Mary Ellis Archive

Scope and Content

This collection contains correspondence, photographs, press materials and a selection of scripts related to the life and career the American-born singer and actress Mary Ellis (1897-2003) who settled in Britain in 1930. Ellis was a regular leading lady in the West End of the 1930s and 1940s, most notably as the star of three Ivor Novello operettas and originating the role of Millie Crocker-Harris in Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version. Much of the material is related to the 1930s and 1940s with a smaller amount of material from her later life.

Administrative / Biographical History

A creator of roles for Giacomo Puccini, Albert Wolff, Oscar Hammerstein, Ivor Novello, Terence Rattigan and Noel Coward, Mary Ellis (née May Belle Elsas) was born in Manhattan, New York City on 15 June 1897 to Herman and Caroline (née Reinhardt) Elsas. Her German-born father Herman Elsas was a businessman and her mother Caroline Reinhardt was a talented pianist of of German descent. The family frequently travelled to Europe during Mary's childhood and she began studying music in her early teens.

Ellis made her professional debut at the Metropolitan Opera in the world premiere of Puccini's triptych Il trittico , creating the role of Suor Genovieffa in Suor Angelica and understudying Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi . She became the second singer to perform the aria 'O Mio Babbino Caro' when standing in for Florence Easton. Other operatic roles included creating the role of Mytyl in L'oiseau bleu by Albert Wolff; Gianetta in L'elisire d'amore alongside Enrico Caruso, and the Tsarevich in Boris Godunov , as well as roles in Leroux's Reine Fiamette and Charpentier's Louise with Geraldine Farrar.

Whilst waiting for her voice to mature, Ellis turned to classical theatre, her early roles including Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice for David Belasco. In 1924, Ellis created the title role in the operetta Rose-Marie . When she left the production after a year, citing vocal exhaustion, the producer Arthur Hammerstein made her sign an injunction that forbade her from making any future musical appearances on the Broadway stage. She never sang in the United States again, returning to the dramatic stage, playing Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and Leah in T he Dyubbuk .

Following two short-lived early marriages, Ellis married the British actor Basil Sydney (Claudius to Laurence Olivier's Hamlet in the 1948 film) in 1929 and settled in Britain permanently. Her first London appearance was in Knave and Quean opposite Robert Donat at the Ambassadors Theatre in 1930 and she played Nina in the British premiere of Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude a year later. She played her first singing role in London in 1934 when Charles B. Cochran engaged her for the London transfer of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's Music in the Air at Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

Ellis is perhaps best remembered for her association with Ivor Novello, which began when he created the leading role of gypsy opera singer Militza Hajos in his 1935 musical Glamorous Night – the first of his extravaganzas at Theatre Royal Drury Lane – for her operatic soprano voice. Ellis reprised this role in the 1937 film adaptation. Novello and Ellis co-starred twice more in The Dancing Years (1939) and Arc de Triomphe (1943); the latter marked her return to the stage after an absence of two years in which she carried out war work in Scotland.

In addition to the film adaptation of Glamorous Night , Ellis's pre-Second World War film career included All the King's Horses and Paris in Spring with Paramount Pictures in Hollywood. She made several appearances in British television films in the 1950s and 1960s.

Ellis's marriage to Basil Sydney ended in 1934 and she married her fourth husband, the Scottish wool manufacturer and explorer Jock Roberts in 1938. Roberts died in a climbing accident in 1950, after which Ellis never remarried. She did not have any children.

Ellis's most notable post-World War II performance, and perhaps the highlight of her dramatic career, was creating the roles of Millie Crocker-Harris in The Browning Version and Edna Selby in Harlequinade in Terence Rattigan's Playbill (1948). Highlights in the 1950s included her only British Shakespearean performance as Volumnia in Coriolanus at Stratford-Upon Avon (1952) and Christine Glennon in Mourning Becomes Electra , directed by Peter Hall (1955), as well as her final musical role as Mrs Erlynne in After the Ball , Noel Coward's musical adaptation of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windemere's Fan (1954).

Ellis's final West End performance was in Look Homeward, Angel in 1962 at the Vaudeville Theatre and her theatrical swansong was in Mrs Warren's Profession at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford in 1970.

Ellis published her autobiography Those Dancing Years in 1982 and was cast away on Desert Island Discs in the same year. A volume of short stories, Moments of Truth, was published in 1986. She made two final acting appearances on television in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1993 and 1994), and she became a centenarian in 1997.

Mary Ellis died on 30 January 2003 at her home in Eaton Square at the age of 105. At the time of her death, she was believed to have been the last surviving performer to have created a role in a Puccini opera.


This archive is arranged in seven series:

  • THM/307/1: Correspondence
  • THM/307/2: Photographs and Artwork
  • THM/307/3: Produced scripts and scores
  • THM/307/4: Other scripts and scores
  • THM/307/5: Scrapbooks
  • THM/307/6: Programmes and press cuttings
  • THM/307/7: Magazines

Access Information

This archive collection is available for consultation in the V&A Blythe House Archive and Library Study Room by appointment only. Full details of access arrangements may be found here:

Access to some of these files may be restricted. These are identified at file level.

Acquisition Information

Bequest, 2003.

Conditions Governing Use

Information on copying and commercial reproduction may be found here:


No further accruals expected.

Related Material

See also the core collections of the V&A Department of Theatre and Performance. Material relating to Mary Ellis, as well as individual cast and crew members for productions in general may be found in several collections, including the biographical, productions, company and photograph files.Please ask for details.

Further papers from Mary Ellis's archive can be found in The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Personal Names