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Caroline Louise Dudley (June 10, 1857 – November 13, 1937) was an American silent film and stage actress who found fame on Broadway through collaborations with impresario David Belasco. She was a strikingly beautiful and vivacious performer, known as "The American Sarah Bernhardt", who continued to act under her married name, Mrs. Leslie Carter, even after her sensational divorce.
Mrs. Leslie Carter
Caroline Louise Dudley
June 10, 1857
|Died||November 13, 1937 (aged 80)|
(m. 1880; div. 1889)
Caroline Dudley was born in Lexington, Kentucky. The exact date is not known but research points to the year 1857. Her father, Orson Dudley, was a wholesale dry goods merchant of means, who gave to his daughter every advantage that money could bestow. Her mother was the former Catherine Dudley. Most of her childhood was spent in Dayton, Ohio. She aspired to the stage from childhood, but for family reasons she never appeared publicly, even at amateur entertainments.
At the time of her 1880 marriage in Dayton to lawyer Leslie Carter, a Chicago millionaire, she was a strikingly beautiful girl with great vivacity. They had one child, a son, Dudley Carter. In 1887, she filed for divorce on the grounds of physical assault and abandonment, but in 1889, Mr. Carter obtained the divorce naming actor H. Kyrle Bellew as co-respondent. Her son, Dudley, chose to live with his mother and was cut from his father's will as a result. Press coverage of the trial was suppressed, but the filing and results were a front-page scandal.
Her association with Broadway impresario David Belasco propelled her to instant theatrical fame. Her first hit was as the lead character in The Heart of Maryland (1895), a huge hit that was followed by the even more sensational Zaza (1898) and Madame Du Barry (1901). In The Heart of Maryland, she wore a wig with six-foot tresses. Her great scene came as the heroine swinging in a belfry tower, her hands gripping the clapper to prevent the ringing of a huge curfew bell. The swinging of Mrs. Carter 35 feet above the stage, with off-stage fans sending her long tresses streaming, set New York audiences cheering.
Carter became her generation's greatest dramatic actress. When she broke with Belasco in 1906 after her surprise remarriage, she already was considered a relic and abandoned Broadway in favor of vaudeville. In July 1906, she married actor (William) Louis Payne (1875 – August 17, 1955) who was often her leading man on stage and who later managed her business affairs. They adopted a daughter, Mary Carter Payne.
In 1915, pioneer producer George Kleine hired her to recreate Madame Du Barry for the movies. She was already in her 50s and too old for the part, but it was nevertheless followed by a screen version of her first success, the civil war melodrama The Heart of Maryland. Neither film was a success. Her last stage hit was as a decayed coquette in Somerset Maugham's drawing-room comedy The Circle in 1921, co-starring John Drew.
Returning to vaudeville, Carter's career collapsed in 1926 when she was fired during a tryout of The Shanghai Gesture in which she had been cast as Mother Goddam. As she owned a half-interest in the show, which went on to be a Broadway success, she received half the royalties. She appeared in the road version of the show after its New York run.
She retired to California but returned to the screen twice in 1935, first as George F. Marion's wife in the Zane Grey western Rocky Mountain Mystery (aka The Fighting Westerner) starring Randolph Scott and then a small role in Becky Sharp, starring Miriam Hopkins.
She died in 1937 in Santa Monica, California of heart disease. She is buried in Woodland Cemetery, Dayton, Ohio in the family plot with her second husband, her son Dudley, and several other Dudley and Payne family members.
Carter's ascendancy in the theatrical world was fictionalized and sensationalized in Lady with Red Hair (1940), portrayed by Miriam Hopkins. Claude Rains portrayed David Belasco. Second husband Louis Payne was a technical adviser on the film. Louis Payne died in 1955 at the Motion Picture Country Home.
Apparently after her death, she stayed around the Theater Republic, where she got her start. The New Victory Theater staff and visiting companies say they are visited by the ghost of Mrs. Leslie Carter when trouble arises backstage.
- results, search (October 27, 2006). Mrs. Leslie Carter: Biography of the First American Stage Star of the Twentieth Century. McFarland & Company. ISBN 0786427477.
- Mrs. Leslie Carter: A Biography of the Early Twentieth Century American Stage Star by Craig Clinton c. 2006 McFarland Publishing Co., pp. 9-10
- Katie (October 28, 2010). "Spooky Ghosts in The New Vic!". Retrieved August 17, 2018.
- "Sued for Divorce; Wealthy Lawyer Carter's Wife Makes Serious Allegations." The New York Times, November 19, 1887. page 2
- "A Revolting Case Disposed of." New York Times, May 23, 1889. page 1
- "Mrs. Leslie Carter Dies in California", The New York Times, November 14, 1937, page 53.
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