Elsa Lanchester (1902 - 1986)

Elsa (Sullivan) Lanchester
1902 - 1986
updated June 06, 2020
Elsa Lanchester was born on October 28, 1902. She was born into the Sullivan family and married into the Lanchester family. She died on December 26, 1986 at 84 years of age. We know that Elsa Lanchester had been residing in Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, California 90067.

I spent day with her and she was friendly, witty, funny, warm, gracious and generous. I had an album with me that I had just bought that day. It was Rod McKuen's first album. She happened to mention him because Rod was her arranger. I showed her that I had just bought his first album. He was living in New York, so she called him and told him about me and the album. He was so excited that he came over to the hotel and took me to lunch! What a great day for a fifteen year old fan of bothe people. He even sent me a Christmas card that winter! She happened to die the day after Christmas 28 years later!
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Elsa (Sullivan) Lanchester Biography

Vital facts & highlights of Elsa's life to share with the world.

Elsa Lanchester
Most commonly known name
Female
Gender
Elsa
First name
Unknown
Middle name
Sullivan
Maiden name
Elsa Sulliivan Laughton (Lanchester)
Nickname(s) or aliases
Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, California 90067
Last known residence
Elsa Lanchester was born on
Birth
Elsa Lanchester died on
Death
Elsa Lanchester was born on
Elsa Lanchester died on
Birth
Death
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Cause of death
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Ethnicity & Lineage

Irish and Brirtish and of course she and Charles became American citizens.

Nationality & Locations Lived

Elsa Sullivan Lanchester was born into an unconventional a family at the turn of the 20th century. Her parents, James "Shamus" Sullivan and Edith "Biddy" Lanchester, were socialists - very active members of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) in a rather broad sense and did not believe in the institution of marriage and being tied to any conventions of legality for that matter. Her mother had actually been committed to an asylum in 1895 by her father and older brothers because of her unmarried state with James. The incident received worldwide press as the "Lanchester Kidnapping Case".

Religion

Of course, it would be hard to mention her film career of the 1930s without mentioning the one role that would forever dog her, Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Having come to Hollywood with Laughton in 1932 (but not permanently until 1939), Lanchester did only a few films up to 1935 and was disappointed enough with Hollywood's reception to return to London for a respite. She was quickly called back by old friend from London, stage and film associate James Whale, now the noted director of Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933). He wanted her for two parts in Bride: author Mary Shelley and the bride. A central joke of the movie build-up was the tag lines: "WHO will be The Bride of Frankenstein? WHO will dare?"

Education

She studied dancing with Isidora Duncan.
Her screen appearances began in Britain in the silent era in 1927 and went on through the decades to include such films as "David Copperfield" (1935), "Lassie Come Home" (1943), "Bell, Book and Candle" (1958), "Mary Poppins" (1964) and "Murder by Death" (1976).
The impishly witty author of two books of memoirs, Miss Lanchester recognized that her movie career was shaped in part by her frizzy-haired, blunt-nosed appearance that seemed to consign her to comedy and wackiness.
In explaining once why she seldom wore her mink coat, she said, "With my fuzzy hair I resemble a marmoset in a haystack when I put it on."
Marriage in 1929 to Laughton, with whom she first appeared on stage in London in 1927, also affected the direction of her career.
In addition to "Witness for the Prosecution," in which Laughton played a wily lawyer with a weak heart and she played an officious nurse assigned to guard his health, Miss Lanchester and her husband appeared together in "The Private Life of Henry VIII" (1933), "Rembrandt" (1936), "The Beachcomber" (1938) and "The Big Clock" (1948).
She suspected that producers resented the feeling that if he worked she had to be hired too, and as he advanced, fast becoming one of the memorable actors of his time, she recognized a need to silence whispers that she was working only on his account.
With him or without, her own performances almost always were widely appreciated. Director Billy Wilder called her and her husband "the two most original actors I ever worked with."
Miss Lanchester and Laughton came to this country in the early 1930s. They became American citizens in 1950. Laughton died of cancer Dec. 15, 1962, at the age of 63

Professions

Elsa Lanchester
Born October 28, 1902 in Lewisham, London, England, UK
Died December 26, 1986 in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, California, USA (bronchial pneumonia)
Birth Name Elsa Sullivan Lanchester
Height 5' 4" (1.63 m)
Her first film appearance was actually in an amateur movie by friend and author Evelyn Waugh called The Scarlet Woman: An Ecclesiastical Melodrama (1925). Her formal film debut was in the British movie One of the Best (1927). She continued stage work and became associated in 1927 with a rather self-possessed but keenly dedicated actor, Charles Laughton. He appeared with her in three of four films Lanchester did in 1928. Three of these were written for her by H.G. Wells). They did a few plays as well and wed in 1929. According to Lancester, after two years, she discovered he was homosexual but they remained married until his death in 1962. Lanchester declared in a 1958 interview that she kept to a separate career path from her husband. They appeared together on occasion -- moving through 1931 with several smart play-like films including Potiphar's Wife (1931) with Laurence Olivier. She had done the play Payment Deferred in London in 1930 and followed it to Broadway in 1931.
MGM offered her a contract in 1932. In 1933 Alexander Korda was casting his The Private Life of Henry VIII. (1933) and decided that Laughton was the perfect choice - and his wife would be just as perfect as one of Henry's six wives. Her versatility pointed to a part with some comedic elements and fitting more into a caricature. She looked most like Hans Holbein's famous portrait of Anne of Cleves (Henry's fourth wife who was actually somewhat more homely than the painter depicted). In costume Lanchester was charming if not striking. Her interpretation of Anne was a perfect integration with herself, and her scene with Laughton informally playing cards on the marriage bed and deciding on annulment is a highpoint of the movie.
Indeed, it was no honeymoon for her. For some ten days, Lanchester was wrapped in yards of bandage and covered in heavy makeup. The stand-on-end hairdo was accomplished by combing it over a wire mesh cage. Lanchester was in real agony with her eyes kept taped wide open for long takes - and it showed in her looks of horror. Her monster's screaming and hissing sounds (based on the sounds of Regents Park swans in London) were taped and then run backward to spook-up the effect. She was delightfully melodramatic and picturesque as Wollstonecraft, and her bride would become iconic. Many have considered Bride of Frankenstein (1935) the best of the golden age horror movies. Lanchester stood out in her next movie with Laughton the next year, Korda's dark Rembrandt (1936), but she only did a few more films for the remainder of the decade. Through the 1940s she was doubly busy -- a couple of films per year while regenerating her beloved musical revue sketches. She performed for 10 years at the Turnabout Theater in Hollywood, using old London music hall/cabaret songs and others written for her. Later she would have to split her time further doing a similar act at a supper club called The Bar of Music. By the later 1940s she had become rather matronly, and the roles would settle appropriately. But she always lent her sparkle, as with her charming maid Matilda in The Bishop's Wife (1947). She would be nominated for best supporting actress in Come to the Stable (1949).
She entered the 1950s busy with road touring of her nightclub act with pianist J. Raymond Henderson (who went by "Ray" and who is sometimes confused with popular songwriter Ray Henderson). There was a series of tours to complement Laughton's famous reading tours, called Elsa Lanchester's Private Music Hall which ended in 1952; Elsa Lanchester--Herself which ended in 1961; and once more in 1964 at the Ivar Theater. She was equally busy with a stock of film roles and a large share of TV playhouse theater. She made ten movies with Laughton, the last of which, Witness for the Prosecution (1957) garnered her second supporting actress nomination. But her dizzy Aunt Queenie Holroyd of Bell Book and Candle (1958) is a fond remembrance of that time.
With the two decades from the 1960s to early 1980s, Lanchester was a fixture on episodic TV and an institution in Disney and G-rated fare -- perhaps a bit ironic for the unconventional Lanchester. She wrote two autobiographies: "Charles Laughton and I" (1938) and "Elsa Lanchester: Herself" (1983), both recalling her nearly 100 roles before the camera. Lanchester remained humorously reflective in regard to her film career: "...large parts in lousy pictures and small parts in big pictures." It was the mix of silly, bawdy, and outrageous in her revues that was her great joy: "I was content because I was fully aware that I did not like straight acting but preferred performing direct to an audience. You might call what I do vaudeville. Making a joke, especially impromptu, and getting a big laugh is just plain heaven."

Personal Life & Organizations

Elsa had a great desire to become a classical dancer and to that end at age 10 her mother enrolled her at the famed Isadora Duncan's Bellevue School in Paris in 1912. But the uncertainties of WW1 brought her home after only two years. At age 12, she was sent to a co-educational boarding school in Kings Langley, Hertfordshire, England, to teach dance classes in exchange for her education and board. In 1918, she was hired as a dance teacher at Margaret Morris's school on the Isle of Wight.
Next to dance, she loved the music halls of the period, so in 1920 she debuted in a music hall act as an Egyptian dancer. About the same time she founded the Children's Theater in Soho, London and taught there for several years. She made her stage debut in 1922 in the West End play Thirty Minutes in a Street. In 1924 she and her partner, Harold Scott, opened a London nightclub called the Cave of Harmony. They performed one-act plays by Pirandello and Chekhov and sang cabaret songs. She would later collect and record these and many others. The spot was frequented by literati like Aldous Huxley, H.G. Wells and also James Whale, working in London theater and soon to be directing on Broadway and Hollywood's most famous horror films. Lanchester kept busy including, on her own admission, posing nude for artists. During a 1926 comic performance in the Midnight Follies at London's Metropole, a member of the British Royal family walked out as she sang, "Please Sell No More Drink to My Father". She closed her nightclub in 1928 as her film career began in earnest.
Perhaps not beautiful in the more conventional sense, Lanchester was certainly pretty as a young woman with a turned-up nose that gave her a pert, impish expression, all the more striking with her large, expressive dark eyes and full lips. She had a lithe figure that she carried with the assuredness of her dancing background. Her voice was bright and distinctive, and had a delightful rush and trill that had an almost Scottish burr quality. What clicked on stage would do the same in the movies.

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Elsa Lanchester Family Tree

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Elsa Lanchester Obituary

This obit of Elsa Lanchester is maintained by Elsa's followers. Contribute to her obituary and include details such as cemetery, burial, newspaper obituary and grave or marker inscription if available.

Elsa Lanchester, 84, a versatile British-born character actress who won fame playing quirky prudes and perky eccentrics in a durable career that included more than 50 films, died yesterday in Woodland Hills, Calif. She was the widow of famed actor Charles Laughton.
During an association with the performing arts that stretched to her childhood, Miss Lanchester, the free-spirited daughter of vegetarian socialists, studied dance with Isadora Duncan in Paris, played Peter Pan on the London stage and (in heavy makeup) starred in Hollywood's "The Bride of Frankenstein."
She also gave one-woman shows, appeared on television, incorporated Chaucer into her nightclub act at the Blue Angel in New York City, and won two Academy Award nominations: one for "Come to the Stable" (1949) and the other for "Witness for the Prosecution" (1958), in which Laughton starred.
Miss Lanchester, who had lived for years in the Los Angeles area, died of bronchiopneumonia at the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital. She had been incapacitated by heart problems since suffering a stroke in 1984, and was admitted to the hospital 10 days ago.
The daughter of James and Edith Lanchester Sullivan, Miss Lanchester was born in London on Oct. 28, 1902. Despite her accountant father's modest income, she was sent, she recalled, to a progressive private school after a spell at a conventional institution where she "failed at everything but tears."
In her preteen years, her study on scholarship with the celebrated Isadora Duncan was cut short by the outbreak of World War I, but after her return home she began to teach dance and eventually to put on cabaret and revue-style shows that led her onto the stage.
. Some years later, Miss Lanchester revealed that she had learned after two years of marriage that her husband was homosexual.
"You must remember," she quipped to an interviewer about her failure to perceive this earlier, "Charles was a very good actor."
Although she indicated that the marriage was often trying, she said in 1983 that when she looked back, "I remember more of the happy times and block out the sad ones.''

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1902 - 1986 World Events

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In 1902, in the year that Elsa Lanchester was born, the first Rose Bowl game was played in Pasadena, California. Called the "Tournament East–West football game" at the time, the Michigan Wolverines (East) played the Stanford Indians (West) - the Wolverines won 49 - 0. (The Stanford captain requested an end to the game with 8 minutes remaining.) The Tournament of Roses Parade began in 1890 and the football game began as a way to boost tourism in the area.

In 1910, Elsa was only 8 years old when the Boy Scouts of America was incorporated. U.S. publisher W.D. Boyce was visiting England when he became lost in the London fog. An unknown Boy Scout helped him find his way out, declining a tip (he said that he was a Boy Scout and was doing his good deed for the day). Boyce was so impressed that he incorporated the Boy Scouts of America when he returned home. Its purpose was "to teach boys patriotism, courage, self-reliance, and kindred values."

In 1945, at the age of 43 years old, Elsa was alive when on April 12th, President Franklin D. Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs, Georgia. At 1p, he was sitting for a portrait when he complained that he had a "terrific pain" in the back of his head and collapsed. A doctor was summoned and the doctor gave him a shot of adrenaline into his heart. It didn't help and he was pronounced dead at 3:30 p.m. A slow moving train took him back to Washington D.C. while thousands of mourners lined the tracks. He was buried at his home in Hyde Park, New York.

In 1969, she was 67 years old when on July 20th, the first men walked on the moon. Apollo 11 astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. both walked on the moon but it was Armstrong who first stepped on the moon. They fulfilled the promise of President Kennedy's commitment in 1961 to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

In 1986, in the year of Elsa Lanchester's passing, on January 28th, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch. All seven crew members died. The cause of the explosion was later found to be a failed O-ring. The O-ring failure was due to the unusually cold conditions at Cape Canaveral.

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