Bernard A. Drew | Our Berkshires: Star of stage, screen and limousine

Our Berkshires

GREAT BARRINGTON — Mrs. Leslie Carter was an actress. She was a cherished stage performer who gently aged into older roles. Her day was more than a century ago, when she appeared in shows in all three corners of the Berkshires — North Adams, Pittsfield and Great Barrington. She liked the area so much, she came back to vacation.

Born Caroline Louise Dudley (1857-1937) in Lexington, Ky., she grew up in Dayton, Ohio. Her father was a prosperous dry goods merchant. She married lawyer Leslie Carter of Chicago. He was also prosperous. They had one child, Dudley. But theirs was an unhappy marriage. She traveled widely in Europe. She sued for divorce in 1887, charging abuse. Her husband countersued, alleging unfaithfulness. He prevailed. She took her son.

Needing an income and following up on a long-held urge to act on stage, she approached Broadway showman David Belasco, who described her as "a pale, slender, red-haired girl with a pair of green eyes." He schooled her in acting and arranged for her to appear as the lead in "The Heart of Maryland" in 1895. In the Civil War drama, she swung from a belfry tower on a huge bell clapper, her 6-foot tresses (a wig) flying behind her head. Her performance galvanized audiences.

She used the stage name "Mrs. Leslie Carter" to spite her former husband.

She next was in "Zaza" (1898), then "Madame Du Barry" (1901) and "Andrea" (1904).

When she married fellow actor Louis Payne in 1906, she broke with Belasco. Payne quit his career in order to manage his new bride's business affairs. They adopted a daughter, Mary. The actress tried out the longer stage name "Mrs. Leslie Carter Payne," but it wouldn't fit on the marquees.

Carter went on the road. She appeared at the Richmond theater in North Adams in June 1906.


"Mrs. Carter reached North Adams Monday morning, where she was entertained at a birthday luncheon by Mr. and Mrs. Charles E. Evans, the former being a member of the Evans and Hoey company and the latter having been a member of Mrs. Carter's company," the Springfield Republican said. "From there they made the trip to Lenox and were overtaken by the hard storm, and during its period were entertained by Mr. and Mrs. G.A. Plumb. They stopped at Pittsfield for supper at the Maplewood She said that in all her travels she had never seen more beautiful scenery than that of the Berkshire hills, which she saw for the first time this week. She will leave this morning for Great Barrington where she plays tonight."

Mrs. Carter returned in summer 1907 for a month's stay at the Berkshire Inn in Great Barrington, accompanied by her husband and her secretary, maid, footman and chauffeur. "When Mrs. Carter appeared at the Mahaiwe t\Theatre she became greatly impressed with the town, and stated then that she would like to come to Great Barrington for a rest. She expects to spend her time touring through the Berkshire hills," the Springfield Republican reported.

She trod the boards at Pittsfield's Colonial Theatre, appearing in "Two Women" in May 1911. Mrs. Carter et al that time stayed at the Wendell Hotel.

Her post-Belasco career waned in large part because she was trained to act in a melodramatic extreme, though the popular actress Mary Pickford said, "Few actresses have the power to carry semi-humorous scenes like these" in "Madame Du Barry."

Carter became known as "the queen of bankruptcies." That year 1911 was an exception. She arrived in the Berkshires in "a 70hp Thomas chassis fitted with a limousine body (by Brunn & Co.) and it is, in design and interior decoration, absolutely unique [I]t enables that lady to realize her ambition to possess `the most distinctive, beautiful and costly automobile in existence ," according to Automobile Topics. "The color scheme is yellow and green, the yellow being mixed especially for her and has since been standardized as `Carter' yellow."

She went before the cameras for a silent film in 1915, again in the Du Barry role. That and a film version of "Heart of Maryland" did poor box office. She was aging past her roles. She appeared in a stage comedy "The Circle" with John Drew. She backed a vaudeville show, "The Shanghai Gesture," but failed an audition for a part in the Broadway version. She toured instead in the road shows.

She returned to the stage in 1921 in Somerset Maugham's "The Critic," again with Drew as the male lead, boasting she would still draw audiences. "I know perfectly well we're all growing older," she told the Boston Post, "and Broadway has known me a long time. But it's pleasant to know that it's looks, and not years, that counts, for, you know, `a woman's as old as she looks'!"          

Bernard A, Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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