August 7, 1884– Mary William Ethelbert Appleton Burke used the stage-name Billie Burke when she was a Broadway star back when the 20th century was new. Appearing in Broadway musicals, she stole the hearts of audiences, and also famed tenor Enrico Caruso, Mark Twain, and, most notably, Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld, who became her husband.
Burke’s addlepated, scatterbrained, twittery, jittery, skittish personality was smartly used in comedies on stage and screen in a style that was a knowing combination of naiveté and wit. Burke:
“I never was the greatest actress. I generally did light, gay things. I appeared in cute plays but never a fine one.”
In 1922, the year she won first place in the Motion Picture Popularity Contest, she was described in the press:
“Her eyes are a lovely blue, her eyebrows fair and skin soft, smooth and well nourished, a cameo-like delicacy of feature and a youthful figure.”
Burke was born in the USA to a show business family. She toured Europe with her father who was a clown for the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Her family settled in London where she began acting on stage, adopting her distinctive English accent.
On her return, Burke found tremendous success in the USA. As a star, when she toured with a play, her press agent traveled ahead and leased a house or apartment in every city along the way. Her theatre dressing rooms always had to be completely refurbished, no matter how short the engagement. She ordered that the walls be painted baby blue, “the true ingénue color”.
She was so famous that pajamas, cigars, perfumes and soaps were named for her. In the early 1900’s, women’s fashions were usually heavy and dark, but “Billie Burke” dresses had lots of ruffles and ribbons, and “Billie Burke” wigs, full of bouncing curls, became all the rage. Her maid brushed her hair every morning and again at night; Ziegfeld would pour Champagne over her hair after every shampoo, a method considered appropriate for a redhead. She exercised with a bar bell and walked five miles every day. Burke spoke French and Italian, played piano, and she was skilled at fencing and ballet.
Caruso threw a bouquet of American Beauty Roses on to the stage every night during the run of Love Watches in 1908. Burke recalled:
“Caruso made love and ate spaghetti with equal skill and with no inhibitions. He would propose marriage several times each evening.”
Gay writer W. Somerset Maugham escorted Burke to a 1913 New Year’s Eve party at the Astor Hotel, arriving after midnight. She descended the staircase to the ballroom and at the foot of the stairs stood Ziegfeld. Burke:
“He had a Mephistopheliar look, his eyebrows and his eye lids lifting, curved upward, in the middle. Slim and tall and immaculate in full evening dress, he was in black and white contrast to the rest of the costumed party, and so – and for who knows what other reasons, I noticed him at once.”
He noticed her too.
When they began their affair, her manager threatened to drop her because Ziegfeld was married to his big discovery, soprano Anna Held. But, Burke never had any intention of ending the affair. After Held divorced Ziggy in 1914, the couple eloped to Hoboken. Burke:
“The minister was as confused as we were. ‘And now, Flo,’ he would say to me, ‘you stand here.’ ‘He’s Flo, I’m Billie’, I would say. ‘Oh, all right, then, you stand here, Bill,’ he would say to Flo. And Flo would correct him. ‘I’m Flo, she’s Bill – I mean Billie’. But he married us and I am quite sure it was legal.”
Burke’s manager had her under contract and as punishment for having married against his wishes; he refused to let her embark on the film career she desired so desperately.
The Ziegfelds lived on a 22-acre estate near Hastings-on-Hudson, with a 20 room main house, plus cottages, stables, a swimming pool and tennis court. The couple maintained a menagerie including a herd of deer, two bears, two lions, partridge, pheasants, cockatoos, parrots, an elephant, two buffaloes, geese, lambs, ducks, chickens and dogs.
Film pioneer Thomas H. Ince offered her $300,000 (the equivalent of $2 million today) for her first film and Burke happily left the stage for the screen. Ziegfeld bought that manager’s contract and became his wife’s new manager. She made her screen debut in Peggy (1915) playing the part of a girl from Scotland who dressed as a boy. She made 12 more silent films in her first year.
In 1917, Burke returned to the Broadway stage under her husband’s management. Between 1917 and 1944, Burke starred in 12 plays on Broadway, including three by her pal Maugham, and one by Noël Coward.
By 1930, she was already being cast in character roles. Burke:
“Oh, that sad and bewildering moment when you are no longer the cherished darling but must turn the corner and try to be funny!”
The 1929 Wall Street Crash ruined Ziegfeld, and Burke had to try harder than ever to be funny. The Ziegfeld’s mortgaged the mansion and Burke needed to keep working. In 1931, she went to Hollywood while Ziegfeld stayed in NYC.
In 1932, Burke was cast in A Bill Of Divorcement, directed by George Cukor. She played Katharine Hepburn‘s mother in the film, which was Hepburn’s debut. Ziegfeld died during the film’s production, but she resumed filming hours after his funeral.
Cukor used her again in Dinner At Eight (1933), with Lionel and John Barrymore, Marie Dressler, Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery. Burke began to be typecast as a flutter-brained upper-class matron with a high-pitched voice.
In 1936, MGM filmed The Great Ziegfeld, a highly fictionalized version of the life of Florenz Ziegfeld. It won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Actress for Luise Rainer as Anna Held. William Powell played Ziegfeld and Myrna Loy played Burke, which infuriated Burke because she was under contract to MGM and could have played herself, but the studio considered her too old for the role despite her obviously having the look and mannerisms down perfectly.
She played the daffy Clara Topper in Topper (1937), about a man haunted by two socialite ghosts played by Cary Grant and Constance Bennett. She repeated her role in two Topper sequels. Her comic performance in Merrily We Live (1938) brought Burke her single Academy Award nomination.
Despite a long, varied career, Burke is best remembered today as Glinda The Good Witch Of The North, in a little flick we call The Wizard Of Oz (1939), making her an ultimate Gay icon. She had already worked with Judy Garland in Everybody Sing (1938), playing Garland’s histrionic, hysterical mother. Her other hits include Father Of The Bride (1950) and Father’s Little Dividend (1951), both directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Spencer Tracy, Joan Bennett, and Elizabeth Taylor.
Burke continued to work in the 1950s, often in radio and the new medium of television. She was one the first female talk show hosts with At Home With Billie Burke (1952-54). Burke’s last film was in the Western Sergeant Rutledge (1960), directed by John Ford.
In the biopic, The Great Ziegfeld (1936), Myrna Loy portrays Burke. It is an uncharacteristically restrained and polite performance from Loy, perhaps with a regard for the fact that they were both artists working at the same studio at the same time. It had to be awkward.
Her final credits rolled in 1970, taken by ennui, at her home in Beverly Hills. She was 85-years-old. Like any solid gay man of my age, I do an outstanding imitation of Billie Burke.