Elsie Cotton (née Hodder, 8 April 1886 – 16 December 1962), known professionally as Lily Elsie, was an English actress and singer during the Edwardian era. She was best known for her starring role in the London premiere of Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow.
Beginning as a child star in the 1890s, Elsie built her reputation in several successful Edwardian musical comedies before her great success in The Merry Widow, opening in 1907. Afterwards, she starred in several more successful operettas and musicals, including The Dollar Princess (1909), A Waltz Dream (1911) and The Count of Luxembourg (1911). Admired for her beauty and charm on stage, Elsie became one of the most photographed women of Edwardian times.
Overnight she had the town at her feet. On the stage Elsie seemed mysteriously beautiful with her perfect Grecian profile, enormous blue eyes, and hauntingly sad smile. Tall, cool, and lily-like, she moved with lyrical gestures in a slow-motion grace.
She was a true ‘star’ of Edwardian times, although the word was yet to be used in that context. Magazines produced special supplements about her, adverts featured her picture.
In 1920, Elsie moved with her husband to the Gloucestershire village of Redmarley D’Abitot. She spent ten years away from the stage during this time, enjoying social events and fox hunting. She returned to performing, first touring and then appearing at the Prince of Wales’s Theatre in London in 1927 as Eileen Mayne in The Blue Train, the English language adaptation of Robert Stolz’s German musical comedy Mädi. Her last show before retiring was Ivor Novello’s successful The Truth Game back at Daly’s Theatre in 1928–1929.
Finally, in 1930, Elsie’s unhappy marriage ended in divorce as her health deteriorated further and she became subject to fits of ill temper. She spent much time in nursing homes and Swiss sanatoria. She was diagnosed as having serious psychological ailments and underwent brain surgery that reportedly resulted in an improvement in her health. Her last years were spent at St. Andrew’s Hospital in London.
Elsie died at St. Andrew’s Hospital (demolished in 1973), Cricklewood, London, aged 76, and was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium.
Admired for her beauty and charm on stage, Elsie became one of the most photographed women of Edwardian times. She did however leave us with hundreds of pictures, a few gramophone discs, and two films, to remember her by.