Judith takes an axe

09 Feb

Here’s a game.  Connect these four things:  Judith of Bethulia, Lizzie Borden, Gone With The Wind, and Drew Barrymore.

Hint:  It all revolves around Nance O’Neil.

Judith (1904) Nance O'Neil by Will Armstrong

Will Armstrong (1866-193?), Nance O’Neill in “Judith of Bethulia” 1904, Library of Congress, Photographs-Biographical Files-O’Neil –  found in PHOTOGRAPHY & THE AMERICAN STAGE: The Visual Culture of American Theater 1865-1965 by Dr. David S. Shields, McClintock Professor, University of South Carolina


Nance O’Neil (October 8, 1874 – February 7, 1965) was an American actress of stage and silent cinema of the early 20th century, dubbed the American Bernhardt.  She could also stand on for Jane Lynch as Sue Sylvester on Glee at 6 feet tall.

A critic in The New York Times wrote of O’Neil’s talents (or lack of talents) in 1908, her performances seemed to be uneven but enthralling enough to keep her working from 1902-1932:

There is no actress on the stage at present who has a more remarkable gift for emotional expression, nor is there a single one who has been more lavishly endowed by nature with the physical gifts which enter into the equipment of great actresses.  Miss O’Neil has a kind of massive beauty, and she is not without much natural grace. Her voice is a splendid organ, rich and deep, with plenty of color and sweetness. There are moments when it is expressive of deep feeling. But there are more extended periods when it is pitched in monotonous cadences, during which the actress speaks seem to be delivered without a hint of genuine feeling or understanding, when, in short, she is simply an actress giving voice to words that she has conned and learned by rote and delivered in a sort of phonographic manner without a suggestion of the thought behind them. (1)

O’Neil was born Gertrude Lamson and denounced by her father for pursuing a career on the stage.  She was first noted in 1895 as an actress in the touring repertory company of McKee Rankin – a character actor, company manager and playwright.  After a tour to Australia and other Pacific locations, Rankin’s company went to London in 1902 to debut the play Magda with O’Neil as the lead.  She went on to appear as the lead in many other productions in the United States and Europe – including the title role in Judith of Bethulia by Thomas Bailey Aldrich for 16 performances (Dec 5 -19, 1904) at Daly’s Theatre on  Broadway.  She eventually went to Hollywood to try silent movies (The Kreutzer Sonata, 1915) and successfully transitioned to sound films of 1930-31 (Ladies of LeisureRoyal Bed, and The Rogue Song, Cimarron and Transgression), with her final role in False Faces (1932).

Her theater pedigree with Rankin connects her to both actress Drew Barrymore and Gone with the Wind through his three daughters who also acted with his company:

  • Gladys Rankin (married to Sidney Drew, sister-in-law to Georgiana Emma Drew, aunt to Lionel and John Barrymore, great-aunt to John Drew Barrymore, great-great-aunt to Drew Barrymore)
  • Phyllis McKee Rankin (married to Harry Davenport, mother of Arthur Rankin and grand-mother of producer and director Arthur Rankin, Jr.  After the death of Phyllis in 1934, Harry Davenport entered motion pictures and became famous as Dr. Meade in Gone with the Wind)
  • Doris Marie Rankin (married to actor Lionel Barrymore, aunt of John Drew Barrymore, great-aunt to Drew Barrymore)
Sid Drew and Gladys Rankin

Sidney Drew & Gladys Rankin

Phyllis Rankin

Phyllis Rankin


Harry Davenport


Doris Rankin

Lionel Barrymore

Lionel Barrymore

John & Drew Barrymore

John & Drew Barrymore


So that explains three-out-of-four connections.  Now the real kicker.

In 1904, O’Neil met Lizzie Borden in Boston.  You remember Lizzie Borden, the one with the axe?  She obviously journeyed from Fall River to Boston to see a show (the preview of Judith of Bethulia at the Tremont Theater on October 13, 1904?) and met O’Neil.  They became fast friends – enough to incite gossip when O’Neil moved into Borden’s house and to cause a rift with Lizzie’s sister, Emma.

Nance was beautiful, glamorous, and most importantly, nonjudgmental. For Nance, Lizzie had money and a comfortable lifestyle. The actress had always struggled with financial problems and Lizzie seemed willing to support her in a lifestyle she preferred. What the exact nature of their relationship was is open to interpretation. We know that for a time Nance made her permanent home with Lizzie. In the truest sense of the word, Lizzie was quite smitten by Nance. It is known that Nance was acknowledged in theater circles as a lesbian. And Emma did not approve of Lizzie’s relationship with Nance. It soon became apparent that the house was not big enough for the three of them. And since Lizzie was not letting go of the actress, Emma made the decision to move out. This relationship would put a final wedge in the sisters’ living arrangement. Emma moved out of Maplecroft and never returned to live there.(2)

There is speculation of another relationship that could have contributed to the division between the two sisters (3), but most historians credit the relationship between Lizzie and Nance as the catalyst for Emma’s departure from the house in June 1905 – possibly after arguing over a party Lizzie had given for O’Neil and her theater friends (4).  The relationship Lizzie and O’Neil continued for two years, at which point Nance returned to her acting.

Apparently, good gossip never dies but becomes a script for a stage play or TV movie.  The speculation about the relationship between Nance and Lizzie is treated in several performance works –

  • Lizzie Borden: A Musical Tragedy in Two Axe, a musical by Christopher McGovern and Amy Powers (2001)
  • Nance O’Neil, a play by David Foley (2011)
  • The Lights are Warm and Coloreda play by William Norfolk (1969)
  • Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, a TV Movie by Stephen Kay (2014)

I would have included Fall River Legend, a ballet by Agnes DeMille (1948), and Lizzie Bordenan opera by Jack Beeson (1965), but both of them conclude before Nance O’Neil enters the scene.  I also did not mention Lizzie Borden’s Revenge (2013) about a sorority séance that  involves mostly lingerie, no Nance O’Neil, and not much plot.  I have to apply some standards.

Lizbeth Borden

Lizbeth Borden











(1)  “Nance O’Neil’s Acting and What It Represents,” The New York Times”, October 11, 1908.

(2) Jill Nicholson, Lizzie Borden: Maplecroft, Lizbeth and Nance O’Neil,

(3) Gertrude Lamson aka Nance O’Neill, The Lizzie Borden Society Forum.

(4) “Sisters Estranged Over Nance O’Neill”The San Francisco Call. June 7, 1905.

Also a great source of information on the relationship of Borden and O’Neil is Lizzie Borden : Warps & Wefts


1 Comment

Posted by on February 9, 2015 in Gory


Tags: , , ,

One response to “Judith takes an axe

  1. lentonist

    February 9, 2015 at 2:16 pm

    Another fascinating post! Thank you.


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