Next up in a series profiling key figures in Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed is Elsie Ferguson, once considered the most beautiful actress on the Broadway stage, and an ‘aristocrat of the screen.’
Elsie Louise Ferguson was born on August 19, 1883, the only child of a leading New York attorney, Hiram Benson Ferguson, and his wife Amelia, an amateur actress. She grew up in Manhattan, and was introduced to theatrical impresario Sam Shubert as a teenager. At seventeen, Elsie made her stage debut as a chorine in the hugely popular musical, Florodora, followed by a road company production of The Belle of New York.
A year later, she joined the chorus of Klaw & Erlanger’s The Liberty Belles on Broadway, earning twenty dollars a week. By 1903, she had a speaking part in The Girl From Kay’s, which led to roles in Dolly Dollars and Brigadier Gerard, a comedy by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
In 1906, the former showgirl Evelyn Nesbitt – a friend of Elsie – became the focus of a national scandal when her husband, Pittsburgh millionaire Harry K. Shaw, murdered her lover, the renowned architect, Stanford White. After a journalist reported that Elsie had known about Nesbitt’s affair with White, she accepted an offer to appear on the London stage, and avoided having to testify in the ‘trial of the century’.
She returned to Broadway in 1908, acting in melodramas such as Pierre of the Plains before achieving star status in Such a Little Queen (1909.) Over the next few years, she took the lead in several more shows, before playing ‘Miriam’, a reformed streetwalker, in a hit imported from London. Hubert Henry Davies’ Outcast opened at the Lyceum Theatre in November 1914.
One of Klaw and Erlanger’s most successful plays, Outcast was slated as a road show for the Southern circuit before Ferguson embarked on her own Midwest to Pacific Coast tour. In October 18, 1915, it was reported that Jeanne Eagels, eight years younger than Elsie, would bring Outcast to Trenton, New Jersey on October 21.
Landing the role of Miriam was no fluke, but the result of months of hard work and ingenuity. While Jeanne had earlier been mistaken for Billie Burke, strangers now stopped to ask if she was Elsie Ferguson. Their resemblance was uncanny, especially in profile, and Jeanne exploited the likeness to her advantage. She studied photographs of Ferguson, imitating her much-admired hairstyle and elegant fashions to impress producer Thomas C. Riley.
Outcast opened in Trenton, with Jeanne joining most of the original London cast. While those first reviews are now lost, critics from below the Mason-Dixon Line extolled her performance. Variety observed that “Eagels is creating talk for her masterful delineation of the principal part.” In 1916, Eagels would star in The World and the Woman, a cinematic adaptation of Outcast.
Ferguson went on to play Portia in a 1916 revival of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, opposite the revered English actor, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, as Shylock. After turning down previous movie offers, in 1917 she signed a lucrative three-year contract with Paramount, earning $5,000 week for a projected eighteen pictures.
In her screen debut, Barbary Sheep, Elsie was directed by her friend, Maurice Tourneur. He also directed her in The Rise of Jenny Cushing (1917) and Rose of the World (1918), and a less well-received adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, in which Elsie played Nora. In 1918, she starred in Heart of the Wilds, based on her Broadway hit, Pierre of the Plains; and as Mary Hamilton in an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree.
Her only surviving silent movie is Witness for the Defense (1919.) Often cast as a high society lady, Elsie was dubbed ‘the aristocrat of the screen’. Like Jeanne Eagels, she also had a growing reputation for difficult behaviour. In 1920, she made her Broadway comeback in Sacred and Profane Love. This was filmed in 1921, first in a two-year, four-picture deal with Paramount, and directed by William Desmond Taylor, who would be murdered later that year. In Forever (1921), she co-starred with another scandalous Hollywood figure, Wallace Reid, whose career was blighted by morphine addiction. He died in 1923.
In 1922, Elsie filmed a new version of her Broadway hit, Outcast, before returning again to Broadway. She played Kate Hardcastle in a 1924 revival of Oliver Goldsmith’s Restoration comedy, She Stoops to Conquer. In 1929, she starred in Scarlet Pages at the Morosco Theatre, which she intended as her swansong. Her first and only talking picture, the 1930 screen adapation of Scarlet Pages is still extant.
At fifty-one, Elsie married her fourth husband, Victor Egan, and they settled on a farm in Connecticut, while maintaining a second home in France. She was cast as the Duchess of Richmond in Becky Sharp, the 1935 screen adaptation of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. But after her friend, Lowell Sherman – who had developed the project – was not hired to direct, she dropped out and was replaced by Billie Burke. She made a brief reappearance on the stage in Outrageous Fortune (1944.)
Elsie Ferguson’s husband died in 1956, and she passed away on November 15, 1961. Aged seventy-eight and with no living heirs, she bequeathed her $1,000,000 fortune to New York City’s Animal Medical Center.