So, have you heard of Illington Road? It’s off Route 134, just past the Taconic South Ossining exit. It’s a favorite on the Saturday morning group run of the Taconic Road Runners Club when the reservoir road is too icy or snowy, or just when they want to mix it up a little.
Anyway, until I started writing about Major Bowes , I had no idea that it was likely named after his wife, Margaret Illington. And that Margaret Illington was another famous actress from the early 1900s who lived in our area. (Jeanne Eagels is the other one I’ve uncovered so far.)
It’s hard to imagine that pre-film and pre-TV era when theater actors were THE entertainment stars, but trust me when I tell you that Margaret Illington was a big, big star. No doubt it didn’t hurt her career one bit to marry Daniel Frohman, one of the big Broadway producers of the time.
So, follow me down a rather winding post to learn more about Illington Road, Margaret Illington and Broadway in the 1900s.
I suppose we should start with Daniel Frohman, her first husband: A good 25 years older than young Margaret, he, along with his brothers Charles & Gustave, pretty much started the Broadway road touring circuit back in the 1880s. They also managed and booked shows into many Broadway theaters, one of which, the Lyceum, is still in use today.
I was reminded of all this when I went to see “Fully Committed” last weekend at the Lyceum:
Now, several years ago, I just happened to visit the Shubert Archives which are housed high above that theater in Daniel Frohman’s old apartment. And on that visit, I was shown the small doorway that opens into the ceiling of the theater through which Frohman used to peek and watch his shows from the comfort of his penthouse. Even better, I read in the “About This Theater” section of the Playbill that “Legend has it that Frohman waved a white handkerchief out the open door to tell his wife, the actress Margaret Illington, that she was overacting.” (Check out this link for a picture of what I’m talking about.)
Okay, well, first the idea that big Broadway producers had luxurious penthouse offices above their own theaters has always fascinated me. David Belasco had one above the Belasco Theater, as did the Shubert Brothers above the Shubert Theater.
Second, Margaret Illington!!
Her story begins in 1879 in Bloomington, Illinois where she was born Maude Ellen Light. She attended Ohio Wesleyan College then Conway’s Dramatic School in Chicago, making her way to New York at the age of 18.
(Her stage name, Illington, was said to have been a combination of her hometown of Bloomington, Illinois. Seems plausible enough: Illington certainly sounds better than Bloominois.)
Playing small roles here and there, she attracted the notice of Daniel Frohman, who cast her in the completely forgotten folly called “Frocks and Frills” that played at Daly’s, a New York theater he just happened to manage. Her career skyrocketed after that, and she appeared in twelve more Broadway shows (and an unknown number of tours) over the next seven years.
But a recurring theme in all the articles I’ve found about her is that she constantly said she was “retiring from the stage.” When she married Daniel Frohman, she declared that her plan was to retire when her show closed. (Back in those days, a hit show ran weeks, not years, so she didn’t have long to wait.)
However, she went on to star in play after play. And much of her press discusses her chronic overexertion and exhaustion.
On tour in April, 1907, it was reported that Illington, “Leading woman with John Drew in ‘His House in Order,’ fainted on the stage of the New Grand Theatre to-night, and kept the audience waiting thirty minutes while doctors worked over her. She had a serious case of crying hysteria.”
I wonder if they brought the curtain down while the doctors “worked over her.” And what could they have been doing for thirty minutes allowed her to get back up and finish the show?? And what the heck is “crying hysteria” other than, well, crying hysteria? I can’t help but put myself in that stage manager’s shoes . . .
She doesn’t look too happy, does she?
By 1908, the New York Times was reporting that “Her Part in ‘The Thief’ Wrecked Her Health and She Will Never Act Again. Daniel Frohman Says So . . . Henceforth, He Says, His Wife Will Be A Hausfrau.”
In February of 1909, Daniel Frohman coolly announced that they were separating, but that “There is no scandal involved in our disagreement; no man or woman figures in it. The arrangement is amicable rather than hostile.” By June, Margaret had moved to Reno, Nevada to establish the six months of residency needed in those days in order to divorce Daniel Frohman. Yet even there she suffered from attacks of nerves: “She has adopted a plan of exercise in the hope of regaining her health, and, accompanied by her mother, with whom she lives in seclusion, she frequently takes walks as far as her strength will permit.”
Whatever was her problem???
Finally, on November 15, 1909, the New York Times reported that “Margaret Illington Weds New Husband. Actress Divorced Last Week from Daniel Frohman Now Wife of Edward J. Bowes.”
In the article, Illington was quoted as saying:
“From the first I told Mr. Frohman that I wanted a home, a domestic life. But he wanted to make a great star out of me. I wanted to stay at home and darn his socks. Always, I wanted domestic life and children. I wanted to lead the life of a normal woman. The stage life might be well for the woman born to it, but it is abnormal. When I found that Mr. Frohman intended to keep me on the stage always, my love died . . . As soon as I am freed I shall settle down with the man whose ideals accord with mine. He is wealthy, but he is a domestic man. We shall have our own little home, and I shall try to forget there is a world. I want the world to forget there ever was a Margaret Illington. What I want is babies, my own little babies to nestle to my heart and call me mother. I have been cheated out of my home and babies for so long that I want all of them I can have. I am hungry for them. Whether I have genius or not, I consider I have the right of any woman to make what she thinks is the most of her life. I have the right to be happy. I am not happy on the stage. I yearned all the time for the simple joys of motherhood.”
There’s a story here we’re not seeing, right? But what could it be?
Because just six months later, the New York Times reported “Back to Stage Goes Miss Illington” In a show produced by her new husband, our very own Major Edward Bowes of Allapartus Road, she was to tour the country before arriving back on Broadway. She then went on to star in more tours and Broadway plays for the next few years to respectful reviews. Then in 1915, she announced her retirement from the stage again. (She retired more often than Cher had Final Concert Tours!):
“I am having such fun, planting seeds and trees and things at my place near Ossining. We have an apple orchard, which is very lovely when it is bloom, but for the rest of the Summer we want more decoration. So every morning I get on my horse and direct the operations of six or seven Italians in digging up trees from the hillsides.”
Yet, in 1916 she opened on Broadway in “Our Little Wife” to mediocre reviews: “Miss Illington out of her element”
And in 1917 she appeared in several films produced by Famous Players – Lasky where, interestingly, her first husband Daniel Frohman, was a part owner and producer with Adolf Zukor. Hmmm . . .
But she really does seem to have finally gotten her wish to retire from the stage – her last Broadway show seems to have been “A Good Bad Woman,” which closed in May 1919.
At some point in here, Major Bowes and Margaret Illington bought property in Ossining. In 1920, the New York Times reported that she (not Major Bowes, but just her) sold an estate called Dreamlake, “Near Grant’s Corners in the town of Yorktown, and adjoins the estate of Holbrook Blinn . . . The property consists of 123 acres of land and is developed along the lines of an Adirondack camp. There is a main residence of Colonial farmhouse design and numerous outbuildings. One of the most notable features of this property is the thirty-acre lake, which was created by damming up a valley.”
I’d love to know exactly where this was.
The very next year, she bought another estate right next to Dreamlake.
I have no idea if or when Illington Road was named after her, but it seems fairly likely, yes? (I’d love to hear from anyone who knows more about this.)
She spent the last fifteen years of her life out of the limelight (literally!) and died in 1934, at the age of 55. Sadly, she never had the babies she said she wanted. Not sure about the sock darning.
Here’s her New York Times obituary.
She is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, next to her second husband Major Edward Bowes.