her in motion: a scene from Merry Merry from 1929, entertaining at a club in 1926, and relaxing at her English home in 1925. Sweet Peggy O'Neil.

29 May 2013

The Final Countdown

It appears that I've been AWOL from the blog this past week. This is partly due to work but also because of marathon re-viewings of the first three seasons of Arrested Development followed by staying up to 3 am to watch the premiere of season 4 and then the rest of the episodes over the course of three days. Was it as good as the first three seasons? No. Does it matter? Of course not. While I miss the largely ensemble episodes of the past (this season each episode is focused on a particular character), I was more than happy to see the return of the Bluth family, particularly my favourite, Buster. And loads of Lucille 2. So if you haven't seen season 4 yet, do check it out. And if you've never seen the show, well there's just no excuse. Do it now. And remember, there's always money in the banana stand. 

22 May 2013

Marilyn in New York

Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe in New York City, 1957. Photo: Sam Shaw

Of the thousands of photos of Marilyn Monroe some of my favourites are from when she lived in New York, many of which were taken by photographer Sam Shaw. Now some of these images are on display in a small exhibit, "Marilyn in New York," at the 42nd Street-Bryant Park subway station.

Shaw and Monroe met on the set of Via Zapata! in 1951. The film’s director, Elia Kazan, was dating Mon
roe at the time and asked her to drive Shaw, the film’s still photographer, to the set every day. The two hit it off and remained good friends for the rest of Monroe's life. 

Monroe was photographed by Shaw numerous times, both on set and off. She said he always made her "look good" while he claimed "I just want to show this fascinating woman with her guard down, at work, at ease, off-stage, during joyous moments in her life as often she was—alone.” 

One of their New York shoots occurred during the filming of The Seven Year Itch. On the night of September 15, 1954, a crowd gathered at Lexington and 52nd Street to watch Monroe as she stood on a subway grate, her skirt billowing up from the blasts of air from the trains below. Spotting Shaw, the film's official photographer, Monroe shouted “Hi Sam Spade,” her nickname for him. Shaw took the photo above along with many others, capturing one of the most iconic images in film history.

Three years later on June 12, 1957, Shaw spent the day taking photographs of Monroe in the city. She played around in Central Park, window shopped on Fifth Avenue, and posed with husband Arthur Miller with the Queensboro Bridge as the backdrop. 

In addition to rowing a boat and having a snack, Monroe showed off her improve skills that she was working on at the Actor's Studio. She grabbed Shaw's newspaper and sat on a bench, pretending to read while she eavesdropped on the conversation of the couple next to her.

There must have been loads of people excited about seeing Marilyn in the flesh but I like how Shaw captured some people looking completely uninterested in the fact that a screen goddess was in their midst.

The exhibit is up through December 31, 2013. For more information visit here.

20 May 2013

Bookshelf Roundup

A while back I started a Bookshelf section with the intention of every few months writing short reviews of the books I had read. Well apparently I’ve neglected to keep it up, so much so that it probably appears to regular readers that I don’t actually read any books. But the truth is I do, books of all types: lowbrow to high, fiction to non, even cookbooks. Normally the piles of books by my bed are such that I rarely read a book right when it’s published (there were a few years in grad school when my answer to the question “what are you reading” was “dead people”) so some of these books may seem like old news to you. Some of these I liked a lot, some not so much. Nonetheless, here is a roundup of some of the books I’ve read so far this year. 

Reply to a Letter from Helga—Bergsveinn Birgisson
This novella is written as letter from an elderly Icelandic farmer to the woman he loved decades ago, explaining why he made the choices he did. Part love letter, part confession, it’s at times beautiful in its stark lyricism and at others downright shocking. 

The silent film actress’ autobiography (compiled from tapes she made) in which she reminisces about her days on the stage and screen. Modest about her own talents, Davies heaps praise on her lover Hearst for whom her devotion and loyalty appears to have never wavered, even after his death. 

Fonseca spent four years living with Roma families throughout Eastern Europe, learning how they live and about their trials and tribulations. Although bleak and slow going at times, it’s extremely informative and makes one wish for an update to see how the Roma are faring now.

Return of the Thin Man: Two never-before-published novellas featuring Nick & Nora Charles—Dashiell Hammett, Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett, editors
Do not be fooled. This book does not contain novellas about everyone’s favourite married detectives but rather film treatments with notes that were the basis for the first two sequels to The Thin Man. Fans of the films will be interested to see what changes the studio made but others should just see the films. 

The Winter Sea—Susanna Kearsley
Carrie McClelland is a writer of historical fiction who rents a small cottage near the Scottish castle where her latest novel is to take place. As she begins to write, Carrie discovers that she is uncannily tuned in to the lives of her 18th-century characters and begins to question how much of her story is fact. Romantic and fun.

The pastry chef and cookbook author’s humorous account about living in Paris and some of the lessons he learned like one gets dressed properly to take out the garbage (no wearing of sweatpants) and one does not eat ones baguette on the street. Includes a bevy of recipes.

A biography of one of my favourite actresses that includes a look at her childhood in Montana, her rise in Hollywood from bit player to leading lady in the 1930s and 40s, and her subsequent role as an activist later in life. Includes a warranted detailed discussion of her most important role—Nora Charles in the Thin Man series. Long but worth the read.

Kiki de Montparnasse: A Graphic Novel— Catel Muller and José-Louis Bocquet
Born to a single mother and raised in poverty, Alice Prin grew up to become Kiki, a favourite artists' model and the toast of café society in Montparnasse in the 1920s. I haven’t read a lot of graphic novels but quite enjoyed this new approach to Kiki's biography.

This collection of short stories by the queen of Southern Gothic includes her usual eccentric characters, themes of race and religion, and actions that lead to tragedy. Many of the stories are disturbing, particularly “The Lame Shall Enter First,” but all are unforgettable.

The Summer of the Bear—Bella Pollen
When a British diplomat to Bonn dies suddenly, his widow decides to take their three children to a small island in the Scottish Outer Hebrides. There each of them mourn in their own way including the young boy, Jamie, who is convinced that an escaped bear on the island is a link his father. With hints of magic realism, a really well-written novel.

The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt: A Novel in Pictures—Caroline Preston
It’s the 1920s and young Frankie Pratt dreams of becoming a writer. She manages to leave New Hampshire for New York where she graduates from Vassar and finds a job before moving to Paris. Filled with dozens of photographs, advertisements, and prints that serve to illustrate her adventures, this is a delightful take on the coming of age story.

The Imperfectionists—Tom Rachman 
This debut novel is about an English language newspaper in Rome and the lives of its staff and owners (and in one case, a reader). Each chapter is devoted to a different character but by the end their stories come together in an inevitable way. Very engaging.

16 May 2013

The Brox Sisters

Before the Andrew Sisters, before the Boswell Sisters, there were the Brox Sisters. Little remembered today, they were a popular singing trio in the 1920s and early 30s whose sweet, Jazzy harmonies were perfect for the Roaring Twenties.

Born in the US but raised in Canada, the sisters began performing when they were teens, touring the vaudeville circuits. Around this time they changed their surname, Brock, to Brox, reportedly after a producer told them that it would fit better on the marquee. Their first names went as well: Josephine became Bobbe, Eunice changed to Lorayne, and Kathleen to Patricia.

Their big break came in 1921 when they sang "Everybody Step" and "the Schoolhouse Blues" in Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revue. For the rest of their careers, the sisters would be associated with Berlin. He cast them in two more Music Box Revues (1923 and 1924) as well as in the Marx Brothers musical Cocoanuts (1926) in which they sang the novelty song “Monkey Doodle Doo.” The following year they were in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1927 with Eddie Cantor and Ruth Etting, again singing Berlin's work—"Jungle-Jingle" and "It's Up to the Band."

A move to Hollywood led to their appearance in a handful of shorts and a few Hollywood films including King of Jazz (1930); Hollywood on Parade (1932), in which they do an impression of Marlene Dietrich singing “Falling in Love Again;” and most importantly The Hollywood Revue of 1929 in which they performed along with Cliff "Ukelele Ike" Edwards the song “Singing in the Rain”—the first time the song appeared on screen.

The sisters made a series of bestselling records and popular radio appearances before marriages for all three in the 1930s saw the break up of the act. They would reunite one last time in 1939 for a radio salute to who else but Irving Berlin.

With the Brox Sisters there were no solos, no show offs—just three young women harmonizing as one. Although their high voices can sometimes come across as cloying, there is still something appealing about them. Perhaps it’s their air of innocence that allowed them to get away with singing what would have been considered some rather naughty lyrics. Or maybe it's the Southern twang they used. What's clear is that their sound combined with their youthful vitality made them a perfect fit for the 1920s.

To hear some examples of their singing, visit the LOC's National Jukebox here. And to see them perform "Singing in the Rain," watch this. By the way, if you're wondering why Ukelele Ike sounds familiar it's probably because he was the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio.

14 May 2013


Vespas bring so many images to mind: Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck zipping around Rome, Parka wearing Mods in Quadrophenia, general Italian stylishness. Since 1946 when Piaggio & Co. S.p.A. manufactured their first model, Vespas have made riding scooters cool.

Growing up though, I rarely saw Vespas. In fact, I only remember the handful of Mods that I knew owning them. And they seemed to come in just a few colours. Then last summer I started noticing something. Everywhere I went there were Vespas and in all colours of the rainbow. New Yorkers seemed to have fallen in love with these icons of Italian design. 

It makes sense. Cars in New York are a huge hassle, the subway is hot as hell during the summer, and clogged streets must be easier to navigate on a Vespa. Besides, how cool would it be to ride through Central Park on one (on designated streets, of course) or around downtown? With the approach of summer I expect to see a slew of them again and look forward to them adding splashes of colour to the street.

Photos by Michele.

13 May 2013

Colourful Bryant Park

The other day I checked out the Tim Hetherington exhibit, "Fallen Soldiers," at the ICP School before crossing the street to the ICP Museum to see the Chim exhibit, "We Went Back," one last time before it closed. Needing something to counter the serious images, I turned my attention to Bryant Park.

The French-style park was busy. Children rode Le Carousel and a group of men played a game of Pétanque while large crowds of tourists and locals alike occupied the small green tables and chairs at either end of the large lawn, which remained empty. One could think that the French thing was being taken a bit too far (I still remember being chastised by an official for sitting on the grass in a Paris park) but it was simply closed for re-sodding (the lawn reopened this past Friday).

So I turned my attention to the flower beds that were in full bloom. Blankets of pansies and rows and rows of Tulipa ‘Orange Queen’ and Tulipa ‘Maureen,' which were complemented by Tulipa ‘Barcelona’ in large planters. Delightful.

Nearby a little girl was having a birthday party next to Le Carousel. In addition to horses, the carousel boasts a cat and rabbit and plays French songs, of course. Nothing like a little Edith Piaf on a spring afternoon.

Photos: Michele

10 May 2013

Stay at Home

Regardless of the weather this weekend, I plan on doing absolutely nothing. What I mean is, I think I will spend it at home. It might sound boring to some but after a week plus of rushing around on five hours of sleep or less, being lazy for a few days sounds absolutely heavenly. I hope to sleep in, read a new mystery set in my neighbourhood, cook something from here, and just relax. Unplugging the computer and leaving the museums and shops alone for once sounds good. Have a great weekend everyone.

Instagram photo of Jefferson Market Garden by Michele.

09 May 2013

Fort Tryon & the Cloisters

After my first visit to the Cloisters, I swore I would return every season. Suffice it to say, I haven't kept that promise. So knowing that spring blooms would soon be gone, I convinced a dear friend to meet me early on Sunday morning (OK, before noon) to make the trek up to Washington Heights. Once there, we didn't rush to the Cloisters but rather took our time meandering through the lovely Fort Tryon Park with its views of the George Washington Bridge and the Palisades across the river in Jersey.

The park was in full bloom from cherry blossoms to azaleas to lilacs to tulips. The sun was out and the noise of the city seemed far away. Built in 1935 by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr, the son of the Central Park architect, it's one of the loveliest spots of greenery in the city.

Our destination though was the Cloisters, the branch of the Met devoted to medieval art and gardens. The collection is small enough that you can see everything without getting exhausted, which is always a plus. I love the room with the unicorn tapestries but also like the the Gothic Chapel with its Austrian stained glass windows and statues of Saint Petronella and Saint Margaret of Antioch who's missing her nose.

But the real attraction of the Cloisters for me are the gardens. The small Trie Cloister garden was being redesigned but the Cuxa Cloister garden (above) was warm and inviting as was my favourite, the Bonnefont Cloister Herb Garden (below), where more than 250 types of plants and flowers are grown, all of which could have been found in a medieval garden.

Lovely pink peonies, darling little yellow primroses, flowering quince trees, and dozens of other species filled the garden. And there were even wattle fences! We stayed there longer than any other place in the Cloisters. With a nice breeze coming in from the river, it was incredibly peaceful and almost seemed like we were in another country. My only complaint, that we had to share it with others. 

Photos by Michele.


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