Olga Brandon: Actress with ‘midnight eyes’

by Bob Davenport

Olga Brandon (1863–1906), photographed by W. & D. Downey in 1892

Olga Brandon (1863–1906), photographed by W. & D. Downey in 1892

‘Ten Years’ Struggle’ and ‘Life of a Famous Actress Ends Miserably’ were the headlines above one newspaper’s report of the death, in 1906, of Olga Brandon, who is buried in St Pancras Cemetery.

Brandon was born on 21 December 1863 in Redcastle, Victoria, in Australia, the fifth of seven children of Spiro (or Spero) Lazzarevich, of Croatian origin, and his wife, Victoria, née Schinkel, from Denmark. According to Brandon’s obituary in the New York Dramatic Mirror, Schinkel had moved to Australia with her father when she was 11 and had been kidnapped by the ‘Slavic outlaw’ Lazzarevich two years later; they married when she was 15. The family moved to Geelong in around 1865. Spiro died in 1867, and the children were put in orphanages while their mother went to work in New Zealand. Olga and her two sisters were placed in Our Lady’s Orphanage in Geelong, where they also had some schooling. Victoria returned and married Albert Wagner in Sydney in 1873. By 1875 the reunited family had settled in America.

The Roman Catholic Convent and Female Orphanage, Geelong, in 1866 (State Library of Victoria)

The Roman Catholic Convent and Female Orphanage, Geelong, in 1866
(State Library of Victoria)

Aged just 14, on 19 February 1878 Olga married a 31-year-old Los Angeles photographer, Valentine Wolfenstein. But on 10 May the Los Angeles Herald was reporting that ‘Mr. V. Wolfenstein, the well known photographer, has served papers in a divorce suit upon his wife. They were married only a couple of months ago, and the bride is yet very little over sixteen [sic]. She would be described as a piquant and pretty brunette.’

Olga seems to have counter-sued, however, for on 25 June the Herald reported that ‘We were waited upon in our office yesterday by Mrs. Olga Wolfenstein, who lately brought a suit for divorce against Mr. V. Wolfenstein … She complains that she is entirely misrepresented in a paragraph which appeared in the Star of Saturday, and which stated that she intended to marry a gentleman from San Francisco as soon as she obtained a divorce from Mr. Wolfenstein,’ and a motion for alimony was mentioned in the court reports. Then on 15 August her husband was bound over in the sum of $250 to keep the peace for six months after she had filed a complaint of assault and battery against him, and he was fined $5 in respect of a similar complaint by her brother Richard.

Olga did marry a gentleman from San Francisco – Herman Brandenstein, a 25-year-old bookkeeper – two years later, and it was from his surname that she took the name of Brandon.

A year or so on and she had apparently begun her theatrical career. In August 1882 she performed in extracts from The Marble Heart at the California Theatre, San Francisco, and the following month she was with a touring company at Fond du Lac in Wisconsin. In the early months of 1883 she was touring in San Francisco, Sacramento and Portland, Oregon, and in the following August a performance of The Marble Heart at the Baldwin Theatre in San Francisco was advertised as a benefit for her before she left for the east.

Later that year she appeared with a company run by the actress Charlotte Thompson. In December 1883 the Memphis Daily Appeal reported that she ‘did not set the audience on fire’ in her role in Queena, a play with a ‘trifle Frenchy’ plot by J. K. Tillotson. But the play was touring with an adaptation of Jane Eyre, and in the following month the Buffalo Evening Republic described her performance as ‘the haughty Lady Ingraham’ as ‘quite satisfactory’.

She seems to have made her New York debut in a performance of May Blossom at the Madison Square Theatre on 12 July 1884. In the following month she was in Sieba at the Star Theatre, and in September, as New York endured temperatures of 95 degrees, the ‘Gotham Gossip’ columnist of the Daily Alta California went to see the show. Having gone backstage, he reported that ‘Olga Brandon (Mrs. Brandenstein), who has developed into a New York stage beauty, wears even less than is generally required in a Kiralfy spectacle, but complained that that little was too much.’ She spent the last couple of months of that year starring as Edith in The Private Secretary – described by T. Allston Brown as ‘a screaming farce, with a low comedy clergyman as the hero’ – at the Madison Square Theatre in New York.

On 16 April 1885 she was to star in a special matinee of Beauty at Wallack’s Theatre in New York. ‘Miss Brandon is making lots of friends here, by the way. She is married, and came from San Francisco last season,’ the New York Clipper noted. Later that month she was Matilda Spinach in Joseph Derrick’s Twins at the Standard Theatre.

In June 1885 she was back at the Madison Square Theatre in the American premiere of A. W. Pinero’s In Chancery. The New York Tribune commented that

The soft radiance of Miss Olga Brandon’s lively eyes illuminated the stage, while the slender grace of her figure was outlined in the second act in what was supposed to be a travelling dress. But any ward in chancery who should travel in a garment which leaves so little to the imagination would be returned to the admonitory care of the Vice-Chancellor with extreme abruptness.

Then in August she was in Chatter, an adaptation of an old German musical-farce called Die Naherrin, and when that ended, in September, she played the Prince in Die Fledermaus, both at Wallack’s Theatre.

Reviewers constantly praised her looks – references to her ‘midnight eyes’ seemed to be almost obligatory in the American press later on – and they sometimes suggested that they were all she had to offer; but there was a dissident voice in the Daily Alta California of 2 November 1885, under the heading ‘An Ugly Beauty’:

The foremost professional beauty just now is Olga Brandon. The remarkable thing in her case is that she is not beautiful … She is of good height and very slim. Her figure is spoiled by a stoop of the shoulders and a hollowness of the chest. Her features are sweet and refined in expression, but they do not conform to any allowable type of beauty. Her nose is long and dominant. Her complexion is almost colorless, and suggests ill-health. Her eyes are magnificently black, but too deeply set and rendered artificial in look by edgings of paint. She dresses in excellent taste on and off the stage, and on the promenade the only distinct mark of the actress is the carrying of a black King Charles spaniel.

The same paper later commented that

There are actresses who smile and actresses who who laugh. The laugh is the noisiest, but the smile is the most effective … The actress who smiles always appears to be smiling at some particular person in some particular seat, and the oftener she changes the direction of the smile the more hearts and hands she captures. Olga Brandon is a great smiler. She makes pretty nearly all the men in the house on each night she plays think that they are the particular object of her most ardent affection, and, indeed, that they have made, each of them, a most decided ‘mash.’ It is a great talent in its way, perhaps about all the talent that Miss Brandon has, but it tells on the business.

It also told on her marriage, and in December 1885 Olga sued her husband for divorce. Though ‘a member of one of the richest families in California’, he had been supported by his wife since she came east. She told the New York World:

I don’t mind this and would cheerfully continue to support him were it not that he torments the life out of me. Why I can’t make a move but what he shadows me like some private detective. If I stop to speak to a gentleman in the street, he will just as likely as not jump out from some hallway and say: ‘This is my wife, sir! What do you want with her?’ … It was only the other day that Herman accosted me on the street and threatened to shoot me or cut my heart out, or exterminate me in some such bloodthirsty manner. Of course, I am not afraid that he will do any such dreadful thing, but … what is the use of working and saving to feed and clothe a man who does nothing but make your life miserable? … I have brought suit for a legal separation, on the ground of non-support, and I will win it. Mr. Herman Brandenstein can’t eat my bread and bully me at the same time!

The World described her husband – ‘a little man, hardly as high as her shoulder’ – as ordinarily ‘the quietest of men, and he looks anything but the terrible person he appears to his wife,’ but said it was ‘commonly known to his associates’ that he was ‘much distressed by jealousy’ as his wife ‘attracted the attention of the men-about-town … [and] accepted their attention with a frankness and ingenuousness that was new to them, and that forthwith established her as a favorite.’

She continued to perform around New York in 1886, then on 21 October that year she made her London debut, in The Governess at the Olympic Theatre. The London theatrical paper The Era commented that ‘Miss Olga Brandon … at once attracted attention by means of her beauty, and it was satisfactory to find that in this case beauty was allied to brains, for the lady … played remarkably well, and is likely to win a host of admirers.’ In November and December, at the same theatre, she appeared in A Ring of Iron, and ‘won all hearts … in spite of a pronounced American accent’.

in January 1887 she was at the Royalty Theatre in Modern Wives. The Times described her as having ‘much greater personal attractions’ than the actress who had taken her part in the French version ‘in a part where good looks are all-important’. Then in April she appeared at the same theatre in Ivy (after a try-out in Manchester) and then in a farcical-comedy called A Tragedy.

The cover illustration of Brandon on the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News of 9 July 1887

The cover illustration of Brandon on the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News of 9 July 1887

By October 1887 she was back in America – and ‘now a blonde of the British type’ according to the Daily Alta California – with John Sleeper Clarke’s company at the Richmond Theatre in Richmond, Vermont. She ‘did [herself] great credit’ as Miss Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer, and playing Ophelia opposite the Hamlet of Clarke’s 22-year-old son, Creston, she ‘approached perfection. She was a most charming Ophelia and enacted the character as one who had studied and played naught else.’ She toured with the company for six months, and then returned to London. The elder Clarke was later said to be infatuated with her, despite being ‘old enough to be her father’.

Two cigarettes cards depicting Olga Brandon from the Actors and Actresses series for Virginia Brights Cigarettes, c.1888 (Metropolitan Museum of Art) In November 1988 the Buffalo Express reported that ‘Olga Brandon, who for a few years was the beauty of the Madison Square Theater, used to claim that for ten years she had had never touched water to her face or neck, but removed dust and all impurities by careful rubbing with a piece of white velvet.’

Two cigarettes cards depicting Olga Brandon from the Actors and Actresses series for Virginia Brights Cigarettes, c.1888
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
In November 1988 the Buffalo Express reported that ‘Olga Brandon, who for a few years was the beauty of the Madison Square Theater, used to claim that for ten years she had had never touched water to her face or neck, but removed dust and all impurities by careful rubbing with a piece of white velvet.’

In May 1888 she was engaged by the company run by Madge and William Kendal for a provincial tour, and was re-engaged in December. She played in seven of the Kendals’ productions, and with them at London’s Court Theatre in 1889 she was ‘to be warmly commended for the pains she took with the very uncongenial part of Rhoda, the always depressed daughter of Mrs Boyle-Chewton’ in Pinero’s The Weaker Sex in March, was ‘quietly and unobtrusively natural as Jenny’ in The Queen’s Shilling in May, and ‘played extremely well the difficult and somewhat thankless rôle of Lady Molyneux’ – the ‘giddy, vain, impractical young wife who has to be taught a lesson by her husband’ – in The White Lie in June.

In August the New York Clipper announced that she would be part of the Kendals’ company on their first visit to the USA; then in September a notice appeared in The Era that ‘Miss Olga Brandon has resigned her engagement with the Kendals and will, therefore, not accompany them to America.’

In October 1889 she opened at the Criterion Theatre in a revival of a 50-year-old comedy called Caste, about ‘the happy alliance of the scion of a noble house with a ballet dancer, the daughter of a “sponging” drunkard’. She played the ‘pure-minded and noble’ dancer with ‘a sincerity of feeling that cannot be too highly praised. Of the entire cast, she alone ranked with the great artists whose names are associated with the earliest representations of this play,’ said The Times. ‘Olga Brandon … has quite surpassed even her most ardent admirers’ anticipation, and the London newspapers are almost unanimous in her praise,’ reported the Pittsburg Dispatch.

She failed to impress in Cyril’s Success, which ran for just 15 performances at the Criterion in January 1890, but in February The Theatre found her ‘pleasing’ in Our Boys at the same theatre, and in March it looked back at her career and predicted that ‘she will no doubt increase the reputation she has already gained as an established favourite.’

Brandon as photographed by Barraud in The Theatre of 1 March 1890

Brandon as photographed by Barraud in The Theatre of 1 March 1890

In the following month she ‘made another advance in her profession as one of our best emotional actresses’ in Dick Venables with actor-manager Edward Smith Willard’s company at the Shaftesbury, and also appeared in The Middleman and The Violin Players, in which she gave ‘deep feeling and marked significance’ to a ‘very small character’. Then in May she opened at the Shaftesbury in a new melodrama, Judah, by Henry Arthur Jones. She played the part of Vashti Dethic, a bogus faith-healer (controlled by her father) who half-believes she has semi-mystical powers. She falls in love with Judah Llewellyn, a minister, who is so similarly smitten with her that he perjures himself to save her good name. They both eventually confess their falsehood, and all ends happily. The influential theatre critic Clement Scott wrote later

Miss Brandon had a … difficult study when she was called upon to portray the complex Vashti, coerced by her father, dimly conscious of a power she cannot understand, adored by the weak and helpless, and, by the accident of circumstances, bound to deceive the man she honours more than any one on earth.

This was a most artistic performance of a part of the most vital performance; but still not a showy one, a part that if badly or weakly rendered would have destroyed the whole of the author’s elaborate scheme. The mysticism, the dreaminess, the occult influence that Vashti requires, – all these things Miss Brandon gave.

Brandon photographed by Barraud as Vashti Dethic with Edward Smith Willard as Judah Llewellyn in Judah (1890) JUDAH: Your presence makes all the earth beautiful and sacred, and your goodness is like your beauty, it spreads goodness all round you, as your beauty spreads beauty. You make me half divine. I love you, I love you!

Brandon photographed by Barraud as Vashti Dethic with Edward Smith Willard as Judah Llewellyn in Judah (1890)
JUDAH: Your presence makes all the earth beautiful and sacred, and your goodness is like your beauty, it spreads goodness all round you, as your beauty spreads beauty. You make me half divine. I love you, I love you!

In an interview in The Sketch, Brandon later said of Vashti, ‘I seemed to understand her exactly. I knew she believed in herself. When she puts her hand on the little girl’s head the child says to her, “You do me good at once,” And Vashti says, “Do I?” She half believes it; it pleases her; her vanity makes her hope it is true.’

It was a part that made her. The Pittsburg Dispatch reported that

She has now secured a prominent position on the London stage and is regarded as an actress of extraordinary promise. Offers and engagements have been made her within the past few weeks by several American managers, who are bidding against one another with a recklessness approaching that sometimes observed when a particularly desirable ‘lot’ is put under the hammer by an auctioneer. Four times the amount her English manager is paying her at the moment is freely offered by the competitors, while she, profiting by a full sense of her opportunity, waits patiently until the most attractive figure is reached.

Nevertheless, she stayed in England. At the end of July she was replaced in Judah when she left the cast to honour a prior commitment to go to the Adelphi to play in George R. Sims and Robert Buchanan’s The English Rose – ’an Irish play with a story of the present time, wherein all those types of character which an Irish piece cannot safely dispense with are duly introduced and skilfully coloured to suit the tastes of the frequenters of that recognised home of robust melodrama’, as The Graphic described it. It was presumably during rehearsals for this that, as the New York Clipper had reported in June, ‘Leonard Boyne wrenched her arm seriously, and she has been under the care of a surgeon ever since. Last week the surgeon decided that amputation was necessary. Miss Brandon refused to submit A consultation of doctors was called, and agreed that the arm could be saved, but that for some weeks to come the actress must play with her arm in a sling.’

Brandon with Leonard Boyne as they appeared in The English Rose, photographed by W. & D. Downey

Brandon with Leonard Boyne as they appeared in The English Rose, photographed by W. & D. Downey

Brandon was suffering from a sore throat when the play opened, but the Illustrated London News commented that ‘Miss Olga Brandon will soon gain strength and learn the pitch of the Adelphi, though unfortunately the delicacy of her acting is lost on this stage and in this kind of play.’

The interior of the Adelphi Theatre, which could seat 1,500 people, with standing room for another 500

The interior of the Adelphi Theatre, which could seat 1,500 people, with standing room for another 500

The English Rose continued until May 1891, when she appeared in The Streets of London, also at the Adelphi, until late June. Then in November she opened at the Avenue in a new play by Henry Arthur Jones, The Crusaders, a comedy about hypocritical do-gooders. The Times felt that the play suffered from ‘an insufficiency of story … and … from a somewhat too daring originality of detail’, so that ‘Popular discontent began to manifest itself about the middle of the play, and by the time the curtain fell the interest of the house had to a great extent been dissipated.’ ‘What chance had poor Miss Olga Brandon with such a maimed type as Una Dell?’ asked Clement Scott in the Illustrated London News. ‘She could do nothing with it, because there was so little to do.’ Nevertheless the play ran until the end of January 1892, after which Brandon reprised her role of Vashti Dethic at the Avenue for three weeks, with a new co-star.

The following months saw her in a succession of flops: The Breadwinner managed only 6 performances, The Maelstrom 10, and Strathlogan 4 (and the cast went unpaid for those). From late July she played a ‘lovely but unprincipled Russian Countess, who endeavours, and for a time successfully, to breed dissension between an elderly composer … and his young and beautiful wife’ in The Broken Melody for 30 performances at the Prince of Wales’s Theatre.

She began 1893 in Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s production of Hypatia, about a struggle for supremacy between Christians and pagans in fifth-century Alexandria, with elaborate sets by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. The plot centred on a Shylock-like character, Issachar, played by Tree himself, and Brandon played his daughter, Ruth, whose ‘ruin’ by a licentious Roman prefect prompts a catastrophic revenge by her father. But the Illustrated London News found that ‘You do not care much about Issachar’s daughter, except, perhaps, to regret that so excellent an actress as Miss Olga Brandon should present such a very old theatrical device.’

Brandon, photographed by Alfred Ellis, as Ruth in Hypatia

Brandon, photographed by Alfred Ellis, as Ruth in Hypatia

When Hypatia finished its run, in May, she replaced Mrs Patrick Campbell for the final performances of Sims and Buchanan’s The Black Domino at the Adelphi. In the fourth act ‘Miss Brandon unlocked the sluices of tears in many eyes, and wrung, almost too painfully, the tender hearts of many of her auditors … In bearing, in delivery, and in all the technicalities of her art Miss Brandon was unimpeachably successful, and she may be congratulated upon achieving an artistic triumph with rather ordinary material,’ The Era effused.

In August 1893 she was back in New York, at the Garden Theatre in The Visit, a translation of a short Danish play by Edvard Brandes, as part of a mixed bill whose main attraction was the exotic dancer Loie Fuller. Brandon had appeared in a one-off performance of the play in London 18 months earlier, when it was described as ‘a great treat, for we do not always get hold of a play so well written or so extremely well acted’. But the audience in New York had come to see a variety show and did not approve:

[They] laughed, shouted, hissed, offered gratuitous advice to the players, derisively applauded, indulged in groans, cat calls and whistling, and … finally succeeded in overcoming the fortitude of Miss Brandon and in driving her from the stage, the curtain being rung down before the completion of the scene. To those near the stage it was distinctly evident that Miss Brandon retired in an hysterical condition, her loud sobbing being distinctly heard … After so trying a scene it is not surprising that the play was withdrawn from the programme on the subsequent nights, Miss Brandon having refused to again appear.

A week later she sailed back to London, where in October she opened in An American Bride at Terry’s Theatre. ‘The prompter several times assisted Miss Olga Brandon, who seemed to take little or earnest interest in her work as Lady Hilda,’ The Era reported. For the same company, managed by Janette Steer, she was advertised to appear in a new comedy, Gudgeons, in November. However, she ‘did not appear in the cast, owing to a dispute which she had with the manageress at dress rehearsal … After high words had passed between the two, Miss Brandon walked out of the theatre, declaring that she would throw up her part.’ As she was presumably now in need of a job, was she the ‘Miss Brandon’ whom The Times reported as being ‘all that is graceful and pleasant to see’ as Princess Badroulbadour in Aladdin in Luck at the Parkhurst Theatre, Holloway, from 22 December?

Brandon, photographed by Russell & Sons, in The World

Brandon, photographed by Russell & Sons, in The World

In February to April of the following year she played ‘the ill-used wife of the leading villain’ in a revival of The World at the Princess Theatre, and shortly afterwards The Sketch published an interview with her. It began:

Miss Olga Brandon is not an easy person to interview. In the first place, she has such a fascinating personality that one is rather inclined to notice how she looks instead of what she says; in the second place, she has a peculiarity almost phenomenal in her profession – it is almost impossible to make her talk about herself.

’I have never had anyone to help me,’ she begins. ‘Whatever success I have had, I have had to make it all alone. I always feel I might do so much better if I had someone to help me. We cannot see ourselves. I could tell another person, but I have no one to tell me.’

The interviewer did not follow up on the enigmatic comment that ‘I went to the Adelphi at the same time as Mr. Boyne, and I think this was the mistake of my life. I should have done better to have chosen differently at this stage of my career.’ Did she agree with the reviewers of The English Rose who thought the Adelphi was too big a theatre for her? Or was it something more personal? The US tabloid-style National Police Gazette had claimed that the reason for her visit to New York in 1893 was an infatuation with Leonard Boyne, who was playing in The Prodigal Daughter there but refused to have anything to do with her.

In May 1894 the great Italian actress Eleonora Duse appeared in London as Margherite in La Dame aux Camelias. Brandon evidently went to see her, as the New York Evening World reported:

Olga Brandon, the lady with midnight eyes, has been interviewed. She says lovely things about Duse, and uses them for herself. ‘Duse has done things I have never seen equalled,’ she declared. ‘Her last act of Marguerite Gauthier beat everything and when she died, after that choking cry of “Armand! Armand!” I lost myself completely, and got up and cried “Brava!” with the most excitable Italian there. But over Duse, I was very much pleased with myself. Mr. Tree said to me one day, “What is your method? You get your effects so easily.” I couldn’t explain. I didn’t know I had a method. But when I saw Duse, I knew that I was on the right track. That cheered me.’ Dear Olga!

In June she appeared in a one-off matinee of The Blackmailers – ‘a sordid and repulsive picture of blackmailing practices carried on in society’ by John Gray and André Raffalovich – ‘two youthful members of the Oscar Wilde school’ – at the Prince of Wales’s Theatre. Such experimental matinees – like the London production of The Visit that she appeared in – were a feature of the London theatre world, and she took part in a number of them.

In August in Birmingham she began an experiment in management with the start of a tour of a new play, The Great Pearl Case, by an author using the pseudonym S. X. Courte, about the tragic (if improbable) consequences when a moneylender’s wife gives a valuable necklace (a gift from her husband) to a friend who is engaged to the wife’s true love. When, retitled The Wife of Dives, it arrived in London, in late November, The Times complained about its sub-Wildean epigrams, and the Theatrical ‘World’ that its ‘characters are not men and women at all, but phrase-making, attitudinising shadows’. In the Illustrated London News, Clement Scott observed that

Miss Olga Brandon is another of this excellent school of artists who feels the character she plays. She is in it heart and soul. Her tears are real tears, her emotions are real emotions. What a pity that an artist like Miss Olga Brandon cannot get a part worthy of her great talent! She has more of it, far more of it, than many of her overpraised dramatic companions; but since her wonderful Vashti Dethic she has been allowed to drift.

Brandon, photographed by Lafayette, in The Wife of Dives

Brandon, photographed by Lafayette, in The Wife of Dives

In February 1895 she was Lady Erylnne in Lady Windermere’s Fan at the Metropole in Camberwell. The Era’s critic found her performance ‘wholly satisfying. What a charm is there in her delivery of the light comedy speeches of the second act … [and] in the third act, what intense force does Miss Brandon put into Lady Erylnne’s almost heart-broken appeals to Lady Windermere to go back to her home for the sake of her child!’

In April she began a two-month tour of Victorien Sardou’s play La Tosca, in which she starred with a company of her own. Camberwell was the closest it came to the West End. An Era critic saw it in Greenwich and noted that

Miss Olga Brandon labours under the serious disadvantage of being open to comparison with two gifted predecessors in the same exacting rôle [Fanny Bernard-Beere had been praised in the part in London in 1890, and Sarah Bernhardt’s production had visited some of the same venues as Brandon’s in 1894], but she emerges from the ordeal not only without discredit but with honour.

In May, while the production was at the Theatre Royal, Cardiff, the Western Mail interviewed her behind the scenes and noted that

Miss Brandon possesses a very attractive personnel [sic]. Her brown hair curls naturally round a remarkably clever, intelligent face; her eyes and mouth indicate great sympathetic, emotional power; her smile is bright and winning, though when in repose her expression is grave and serious. Her voice is full and low-toned and sweet, ‘that most excellent thing in woman,’ and I could fancy its accents thrilling with passionate emotion or scorn … There is also much determination in her face, and as we chatted I noticed her keen attention to the details which go to make a whole. Her eyes as we conversed took in all the, to me, mysterious arrangement of scenes and accessories.

Later that month, at the Opera House in Leicester, she slipped while preparing to throw herself off castle ramparts at the end of the play and fell some eight feet, knocking herself out – though she soon recovered – and suffering severe bruising and shock. Subsequent reviews suggest that the accident didn’t affect later performances.

In late July she began a short tour of a comedy-drama Sunlight and Shadow, to Llandudno, Hereford, Bournemouth and Teignmouth with her own company.

In January 1896 she was ‘very arch and pretty’ as Frau Teppich in The Prisoner of Zenda at St James’s Theatre. While still at the St James’s, in August, she was sentenced to 12 days in Holloway prison, suspended for two months, in connection with a butcher’s bill that had remained unpaid for two years. She had previously been sued by a dentist over an unpaid bill of four guineas (in July 1889), by a wig-maker over another two-year old bill (in June 1893), and by a dress-maker (in July 1895).

When The Prisoner of Zenda ended, she joined the cast of The Sign of the Cross, which had been running since January at the Lyric. Then in November 1896 she was again back in the USA, with a company led by E. S. Willard. They opened with another play by Henry Arthur Jones, The Rogue’s Comedy, in Boston at the start of a tour that took in 20 venues from the east coast to Chicago and St Louis until June the following year. Willard played a ‘fraudulent clairvoyant and specious rogue’ who was ‘nevertheless a loving husband and fond father’, and at Wallack’s in New York in December, ‘Brandon gave him excellent support, her repressed emotion being admirably displayed.’

The National Police Gazette greeted her return to New York with a reminiscence of ‘the rapid days of long ago when half the youths of the town were drinking themselves into idiocy over her wonderful eyes and her divine personality’:

She was a woman who could could tell rare stories over a bottle of wine, and hers was the keenest wit of the day. She also had the name of having the richest lover and the fiercest lover in the world.

She used to be [railway magnate’s son] George Gould’s divinity, and had one of the cosiest nests in Gotham. She was a lion hunter, however, and when Charley Mitchell [a British boxer, who fought several times in the USA] came across her one day she let him make all sorts of promises and come calling. It ended in a furious fight one night … [When] half a dozen officers broke in and restrained him[,] Olga begged so hard and cried so piteously they let him go with a warning. The story, of course, was published, and Gould … turned over a new leaf and foreswore ‘the girl with the midnight eyes.’

When the tour was over, the Washington Evening Star reported that ’E. S. Willard has enlisted a new leading lady for his next tour of the states … The alliance of Mr. Willard and Olga Brandon did not prove a happy one; indeed, their personal relations became so sadly strained that they were not on speaking terms during the return trip of the company to England.’

In January 1898 she was in Delicate Ground in Kingston upon Thames, and in July she was advertised to appear with Joe Elvin and company at the Queen’s Palace of Varieties, Poplar. In June 1899 her Irish terrier, Minka, appeared in a show of actresses’ dogs under the auspices of the Ladies’ Kennel Association. Then in November 1899 The Era reported that

Miss Olga Brandon, who has long been absent from the London boards, is only just recovering from a very serious illness. She has been suffering from inflammation of the lungs and pleurisy, and is still an inmate of a nursing home, but is, we are glad to say, fast recovering; and she hopes ere long to take her position on the stage again.

By May 1900 she was evidently well enough to appear in The King’s Password, a new play by Mrs Vere Campbell, in Liverpool. The Era’s critic there didn’t think much of the play, but said that ‘Miss Olga Brandon, with indomitable spirit and artistic capability, gave force, power and passion to the part of Karrine Duchene, overcoming all the natural difficulties of the rôle with consummate ability and success.’ The paper’s London critic – the play appeared at the Metropole in Camberwell, and other venues were Ipswich and Chatham – was equally impressed by Brandon, even though ‘The plot is hazy and confusing, and the greater part of the first act is intolerably dull and uninteresting.’

At the end of the year she appeared in Called Back in Worthing (where she ‘proved herself an actress of ability’), Ipswich (‘displayed much emotional power’) and Norwich (‘deserves every praise’). And that seems to have been pretty much the end of her theatrical career. However, she was not completely forgotten. In 1901 her portrait was painted by Walford Graham Robertson, who also painted his friends Ellen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt, and on 20 December 1902 she appeared in the Daily Express’s brief list of the next day’s birthdays.

Brandon as painted by Walford Graham Robertson in 1901 (Watts Gallery / Public Catalogue Foundation)

Brandon as painted by Walford Graham Robertson in 1901
(Watts Gallery / Public Catalogue Foundation)

But her final years sound grim. The obituary accounts vary slightly, but it seems that, unable to find work, she had to rely on the kindness of friends to survive. She contracted tuberculosis and, after a spell in a Baker Street nursing home, went to live in a convalescent home in Ramsgate. She had either gone to live with old friends in Camden Town or was visiting them for a few days when, on 8 May 1906, she suddenly and unexpectedly died.

97 College Place, Camden Town, the house where Olga Brandon died on 8 May 1906

97 College Place, Camden Town, the house where Olga Brandon died on 8 May 1906

She was buried in the Roman Catholic section of St Pancras Cemetery. But the day after the funeral a friend of the writer George R. Sims, co-author of The English Rose and The Black Domino, went to pay his respects and discovered that she was in a common grave and that half a dozen other coffins would soon be laid on top of hers. One of the splendid wreaths and crosses at the graveside bore the name of the wealthy wife of a Harley Street surgeon, who was contacted and the permission of the Home Secretary was obtained for the coffin to be reburied in a private grave; the arrangements seem to have been made by Walford Graham Robertson’s mother.

In his memoirs Sims reported that friends ‘erected a suitable monument’, but at some stage this must have disappeared and the grave is now marked by a metal plaque provided in 2011 by the Old Collegians’ Association of Sacred Heart College, Geelong, the school which grew from the orphanage where Brandon had lived after the death of her father.

The plaque that now marks Olga Brandon’s grave in St Pancras Cemetery

The plaque that now marks Olga Brandon’s grave in St Pancras Cemetery

An obituary in the Sydney Evening News began, ‘Poor Olga Brandon! What great talent and what promise of greater talent still went to the wind when her nerves broke up, and in despair she adopted the wrong means to amend them (says a London paper).’ What were those wrong means? A clue is perhaps to be found in the memoirs, published 20 years after her death, of Jerome K. Jerome, who had lived near her in Chelsea. He remembered that

She was a beautiful young woman, serene and stately. On the stage, she played queens, martyrs and Greek goddesses as if to the manner born. Off the stage, she spoke with a Cockney accent one could have cut with a knife, as the saying is, dropped her aitches, and could swear like a trooper. She was a dear kind girl. In the end she went the way of many.

He ended the paragraph with an anecdote about an older actress rebuking a younger one who is waiting for her entrance in the wings with a brandy to steady her nerves. ‘I’ve known a good many promising young actresses,’ she says, ‘and half of them have ruined their careers through drink. I’ve followed some of them to the grave. You learn to get on without it, child.’

Perhaps Olga Brandon never did learn to get on without it and, although she could still produce good performances, the cost to her colleagues eventually became more than they were willing to bear.

SOURCES

The Adelphi Theatre Calendar
• ancestry.com, Theodora Victoria Schinckel family tree
• William Archer, The Theatrical ‘World’ of 1894 (London: Walter Scott, 1895) (The Wife of Dives)
The British Newspaper Archive (articles/advertisements in the Dundee Evening Telegraph, The Era,  the Huddersfield Chronicle, the Leicester Chronicle, Lloyd’s Weekly NewspaperThe Stage, the Western Mail, the Yorkshire Gazette – see below)
• T. Allston Brown, A History of the New York Stage (New York: Dodd, Mead, 3 vols., 1903)
Buffalo Evening Republic, 18 January 1884 (Jane Eyre)
Buffalo Express, 12 November 1888 (OB’s beauty regime)
• Bernard J. Capes (ed.), The Theatre: A Monthly Review of the Drama, Music, and the Fine Arts, vol. 15 (n.s.), January to June 1890 and vol. 16 (n.s.), July to December 1890 (London: Eglington, 1890)
Daily Alta California, 1 August 1883 (The Marble Heart benefit), 23 September 1884 (Sieba), 2 November 1885 (‘An Ugly Beauty’), 27 January 1886 (OB’s smile), 23 October 1887 (now blonde)
Dundee Evening Telegraph, 10 May 1906 (‘Ten Years’ Struggle’)
The Era, 23 October 1886 (The Governess), 15 December 1888 and 2 February 1889 (re-engaged by the Kendals), 23 March 1889 (The Weaker Sex), 18 May 1889 (The Queen’s Shilling), 1 June 1889 (The White Lie), 20 July and 24 August 1889 (sued by dentist) 7 September 1889 (left Kendals), 20 May 1893 (The Black Domino), 14 October 1893 (An American Bride), 16 February 1895 (Lady Windermere’s Fan), 1 June 1895 (La Tosca), 11 January 1896 (The Prisoner of Zenda), 26 September 1986 (US tour), 24 January 1898 (Delicate Ground), 9 July 1898 (Queen’s Palace of Varieties), 24 June 1899 (dog show), 4 November 1899 (illness), 26 May and 2 June 1900 (The King’s Password), 20 October, 8 December and 15 December 1900 (Called Back)
Evening News (Sydney), 21 July 1906 (obituary)
Evening Star (Washington, DC), 24 July 1897 (not speaking to Willard)
Evening World (New York), 11 November 1893 (Gudgeons), 16 March 1894 (The World), 2 June 1894 (The Blackmailers), 14 September 1894 (Duse)
The Graphic, 9 August 1890 (The English Rose)
• Cecil Howard (ed.), Dramatic Notes: A Year-book of the Stage (London: Hutchinson, 1891) (Dick Venables)
Huddersfield Chronicle, 24 July 1895 (sued by dress-maker)
Illustrated London News, 26 April 1890 (The Violin Players), 9 August 1890 (The English Rose), 7 November 1891 (The Crusaders), 7 January 1893 (Hypatia), 12 March 1892 (The Visit in London), 1 December 1894 (The Wife of Dives)
• Jerome K. Jerome, Life and Times (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1926)
• Henry Arthur Jones, Judah: An Original Play in Three Acts (New York and London: Macmillan, 1894)
Leicester Chronicle, 8 August 1896 (sued by butcher)
Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 7 November 1886 (A Ring of Iron), 18 June 1893 (sued by wig-maker)
Los Angeles Herald, 10 May 1878 (husband seeks divorce), 25 June 1878 (visits Herald office), 16 August 1878 (assault charge against husband)
Memphis Daily Appeal, 22 December 1883 (Queena)
National Police Gazette, 23 September 1893 (Leonard Boyne), 9 January 1897 (George Gould and Charley Mitchell)
New York Clipper, 19 August 1882 (scenes from The Marble Heart), 9 September 1882 (in Wisconsin), 12 May 1883 (on tour in Portland), 4 April 1885 (‘making lots of friends’), 25 April 1885 (Twins), 10 August 1889 (Kendal company for US tour), 21 June 1890 (injury to arm), 26 August 1893 (The Visit in NY), 12 December 1896 (The Rogue’s Comedy)
New York Dramatic Mirror, ? October 1887 (Ophelia), 19 May 1906 (obituary)
New York Times, 18 May 1888 (engaged by Kendals), 24 July 1892 (The Broken Melody)
New York Tribune, 9 June 1885 (In Chancery)
• George C. D. Odell, Annals of the New York Stage, vols. 13–15 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1942, 1945, 1949)
Pittsburg Dispatch, 27 October 1889 (Caste), July 26, 1890 (offers from the US)
Richmond Dispatch, 22 October 1887 (She Stoops to Conquer)
Sacramento Daily Union, 2 March 1878 (wedding announcement), 29 March 1883 (on tour in San Francisco and Sacramento)
• Sacred Heart College Geelong website (early life)
• Clement Scott, The Drama of Yesterday and To-day (London: Macmillan, 1899), vol. 2 (Judah)
• George R. Sims, My Life: Sixty Years’ Recollections of Bohemian London (London: Eveleigh Nash, 1927)
The Sketch, 25 April 1894 (interview)
The Stage, 10 May 1906 (obituary)
The Sun (New York), 8 July 1888 (‘old enough to be her father’)
The Times, 21 January 1887 (Modern Wives), 27 May 1889 (The White Lie), 7 October 1889 (Caste), 3 November 1891 (The Crusaders), 25 December 1893 (Aladdin in Luck), 8 June 1894 (The Blackmailers), 27 November 1894 (The Wife of Dives)
• John Watts, ‘Olga Brandon’ at theatricalia.com
• J. P. Wearing, The London Stage, 1890–1899: A Calendar of Plays and Players (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1976)
Western Mail, 14 May, 1895 (interview)
The World (New York), 6 December 1885 (‘Olga Brandon’s Husband’)
Yorkshire Gazette, 25 May 1895 (La Tosca accident)

Advertisements