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.

12 comments:

  1. Thank you for publishing this information on Peggy. I have just began my own research into her life and I see that you have written a wonderful account. My interest was from purchasing an autographed photo card that she signed and also enscribed 'Paddy'. Its the same photo used in the theatre programme. I was wondering where you got a lot of your info from? Thanks

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    1. So happy to hear that someone else is interested in finding out about Peggy. I got most of my information from newspaper articles, mainly in The New York Times and some British papers, and some movie magazines. As I mentioned in the piece, there's conflicting info about her birth so I went with what the Times stated. I'm sure that in addition to these sources that an archive with a large theatrical collection would have information and copies of programs, etc. Good luck with the search.

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  2. Thanks for that I have now compiled a lot of newspaper articles on Peggy, as well as photographs. You are totally right about her early life - the info that she gave in her passport application in 1919 and 1920 are totally contradicting what she says about herself to the media. I have many years of researching family histories under my belt, but Peggy's is a true enigma, but one which I love delving into! Of course I will keep you updated with my progress and any discoveries I make. By the way your blog is great and I have already recommended it to one of my friends.

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    1. Thanks for recommending my blog to your friend. It's always nice to know that someone's reading it.

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  3. I've had a framed photo on my wall for over 15 years of the Theatre Magazine that you have posted. I got it from Goodwill, along with several others, I got rid of some over the years but kept this one and one labeled "Sweetheart Land" with Harry and Charles Tobias' names listed, which Wikipedia shows as songwriters like the Peggy O'neil cover which lists the song writers. I searched many years ago and could not find information about Peggy. I have a friend with the same name so decided to send her a pic of my copy and decided to send her any info I could find, thanks for posting. My copy is also signed by Alta Gray, any idea who that is?

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    1. Glad you enjoyed the post. Unfortunately, I don't know who Alta Gray is but perhaps one of the other Peggy O'Neil fans will come across the name and be able to share the info along with more details about her. I think Peggy's due for some attention.

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  4. Hello everyone! I was so delighted to see an article about Peggy. I only recently became interested in her because I am writing a memoir about my childhood growing up in the Hydraulics section of Buffalo, born on Seneca Street, in the 1950's. And in doing my research I found that this renowned entertainer, as a child, lived on Seneca Street in the Hydraulics! I hope no one discovers that she did not live there because it's a wonderfully romantic idea that I shared the same neighborhood with such a luminary!

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    1. Nice to hear from you, Tom. From what I read, it looks like she did live in Buffalo (census records could probably confirm Seneca Street) but there were conflicting stories about her birthplace—Ireland or here (I ended up going with Ireland, which was listed in her obit, but that may not be accurate). Good luck with the memoir and hope you dig up more info on Peggy.

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    2. hi Tom,

      I was wondering if you have seen my reply below?
      thanks
      John

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  5. hi MelissaK and Tom D. Its great to hear from another 2 fans of Peggy!

    MelissaK I am not sure of Alta Gray - what image was it on? and is it handwritten?

    Tom D. good news for you! my research has possibly connected Peggy to Seneca Street. Its actually Elk Street which according to the map is joining onto Seneca St at the intersection. Can I ask where you got that information from as it may help in further research...

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  6. My husbands grandmother who was born and adopted in 1913 told the story that she was the biological child of Peggy O'NEILs brother and a woman named Hazel. Any further information on Ms. Oneil family would very appreciated.

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  7. Great job with this. My mother grew up in Bolivar NY a tiny town upstate and she and her 8 siblings loved to sing the "Peggy O'Neill" song when they were kids in the 40s and 50s.

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