The Franconia

Elsie Carlisle in America

I have been postponing writing about Elsie Carlisle’s 1923-1924 stay in America for eight and a half years now, nearly the entire time that I have been running this website. Originally, I hesitated to comment simply because I was not sure the trip had happened. Later, it became clear that she had spent a few months in the United States, but I could not confidently name a single thing that she did here. There were rumors that she had made the journey to conceal her having a third child.

I am now prepared to clear the matter up a little.

Carlisle’s personal life was admittedly marked by subterfuge. She spent nearly half a century married to Wilfred Malpas, and yet she liked to pose as a single woman, passing off her two sons as her brothers. It is perhaps natural that people researching her life and her family expect to find more examples of secrecy and potential scandal.

I was first tipped off to the possibility of Carlisle’s having visited America by a gracious correspondent who was doing some genealogical research. American immigration records showed that a certain artist named Elsie Carlisle, born in Manchester, England in 1899 and based out of London, had arrived in New York on the steamer Franconia on August 26, 1923. The birth date was incorrect by three years — but might she not have been gilding the lily by making herself three years younger? My correspondent theorized about a secret trip to hide a pregnancy, which I supposed was possible. What turned me off was the final destination. This Elsie Carlisle was on her way to Memphis, Tennessee to visit Mrs. Ernest [sic] Taylor of Poplar Ave. The whole thing seemed so outlandish — what possible connection could the Elsie Carlisle we know have with Tennessee? I dismissed the whole matter as a probable confusion of persons. “Elsie Carlisle” must have been a common enough name, after all.

But soon I would find references in newspapers and trade journals to the famous Elsie Carlisle taking a trip to New York at exactly that time. I reconstructed her movements as follows. As late as August 8, 1923, an advertisement was run in The Era suggesting that Carlisle could still be seen on the London stage in Fred Karno’s revue “1923.”1 By September 5, she was in America:

We hear that Elsie Carlisle, who recently concluded her second season’s engagement in Fred Karno’s “1922-3,” is spending a holiday in America.2

Carlisle had, then, arrived on the Franconia on August 26 and told immigration that she was going to visit Mrs. Taylor in Tennessee. The Era continued to give British readers updates as to her activities:

Elsie Carlisle, who was last seen here in that successful revue, “1923,” opens this week on the Keith Circuit, New York. Elsie went over a few weeks ago for a holiday, but has evidently been prevailed upon to play there during her stay.3

What startled me was the following comment in the U.S.-based journal Variety:

Elsie Carlisle, English, recently arriving in New York will return to London without making an appearance in New York.4

Had there been some ruse? When Elsie really did get back to England — on March 4, after a six-month stay — the press was under the impression that she had been on stage and had been well received:

Elsie Carlisle, who was a principal in Fred Karno’s “1922” and “1923” revues, arrived in England on the “Ansonia” on Tuesday [March 4, 1924] after a six months’ successful tour on the Keith Circuit.5

With the London press suggesting that Carlisle was on stage in the United States but with U.S.-based Variety having her prepare to return to England without appearing in New York, I was beginning to think that perhaps her journey did have an ulterior motive. At this point I compared notes with researcher Terry Brown, who had noticed many of the same references in the press to Carlisle’s American trip. Terry informed me that he had also heard a theory that she had gone to America for privacy while pregnant with a third son (he did not himself take a position on the likelihood of that scenario), one Arthur Davies.

I let some more time pass, but of course I did not forget the intriguing rumor. Finally this month, while pulling together some biographical notes about Elsie Carlisle, I discovered the source of the confusion (which has made its way into a couple of family trees on ancestry.com, I see): there is an Arthur Davies, born either August 4 or September 4, 1923, whose mother was apparently named Elizabeth Malpas — Elsie Carlisle’s legal name. I say “apparently” because Davies’s mother’s last name was almost certainly “Malpass”, with two s’s, and it was her maiden name — I have seen the wedding certificate. She was an entirely different person.

I shared the results of my research with Terry, and he surprised me with some of his own: a clipping from the American publication Billboard (November 8, 1923):

Elsie Carlisle sang several songs in the second spot, affecting a naive style of delivery coupled with an appealing soprano voice. All of her songs are in a rather low key, so low as to make the performance monotonous. Miss Carlisle seemed to have a weakness for rolling her eyes toward an upper box and on two or three occasions while singing she burst into laughter, apparently at her own funny catch lines, or some incident that she happened to think of at that time. Probably it was all in the act, but if it was, she failed to follow it up and receive the full benefit of it, for she closed rather weak.6

So Carlisle was on stage, and in New York, at that! Variety had been misinformed. And the American reviewer had given Carlisle by far the worst review I have ever seen of her.

So the facts fall into place. Elsie Carlisle went to America in 1923 and ended up staying into 1924. I do not think that she could have secretly had a child in either of those years; she would have been on stage enough for people to notice. At least one reviewer thought her U.S. show was unmemorable, but whoever was promoting her career back in London was keen to assert that her performances had been “fully successful.” It is worth noting that The Era first described Elsie’s absence from London as a mere “holiday” or vacation, but it  seems to have turned into a professional opportunity soon afterwards.

But what do we do with the Taylors in Memphis, Tennessee, Elsie Carlisle’s supposed hosts while staying in the States? Mr. Emmett Taylor of 1071 Poplar Avenue was a cotton buyer, according to censuses, and he and his wife Elizabeth were prominent enough citizens to be listed in the social register.7 Their teenage daughter, Elizabeth Scott Taylor, made trips to Europe; a passport application has her leaving New York on the Leviathan on July 28, 1923, the first such trip of hers that I know of. That does not give her much time to become bosom friends with Carlisle, but she could definitely have arranged an invitation.

Did Elsie Carlisle, however, actually get as far as Memphis? Your guess is as good as mine.

Notes:

  1. “Elsie Carlisle – With a Different Style – ‘1923’ 2nd Season L.T.V. Tour,” The Era, August 8, 1923, 15, British Newspaper Archive.
  2. “The Variety World,” The Era, September 5, 1923, 12, British Newspaper Archive.
  3. “The Variety World,” The Era, October 10, 1923, 12, British Newspaper Archive.
  4. “Editorial,” Variety, November 8, 1923, 11.
  5. “Variety Gossip,” The Stage, March 6, 1924, 13, British Newspaper Archive; see also “The Variety World,” The Era, March 26, 1924, 12, British Newspaper Archive, where Carlisle is described as having been “fully successful.”
  6. “B. S. Moss’ Regent, N. Y.” Billboard, October 27, 1923, 18. https://worldradiohistory.com/Archive-All-Music/Billboard/20s/1923/Billboard-1923-10-27-List-Number.pdf.
  7. Social Register of Memphis. Memphis, Tennessee: Penn-Renshaw, 1925, 105.

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"The Idol of the Radio." British dance band singer of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.