Lillian Russell was one of the most famous actresses and singers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, known for her beauty and style, as well as for her voice and stage presence. Russell was the foremost singer of operettas in America. Her voice, stage presence, and beauty were the subject of a great deal of fanfare in the news media, and she was extremely popular with audiences. Actress Marie Dressler observed, “I can still recall the rush of pure awe that marked her entrance on the stage. And then the thunderous applause that swept from orchestra to gallery, to the very roof.” When Alexander Graham Bell introduced a long distance telephone service on May the 8th, 1890, Russell’s voice was the first carried over the line.
Russell was born in Clinton, Iowa but raised in Chicago. Her parents separated when she was eighteen, and she moved to New York with her mother. She began to perform professionally by 1879, singing for Tony Pastor and playing roles in comic opera, including Gilbert and Sullivan works. Composer Edward Solomon created roles in several of his comic operas for her in London. In 1884, they returned to New York and married in 1885, but, in 1886, Solomon was arrested for bigamy. For many years, she was the foremost singer of operettas and musical theatre in the United States, performing continuously through to the end of the 19th century.
In 1899, she joined the Weber and Fields’ Music Hall, where she starred for five years. After 1904, she began to have vocal difficulties and switched to dramatic roles. She later returned to musical roles in vaudeville, however, finally retiring from performing around 1919. Russell was married four times, but her longest relationship was with Diamond Jim Brady, who supported her extravagant lifestyle for four decades. In later years, Russell wrote a newspaper column, advocated women’s suffrage, was a popular lecturer and contributed to the passage of the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924