In my January post about Larry and Violet’s Glasgow wedding, I mentioned that Larry was appearing in panto as the “mysterious stranger”. A more apt role there could not have been – Larry’s life was most mysterious. I have been trying to pick my way through family myths about his origins and marry them up with the facts for the past two years. These are the pieces of family knowledge I have:
- He was born Louis Levy in Cincinnati, Ohio around 1880; or possibly in St Louis, Missouri and from this City he took his name.
- He was adopted by an English woman Mrs Maskell and her second husband Michael Levy, an American acrobat, who with his brother, performed as The Davenport Brothers both in circuses and music halls in the USA until the mid-1890’s.
- He was the illegitimate child of Adah Isaacs Menken, an American performer known as the Mazeppa after her most famous character, who entranced and horrified 19th century society by her daring on stage deeds on horseback, wearing next to nothing!
- He was a child actor in the United States before coming over to England.
- He had a sister Rachel Levy who performed under the stage name Ray Maskell.
- He did not enlist during the First World War; he retained his American Nationality and had to register as an alien.
The family story is that Louis was abandoned as a small child in England by Adah Isaacs Menken when on one of her European tours. Adah’s life off-stage was just as scandalous and she was the lover (allegedly) of Charles Dickens, Algernon Charles Swinburne and Alexander Dumas, any one of whom could be his father, although Dumas was the one favoured by my Grandma Violet. Reading The Three Musketeers as a fourteen year old had an extra thrill believing I was illicitly related to the author! Here is an image of Adah from a 1934 biography:
As appealing as this exotic tale is to the family history (and Adah did have a son called Louis who purportedly died in early childhood), she died in August 1868 around 12 years before Larry’s supposed birth. And by my calculations it would not be possible for my great grandfather to have been 25 in 1906 as his marriage certificate claimed. Even with a bit of thespian-style tinkering with dates of birth, the dates just don’t add up. But then again, was he possibly in his mid 30s instead at the time of his marriage? I am clinging to the Menken connection!
I have a number of photographs of the infant Louis, the first taken at the Gibbs & Co Studio in Middlesbrough (what on earth was he doing there?) where he looks about 2 years old, or maybe it’s just the frilly get up that makes him look younger than he was?
Violet, the chief perpetrator of the Adah Isaacs Menken myth, has written on the back of this photo:
“Louis Levy on show when left in England”.
Next up, he is about eight or nine years old and is in a sailor-style suit photographed at the Stevens Art Studio in the McVicker’s Theatre Building, Chicago. When did he travel to America? Was it possible he was performing in this theatre as a child actor?
Then there is a photo taken a few years later at the studios of A Bogardus, Sherman and McHugh at 11 East 42nd St, New York in a Little Lord Fauntleroy collar, very popular in the US in the 1890s:
I have trawled and trawled through the usual online family history sources to trace Louis or Larry’s movements. I have scoured census’, birth certificates and passenger lists and been through every Levy that entered and left these shores in the late 19th and early 20th century (as well as the Maskells). All to no avail. The business of theatrical names has confused the trail. The research has led me down some interesting byways e.g. the fascinating history of the Jewish population in Cincinnati, the City to which the Levy connection always takes me.
The first mention I can find of Larry Lewis in the theatrical press in the UK is in March 1902. He was on the bill at the Theatre Royal, Northampton as an “eccentric comedian” and from that point onwards he frequently appears. I just can’t get to the bottom of how and why he got here and what he was doing in the years after the New York photos. However, there have been some clues in the path led by Ray Maskell, ostensibly his sister, which will have to wait until my next post.