The Lady in Charge
Louisa Lane Drew around the time when she was running the Arch Street Theater. wikimedia commons

By Debra Ann Pawlak
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XL, Number 3 - Summer 2014

In its heyday, Philadelphia's Arch Street Theatre seated approximately 2,000 patrons for each performance who came to see the renowned thespians of the 19th century. Popular performers - Fanny Davenport, Joseph Jefferson and Charlotte Cushman - played "The Arch" at 819 Arch Street. Even actor John Wilkes Booth took his turn there as Macbeth two years before he became one of the world's most infamous assassins. The Arch wasn't the only theater in Philadelphia during the 19th century. The Walnut Street Theater and the Chestnut Street Theater also provided entertainment. The Arch, however, had one thing the others didn't: the legendary woman in charge, Louisa Lane Drew, affectionately known as "The Duchess." The sobriquet suited her well.

Despite her short stature and commoner background, Louisa carried herself as if she were royalty. She lacked a formal education but insisted her life-learned lessons came from her many years on the stage. She demanded respect and received it from her theatrical peers as well as her family. Known for her dry sense of humor, rigorous work ethic and iron hand, she was not only one of the great actresses of her time, but a devoted grandmother to her famous Barrymore grandchildren, Lionel, Ethel and John, crowned the "Royal Family of the American Stage" by 20th-century critics.

If genetics had anything to do with it, Louisa came by her love for the stage honestly. Her paternal grandparents Louisa Rouse and Thomas Haycraft Lane were both English actors. Their son Thomas Frederick Lane also worked in the theater. He married Eliza Trenter who was most admired for her fine singing. The couple's only child, Louisa, was born in Lambeth Parish, London, on January 10, 1820, only 19 days before death claimed England's King George III. British theaters remained dark for a month of mourning. The imposed period of extended bereavement created a hardship for those who made a living on the stage, the Lanes included.

Once they were able to return to work the Lanes traveled throughout England performing - with their baby in tow. At 12 months old Louisa took on her first role, as Eliza carried her onstage to play the part of a crying baby. The tot was so taken with the audience and the bright lights that she squealed with delight. It wasn't quite what her mother had in mind and unknown to those who attended the show, Louisa's performance launched a theatrical powerhouse. As she toured with her parents the girl continued playing numerous children's parts, including that of Dr. Frankenstein's ill-fated little brother who was murdered by the monster. Louisa once claimed she was fed cherries backstage to keep her quiet.

By the time Louisa turned five her 29-year-old father had died, leaving Eliza a single parent. Two years later mother and daughter joined the Park Theater Company and sailed to New York City, arriving on June 7, 1827. Shortly after, Eliza made her American debut at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theater while Louisa added several male roles to her acting credits. Within a year the girl's talent was widely recognized. Her portrayal of five different characters in Twelve Precisely at the Chestnut Theater in Philadelphia garnered rave reviews from a local newspaper. "This astonishing little creature evinces a talent for and a knowledge of the stage beyond what we find in many experienced performers of merit. The entertainment of Twelve Precisely is well adapted to the display of the versatility of her powers."

For 32 years, Louisa managed the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia. Library of congress

About this time Eliza remarried. Her new husband, John Kinlock, was also an actor as well as the stage manager at the Walnut Street Theater. The Kinlocks capitalized on the public's fascination with child prodigies and kept the girl working even though she was so young. Louisa played multiple characters in various productions over the next several years which transformed her into a theatrical marvel. Her popularity was so great that she was invited to a presidential reception in Washington, D.C., where she met President Andrew Jackson. "Need I say," Louisa later wrote in her autobiography, "that I was a Jackson Democrat from the hour, and have remained one up to date."

In 1830 Louisa's stepfather took his career and family in a new direction when he recruited several actors to form a traveling company. Later that year the Kinlocks, along with Louisa and three small daughters of their own, took the troupe and sailed for Jamaica. After ten days at sea disaster struck when their ship ran into a rock near the coast of an isolated area in the Dominican Republic. Despite being damaged, the vessel remained afloat and everyone safely reached shore with their belongings.

Using materials salvaged from the ship, the crew assembled three shelters: one for the female passengers, one for the male passengers and one for the crew. Shipwrecked for six weeks, Louisa thought it a great adventure and enthusiastically celebrated her eleventh birthday marooned with shipmates while the captain, accompanied by a crew member, walked 40 miles to the nearest city. The captain arranged for another vessel to collect the stranded actors. In spite of the mishap, the ensemble made its way to Jamaica where the cast launched its tour in Kingston.

Tragedy struck yet again. John, Eliza and their 10-month-old daughter contracted yellow fever. While Eliza eventually recovered, her husband and baby died. After she felt well enough to travel, Eliza returned to the United States with Louisa and her half-sisters, Adine and Georgiana. Louisa, then 12, took on adult roles as she and her mother were the family's sole support. With the spirit of adventure that came to define them, the two actresses joined another traveling ensemble. They sailed to the Bahamas, taking the two younger girls with them. Luck was not on their side, however; they were once again shipwrecked. After being stranded Eliza and her brood returned to New York at the first opportunity.

In the spring of 1836 the 16-year-old Louisa fell in love and married Henry Blaine Hunt, a handsome, middle-aged Irish actor and the first of her three husbands. Years later in her autobiography, she described Hunt as "a very good singer, a nice actor and a very handsome man of forty." He was dashing and worldly. It was little wonder that Louisa was smitten. The couple toured with many of the leading theatrical companies of the day including that of Junius Brutus Booth, father of Edwin Thomas and John Wilkes. It was during that time that Louisa established herself as a great comedienne. She was paid one of the highest salaries ever given to a leading lady of the day - $20 (about $450 today) weekly - and played opposite the most popular leading men of the day such as Tyrone Power Sr., Edwin Forrest and Edwin Booth.

In her private life she was not so triumphant. Life on the road, Louisa's youth and Henry's hard living took their toll on the marriage. The Hunts divorced after a decade, a scandalous act at the time. Less than a year later, Louisa married another actor, the Dublin-born George Maffit Mossop, who had a terrible stutter when not performing. Best known for playing Irish roles onstage and hitting the bottle offstage, he arrived at the theater one evening not only teetering from intemperance, but reeking of onions. A member of the company remarked, "He's drunk again. Poor Mrs. Mossop!" With her customary good humor, Louisa responded, "Yes. And tonight with onions!"

Playbill from the Arch, dated March 3, 1863, when the popular actor- turned-presidential assassin appeared there in the play Marble Heart. historical society of pennsylvania

The marriage was short-lived; the 34-year-old Mossop died unexpectedly several months later in Albany, New York. Louisa became widowed before the newlyweds had a chance to celebrate their first anniversary.

Not long after Mossop's death, Louisa, still working in Albany, met yet another hard-drinking, handsome, Irish-born actor, John Drew. A short, slender man, Drew was said to be smitten with Louisa's half-sister, Georgiana. Louisa took a dim view of their affair. Nonetheless, in 1850 she married Drew. The fact that Louisa was seven years his senior didn't seem to matter. The newlyweds continued working together in the theater until Drew and his business partner William Wheatley took on the management of Philadelphia's Arch Street Theatre, briefly renamed Wheatley and Drew's Arch Street Theatre.

The Drews settled in Philadelphia where their first child, Louisa, was born, followed by John and then Georgiana. While Louisa raised her family, her husband soon realized that a demanding business didn't agree with his previously carefree lifestyle. The restless thespian bowed out of management to once again pursue an acting career, leaving his wife behind not only to raise the children, but also to headline at the competing Walnut Street Theater.

Drew went on an extended tour of England and Ireland, taking along his mother-in-law, Eliza Kinlock. After a brief visit home, life on the road beckoned Drew once more. He left Eliza behind and convinced his original love, Georgiana, to accompany him to California, Australia and England for an even longer excursion. If her husband's absenteeism bothered Louisa, she never showed it. If his feelings for her half-sister troubled her, she never mentioned it. The Duchess faced other challenges that demanded her attention.

By 1860 the stockholders of the Arch Street Theatre had realized John Drew was not much of a businessman and asked his wife to manage it. Situated near Benjamin Franklin's grave and the Betsy Ross House, the playhouse soon became known as Mrs. John Drew's Arch Street Theatre. Louisa took over the recently renovated theater just as the American Civil War erupted. Her savvy business sense and enterprising nature, not to mention her many theatrical contacts, were about to usher The Arch into its prime over the next three decades.

When John Drew and Georgiana Kinlock returned to Philadelphia in 1862, they carried with them a little extra package - a baby girl named Adine, born in Melbourne, Australia. While it was common knowledge that Georgiana was the child's mother, Adine's paternity was never established. Eliza claimed that her daughter had married actor Robert Stevens, whom she met while touring. The mysterious Stevens never surfaced in Philadelphia, leading many to whisper that Adine was the love child of Georgiana and her brother-in-law.

Young Louisa as Ophelia in the 1840s. wikimedia commons

On May 21, 1862, shortly after his return, John Drew became the ultimate victim of his many excesses. The 34-year- old actor collapsed and died while holding baby Adine. Louisa found herself widowed once again. Despite their differences, she fervently believed his tremendous success notwithstanding, her husband never reached his full potential in the theater. In her autobiography she explained, "Had he lived to be forty-five, he would have been a great actor. But too early a success was his ruin; it left him nothing to do. Why should he study when he was assured on all sides (except my own) that he was as near perfection as was possible for man to be? So he finished his brief and brilliant career at thirty-four years of age, about the age when men generally study most steadily and aspire most ambitiously."

Adine's mother Georgiana was not well and had no means to support a child. Louisa, ever the matriarch, took the girl in, but it is unclear whether she did so immediately or following Georgiana's death in 1864 at the age of 35. But the intrigue continued.

After her husband's untimely demise Louisa surprised the family. She came home with her own bundle of joy, a toddler named Sidney White Drew. The family Bible, carefully recorded in Eliza's hand, explained that Sidney was born in New York on August 28, 1863, to Sidney and Maria White and then adopted by Louisa Drew. But did Eliza concoct the scenario to protect her daughter's good name? Perhaps an entry in the Catalogue of Matriculates of the University of Pennsylvania, 1748-1893, clears matters - or not. It contends Sydney White was born at sea on September 18, 1863, to John and Maria White, relatives on the Drew side. Perhaps Louisa felt responsible and took the boy in. Her Barrymore grandchildren, however, swore their Uncle Googan looked just like The Duchess. Whatever the truth may be, his tombstone clearly states Sidney White Drew was the son of John and Louisa Drew, born on August 28, 1863 - 15 months after his father's death.

Through it all the industrious Louisa continued operating and acting at The Arch. It wasn't unusual for her to appear in dozens of roles each season. During her reign of three decades the theater prospered and The Duchess became known far and wide for her keen business sense. She even established a play exchange with a New York stock company to ensure the theater's continued success. Her daily routine consisted of arriving at the theater promptly at 10 a.m. for a four-hour rehearsal while squeezing in business matters. She returned home at 2 p.m. when dinner was served and, after a rest, it was back to the theater. The shows opened at 7:45 p.m. six days a week from Monday through Saturday. Louisa demanded perfection from herself and her crew. When she was displeased she often donned a bright red shawl to let her employees know she was not happy. The sight of that colorful wrap instantly attracted their attention and set them straight.

Louisa also ran a tight ship at home. In between her theatrical duties she single- handedly raised five children and cared for her aging mother. A well-respected member of Philadelphia society despite her many marriages and undesirable career, she had her own pew reserved at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church and her own silver offering dish engraved with her name. At Louisa's insistence her youngest daughter Georgiana regularly taught Sunday school. Her children were allowed to attend the theater and occupy the family box on Saturday evenings but the protective Louisa rarely let them venture backstage.

John Drew Sr., Louisa's third and last husband, in character as Handy Andy. new york public library

Her eldest child Louisa married theatrical manager Charles A. Mendum and moved to Boston, preferring to raise a family over stage work. Siblings Georgiana and Jack preferred hitting the boards. After debuting at The Arch when she was just 15, Georgiana soon established herself as a talented comedic actress. Jack's good looks, confidence and easy-going nature won the public over in no time, much like his father had. Encouraged by his mother, Jack went to New York and joined the troupe of producer and playwright Augustin Daly where he took a role in Edwin Booth's production of Hamlet. Also appearing in that play was the relatively unknown English actor and former boxer, Maurice Barrymore. The two hit it off immediately and enjoyed their time off in New York when not rehearsing and performing. When the final curtain fell on their production, Jack took Barrymore to his family's home in Philadelphia.

The Duchess immediately disliked her son's new best friend. She was not impressed by his acting nor did she find Barrymore's personal charm endearing. Georgiana, however, was fascinated by Jack's colleague and fell madly in love. When Maurice proposed Georgiana eagerly accepted no matter what her mother might think. The young couple married on December 31, 1876, after which they moved to New York to work in the theater.

The newlyweds struggled throughout 1877 until Georgiana found herself pregnant. In spite of their differences Louisa took Maurice and Georgiana in, ensuring a good Philadelphia home for her daughter and grandchild. While Barrymore respectfully addressed his mother-in-law as "Ma'am," she called him "You!" The first Barrymore child, Lionel Herbert, was welcomed into the fold on April 28, 1878. Georgiana soon found herself expecting once again. When her husband headed west with an acting troop she remained in Philadelphia with her mother and son. A daughter, Ethel Mae, joined the family on August 15, 1879. The children found a strength and stability in their grandmother that their parents lacked. It was Louisa who offered security and unconditional love. They called her Mum-Mum.

Louisa maintained control of The Arch but times were changing. The public wanted to see different faces rather than the same old company actors play after play. The theater's popularity began declining but Louisa's greatest professional triumph was yet to come.

In 1880 she took on what would become her signature role as Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals, a popular comedy written by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Hiring a management team to run her theater, Louisa took her show on the road playing the beloved character that never seemed to use quite the right word - hence the term "malapropism" which means an unintentional but humorous misuse of a word or phrase. (Many people are guilty of malapropisms, including Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley who announced, "The police are not here to create disorder, they're here to preserve disorder.") Regardless of her advancing age, her comic timing was still spot on. She toured with the play intermittently for the next 11 years, logging more than 19,000 miles in her travels. She did take time out, however, to return to Philadelphia where Georgiana was awaiting the birth of her third child. John Sidney was born on February 14, 1882, at his grandmother's house. Mum-Mum was immediately enamored with the baby and nicknamed him Green Goose after a favorite storybook character.

Maurice Barrymore and his wife, Georgiana Drew Barrymore. fanpix.net

Louisa's ever-growing brood needed a bigger home. In addition to Georgiana and her three children, Louisa was still caring for her aged mother. Also living with The Duchess and helping with Grandmother Kinlock was Adine, then grown and known as Aunt Tibby to the Barrymore children. Sydney White Drew, known as Uncle Googan to Lionel, Ethel and John, also lived with Louisa in addition to an assortment of servants.

Shortly after John's birth Louisa's entourage moved to a larger residence at 140 North Twelfth Street. White marble steps led into the dark, three-story brick house. The house was dominated by large, drafty rooms connected by long hallways with two attics on the top floor. Whisperings that the place was haunted made it even more intriguing to the children. Then there was the tombstone-making dwarf who lived across the street. He sported a weathervane mustache and showed his work in his front yard. The somber stone angels and sad-eyed doves that he made by hand prompted Georgiana to christen their new home "The Tomb of the Capulets."

Well into her nineties Grandmother Kinlock stayed in one of the upper bedrooms. When she needed something or wanted company, which was often, she would simply ring a bell and someone would appear. The Barrymore children usually said their evening prayers under her guidance. "God bless Mother, and Papa, and Mum-Mum and Grandmother and Uncle Googan, and please, God, make Uncle Jack a good actor."

Much to the children's delight, Uncle Googan stayed in one of the attics. He spent some time on the stage but never took his acting career seriously. He found more delight at hustling pool - at which he was very good. He once told Louisa he was writing a play to which she retorted, "Does someone in your play get killed with a billiard ball?" After Mum-Mum scolded Lionel for having too many pet mice the boy released them from their cages in Uncle Googan's room. The house staff was horrified by the many little creatures but Uncle Googan wasn't above feeding them by hand. "Mice," he'd say, "keep Philadelphia from being dull."

In 1892 Louisa's long-running role as Mrs. Malaprop ended at San Francisco's Baldwin Theater. She returned to Philadelphia where she found bitter disappointment both professionally and personally. The Arch Street Theatre continued losing money because of dwindling ticket sales. After 32 years of managing the business Louisa resigned. The Tomb of the Capulets was no longer the same. Grandmother Kinlock had died in 1887 at the age of 92. Uncle Googan had married actress Gladys Rankin and moved to New York, taking his billiard cue with him. Uncle Jack had also left for New York where he worked in the theater.

John Barrymore, Louisa's grandson, as Hamlet in 1922. Wikimedia commons

The most pressing matter, however, concerned Georgiana. She was seriously ill. New York doctors were consulted and Georgiana was sent on a cruise to the Bahamas for an extended period of rest and warm weather. Apparently, the high seas temporarily improved her health, but not for long. Diagnosed with an advanced case of tuberculosis, she was sent to California in the care of her 13-year-old daughter Ethel because the rest of the family had commitments on the stage. Three weeks after their arrival and under Ethel's guarded watch, her mother lost the final battle with her lungs and died on July 2, 1893, several days short of her 39th birthday. Alone, the grief-stricken Ethel accompanied her mother's body back to Philadelphia on an eight-day train trip.

After burying her daughter in the family plot at Philadelphia's Mount Vernon Cemetery, it was up to Louisa to take charge of Ethel, Lionel and John since their father was on tour. Preparing to reprise her signature role as Mrs. Malaprop, Louisa gave up her residence in Philadelphia and moved to Madame Bourquin's boardinghouse on Staten Island where she had often stayed while working in New York. The children joined Uncle Googan, his wife and their son Sidney Rankin Drew, affectionately called Little Kidney Stew by the family.

Louisa eventually developed what was then called dropsy - known today as edema or swelling of the soft tissue - most likely caused by congestive heart failure. The painful condition caused her feet and ankles to bloat. She was living in Larchmont, New York, in a boarding house overlooking Long Island Sound. Her 15-year-old grandson John took charge as the rest of the family had professional obligations. Each day he helped her down two flights of stairs so she could sit on the porch and enjoy the view. In the evenings John washed her swollen feet and put her to bed, making sure she was asleep before he went out for the night. She refused to believe her health problems were serious and insisted she would one day soon return to the stage. Thirty years later John reminisced, "She sat gazing out across the Sound, but she was really gazing at old, half-forgotten things, things that once seemed important and which were now becoming confused in her mind. ... Mostly she spoke of other times and other manners in the world of the theater."

On the morning of August 31, 1897, Louisa and John shared a long visit. The 77-year-old actress grew tired, patted her grandson's arm and fell asleep. John went out for the afternoon and upon returning several hours later found his grandmother in a coma, barely breathing. Devastated, he watched as she slipped away. The death of his beloved Mum-Mum, the most stable figure in his young life, affected him deeply as long as he lived. According to his older brother Lionel, it was the beginning of John's many insecurities. Louisa returned to Philadelphia one last time to be buried next to her darling Georgiana and husband John Drew.

With more than seven decades in the theater, Louisa is remembered as a skilled actress with perfect timing and a striking countenance. She profoundly influenced many of the young actors with whom she worked. Known for her attention to detail, Louisa molded the Arch Street Theatre into one of the finest playhouses in the country. Her most important role, however, was in real life as the family matriarch of an acting dynasty that continues to this day.

Louisa Lane Drew in her most famous role as Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals. private collection

At Louisa's request, her son John had a poem written by Anna Laetitia Barbauld inscribed on his mother's tombstone.

Life! We've been long, together,
Through pleasant and
through cloudy weather;
'Tis hard to part when
friends are dear;
Perhaps 'twill cause
a sigh, a tear;
Then steal away,
give little warning,
Choose thine own time;
Say not Good-Night but
in some brighter clime,
Bid me Good-Morning.


...and the Barrymore Award goes to....

Despite widely circulated stories that the Barrymore Awards, until last year presented by the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia to recognize outstanding theatre companies and their productions, would cease, they are back and better than ever. After more than two decades dedicated to developing the theatre community and its audiences in Philadelphia, the Theatre Alliance discontinued operations at the end of its fiscal year on June 30, 2012. Volunteers, however, continued the work demanded by the highly competitive process and selected productions worthy of prizes. The awards program, now managed by Theatre Philadelphia, has served as Philadelphia's professional theatre awards program since 1994, honoring artists for excellence and innovation while stimulating and increasing awareness of the city's thriving theatre community and its offerings. The Barrymores are a nationally recognized symbol of excellence for theatre in the area, raising the bar for work produced by local theatres and individual artists while generating coverage in local, regional and national media. The media has described the awards as "Philadelphia's equivalent of a Tony."

An all-volunteer team of performing artists, theatre critics, historians and scholars saw nearly 100 professional productions in the greater Philadelphia area to continue the awards and celebrate the region's collective achievement at the new Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre in fall 2014. The honors will be presented by Theatre Philadelphia.

Philadelphia claims 51 professional stages, the most in the city's history, which employ more than 1,000 individuals, including actors, directors, producers, musicians and costume, sound, lighting and scenic designers, in addition to box-office and management personnel. Nearly 1,000 people in the region are members of the Actors' Equity Association.

To learn more about the 2014 awards program or to apply to be considered as a nominator or judge for the 2014-2015 season, e-mail Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia.


Debra Ann Pawlak is a freelance writer living in southeastern Michigan. She has previously written several articles for Michigan History, as well as national publications. Her latest book Bringing Up Oscar: The Men and Women Who Founded The Academy is available in print, e-book and audio formats.