Lotta Crabtree, The Nation’s Darling
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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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