b. Helen Louise Leonard, 4 December 1860 (1861 is often cited), Clinton, Iowa, USA, d. 6 June 1922, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. After studying singing formally in Chicago and New York, Russell hoped to become an opera singer but began appearing in vaudeville theatres. Among shows in which she appeared were a New York production in 1879 of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore. She also sang in the operettas The Grand Duchess (1889) and La Perichole (1895). Despite her initial success and popularity, Russell chose to abandon operetta for variety shows; perhaps she feared the end of her day at the top. Whatever the reason, the change served to enhance her popularity, as did her squabbles with producers and her outrageous lifestyle.
Physically, Russell was flamboyantly attractive and enjoyed the male company that was urged upon her, marrying four times. She was in Whirl-i-gig (Twirly-Whirley) (1899), in which she appeared with burlesque comedians Weber And Fields. A song she introduced in this show, ‘Come Down, Ma Evenin’ Star’, remained ever afterwards in her repertoire and is believed to be the only song she ever recorded. Her last Broadway appearance was in Hokey Pokey (1912), although her career was by no means over. Returning to the vaudeville circuit, she continued to perform for enchanted audiences until shortly before her death. Predictably, Hollywood’s biopic, Lillian Russell (1940), starring Alice Faye in the title role, glossed over its subject’s private life but has its merits because it offers glimpses of performers such as Joe Weber and Lew Fields, Eddie Foy Jnr. , Lynn Bari and Ernest Truex.