Born Beatrice Gladys “Bea” Lillie on May 29, 1894 in Cobourg, Ontario (near Toronto), the daughter of a Canadian government official.
The comedian performed in a family trio act with her mother, Lucy, and her older sister, Muriel, in Toronto and other Ontario towns.
Following her marriage to Sir Robert Peel, 5th Baronet, in England on January 20, 1920, she became known in private as Lady Peel. Later, she separated from him, and he died in 1934.
A marquee player as a droll revue and stage artiste, she skillfully interwoven sketches, songs and monologues with parody and witty satire. In 1924, in America, was an instant success on Broadway.
For the next decade, she worked with the top stage headliners of her day. A top radio and comedy recording artist to boot, Bea’s success in films was surprisingly limited, although she did achieve some recognition in such productions as Exit Smiling (1926) and Dr. Rhythm (1938).
Sheridan Morley wrote in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography that “Lillie’s talents were the arched eyebrows, the curled lips, the fluttering eyelid, the tilted chin, the ability to suggest, even in apparently innocent material, the possible double entendre.”
Her performance in such comedy routines as “One Double Dozen Double Damask Dinner Napkins” (say that ten times really fast … ), where an increasingly flummoxed matron attempts to buy said napkins, earned her the often used sobriquet of “funniest woman in the world.”
Throughout her career as a revue performer, Lillie’s contracts almost invariably stipulated that she would not make her first entrance onstage until at least half an hour, into the show; by that point, every other act in the revue had made its first appearance, and the audience would be keenly awaiting the entrance of Mill Lillie, the star of the evening.
Her rather eccentric persona worked beautifully on Broadway and, in 1958, she replaced Rosalind Russell in “Auntie Mame“.
During World War II, Lillie was an entertainer for the troops. One day in 1942, just before going onstage, she learned that her son, Sir Robert Peel, 6th Baronet, was killed in action aboard the HMS Tenedos in Colombo Harbour, Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka). She refused to postpone the performance saying, “I’ll cry tomorrow.”
At this point, she had already begun to show early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, although she managed to publish her biography in 1973. A year later, Bea suffered the first of two strokes and lived the next decade and a half in virtual seclusion. She died at age 94 on January 20, 1989, on her wedding anniversary. Her friend and companion, John Philip Huck, died of a heart attack 31 hours later.
For her contributions to film, Beatrice Lillie has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6404 Hollywood Blvd.
•1953 : Special Award — An Evening With Beatrice Lillie (winner)
•1958 : Best Leading Actress in a Musical — Ziegfeld Follies of 1957 (nominee)
•1964 : Best Leading Actress in a Musical — High Spirits (nominee)
To Learn more about this great Canadian, I suggest starting with:
•Beatrice Lillie at the Internet Movie Database.
Beatrice Lillie at the Internet Broadway Database.
A fan video in tribute to the song, “I Hate Spring” on YouTube.
Beatrice Lillie at Find a Grave.