Bea Lillie (May 29, 1894 – January 20, 1989) was a comic actress. She was born as Beatrice Gladys Lillie in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Following her marriage in 1920 to Sir Robert Peel, she was known in private life as Lady Peel.
She began performing in Toronto and other Ontario towns as part of a family trio with her mother and older sister, Muriel. Eventually, her mother took the two girls to London, England where she made her West End debut in 1914.
She was noted primarily for her stage work in revues, especially those staged by André Charlot, and light comedies, and was frequently paired with Gertrude Lawrence, Bert Lahr and Jack Haley. Beatrice (or Bea) Lillie, as she would be known professionally, took advantage of her gift for witty satire that made her a stage success for more than 50 years.
In her revues, she utilized sketches, songs, and parody that in her 1924 brand-new York debut won her lavish praise from the brand-new York Times. In some of her best known "bits," she would solemnly parody the flowery performing style of earlier decades, mining such songs as There are Fairies at the Bottom of our Garden and Mother Told Me So for every double entendre, while other numbers (Get Yourself a Geisha and Snoops the Lawyer, for example) showcased her exquisite sense of the absurd. Her performing in such comedy routines as "One Double Dozen Double Damask Dinner Napkins," (in which an increasingly flummoxed matron attempts to purchase said napkins) earned her the frequently used sobriquet of "Funniest Woman in the World". Lillie never performed the "Dinner Napkins" routine in Britain, because British audiences had already seen it performed by the Australian-born English revue performer Cicely Courtneidge, for whom it was written.
In 1926 she returned to brand-new York city to perform. While there, she starred in her 1st film, Exit Smiling, opposite fellow Canadian Jack Pickford, the scandal-scarred younger brother of Mary Pickford. From then until the approach of World War II, Lillie repeatedly crisscrossed the Atlantic to perform on both continents. (She made very few films; her 1944 film, On Approval, also starring Clive Brook, who wrote the adapted screenplay, produced and directed, is an Amazing example of Lillie in her prime. It is currently available on DVD.)
Lillie is associated particularly with the works of Noel Coward (giving, for instance, the 1st ever public performance of "Mad Dogs and Englishmen"), though Cole Porter is among those who also wrote songs for her. She made few appearances on film, appearing in a cameo role as a revivalist in Around the World in Eighty Days and as "Mrs. Meers" (a white slaver) in Thoroughly Modern Millie. She won a Tony Award in 1953 for her revue An Evening With Beatrice Lillie and made her final stage appearance as Madame Arcati in High Spirits, the musical type of Coward’s Blithe Spirit. This was Lillie’s only performance in a book musical: that is, a musical with a plot; all her other stage appearances had been in revues.
Throughout her career as a revue performer, Lillie’s contracts almost invariably stipulated that she would not make her 1st entrance onstage until at least half an hour into the show; by that point, every other act in the revue had made its 1st appearance and the audience would be keenly awaiting the entrance of Miss Lillie, the star of the evening.
After seeing An Evening with Beatrice Lillie, British critic Ronald Barker wrote, "Other generations may have their Mistinguett and their Marie Lloyd. We have our Beatrice Lillie and seldom have we seen such a display of perfect talent." In 1954 she won the Sarah Siddons Award for her work in Chicago theatre.
An amusing, but perhaps apocryphal story has it that a somewhat intoxicated Beatrice Lillie, upon returning to her hotel one evening, regally instructed the desk clerk to hand her "Lady Keel’s Pee". Tallulah Bankhead actually made that remark. She and Bea had been out together and Tallulah believing she was the more sober one instructed the desk clerk to give her "Lady Keel’s Pee Please."
She married, on January 20, 1920, at the church of St. Paul, Drayton Bassett, Fazeley, near Tamworth in Staffordshire to Sir Robert Peel, 5th Baronet. She eventually separated from her husband (but never divorced him) until he died in 1934. Their only child, Sir Robert Peel, 6th Baronet, was killed in action aboard HMS Tenedos in Colombo Harbour, Ceylon (right now Sri Lanka), in 1942.
During World War II, Lillie was an inveterate entertainer of the troops. Before she went on stage, she learned her son was killed in action. She refused to postpone the performance saying "she would cry tomorrow."
In 1948 she met singer/actor John Philip Huck, almost three decades younger than she, who became her friend and companion. Huck has been described by biographers and friends of Lillie’s as a no-talent, obsessive control freak who used Lillie as his ticket to a brush with fame. Though apparently devoted to her, Huck isolated her from her friends and family in her later years and exerted almost total control over her life and financial affairs. She was reportedly involved in romantic relationships with actresses Tallulah Bankhead and Gertrude Lawrence.
She retired from the stage due to Alzheimer’s disease and died on January 20, 1989, which was also the date of her marriage anniversary, at Henley-on-Thames, aged 94. Huck died of a heart attack only 31 hours later, and is interred next to her in the Peel family estate’s cemetery near Peel Fold, Blackburn.
For her contributions to film, Beatrice Lillie has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6404 Hollywood Blvd.
Beatrice Lillie returned to England in April, 1944, by happenstance, on the same airplane that took Ernest Hemingway back to report on yet another war. Gertrude Lawrence was on the same plane.
* Exit Smiling (1926)
* The Show of Shows (1929)
* Are You There? (1930)
* Dr. Rhythm (1938)
* On Approval (1944)
* Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)
* Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967)
* Beatrice Lillie (1929)
* Broadway Highlights No. 1 (1935)
* Broadway Highlights No. 2 (1935)
Awards and achievements
Preceded by Helen Hayes
Sarah Siddons Award – Sarah Siddons Society, Chicago 1954
Succeeded by Deborah Kerr
* 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)
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