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Lotta Crabtree, The Nation’s Darling

1800s | June 26, 2019

Portrait of Lotta Crabtree Smoking a Cigar. Source: (Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Long before the title of America’s Sweetheart was bestowed on Mary Pickford, Shirley Temple, Debbie Reynolds, Meg Ryan, and Sandra Bullock, to name a few, one actress earned the nickname “The Nation’s Darling.” You may not know the name Lotte Crabtree, but in the last half of the 1800s, she was the best-known and highest-paid actresses in the United States. Let’s look at the life and times of Lotta Crabtree, the Nation’s Darling. 

Lotta Crabtree got her start entertaining the men at gold rush mining camps. (gia.ecu)

A Gold Rush Diva

Lotta Crabtree was born in New York City on November 7, 1847. When the California Gold Rush of 1849 hit, her father left to seek his fortune in the gold mines. Lotta and her mother joined him in California in 1852, traveling by boat to the Isthmus of Panama. Since the Panama Canal had not yet been constructed, they had to travel across land to the other side of the isthmus than board another ship bound for California. In California, the 6-year-old Lotta, with her brilliant red hair and big voice, entertained the miners at the camp. They rewarded her with nuggets of gold. 

Actress, dancer, and singer Lola Montez mentored the young Lotta Crabtree. Source: (gia.edu)

A Star in the Making

In California, Lotta’s mother, Mary Ann, enrolled her daughter in dance classes. Lola Montez, a well-known stage actress, singer, and dancer happened to live next door to the Crabtree family. She recognized the potential in young Lotta. She tutored her in stagecraft and offered private dance and singing lessons. According to stories, Lotta told later in her life, Montez was so impressed with the young Lotta’s talent that she wanted to include her when she went on tour to Australia. Lotta’s mother, Mary Ann, however, would not allow her young daughter to go. Instead of touring Australia, Lotta toured the gold rush camps of California and Nevada. 

Lotta Crabtree was paid in bits of gold nuggets. Source: (raregoldnuggets.com)

The First Stage Momager

Lotta’s mother, Mary Ann, took on the role of Lotta’s manager and became the typical momager that would become the staple of the later entertainment industry. Mary Ann booked gigs for her daughter, collected her payment, and controlled her finances. Because much of Lotta’s earnings from her gold rush performances came in the form of god nuggets, Mary Ann offered to sweep the floor after each one of her daughter’s shows just so she could look for any loose gold nuggets that may have been dropped on the floor. 

Lotta's earnings were invested in real estate. Source: (fineartamerica.com)

A Shrewd Money Manager

Mary Ann had tight control over Lotta’s earnings. For every performance, Mary Ann brought a large leather bag to carry her daughter’s pay. Sometimes, the bag became too heavy to carry. When this happened, Mary Ann bought land in Lotta’s name in the town they were performing. Lotta Crabtree eventually owned a considerable amount of real estate across California and Nevada. Even as she got older, Lotta still invested heavily in real estate. 

THe many faces of Lotta Crabtree. Source: (thewrightbook.com)

From the Mining Camps to the Theatre Stage

The Crabtree family settled in San Francisco in 1856 and Lotta became a regular in the theatres of the area. She was a popular entertainer and the crowds loved the petite redhead with the big personality. Within a few years, the newspapers were calling her “the San Francisco Favorite.” 

Broadway in the 1870s. Source: (visualizingnyc.org)

The Move to Broadway

At the age of 16, Lotta Crabtree left California with her mother to return to New York. Mary Ann Crabtree felt like her daughter’s enormous talent was being wasted in California. She had her eyes set on Broadway for her daughter. Lotta was small for her age so she was sought-after to play children’s roles. She starred in Little Nell and the Marchioness and Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Cigar smoking became Lotta's trademark. Source: (womenhistoryblog.org)

A Trademark Cigar

In her early 20's, Lotta Crabtree still looked much younger. To remind people of her true age, Lotta picked up the habit of smoking a thin cigar. The cigar would eventually become Lotta’s trademark, but it caused a bit of a scandal at the time. It was unbecoming of a woman to smoke a cigar. Lotta, however, liked the shock value that smoking brought. 

Lotta Crabtree was the highest paid actress in America. (broadway.cas.sc.edu)

The Pinnacle of Success

In the 1870s and 1880s, Lotta Crabtree’s star power was on the rise. She founded her own touring company and performed to rave reviews. Newspaper columnists dubbed her the “Belle of Broadway” and the “Nation’s Darling.” With paychecks averaging $5000 per week, she was the highest paid actress of her day. Throughout her adult life, her mother, Mary Ann, still managed her career and her finances. She booked venues, hired performers, and invested Lotta’s earnings. The mother and daughter bought an oceanfront plot of land in New Jersey and had a lavish mansion built for them. 

Without her mother, Lotta Crabtree became withdrawn and retired from performing. Source: (sfmuseum.org)

Mommy Issues?

Although she had many gentlemen callers, Lotta Crabtree never married and preferred to live with her mother. Mary Ann kept tight control over Lotta, her career, and her money. After Mary Ann’s death in 1905, Lotta retired from performing and became a bit of a recluse. In her later years, she bought Boston’s Brewster Hotel and lived in a room there until her death in 1924. Upon her death, she left most of her money to charities. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.