b. Elsie Hodder, 8 April 1886, Armley, Leeds, Yorkshire, England, d. 16 December 1962, Willesden, London, England. When Elsie’s mother married Wilfred Cotton in 1891, the child took her stepfather’s name (he would later marry musical comedy star Ada Reeve). The family was then living in Salford, a district of Manchester. From childhood, she performed in public houses in Salford, singing under the name Little Elsie. In 1897 she played the role of Princess Mirza in a Manchester production of The Arabian Nights. Eventually, her singing and especially her striking good looks brought her to the attention of the theatrical community, not only in the north of England but also in London. After moving to the capital, she was in several productions with increasing success, including appearing in A Chinese Honeymoon (1901), which was the first local production to surpass 1, 000 performances.
Elsie continued to attract attention and was already greatly admired when George Edwardes persuaded her to take the lead in The Merry Widow. She was reluctant to do so, especially after he awed her by taking her to Vienna to see a production there. Elsie’s fears were groundless and when The Merry Widow opened on 8 June 1907 at Edwardes’ Daly’s Theatre in Leicester Square, she was an overnight success, encoring her big number, the waltz son, some 25 times. The show ran for 778 performances and through her performance, Elsie attained an astonishingly high profile. Her portrait was used for advertising, while newspapers and magazines printed articles about her. Future prime minister Winston Churchill, then a young man, reportedly declared; ‘It is unthinkable to see The Merry Widow without Lily Elsie.’ She made some appearances in very early films and also made some poorly recorded but fascinating records. With a fragile beauty, graceful and elegant, she continued to perform for adoring fans, but she was by all accounts permanently stricken with acute shyness. Unable to live with the adulation and constant public attention, she retired at the age of 26 while her career was at its height and married Ian Bullough, a millionaire’s son. In time the marriage ended, reportedly owing to her husband’s excessive drinking, and she spent her last years in a nursing home.