June 19, 1856 – Elisabeth “Bessie” Marbury:
“There is no intolerance in the world so great as the intolerance of tolerance, and no bigotry so excessive as the bigotry of the image breaker.”
Marbury is an important cultural figure who you probably have never heard about. She was an important New York literary agent and theatre producer who was responsible for the framework of the Broadway system as we now recognize it. She did all this not only as a female, but an out and proud lesbian.
Marbury was raised as a member of one of 19th-century New York’s oldest, wealthiest, and most prominent families.
She was a series of contradictions: the embodiment of female independence in almost every way, she opposed women suffrage, finally making a bold reversal once American women did get the right to vote, and in 1918 she became active in the Democratic Party, serving as a delegate. Gay and promiscuous, she was also a fervent Catholic convert, active in the Knights of Columbus, a conservative Catholic organization.
Marbury had a string of female lovers, and she lived openly for more than two decades with Elsie de Wolfe, the first American celebrity interior designer. She had a longtime affair with Elizabeth Arden, born Florence Nightingale Graham (1878-1966), the businesswoman who founded cosmetic firm Elizabeth Arden, Inc. Those two girls spent many weekends at Marbury’s country place in Maine. After Marbury’s left this world in 1933, Arden bought the property to fulfill Marbury’s wish that it be turned into a home for working women. It is now a luxury resort.
As an agent, Marbury’s clients included playwrights Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. She was an early promoter of Black writers of the Harlem Renaissance. She was a big part of the development of the modern “Book Musical”, the sort of shows that audiences now think of when they use the term “Broadway”. She helped shape Cole Porter‘s first musical, See America First (1914) and Jerome Kern‘s Nobody Home (1915), Very Good, Eddie (1915), and Love O’ Mike (1917) through her American Play company.
Marbury and de Wolfe both came by their careers from participating in amateur theatricals presented in high society in late Victorian New York City. Both pushed back against the rules and expectations for women in that era by making their interest in theatre professional and paved the way for many other “respectable ladies” in the frowned upon world of the professional theatre, and for independent careers and financial autonomy for women in general.
It was after an 1885 benefit theatrical performance that she organized that Marbury was inspired to go into theater management. In 1888, she persuaded Frances Hodgson Burnett to adapt her bestselling book Little Lord Fauntleroy to the stage and to hire her to be the famous writer’s business manager and agent, and a career and an industry was born.
In 1891, Marbury traveled to France, and for 15 years she was the representative in the English-speaking market for playwrights Georges Feydeau, Edmond Rostand, and Jean Richepin. Her work included securing the best translations, leading actors, and managing the royalties. She also represented Shaw, James M. Barrie, Jerome K. Jerome, Rachel Crothers, and Clyde Fitch.
Her office was the center of New York City theatre business. Marbury worked closely with theatre owners such as Charles Frohman and his Theatrical Syndicate and the rival Shubert Brothers’ organization. She drew criticism from those who fought against a theatre monopoly, particularly from the noted stage actor Minnie Maddern Fiske, who unsuccessfully struggled in the 1890s to form an actor union.
She was frequently told that Hollywood would be interested in the story of her travels with her companions Anne Tracy Morgan (daughter of Jon Pierpont Morgan, the financier) and de Wolfe. She convinced Morgan to purchase the Villa Trianon at Versailles, where the three lesbians held court with Europe’s royalty and cultural elites. After the German invasion of France in 1914, the trio of bodacious babes escaped in their Rolls Royce convertible.
In 1920, Marbury and De Wolfe remodeled and update their recently purchased Italianate style brownstone that had been built in the 1870s. The next year, Morgan and her girlfriend Anne Vanderbilt also purchased brownstones on the same block, recently renamed Sutton Place. Sutton Place quickly became Manhattan’s most fashionable gay enclave, which prompted newspapers to identify the neighborhood as an “Amazon Enclave”. It was from their new residence that Marbury began to work with the greatest talents of the time to dominate Broadway.
Marbury played an important role in helping de Wolfe get her career off the ground. She helped organize the Colony Club, the first women’s social club in New York City, that served as de Wolfe’s professional debut as interior decorator.
During World War I, Marbury devoted most of time to relief work for French and American soldiers and spent several months in France working in military hospitals and talking to the troops. She was decorated by the French and Belgian governments, although she was disappointed to not be awarded by the French Legion of Honor, an honor given to de Wolfe for her work in the pioneering Ambrine Mission for Burn Victims.
De Wolfe announced her wedding to Sir Charles Mendl, a British diplomat in 1926, after decades of living with Marbury. This made de Wolfe a titled woman, Lady Mendl. The Mendl-de Wolfe marriage was strictly platonic, with the couple keeping separate apartments and usually only appearing together at social functions. De Wolfe and Mendel had to assure an understandably enraged Marbury that the marriage was purely one of convenience. Weeks after the marriage, de Wolfe reconciled with Marbury. Their relationship lasted another seven years until Marbury’s death.
Marbury’s many homes were fashionable gathering spots. She first lived with de Wolfe at what had originally been Washington Irving‘s house near Gramercy Park, between 1892 and 1911. Marbury suggested that de Wolfe focus on the remodeling of Irving House, her first interior decoration project. De Wolfe removed the dark woodwork and wallpaper, velvet curtains, and heavy furniture that had marked the tastes of the mid-Victorian era. She had the walls painted ivory and light gray and the house completely refurnished in 18th-century French style.
When the remodeling was finished, “the Bachelors”, as de Wolfe and Marbury called themselves established a Parisian-type salon at their residence. Sunday afternoons, an eclectic assortment of guests met at Irving House for literary talk, gossip, tea and snacks, and an exchange of wit. Guests included bisexual actors Sarah Bernhardt and Ellen Terry, gay writers Wilde and Henry Adams; and leading American art collector, philanthropist, and patron of the arts Isabella Stewart Gardner.
Unusual for someone of her station in life, Marbury was a Democrat.
Marbury’s last theatrical credit was a 1930 Broadway production of Electra.
Marbury’s funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral was attended by many of the most important figures in the arts from the era, but De Wolfe was noticeably absent. It was soon discovered that she left everything to de Wolfe in her will.
In 1923 she published a Memoir, My Crystal Ball: Reminiscences. She had earlier published Manners: A Handbook Of Social Customs (1888). Before her death, Marbury chose her nephew John Marbury to produce a film based on My Crystal Ball. The rights passed to John Marbury’s son, the late New York sculptor Peter Marbury. The rights are held currently by Peter Marbury’s widow, Diana Marbury, a New York City theatre producer, director, and actor.