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Iowa History Daily: November 24 - Clinton's Lillian Russell

Iowa History Daily: On December 4, 1861, singer and actress Lillian Russell was born in Clinton. Russell stood out as one of the most famous actresses and singers of the late 1800s and early 1900s, acclaimed for her beauty, style, voice, and stage presence.

Born Helen Louise Leonard in Clinton, Iowa, she was the fourth of five daughters of the newspaper publisher Charles E. Leonard and author Cynthia Leonard. Her family moved to Chicago in 1865. Russell, called Nellie as a child, excelled at music and theater production while in school. In her teens, she studied music privately and sang in choirs. In December 1877, she performed in an amateur production of “Time Tries All” at Chickering Hall in Chicago.

At 18, her parents separated, and she, her mother and younger sister moved to New York City so her mother could do suffrage work with Susan B. Anthony. Russell studied singing under Leopold Damrosch and considered pursuing an operatic career, but her mother disapproved. Her big break came in 1881 when Russell played the leading soprano role of Mabel in a burlesque of “The Pirates of Penzance.”

Continuing on to national claim and success, Russell grew to become the foremost singer of operettas and musical theater in the United States, performing continuously through the end of the 1800s. After 1904, she started to suffer from vocal difficulties and switched to dramatic roles. She later returned to musical roles in vaudeville and retired from performing around 1919. In her later years, she wrote a newspaper column, advocated women's suffrage, and grew to become a popular lecturer. #IowaOTD #IowaHistoryDaily #IowaHistoryCalendar


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