To some she was Lady Peel; to others she was Beatrice Lillie; but at one time to everyone she was simply known as “the Funniest Woman in the World”.
Born in Toronto in 1894 she made her way from 86 Davenport Road to Drayton Manor House, Staffordshire with stops en route on the stages of London and New York. During a 50 year career she appeared in over 40 revues and plays but strangely only one musical – High Spirits by her old friend Noel Coward. It was her last stage appearance.
She only had a handful of movies to her credit – her style just didn’t work that well on celluloid – but her appearances in the early years of television were many. From variety shows to talk shows her wit and madcap routines made her a welcome – and unpredictable – guest on Jack Parr, Johnny Carson and Ed Sullivan. She had the singular honour of being the only star that Sullivan devoted an entire show to in the 23 years he was on television.
There are Fairies At the Bottom of Our Garden was a popular children’s poem by Rose Fyleman that was set to music by Liza Lehmann in 1917. By the time she sang this on Ed Sullivan it had long left the nursery, entered the realm of the cabaret and lost all innocence in the process. (And this goes out to my friend Ron with big hugs – its me!)
She was having her hair done at Elizabeth Arden in Chicago when the wife of the founder of the Armour meat-packing company entered, noticed her, and complained loudly that she hadn’t’ realize there would be chorus girls present or she would not have come. Soon thereafter, as Lillie was leaving and saying goodbye to the manageress in the waiting room, in that voice that carried to the back row of the Schubert, she said, “You may tell the butcher’s wife that Lady Peel has finished.”
She loved telling this story on her friend Noel Coward: Noel and I were in Paris once. Adjoining rooms, of course. One night, I felt mischievous, so I knocked on Noel’s door and he asked, “Who is it?” I lowered my voice and said, “Hotel detective. Have you got a gentleman in your room?” He answered, “Just a minute, I’ll ask him.”
In 1924 Queen Bea made her Broadway debut in André Charlot‘s Revue of 1924 and introduced a number that had been a great success in the West End: March with Me. This clips captures that madcap number as well as a glimpse of the wonderful Ed Wynn.
During the Second World War she was an inveterate entertainer travelling throughout the various theatres of war. It was while preparing to go on stage one evening in April 1942 that she learned of the death of her son Robert Peel. He had been killed in action aboard HMS Tenedos in Colombo Harbour. She refused to postpone the performance saying “I’ll cry tomorrow.” And indeed she did and for many years refused to accept the fact that he would not return.
|Al Hirschfeld captures the indomitable Bea in one of her funniest sketches: MiLady Dines Alone.
She ate the entire meal – corn on the cob, asparagus, lobster without taking her gloves off.
Though she left Toronto while still in her teens she recalled the city with a great deal of affection. In her book Every Other Inch a Lady she, perhaps with that Irish love of hyperbole inherited from her father, said: A little bit of heaven had fallen down from the sky onto the shores of Lake Ontario. So they sprinkled it with stardust and called it Irish Toronto. You have to wonder if her tongue wasn’t pushing itself firmly in her cheek while she penned that sentence?
In another passage she recalls being feted by Mayor Sam McBride (“with a brogue as thick as Irish coffee”). At the reception he said: Your singable beauty has endangered you to thousands. “I thanked him from the bottom of my galoshes.”
And here’s our Bea, one more time, doing another of her signature pieces – sadly without the visual of her perched on a stool with her long string of pearls. Noël Coward composed this song after he and Beatrice attended a beach party given by Elsa Maxwell in the south of France in 1937 or 1938 and was sung by Bea the the 1939 revue Set to Music. The lyrics in the first stanza are based on a real life party: Coward and Lillie were invited to “come as they were,” but on arriving they discovered the other guests were all in formal attire. Perhaps this explains why the singer claims it was hell to “stay as we were”. “Poor Grace” is a reference to opera singer and movie star Grace Moore who was also a guest.
It was during the making of Thoroughly Modern Millie in 1966 that it became apparent that Bea was suffering from the first stages of Alzheimer’s. She died in January 1989 and the lights in theatres in the West End and on Broadway were dimmed in tribute to “the Funniest Woman in the World!”