By: Cornelia Powell – Confluence Daily is your daily news source for women in the know.
I first “met” Renée Harris when researching for “Glamour Onboard the Titanic,” a talk I was to give at the Biltmore in Asheville, NC, a few years ago during their costume exhibition. Renée and her husband Harry, a famously successful Broadway producer, were passengers on the RMS Titanic returning home to New York City in 1912 from a working holiday abroad. She made it; he, like many other men, went down with the ship.
During my research, I became curious about the lives of a number of women after they survived the Titanic disaster. It took a lot of courage and determination to live through such an ordeal—and they would need that tenacity in the changing world culture. The early years of the 20th century were a transformative time, especially for women who, in the United States, were revving up the nearly-seven-decades-long campaign for the vote, to continue moving their lives out of the “domestic sphere” into the “public sphere”—and the patriarchal powers-that-be were pushing back!
What had women, like Renée Harris, undertaken in this brave new world once they arrived home? I later wrote about some of these trailblazing women, but the information was often limited since history tends to ignore or gloss over a woman’s story. Therefore, I was delighted to learn that my historian friend Randy Bryan Bigham had co-authored, with Gregg Jasper, also a historian and collector, a first-of-its-kind biography of Renée—Broadway Dame: The Life and Times of Mrs. Henry B. Harris. And what a great “dame” she was!
Once back home in New York City, the vibrant and “unsinkable” Renée Harris, while grieving her beloved husband, not only took on his business enterprises—when the “Harris theatrical empire was on the brink of bankruptcy”—she also had to take on an unwelcoming man’s world! However, she had the right combination of good humor, hutzpah, business savvy, and the wisdom to listen to her intuitive vibes to not only win over the guys (most of the time), but also to become a successful and innovative owner and manager of the elegant Hudson Theater. Indeed, Broadway’s first woman producer!
Glamorous and spirited—”one of the great personalities of the Jazz Age”—Renée produced and managed 200 plays (some on controversial social topics) and musicals (including the “Hot Chocolates” revue with a young Louis Armstrong playing trumpet) during her 20-year run. She lived life abundantly, enjoying the wealth of her success—yearly trips to Europe, a home and yacht in Palm Beach, lavish entertaining, and a fabulous wardrobe of designer hats and furs. But she was also an active supporter of better working conditions and increased salaries for the performers and behind-the-scene workers—often going up against her male counterparts to champion workers’ rights.
Renée (who added that second “e” to her name just because she thought it had more élan!) had feminist views but didn’t need a label in order to speak and act true to her egalitarian convictions. And she was wise enough to recognize her secret weapon: she trusted in, as she said, the “female perspective” and a woman’s “quick intuition.” “A woman can do it as well as a man,” Renée shared in an interview about producing Broadway plays. “A woman does not go about this the same way that a man does, but the results are the same. Sometimes I think they’re better. A woman brings to the stage a woman’s point of view. After all, it is what in the long run pleases a woman that makes a show a success.” (You see why I love her!)
Randy and Gregg’s biography is full of marvelous stories and never-before-published photographs gathered from various archives—including Gregg’s own collection of Broadway memorabilia. The book’s many images set the tone for this exciting, groundbreaking age in history and since Gregg knew Renée in her later years, his experiences add an intimate and personal quality to the narrative.
The co-authors tell the story of a woman who found her confident voice—encouraged by the memory of a husband’s love and faith in her (“I never take an important step without consulting Renée,” Harry told a friend only months before his death on the Titanic. “If anything happened to me, she could take over the reins.”); a woman who was unafraid to put her social conscience on the line and on the stage; and who, when she lost it all soon after the stock market crash in 1929, kept her resourcefulness, optimism and light-heartedness, continuing to enjoy life and live 93 legendary years!
Thank you, Randy and Gregg, for an inspirational and entertaining book about a strong, glorious woman that history almost forgot until you two were determined to tell her full story. ~
Broadway Dame: The Life and Times of Mrs. Henry B. Harris by Randy Bryan Bigham and Gregg Jasper available at Lulu.com.
Randy is also the author of Lucile – Her Life By Design: Sex, Style and the Fusion of Theatre and Couture and Finding Dorothy: A Biography of Dorothy Gibson, two other Titanic survivors with remarkable life stories. Click here for an article on Confluence Daily that Cornelia wrote which included these women.
Cornelia Powell—author, guest speaker, fashion historian, and wedding folklorist—has begun a year-long celebration of the Suffrage Centennial. She is giving a series of talks that show how women used fashion to help win the vote and reshape history! Click here for more info.
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