Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Night Miss Fanny Davenport Sang the "Cuckoo Song" in Memphis

The story of a Famous 19th-Century American Actress and the Hotel Clerk Who Stole Her Diamonds

Posted By on Tue, Jan 12, 2016 at 3:55 AM

I only wanted to find evidence of the event. A program would have been great. A poster would have been fantastic. Instead I found a story about a popular 19th-Century actress pleading for the freedom of a Memphis hotel clerk who stole her diamonds (value disputed). 

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Some time ago my mom (who gives the world's best thoughtful mom gifts) gave me a framed page from The Theatrical News, a publication advertising cigars, hardware, and rooms at the Peabody Hotel for $3.00, $3.50, and $4.00 per day. Neat, right? 
click to enlarge Fanny
  • Fanny

Neater still for theater geeks, it advertises a performance of Shakespeare's comedy As You Like It starring Fanny Davenport, a notable performer and business innovator working in the last quarter of the 19th-Century. The flyer pricked my curiosity. It made me want to know more about the Memphis Theatre, which was located at the corner of Jefferson and Main, and about the night of November 28th, when Fanny Lily Gypsy Davenport — the American Bernhardt— introduced Memphis audiences to the "celebrated Cuckoo Song." Then I hung my gift on the wall in a place where it could be easily seen, and I forgot about it for a long time. But not completely.

Davenport was a tall English-born actress raised in Boston. She was known for uncommon generosity toward stage hands and for giving physically strenuous but not overly emotive performances.  She was only12-years-old when she started acting on Broadway, securing her reputation with roles like Lady Gay Spanker in London Assurance and Nancy Sykes in Oliver Twist.  She was also famous for performing in dramas by Dumas and Sardou and for draping her handsome frame in diamonds that — according to many gossips — eclipsed those worn by other stars.
(Diamonds which — according to many other gossips — were primarily talked about by people who know nothing about diamonds). 

Theater was the first art form to receive serious attention in Memphis, according to Judge J.T. Young's 1912 book A Standard History of Memphis, Tennessee. By1829 a club calling itself the Thespian Society was staging amateur theatricals and booking professional actors. By the middle of the century the Bluff city boasted a thriving theater culture with stars of the day visiting regularly to play venues like the Olympic, the New Memphis and the Greenlaw Opera House. Davenport was one of those stars and on Feb 1, 1887, while she was in town performing the Sarah Bernhardt role in Sardou's Fedora, a charming young Gayoso hotel clerk stole a casket full of diamond jewelry and somewhere between $100-300 in cash.

There are many accounts of the event and they all differ, especially when it comes to the spelling of "Gayoso." But essential facts remain consistent.  

From the New York Times:

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From the Chicago Tribune: 

Charles Talbott, aged 19 years, employed as night clerk
of the Gayoso hotel, is missing. After the per-
formance of “Fedora” at the theatre Mon-
day night, Edwin H. Price, Fannv Daven-
port’s husband, left with Talbott a jewel
casket which contained Miss Davenport’s
diamonds, consisting of brooch, rings, neck-
lace, earrings, etc., valued at $35,000. Mr.
Price took a receipt, and with his wife re-
tired to their apartments in the hotel.
The casket was not put in the safe, as it
had been locked, and Talbott did not know
the combination, but was placed in the
cash drawer, together with several pack-
ages of money which late guests had deposit- ed, and which amounted to about $300. This
money, together with the jewels, is miss-
ing. The last heard of Talbott was at 7.30
o’clock yesterday morning, when he visited
[unreadable] and bade farewell to his
girl, who is an inmate there.
Talbott had only worked at the hotel three
weeks. No trace of him bas been found.

The wayward clerk was apprehended in Kansas City a few days after the theft. Money and jewels were  
More Fanny.
  • More Fanny.

Two years later Davenport divorced her leading man/manager, became her own manager, and married her new leading man. Also, like the hero of a grand romance, she swooped in to save her transgressor from jail and teach teach him a valuable life lesson. Or something like that.

MISS FANNY DAVENPORT, the actress, made a successful personal intercession in behalf of the Memphis hotel clerk who stole $25,000 worth of diamonds from her two years ago and was sent to prison for six years; secured his pardon and release; sent for him, gave him two hundred dollars and a lecture, and bade him “go and sin no more.”

I'm guessing there's more to this story which was a big enough media event to merit satirical mention in Billboard twelve years after the fact. 

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