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Mary William Ethelbert Appleton Burke (August 7, 1884 – May 14, 1970), generally known as Billie Burke, was an American actress who was famous on Broadway, on radio, early silent film, and subsequently in sound film. She is best known to modern audiences as Glinda the Good Witch of the North in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie musical The Wizard of Oz (1939). She has been romantically linked to Dorothy Arzner, Katherine Hepburn.
Burke was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1938 for her performance as Emily Kilbourne in Merrily We Live and is also remembered for her appearances in the Topper film series. Her high-pitched, wavering, aristocratic voice was her trademark, which made her a frequent choice to play dim-witted, spoiled society types.
She was married to Broadway producer and impresario Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. founder of dance troupe and theatrical revue (and adapted to a radio program from 1932 and 1936), the Ziegfeld Follies which operated from 1914 until his death in 1932.
Burke was born in Washington, D.C., the daughter of Blanche (née Beatty; 1844–1921) and William "Billy" Burke. She toured the United States and Europe with her father, who was a singer and clown and worked for the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Her family settled in London where she attended plays in the West End. She began acting on stage in 1903, making her debut in London in The School Girl. Her other London shows included The Duchess of Dantzic (1903) and The Blue Moon (1904). She eventually returned to America to star in Broadway musical comedies.
Billie Burke by Neysa McMein
Burke went on to play leads on Broadway in Mrs. Dot, Suzanne, The Runaway, The "Mind-the-Paint" Girl, and The Land of Promise from 1910 to 1913, along with a supporting role in the revival of Sir Arthur Wing Pinero's The Amazons. There she met producer Florenz Ziegfeld, marrying him in 1914. Two years later they had a daughter, author Patricia Ziegfeld Stephenson (1916–2008).
Burke was signed for the movies and made her cinematic debut in the title role of Peggy (1915). Her success was phenomenal, and she was soon earning what was reputedly the highest salary ever granted to a motion picture actress up to that time. She followed her first feature with the 15-part serial Gloria's Romance (1916), another popular and critically acclaimed vehicle. By 1917 Billie Burke was a favorite with silent movie fans, rivaling Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Clara Kimball Young and Irene Castle. Billie Burke starred primarily in provocative society dramas and comedies, similar in theme to The "Mind-the-Paint" Girl, her most successful American play. The star's girlish charm rivaled her acting ability, and as she dressed to the hilt in fashionable gowns, furs and jewelry, her clothes sense also won the devotion of female audiences. Among the films in which she appeared during this period were Arms and the Girl (1917), The Mysterious Miss Terry, Let's Get a Divorce (1918), Good Gracious, Annabelle (1919), Away Goes Prudence (1920) and The Frisky Mrs. Johnson (1920).
The actress's beauty and taste made her a major trendsetter throughout the 1910s and 20s. As early as 1909, following her Broadway performance in My Wife (1909), department stores began carrying the "Billie Burke Dress," with a signature flat collar and lace trim." During this time, much of her wardrobe (on screen and off) was provided by the leading European couturier Lucile (in private life Lady Duff Gordon), whose New York branch was then the fashion mecca for socialites and entertainment celebrities. Burke reflected on her reputation as "a new kind of actress, carefree, and red-headed, and I had beautiful clothes."
Despite her success in film, Burke eventually returned to the stage, appearing in Caesar's Wife (1919), The Intimate Strangers (1921), The Marquise (1927) and The Happy Husband (1928). When the family's investments were wiped out in the Wall Street Crash the following year, she resumed screen acting to aid her husband.
Burke made her Hollywood comeback in 1932, when she starred as Margaret Fairfield in A Bill of Divorcement, which was directed by George Cukor. She played Katherine Hepburn's mother in the film, which was Hepburn's debut. Despite the death of her husband Florenz Ziegfeld during the film's production, she resumed acting shortly after his funeral.
In 1933, Burke was cast as Millicent Jordan, a scatterbrained high-society woman hosting a dinner party in the comedy Dinner at Eight, directed by George Cukor, co-starring with Lionel Barrymore, Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery. The movie was a great success and revitalized her career and she subsequently starred in many comedies and musicals, typecast as a ditzy, fluffy and feather-brained upper-class matron with her high-pitched voice.
In 1936, MGM filmed a sanitized biopic of Florenz Ziegfeld (The Great Ziegfeld), a film that won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Actress (Luise Rainer as Ziegfeld's common-law wife, Anna Held). William Powell played Ziegfeld and Myrna Loy played Burke; this infuriated Burke, who was under contract to the studio and believed she could have played herself. However, MGM considered her too old to cast in the part of her younger self, despite otherwise perfectly commanding the look and mannerisms.
In 1937, Burke appeared in the first of the Topper films, about a man haunted by two socialite ghosts (played by Cary Grant and Constance Bennett), in which she played the twittering and daffy Clara Topper. Her performance as Emily Kilbourne in Merrily We Live (1938) resulted in her only Oscar nomination. In 1938, she was chosen to play Glinda the Good Witch of the North in the musical The Wizard of Oz (1939), directed by Victor Fleming, starring Judy Garland. She had previously worked with Garland in the film Everybody Sing, in which she played Judy's histrionically hysterical actress-mother. Director George Cukor offered her the role of Aunt Pittypat in Gone With the Wind (1939), but she declined and it was played by Laura Hope Crews, a character that Cukor wanted to be played in a "Billie Burke-ish manner" with "the same zany feeling". Another successful film series followed with Father of the Bride (1950) and Father's Little Dividend (1951), both directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Spencer Tracy, Joan Bennett, and Elizabeth Taylor. Burke also portrayed Mrs. Ernest (Daisy) Stanley in the 1942 film The Man Who Came to Dinner.
In 1940 Florence Yoch and Lucile Council designed the landscape of her home at 205 S Woodburn Dr, Los Angeles.
Burke wrote two autobiographies, both with Cameron Van Shippe, With a Feather on My Nose (Appleton 1949) and With Powder on My Nose (Coward McCann, 1959).
On CBS Radio, The Billie Burke Show was heard on Saturday mornings from April 3, 1943, until September 21, 1946. Sponsored by Listerine, this situation comedy was initially titled Fashions in Rations during its first year. Portraying herself as a featherbrained Good Samaritan who lived "in the little white house on Sunnyview Lane," she always offered a helping hand to those in her neighborhood. She worked often in early television, appearing in the short-lived sitcom Doc Corkle (1952). She was a guest star on several TV and radio series, including Duffy's Tavern.
On television, Burke starred in her own talk show, At Home With Billie Burke, which ran on the DuMont Television Network from June 1951 through the spring of 1952. She was one of the first female talk show hosts, after the hostesses of the earlier DuMont series And Everything Nice (1949–50) and Fashions on Parade (1948–49) which both included some talk show segments.
Burke tried to make a comeback on the New York stage. She starred in two short-lived productions: This Rock and Mrs. January and Mr. X. Although she got good reviews, the plays did not. She also appeared in several plays in California, although her mind became clouded, and she had trouble remembering lines. In the late 1950s, her failing memory led to her retirement from show business, although her explanation for that was, "Acting just wasn't any fun anymore."
Burke made her final screen appearance in Sergeant Rutledge (1960), a western directed by John Ford.
Burke was married to producer Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. and resided at Beverly Hills, California. It has been reported that in 1936 Dorothy Arzner and Billie Burke were living together. The lesbian director would bring her to premieres and as soon as Billie spotted a camera she would distance herself from the Dorothy.
She died in Los Angeles of natural causes on May 14, 1970, at the age of 85. She was interred at Kensico Cemetery, Valhalla, Westchester County, New York.
For many years, Burke's framed photo was displayed above the exit staircase at New York's Ziegfeld Theatre, but it disappeared after renovations. However, an opening night program that bore a picture of her from her 1912 triumph The Mind The Paint Girl (Sir Arthur Wing Pinero) is still displayed in the lobby of the Lyceum Theatre in Manhattan.
For her contributions to the film industry, Burke was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960 with a motion pictures star located at 6617 Hollywood Boulevard.
On November 4, 2015, a crater near the north pole of the planet Mercury was named after her.
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