She is known the world over as the beautiful witch, Glinda, who shows Dorothy that no matter how far she travels, there is no place like home. But long before this iconic role, she was the toast of Edwardian London, then Broadway. But it was her life with, and without, her husband, the Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld, that would dictate the course of her life. She was born Mary William Ethelbert Burke on August 7, 1884 in Washington, D.C. Her father was Billy Burke, the famous Barnum clown; her mother, Blanche Beatty, was the driving force behind her only child’s early career. Billie had no interest in a stage career, and her father certainly did not want this for his daughter, but Blanche was determined. She made sure that Billie took acting, elocution, singing and dancing lessons while they lived in London. When she was old enough, Blanche began to secure bit parts for Billie in London music halls. Composer Leslie Stuart hired her for a bit part in a show called The School Girl, assigning her to sing “Mamie, I Have a Little Canoe” in the second act. It was the start of her career. She became not only a new sensation of the London stage, but was seen as a fashion plate, an image that would remain with her throughout her life.
After a few years under the guidance of actor-producer Charles Hawtrey, Billie was given the opportunity of a lifetime when American producer Charles Frohman took an interest in her and brought her to Broadway. The type of characters she played – self-absorbed, absentminded, always beautifully dressed flibbertigibbets – never changed from play to play, but the public loved her. She became friends with Mark Twain and was courted by the great tenor Enrico Caruso. But it was Ziegfeld who captured her heart, even though Frohman threatened to fire her if she married him. She married him anyway. Frohman didn’t fire her, but he sent her on a grueling tour for her show Jerry. During this tour, Frohman boarded the Lusitania, which was sunk by a German U-boat in May 1915. In 1916, she signed a movie contract with director Thomas Ince, and made two movies before giving birth to her only child, Florenz Patricia Burke Ziegfeld. Despite outward appearances, the Ziegfeld marriage was a troubled one because of Flo’s infidelity. Billie had used her money to buy her first home, Burkeley Crest, and it was here she lived for the majority of her marriage. She helped finance Flo’s Broadway shows when he was short of money; he spoilt his two girls with expensive gifts. Billie was content to be Mrs. Ziegfeld; and even though Flo was her manager, she did not work much. But when the stock market crashed in 1929 and they lost everything, it was Billie who returned to work to help pay their enormous debts. Flo was never the same after the crash, and on July 22, 1932, he died, leaving Billie and Patricia alone and nearly destitute. But there was one thing that Billie had inherited from her father – the “ability to sidestep disaster and keep smiling as if it were not really happening”, and this kept many people except those closest to her from discovering just how dire her situation truly was. Her movie career took off after Flo’s death, and the character role that she had begun to perfect on Broadway, as a flibbertigibbet, turned her into a wonderful character actress with a true gift for comedy. With the help of Billie’s daughter, Patricia, her grandchildren, and actors who had worked with Billie throughout her career, author Grant Hayter-Mentzies paints a portrait of this talented actress unlike her screen persona. Strong and determined, she glided through the most trying circumstances and made her way back to the top, leaving behind characters like Glinda (The Wizard of Oz), Clara Topper (the Topper series), Millicent Jordan (Dinner at Eight), and Mrs. Fosgate (Sergeant Rutledge) for future generations to discover and enjoy.