William Merritt Chase’s (1849-1916) sitters included many female performers, among them Minnie Maddern Fiske and Carmencita. Spanierman Gallery’s current offerings include what is perhaps his finest portrayal of a member of New York’s theatrical world––namely, his colorful and very picturesque rendition of Elsie Leslie Lyde in the role of Little Lord Fauntleroy. The story is by Frances Hodgson Burnett and describes the adventures of young Cedric Errol, who lived with his widowed mother in Brooklyn and, upon discovering that he is the grandson of an earl, goes to England to claim his inheritance. When the play debuted at the Broadway Theatre in New York on December 3rd 1888, Chase was in the audience and was so taken with Lyde’s charms that he arranged to paint her portrait in his Tenth Street studio.
Who was Elsie Leslie Lyde (1881-1966)? Aficionados of theatre history will recognize her name instantly, for she was America’s first child star, a favorite of actors and literati such as Edwin Booth and Mark Twain. And how did this vivacious imp find her way to the stage? It so happens that Elsie was a daughter of Benjamin Tanner Lyde, a merchant in Newark. When her father’s business failed, she and her sister joined the theatrical company of Joseph Jefferson, a family friend. Elsie made her professional debut at the age of four, traveling to the Far West with Jefferson’s Rip Van Winkle Company. She achieved her earliest success in New York in 1887, starring in Editha’s Burglar, which was followed by notable roles such as Little Lord Fauntleroy, which ran for two seasons, and The Prince and the Pauper (1890). In 1890 Lyde left the stage to attend school, but she resumed her career eight years later, appearing in The Rivals and The Taming of the Shrew, among other productions. But the girl with the golden locks could never shake off the connection with Lord Fauntleroy: in 1907, she told the New York Times (in an appropriately titled article “The Restless Ghost of Little Fauntleroy”) that she wanted to be known as “the child actress who grew up and could act,” but acknowledged that she would always be associated with her signature role as Lord Fauntleroy; as she put it, “I don’t know whether I’m Little Lord Fauntleroy or Little Lord Fauntleroy is me––out identities have been so mixed.”
What about Elsie’s personal life? She married the actor Jefferson Winter in 1901, but they later divorced. In 1918, she wed Edwin J. Milliken, a Canadian-American banker and started a new life; after fulfilling her desire to travel the couple settled in New York, where they remained until Elsie’s death in 1966.
Recommended reading: Robert G. Bardin and Carol Lowrey, “William Merritt Chase (1849-1916): Child Star Elsie Leslie Lyde as Little Lord Fauntleroy,” in American Masters, 1840s-1920s (New York: Spanierman Gallery, 2008).