|Born in Clinton,
Iowa in 1860, Helen Louise Leonard would become one of the most famous
and beautiful actresses of the late 19th century and early 20th century.
Little is known of her early life except that she had some musical
training in Chicago. At the age of 18, she and her mother left for New
York where Helen was offered a role in the chorus of Gilbert and
Sullivan's operetta H.M.S. Pinafore. This would serve as an
inauspicious beginning to a dazzling career.
In 1879, under the new guise of "Lillian Russell", Helen made her first appearance on the august stage at Tony Pastor's Theater. Tony Pastor, known as the father of vaudeville, was responsible for some of the biggest stars in show business. Russell's appearance caused such a stir that she stayed on with Pastor and starred in some of his comic operas.
Not only was her voice celebrated but her beauty caused quite a stir among the men and the women of the audience. Since her first appearance at Tony Pastor's she was also the subject of a great deal fanfare in the news media. For forty years, she was the companion of businessman "Diamond Jim" Brady who showered her with extravagant gifts of diamonds and gemstones.
For years, Russell was the foremost singer of operettas in the U.S. Among her most well-known roles were in Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience and The Sorcerer as well as Jacques Offenbach's The Princess of Trebizonde, The Brigands, and The Grand Duchess. She performed with a variety of opera companies including the company of the Casino Theater in New York and the company of Weber and Fields.
A very wealthy woman, during the Actors' Equity strike of 1919, Russell made a major donation of money to sponsor the formation of the Chorus Equity Association by the chorus girls at the Ziegfeld Follies.
Lillian Russell died June 6, 1922 shortly after a completing a fact-finding mission to Europe on behalf of President Harding. She was buried with full military honors.
Russell is interred in a private mausoleum in the Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.