Marie Dressler, probably forgotten today, was a mega-star character movie actress of the early 20th century. She starred with Charlie Chaplin – and Greta Garbo!
Miss Dressler, Actress
Marie Dressler (1868-1934) was a large woman, plain, and plus-sized. But she had enormous comedic skills, and co-starred in early silent movies with Charlie Chaplin, no small judge of comedic talent. She could also sing and dance just as well as she could mug for Broadway audiences.
By the mid-1890s, Marie Dressler was a featured player in the New York theatre, on her way to achieving the stardom that would come in subsequent years. But in the mid-1890s, stage actresses were still disdained by the snooty set (although their menfolk usually thought otherwise). But times were changing, and since Miss Dressler was far from glamorous, her choice of occupation was not considered “threatening.” At least not as threatening as the Floradora girls who danced and cavorted in flesh-colored tights.
Therefore, when Miss D. decided to take a brief vacation at a posh resort in Lake George, she was somewhat unprepared for the cool reception she received from the other guests. Blessed with an outgoing personality and fine sense of humor, she had hoped for some pleasant conversation, and perhaps an invitation to join one of their excursions.
It was not happening. Word obviously got out that a “stage actress” was among them, and the high-society matrons avoided her as if she had a plague. She was lonely and disappointed.
The Little Old Lady
By the mid-1890s, Julia Grant had been widowed for a decade. Her forty-year marriage to General Ulysses S. Grant had been a particularly loving and happy one. Her eight years as mistress of the White House were the culmination of every dream she could possibly have had.
She had been born to a middle-class St. Louis family some seventy years earlier. It had been a happy and loving childhood, which glowed even brighter in retrospect. One thing that did not glow brighter was the fact that Julia Dent Grant was a plain child with a figure that age and children made stout. She also was born with an eye condition that turned her eye inward. She never would be a beauty; and her eye condition was never repaired. Her doting husband loved her as is.
Nevertheless, and despite her shortcomings, she had a genial disposition and a pleasant personality that won her many friends, male and female, from the start. Naturally, when Prominence (with a capital ‘P’) fell into her lap, the matrons of Society (with a capital ‘S’) were happy to take her under their collective wing. Perhaps realizing that their help might indeed be helpful, she learned to put on the appropriate airs. But whatever “airs” she learned to adopt were those of her position – not of essential Julia. She was never a snob.
And she never permitted her “widowhood” to dictate her life. While she always wore appropriate black
widow’s-garments, she managed to get out and about enjoying those years that remained to her, surrounded by a close-knit family and friends – and new friends that she would continue to make.
The Private Concert
Marie Dressler was not enjoying her lonely vacation in Lake George. So one afternoon, she spied a piano in an empty public room, and provided her own entertainment and consolation. The soft music and pleasant singing attracted the attention of an elderly lady passing by. She entered the room quietly and took a seat in the back, enjoying a private performance given by someone who obviously had some musical talents and training.
When Miss Dressler became aware that she had an audience, she naturally invited the woman to come and sit near her, and asked if she had any “requests.” The woman approached the piano and sat nearby, and asked if she knew “Lorena,” which had been popular some thirty or forty years earlier. Miss Dressler said that she did know the song, and proceeded to play and sing for her audience-of-one.
The elderly woman in black engaged her in conversation, and then invited the younger woman to tea the next day. Marie Dressler, who had made no friends at all at the resort, was happy to accept the invitation – even if it was from an elderly woman.
The Reach of Influence
Marie Dressler indeed joined her older companion for tea, and the two of them had a pleasant hour.
The host did not bat an eye when Miss Dressler admitted that she was a stage actress in New York. And Miss Dressler did not bat an eye when her companion said that her name was “Mrs. Grant.”
“Grant” is not a particularly uncommon or unusual name. It meant nothing to Marie Dressler, who was Canadian, born in 1868, the year that Grant was elected President. The prestige and prominence of General USG of the USA would have been known of course, but may not have had the same impact.
The bottom line, was that all Marie Dressler knew about the elderly woman was that her name was “Mrs. Grant.” It meant little… Until she began to receive pleasant smiles, nods and how-do-you-do’s from the other guests. Plus invitations to join their table or their excursions. Clearly something had changed their attitudes. It became apparent that her Mrs. Grant was the Mrs. Grant, and if the company of an actress was good enough for Mrs. Grant it was surely good enough for them.
Marie Dressler went on to become a major stage and screen celebrity, and plain and plus-sized notwithstanding, won the Academy Award in 1932 for Best Actress.
Grant, Julia Dent – The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant: (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant) – 1975, G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Kennedy, Matthew – Marie Dressler : A Biography, With a Listing of Major Stage Performances, a Filmography and a Discography, McFarland & Co. Publishing, 1998