“My business is to play young girls parts”: Letter from Annie Russell

                              The first page of Miss Russell’s 1903 letter

The Archives is pleased to share this newly acquired letter, written by actress Annie Russell in January 1903.  It is addressed to Edward Bok, editor of The Ladies’ Home Journal, the magazine that was about to feature Miss Russell in a series covering “the lives of the popular actors and actresses as they are lived off the stage” (The Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1903).

Miss Russell begins her letter by noting that these articles always include the actors’ birth dates, then says, “I write to ask you please not to take as authority for mine that given in a book called ‘Famous Actresses of the Day’ which is incorrect in many, many points.”  The book she cites is in the holdings of the Olin Library and gives her year of birth as 1864.

               Annie Russell in the book Famous Actresses of the Day in America,                                                by Lewis C. Strang (published in 1899)

She goes on to say definitively, “I was not born in 1864.”  And then, “as my bussiness [sic] is to play young girls parts–this statement causes a certain disillusion.”  Though claiming that 1864 was “not many years” off the mark, she points out that “each added one makes my work a little harder.”  (Confusion about Miss Russell’s birth date persists to this day, with some sources citing the year 1869.)

At the time this letter was written, Miss Russell was starring in Mice and Men, a romantic comedy in which her character first appears on stage as a 16-year-old girl.  The New York Times, noting her “angular and untrained” movements and the “childish treble” of her voice, declared her performance to be “a marvelously sincere and amusing impersonation of a girl of sixteen just out of an orphan asylum.”  Her achievement is even more impressive considering that she was just days away from her 39th birthday (for she was, according to our records, born on January 12, 1864).

                               Poster for the play Mice and Men, 1903                                             (Image from the Library of Congress,  http://1.usa.gov/17WQJv2)

It’s easy to understand why Miss Russell wrote Mr. Bok, “I would rather not have my age given at all.”  She continued, “I can trust to your understanding that this is not a matter of personal vanity—so much as of business necessity.”

The article that appeared in Mr. Bok’s magazine a few months later describes Annie Russell’s life as the “young mistress” of her summer home in Maine, where she jumps into the ocean “with the glee of a girl,” and comes to dinner after a horseback ride and another swim “as fresh and lively as a girl of twenty.”  It concludes with a description of Annie as “the soul of gracious young womanhood and contented happiness.”  Her age is not given.

As the letter suggests, Annie regarded Edward Bok as an understanding friend.  What no one could have guessed at the time was that this friendship would eventually change the history of Rollins:  the Annie Russell Theatre, dedicated in 1932, was the gift of Miss Russell’s close friend, Mary Louise Curtis (Mrs. Edward) Bok.

                          Annie Russell (left) and Mary Louise Curtis Bok

~ by D. Moore, Archival Specialist

For more information, please see our biography of Miss Russell at our “Golden Personalities” page ( http://bit.ly/1b5oSOe ).  Additional information is available at the Annie Russell Theatre’s website (http://bit.ly/1e2hkgk ).

Famous Actresses of the Day in America is available in the Olin Library’s Department of Archives and Special Collections (call number PN2285 .S77 1899).

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