Elsie Mackay (1893-1963) – The Pilbara, Lionel Atwill & Max

Main: A photo of Roebourne from the top of Mount Welcome, 11 June, 2019. Author Samwilson/photography, via Wikimedia Commons. The original is here. Shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Enlargement of Elsie Mackay: “A Fair Daughter of Australia.” Melbourne Punch Dec 17, 1914. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The five second version
Between 1913 and 1925 Elsie Mackay appeared on the London and US stages with great success. Born in remote Roebourne, Western Australia in 1893, she was the daughter of a wealthy pastoralist. She is most famous now for abandoning her marriage to Lionel Atwill in late 1925, a decision that seems to have side-tracked her career for good. She returned to Australia with her second husband in December 1933 and continued to perform on radio and the stage. She died in Hawthorn, Victoria Australia in 1963. She made one US film in 1920.

West Australian born Elsie Mackay was unusual for her time, in that she narrated a short and reasonably frank article to journalist Walter James regarding her life. It appeared in the literary magazine “Southerly“, in 1950, 16 years after her return to Australia. She was revealed as modest, witty, and unusually honest in recounting her professional successes. Hers was not a long acting career, but it was successful and she met and mixed with some of the theatre world’s best between 1913 and 1925.

Elsie Mackay posing uncomfortably in front of a ship’s crew. Enlarged from a photo in the Library of Congress Bain News Service collection. (She is mistakenly recorded as Elsa). Taken while Elsie was performing with Herbert Tree, c 1916.

A girl from Roebourne

Born in the town of Roebourne on the north-west coast of Western Australia on 20 February 1893, Elsie Gertrude Mackay was the oldest of three children born to Samuel Peter Mackay and Florence nee Taylor. Roebourne today is a town of about 1000, in the midst of what the casual observer might regard as unproductive dry scrub country, but it continues to be an area of great mineral wealth and is traditional home to the Ngarluma people. In the nineteenth century it was an important civic centre between Perth and Darwin, servicing the pearling and pastoral industries and the nearby goldfields. Elsie’s father Sam Mackay held the pastoral lease for a huge and remote area of land that was named Mundabullangana Station, about 100 kilometres from the town. Exactly how the Mackays amassed their fortune was alluded to in his 1923 obituary – he was an extremely wealthy land owner and keen race horse breeder by the time of his death. Australians would call him a Squatter.

Roebourne, c1909. The horse tram connected the town to the nearby port of Cossack. The Victoria Hotel building is still standing. State Library of Western Australia Image number 008282PD.

Elsie spent some of her infancy at the very solid but modest homestead at Mundabullangana, which she later fancifully described as “the backwoods” of North-west Australia. I really passed a very uneventful childhood… I must say that I was never kidnapped by bushrangers or anything of that sort” she told a journalist. (See Note 1 below)

She later attended the Queen’s School, a girl’s school in inner city Perth. It was run by a Miss Ethel Simpson and carried on in her two-story home in Mount Street, surrounded by large houses built for affluent families. Attended by only about 30 students, most of whom were borders, the school specialised in developing a girl’s passion for the arts, music and languages. Newspaper reports of prizes awarded show Elsie was particularly successful at French. The school closed in 1916 and most of the students were absorbed by PLC Perth, but young Elsie had left in 1908 – to attend a finishing school in Lausanne, Switzerland, run by Mademoiselle Reuy. The contrast between Switzerland and the red earth of the Pilbara region could not have been more dramatic.

This appears to be an early photo of Elsie, but was used in The Sun (Sydney), 5 June 1921 to celebrate her ongoing success in the US. Via the National Library of Australia.

While Elsie was studying in Europe, Sam and Florence moved to Victoria, where their son Keith was attending Melbourne Grammar school. They had several properties in Victoria – they built a large home in Berwick, east of Melbourne (while also maintaining a home in central Melbourne’s St Kilda) but kept significant property interests in Western Australia. However the comfort brought by their considerable wealth and social position did not avoid a collapse in their marriage. Elsie recalled that her parents quarrelled constantly. In 1910 they finally divorced acrimoniously and very publicly. Only a few months later, Sam Mackay married British actress “Fanny Dango,” and honeymooning in Europe, they collected Elsie to join them.

Elsie Mackay’s step-mother Fanny Dango in Table Talk, 16 Sept 1909. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

An English stage career.

After a short sojourn back in Australia, Elsie arrived in England on the SS Morea in late 1912, ready to start her career – her dream had always been to act. Her entree to the British stage was at least partly due to the good connections of her step-mother. Fanny Dango was really one of five Rudge sisters who had all gone on the stage – their equally colourful stage names being Letty Lind, Millie Hylton, Adelaide Astor and Lydia Flopp. In addition, Adelaide, (real name Elizabeth Rudge), was married to actor – manager George Grossmith Junior, another important connection into the London theatre world. Fanny was, Elsie recalled, a kind step mother, who helped overcome her father’s objections to a life on the stage.

Elsie’s first stage experiences were in The Girl on the Film at the Gaiety Theatre in 1913 – when she had just two words to say, followed by two lines in After the Girl. Her breakthrough role came in 1914, when she understudied Mrs Patrick Campbell as Eliza, in Pygmalion, opposite Sir Herbert Tree as Henry Higgins. The play was well received in London and Elsie’s work heralded as a success whenever Mrs Campbell was indisposed. Elsie said that she had to audition for the part in front of George Bernard Shaw himself, and Tree. She “was rather nervous” she admitted – which was hardly surprising – these two were leading figures in the British theatre world. She later claimed Shaw asked where she had picked up her perfect cockney accent. “I am an Australian!” she answered. (That seemed to explain it). Following some study at RADA, she brought “charm and tact” to a leading role in Grumpy at the Savoy – (“Grumpy” played by Cyril Maude, being an old criminal lawyer who solves a diamond robbery). Elsie was now established.

Cyril Maude and Elsie Mackay performing Grumpy, 19 September 1915, New York Times. Via Newspapers.com

Performing in the US

Elsie briefly returned to Australia in 1915 – money for travel was never an issue for her, and then she headed to the US, to join Cyril Maude in a tour of Grumpy. Following this, she was re-engaged by Herbert Tree to tour in the US playing in Henry VIII and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Over the next few years, her busy US career brought her in contact with numerous well known actors, including George Arliss and Lionel Atwill.

Left – Daily Register, New Jersey, 12 June 1918. Via Newspapers.com Right – Lionel Atwill, long before he became a Hollywood heavy, performing in Australia. Table Talk, 15 Sept 1910, via National LIbrary of Australia’s Trove.

Not all of her plays were hits. Her first performance with Lionel Atwill was Another Man’s Shoes in June 1918 at New Jersey’s Broadway Theatre. It lasted only twenty performances in New York in September 1918. But Clarence, a light American family comedy about a handyman who enters the neurotic Wheeler family circle, written by popular US author Booth Tarkington, ran for nine months at New York’s Hudson Theatre in 1919-1920.

Above: The play Clarence, with Elsie playing the Wheeler family’s governess. Illustrated in the New York Herald 16 Nov 1919. Via Newspapers.com

Enter Lionel Atwill

Lionel Atwill would become an important figure in Elsie’s life – albeit relatively briefly. They apparently met in 1918, in rehearsals for Another Man’s Shoes. We can only guess as to what attracted the couple to each other. At 27, Elsie had a reputation for knowing her own mind. 33 year old Atwill was a talented and extremely popular actor, having arrived in the US in 1915. One newspaper syndicate report even described him as “the young man American women choose for the Prince Charming of their dreams.” (“The Independent Record”, Helena, Montana, 2 May 1926) However, Atwill had married fellow actor Phyllis Relph in England on 19 April 1913 and they had a son. He did not defend himself in court when Phyllis launched divorce proceedings because his affections had strayed to Elsie. Phyllis won custody of their son John and ongoing child support. Meanwhile, as soon as they could, Elsie and Lionel married on 7 February 1920, in Chicago. Fortunately, Elsie was not named in the divorce proceedings.

Another change occurred at about the same time – when her first (and apparently only) film Nothing But the Truth was released. Perhaps Lionel encouraged her to do this – he had already appeared in several films himself. Unfortunately, her experience was not very successful. Motion Picture News of Jan-Feb 1920 noted it was her first film but reported that she “does not register…a screen personality. She appeared somewhat camera conscious…and did not photograph well.” (See Note 2 below)

Lionel and Elsie performed together in a number of plays with much greater success, including David Belasco’s production of Deburau – a telling of the nineteenth century French mime that ran for six months at the Belasco Theatre, famously moving audiences to tears in the final act.

Elsie and Lionel performing together. Left in Deburau, Dayton Daily News, 22 Mar, 1921. Right, in The Comedian. Daily News, (New York), 25 March 1923. Via Newspapers.com

In July 1922 Elsie returned briefly to Australia again. Her father Sam was extremely unwell – one of his legs had been amputated and he was struggling to recover. She was back in the US in September having given no statements to the Australian press. Sadly Sam did not recover, he died in May 1923, leaving a large estate – Elsie being one of the beneficiaries. Tragically, her younger brother Keith was killed in an aircraft accident only 14 months later. This left Elsie with only one step – sibling; Peter, the son of Sam and Fanny, born in 1911.

Enter Max Montesole

Above: The Inglenook. Lionel and Elsie’s home on Long Island. Theatre Magazine, Vol 33, Jan -June 1921. Via the HathiTrust Digital Library.

Of Lionel and Elsie’s life together we know little, except that they lived together in a mansion called “The Inglenook” at Douglaston on Long Island. Elsie told Walter James about the grand weekend house parties and the bootleg liquor she and Lionel bought. So what went wrong with the marriage? Unfortunately Atwill’s reputation has been so tarnished by a sensational 1942-3 court case, and coloured by his later career in Hollywood specialising in mad doctors and unsympathetic noblemen, that one might easily conjure up all sorts of reasons for the failure the marriage.

Newspaper accounts show that sometime in mid 1925 Elsie began rehearsals on the play, The New Gallantry. Amongst the cast was Max Montesole, a 38 year old English actor and director. Atwill seems to have been responsible for the later suggestion Montesole was an “unknown” actor at the time, but nothing was further from the truth. Max Montesole had been active on stage for over twenty years, was a Shakespearean specialist, had experience with the likes of Herbert Tree and Ellen Terry and had arrived in the US in 1911. Like Elsie he had dabbled briefly in film but the New York stage was obviously his preference. He had seen wartime service in the Canadian army and later the Royal Flying Corps. But he was also a complex man – he had three marriages and several children to his name by the time he met Elsie, the most recent marriage being to New York actress Mary Fowler in May 1923. In her 1950 narrative with Walter James, all Elsie could say was that within a few minutes of meeting Max, she knew her marriage to Lionel Atwill was over. “He and I were predestined” she said. Both Elsie and Max were confronted by their spouses. Elsie indignantly denied any impropriety and publicly announced she would challenge Atwill’s impending suit.

In mid December 1925, Max and Elsie packed up and left for England together on the SS Samaria, departing through Boston to draw less attention. (She needed to be in England to attend to an estate, anyway, she said). But for the next two years, US newspapers ran endless stories of the scandal, often full page – with such unusually accurate information they could only have been fed by the deeply aggrieved Lionel Atwill and Mary Fowler.

Elsie and Max Montesole on the Samaria. The Daily News (New York) 1 Jan 1926. Via Newspapers.com

8 year sojourn in France and England

Following the couple’s departure from the US, Elsie Mackay disappeared from the public record for a number of years. In conversation with Walter James in 1950, Elsie revealed they spent four years living very happily on the French Riviera – almost half of her interview for Southerly magazine recounts this joyful time. They were probably also “lying low” after the scandal – with the added complication being that they were not yet married. But by 1930 they had moved back to London and then later moved to Cornwall. In 1933 “The Guardian” newspaper reported Elsie and Max Montesole living in Cawsand, near Plymouth, when they were apparently also caring for one of Max’s children. Montesole also undertook some London theatre work at this time – both as a producer and actor. Notably, he appeared in the 1930 Savoy Theatre production of Othello, with Paul Robeson in the title role. (Martin Duberman cites Peggy Ashcroft’s opinion – that Max had saved the deeply troubled production from being a complete disaster). Max also produced a short London season of performance and music for Robeson. Max and Elsie married at St Germans in Cornwall in late 1933, after presumably, Mary Fowler finally agreed to divorce Max, something she had indicated she wasn’t very keen to do eight years before. And within weeks of the wedding, Elsie and Max were on the ship Hobson’s Bay, arriving in Australia in late December 1933.

Work in Australia.

Above: Newspaper reports on Elsie and Max after they returned to Australia. Left – The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) 16 July 1936. Right – Max in costume, appearing in The Wireless Weekly 13 Nov 1936, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Soon after arriving and settling in Western Australia, Max and Elsie began a recital program on Western Australia’s 6WF and 6WA, part of Australia’s national radio network, the ABC. Their program included a diverse range of selections – from Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde, with the couple working in partnership throughout. They also toured widely, giving popular stage recitals throughout Australia, although the accompanying resumes of their professional careers became more creative as time went by. Max wrote poetry and wrote for newspapers. He made commentary on the importance of elocution and provided an opinion about the Australian accent that was probably less well received. He would have held a radio discussion on censorship with Australian artist Norman Lindsay in September 1936, had a bureaucrat at the ABC not lost his nerve and cancelled the show.

Max Montesole’s 1935 book Little Memories of Big People. These collected monographs on interesting people also appeared in newspapers. Author’s collection.

Max died in 1942, aged only 55. Elsie felt he had never really recovered from injuries he sustained in World War One. In the 1940s she continued with some fundraising recitals, but after the death of her mother Florence in August 1945, made no further appearances. Elsie was living in the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn when she died in 1963, aged 70.


Nick Murphy
October 2020


Note 1
There is a website devoted to Mundabullangana (or Munda) station here, including a photo of the historic main house. The Thompson family are the current leaseholders and since 1986 the property has run cattle rather than sheep. The website notes that Mundabullangana means “end of stone country” in the local language.

Note 2
The IMDB currently muddles up Elsie Mackay with British actress Poppy Wyndham (born Elsie Mackay in British India in 1893, who died in a plane crash in 1928). This same error was sometimes made in Elsie’s lifetime, as the two women resembled each other.


Further Reading

Text

  • Gerald Bordman (1995) American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama 1914-1930. Oxford Uni Press.
  • Martin Duberman (2014) Paul Robeson, A Biography. Open Road Media.
  • William Grange (2020) The Business of American Theatre. Routledge.
  • Walter James. “Elsie Mackay” . Southerly, the magazine of the Australian English Association, Sydney. Vol. 11, No. 1, Mar 1950: 7-19 [online]
  • Max Montesole (1935) Little Memories of Big People. Imperial Printing Co, Perth.
  • Eric Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby Ltd
  • Marjorie Waterhouse (1965) “Looking Back” The Kookaburra PLC Jubilee Edition, 1965, P83-84. via PLC Perth media releases
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1910-1919 : A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman and Littlefield.
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1920-1929 : A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman and Littlefield.
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1930-1939 : A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman and Littlefield.

Australian National Centre of Biography

Library of Congress, USA
Bain Collection

State Library of Western Australia

Victorian Heritage Database

Other Websites

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • Western Mail (WA) 29 Dec 1906 P13
  • Evening Star (WA) 10 Aug 1910 P3 
  • Table Talk, 16 Sept 1909
  • Table Talk, 15 Sept 1910
  • Evening Star (WA) 10 August 1910
  • Leader (Vic) 22 Aug 1914
  • West Australian, 29 Aug 1914
  • The Lone Hand. Vol. 2 No. 10, 1 September 1914
  • Melbourne Punch 17 Dec, 1914.
  • Winner (Vic) 28 Feb 1917
  • The Sun (Syd) 5 June 1921 P 21
  • The Herald (Vic) 31 Jul 1922, P 12 
  • West Australian 21 Feb 1924, P10
  • The Home 1, Vol 4, No 4, Dec 1923
  • Sunday Times (WA) 31 March 1935, P1
  • Kalgoorlie Miner (WA) 3 Aug 1935 P4
  • The Daily Telegraph (Syd) 16 July 1936
  • The Wireless Weekly, Vol 28, No 20, 13 Nov 1936
  • The Wireless Weekly, Vol 28 No 21, 20 Nov 1936

Newspapers.com

  • New York Times,19 Sept 1915
  • The Gazette (Montreal Canada), 14 Nov 1916
  • The Kansas City Times, 20 Dec 1916
  • The Kansas City Star, 28 Dec 1916,
  • Daily Register (New Jersey), 12 June 1918.
  • The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 22 Oct 1919
  • The Sun (NY) 16 Nov 1919
  • New York Herald 16 Nov 1919
  • Fort Worth Record, Jan 11, 1920
  • The Standard Union (NY) 1 Nov 1 1920
  • Dayton Daily News, 22 Mar, 1921
  • Fort Worth Record-Telegram, 13 Mar 1921
  • The Daily News (NY) 25 Mar 1923
  • The San Francisco Examiner, 5 Nov 1925
  • The Daily News (NY) 17 Dec, 1925
  • The Evening News (PEN), 18 Dec 1925
  • The Daily News (NY) 20 Dec 1925
  • The Daily News (NY) 27 Dec, 1925
  • The Daily News (NY) 1 Jan 1926
  • St. Louis Post Despatch 10 Jan, 1926
  • The Palm Beach Post, 31 Jan, 1926
  • Star Tribune (MN) 7 Feb 1926
  • Helena Daily Independent (Montana) 2 May 1926
  • The Daily News (NY) 16 Jan 1927

Lantern Digital Media Project

  • Motion Picture News, Jan-Feb 1920
  • Variety, Sept 1925

British Newspaper Collection

  • The Era, 2 Sept 1914
  • The Guardian, 2 Feb 1933

Original documents sourced from

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