Elsie Leslie: Sparkling Child Star of the American Stage

From Shirley Temple to Kiernan Shipka, child stars have been a central part of America’s pop culture. Today, we introduce you to the woman who arguably started it all: Elsie Leslie Lyde, better known as Elsie Leslie. She shot to fame as a young child in the late 1880s, and her career included notable Shakespearean roles.

Let’s look at some of the many Elsie Leslie-related items in the Folger collection to get a glimpse of this early celebrity sensation. We’ll begin with images of Elsie Leslie in what may be the role of Prince Arthur in Shakespeare’s King John.

Elsie Leslie as Prince Arthur

Elsie Leslie was born in 1881 and made her stage debut at the tender age of four in Rip Van Winkle. She continued to act throughout her childhood and found great success with parts in Editha’s Burglar (1887) and Little Lord Fauntleroy (1888) before playing the dual role of both the prince (Henry VIII’s son Edward) and the pauper in an 1890 play based on Mark Twain’s novel, The Prince and the Pauper.

The Folger has this charming sketch and photograph of Leslie from about this time in her career in what is believed to be the role of Arthur from King John. The sketch was done by Bernard Partridge, an English illustrator who was the first chief cartoonist for the famed humor magazine Punch. Not much can be found about the production Leslie appeared in, but it seems to have left an impression on her, as she nicknamed her patron, John Spaulding, “King John.”

Elsie Leslie with Edwin Booth

Edwin Booth [and] Elsie Leslie Lyde. Napoleon Sarony. Photograph. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Edwin Booth [and] Elsie Leslie Lyde. Napoleon Sarony. ART File L632.9 no.1 PHOTO (size XS). Folger Shakespeare Library.

Elsie Leslie’s celebrity status is on full display as she poses with Edwin Booth, one of the leading American actors and great Shakespeareans of the late 19th century. The portrait is autographed by both performers. Booth wasn’t the only notable figure known to the young actress, however. Leslie was also an avid pen pal with a number of contemporary luminaries, including Mark Twain, writer Alexander Woollcott (a member of the Algonquin Round Table), and her close friend, Helen Keller.

The Folger’s many Elsie Leslie items also include her personal copies of a 1900 book of theatrical profiles, Twelve Great Actors, which includes Edwin Booth, and its companion volume, Twelve Great Actresses. Each of them includes her bookplate, which lists her most notable productions and bears the phrase, “We that live to please must please to live.”

Elsie Leslie as Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew

[Elsie Leslie in the role of Katherine]. 1903 (?). Photograph. Folger Shakespeare Library.
[Elsie Leslie in the role of Katherine]. 1903 (?). Photograph. Folger Shakespeare Library.
After taking a break from acting soon after Pauper, Leslie returned to the stage in 1898 and appeared in a number of plays such as The Rivals and The Cricket on the Hearth. In 1903 she starred as Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew at the Manhattan Theater, opposite her husband Jefferson Winter; the two had married in 1901. The collection holds production photos from this staging and a series of character portraits of Leslie as Katherine. This one bears the following inscription: “’They call me Katherine that do talk of me’ – The Taming of the Shrew / Sincerely Yours / Elsie Leslie / To Mr. H. C. Folger.” Though Henry Folger, who founded the Folger Shakespeare Library with his wife, Emily, seems to have been a fan, Leslie was unable to capture the fame and acclaim of her earlier childhood performances.

William Winter Letter

Select a page from this letter to see it more closely.

Unfortunately, Leslie’s fame wasn’t the only thing that floundered—she and Jefferson Winter were divorced by 1918, the year in which she married Edward J. Millikin. This development must have been especially heart-breaking to her father-in-law, noted theater critic William Winter. The Folger holds 221 letters written from the elder Winter to Leslie between 1898 and 1916, wherein he affectionately calls her “Babine,” “Babe,” or “Pet” and signs his own “Old Ga,” “Ancient,” and “Old Burro.” Many are written as Leslie is traveling and express sadness at her absence or joy at her imminent arrival. These letters are part of the larger William Winter Collection  at the Folger, much of which was compiled by his great-grandson Robert Young.

The collection also includes William Winter’s letters to various other recipients, such as the example shown here, as well as photographs, scrapbooks, and manuscript materials related to American theater. In this letter, Winter shares some thoughts on performing Shakespeare: “It is impossible to act Shakespeare precisely as the text is written. Not a single one of his plays—as we both know—is ever acted in that manner. A servile fidelity to the original text is not, in my opinion a sign of either good judgment or practical scholarship.”

These objects are just a small peek into Elsie Leslie’s world. There’s much more to explore in the Folger’s vaults, including scrapbooks she compiled, her personal collection of Shakespeare volumes (a gift from Jefferson Winter), and even paperwork concerning her divorce. In her later life, she and Millikin traveled quite a bit, eventually settling in New York City. Leslie passed away on Halloween in 1966, at the age of 85.

Explore the play King John, including the part of young Arthur that Elsie Leslie once played, at the Folger Theatre.

One Comment

  • This was thoroughly enjoyable and well-written. It was so interesting to learn about this fascinating child/woman. Thank you!

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