- Elsie Ferguson
Born Elsie Louise Ferguson in
New York City, she was the only child of Mr. and Mrs. Hiram Benson Ferguson, a successful attorney. Raised and educated in Manhattan, she became interested in the theater at a young age and made her stage debut at seventeen as a chorus girl in a musical comedy. By 1909, she was a major Broadway star, starring in " The Girl from Kays", among others. In 1910 she spent time on the stage in London. Actress Ethel Barrymorewas a good friend of hers.
World War I, a number of Broadway stars organized a campaign to sell Liberty Bonds from the theatre stage prior to the performance as well as at highly publicized appearances at places such as the New York Public Library. Ferguson, noted for her great beauty and as one of the "Park Avenue aristocrats," on one occasion is reputed to have sold $85,000.00 worth of bonds in less than an hour.
At the peak of her popularity, several
film studiosoffered her a contract but she declined them all until the widely respected New York based French director Maurice Tourneurproposed she appear in the lead role as a sophisticated patrician in his 1917 silent film, "Barbary Sheep". Producer and director Adolph Zukorthen signed her to an eighteen film, 3 year, $5,000.00 per week contract. [http://www.und.edu/instruct/cjacobs/WitnessfortheDefense.htm]
Following this first film, Elsie Ferguson was highly billed in promotional campaigns, [http://www.silentsaregolden.com/photos2/elsiefergusonphoto.html] and starred in two more films directed by Tourneur under a lucrative contract from
Paramount Picturesthat paid her $1,000 per day of filming, in addition to her weekly contract income. Her only surviving silent film is "Witness for the Defense" (1919) co-starring Warner Oland. [http://www.und.edu/instruct/cjacobs/WitnessfortheDefense.htm]
Continuing to play roles of elegant society women, Ferguson was quickly dubbed "The Aristocrat of the Silent Screen." But the aristocratic label was also because she was known as a difficult and sometimes arrogant personality to work with. Many of the films she agreed to do were because they were adaptations of stage plays with which she was familiar.
Elsie Ferguson eventually followed the move west and bought a home in the hills of
Hollywood, California. In 1920, she traveled to the Middle Eastand Europe. She fell in love with Parisand the French Rivieraand within a few years bought a permanent home there.
In 1921, she accepted another contract offer from Paramount Pictures to star in four films to be spread over a two-year period. One of these was the 1921 film entitled "Forever" in which she starred opposite the leading heartthrob of the day,
Wallace Reid. It is considered her best work in film.
"Talkies" and Retirement
In 1925 she made one film only before returning to the Broadway stage. In 1930 she made her first
talkiethat would also be her final film, titled "Scarlett Pages", which is now preserved in the Library of Congress. [http://www.und.edu/instruct/cjacobs/WitnessfortheDefense.htm] Although her voice came across well enough, at age 47 she was well past her prime for fans who wanted to see her as the great youthful beauty she had once been.
Despite her wealth and fame and glamorous lifestyle, Elsie Ferguson's personal life had more than its share of turmoil. Well known behind the scenes as difficult to work with, temperamental, and argumentative, she married four times. Following her final marriage at age 51 she and her husband acquired a farm in
Connecticutand divided their time between it and her Cap d'Antibes home on the Mediterranean Seain the south of France.
Ferguson made her final appearance on Broadway in 1943 at the age of 60 that met with critical acclaim. She played in "Outrageous Fortune", a play written by her neighbor Rose Franken. The play closed eight weeksafter it opened. Critics hailed Ferguson's performance as "glowing" andhaving "the charm and winning manner of old."
A very wealthy woman with no heirs, and a lover of animals, on her passing in 1961 she left a large part of her considerable estate to a variety of charities including several for animal welfare.
Elsie Ferguson died in Lawrence Memorial Hospital in
New London, Connecticutin 1961. She lived on an estate called White Gate Farms.She was interred in the Duck River Cemetery in Old Lyme, Connecticut.
New York Times, "Elsie Ferguson Is Dead at 76; Former Stage and Screen Star", November 16, 1961, Page 39.
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