Sunday, June 30, 2013

Star power on Lake Hopatcong: the inimitable Lotta Crabtree

Nestled among the more modest vacation bungalows along Lake Hoptacong are the remaining grand summer cottages of millionaires and captains of industry. Among them is Attol Tryst, the 18-room Queen Anne/Swiss chalet style lakefront estate of one of the 19th century's most popular American entertainers, Lotta Crabtree.

Born Charlotte Mignon Crabtree in New York in 1847, Lotta took a somewhat serendipitous path toward stardom, influenced, in part, by her parents' separate ambitions. Her English immigrant father John left for California in 1851, hoping to strike it rich in the gold rush. Lotta and her mother Mary Ann arrived a year later, as planned, only to find that John was not waiting for them in the appointed place. Deciding to make the best of the situation, mother and child soon befriended a group of entertainers, which led to Lotta enrolling in dance lessons.

John caught up with his family in 1853, having not struck gold but flush with another means of making a living. He'd realized that possibly the next best thing to mining a claim was to rent lodging to those who were still trying to. Mother and daughter joined him at a rooming house in Grass Valley, California where he set up business. Coincidentally, one of their neighbors was the famous actress and courtesan Lola Montez, who saw the talent within young Lotta and allowed the young girl to dress up in her costumes. Though Montez clearly loved Lotta and apparently saw her as a protege, the Crabtrees left Grass Valley for another boarding house 40 miles away. Some contend that the actress wanted to take the child on the road with her, and moving away was the best way to discourage her.

Regardless of the reason for the move, Montez's admiration of Lotta must have made a big impression on Mary Ann, because the youngster was soon enrolled in more dancing and singing lessons. Lotta made her professional debut at a local tavern, then took the show to mining camps in the area.

Not long after, the Crabtrees moved to San Francisco, where Lotta performed between tours of Sacramento and the San Joaquin Valley. By the age of 12, she was a highly-in-demand performer in the city, and her mother/manager saw a sterling opportunity. Mary Ann booked Lotta on an extensive tour, with performances in Chicago, Boston, New York and several other locations along the way. By the time she was 17, Lotta was taking on stage roles in plays including Uncle Tom's Cabin and Little Nell. 

Mary Ann made sure that Lotta's talents were well rewarded. In the days when they were touring mining camps, she insisted on being paid in gold, and Lotta often kept watches the miners tossed on stage in admiration. When the gold got too heavy to travel with, the pair began investing in real estate, bonds and race horses.

Coming into her own as an adult, Lotta took on more vaudeville and comic roles and was described as “mischievous, unpredictable, impulsive, rattlebrained, teasing, piquant, rollicking, cheerful and devilish.” While child actors are well known for engaging in questionable behavior in adulthood, though, the worst thing Lotta seems to have picked up was an affinity for cigars. Mary Ann continued to exert strong influence, managing Lotta's professional affairs and discouraging the many interested men who attempted to court her. In a strategy that predates the machinations of movie studio publicists, the mother/manager believed that a marriage would ruin the public's ability to believe Lotta's portrayal of youngsters. (You'd think the cigars would have been an issue, too, but apparently not.)

There seems to be a fair amount of conjecture on Lotta's love life. Surely, her busy touring and performance schedule left her little time to develop long-term relationships, but she's said to have had several affairs.

One man, nonetheless, played an influential role in bringing her to New Jersey. Sometime in the 1880s, the Crabtrees' New York neighbor, Robert Dunlap, told Mary Ann about Breslin Park, a new resort community being built along Lake Hopatcong for the city's elite. Seeing the area as a wonderful summer retreat from the steamy city when the theaters were closed, she bought a choice lakefront lot as a surprise for her daughter. They moved into their custom-built home in 1886, reversing the letters of Lotta's first name to create the cottage's unusual name. (As an aside, one of their neighbors was the Woodbury patent medicine mogul G.G. Green.)

Lotta spent more than 20 summers as the lake's most famous resident, sailing, painting and entertaining friends. Some say that the eccentric, decidedly single entertainer found it dull, living amid her wealthy and married neighbors, but her mother enjoyed hobnobbing with millionaires. After suffering an accident in 1891, Lotta retired from the stage and subsequently left New York to spend her winters in Boston. From what I've been able to determine, she continued to summer at the lake until her mother's death in 1905. She sold Attol Tryst in 1909 and died in 1922, arguably the wealthiest woman in entertainment.

While Lotta Crabtree is no longer a household name, the entertainer continues to make an impact through her considerable wealth. Her estate, valued in the neighborhood of $5 million, was allotted to several trusts to fund, among others, care for injured World War I veterans and their families, hospital care for the poor, animal welfare, and theatrical performers in need. Interestingly, she also established a fund to provide loans to graduates of the University of Massachusetts who planned to enter the agriculture field. While UMass historians haven't been able to find any link between the actress and the school, there's a rumor she might have been romantically involved with a faculty member. In any case, her generosity lives on through the fund and a womens' dormitory named in her honor in 1953.

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