Have you ever seen the 1962 Bette Davis and Joan Crawford film, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? It’s one of my all-time favorites. The movie begins with a 6-year-old Baby Jane Hudson wowing audiences on the vaudeville stage and it descends into some of the most tragic images ever seen in any psychological thriller. It also happens to include one of my favorite movie lines EVAH, “But ya ahh Blanche. Ya ahh in that chair!” Trust me; I get goose bumps every time I hear Bette Davis say those words.
Once again, I can hear you wondering if you have stumbled upon the wrong blog. No, you haven’t. I realize that Whatever Happened to Baby Jane isn’t remotely Western. But, it has prompted me to investigate the life of another famous vaudevillian “Baby” . . . Baby McDonald. So gather ‘round the campfire and get ready for the Old West adventure story I like to think of as, “Whatever Happened to Baby McDonald?”
Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner!
Baby McDonald was born in England in 1868. The name on the birth certificate said, “Mary McDonald,” but Baby was the name that would catapult her to stardom in mining towns across the West. The McDonald family came to America in 1873, as part of Fattie Stewart’s vaudeville troupe from England. (I did a little background check because you can’t be too careful of a man who called himself, “Fattie,” but it seems like he was on the up and up.)
Perhaps Baby was born to be in the spotlight, or perhaps she didn’t have any choice in the matter. Her father, James, was a professional clog dancer. Apparently, it was much easier to earn a living as a clog dancer in the 19th century than it is today. James had so much success as a performer that Baby was brought into the family business. It is said that she began her performing career in Western mining towns at the age of three, but she would have been five or six by the time her family came to the U.S. But anyway, point is that she was just a little tyke and they were already shaving years off her age!
Baby was one of the first child stars. She took the stage in Philadelphia and New York City, and belted out songs that drove the crowds wild. Billed as an “infant prodigy,” she traveled the country, headlining over lesser acts. Like a precursor to Shirley Temple, Baby donned costumes and curls while singing and dancing her little heart out. And, because Netflix didn’t exist yet, the people flocked to see her. Crowds in Louisiana, Texas, California and the Dakota Territory couldn’t get enough of Baby. Baby remained a little wisp of a thing and her advertised age always remained a few years younger than she actually was.
Million Dollar Baby
In 1879, the McDonald family made a speedy exit from their home base of Cleveland. James McDonald had stabbed a man named John Shay, manager of the Opera House in which they were performing at the time. Baby’s daddy was arrested and went to trial, but was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense. But that didn’t make him a local hero, for sure, so the family left town in a hurry.
By 1880, the McDonalds were living in a Denver boarding house with other showbiz folks. For once, Baby’s age was correctly listed on a document, a U.S Census report, at twelve years of age. Records also indicate that she was enrolled in a local school, for what might have been the only formal education she ever received.
The call of the road was too strong for the McDonald family to ignore, however, and by 1881 they were living in Leadville, Colorado. Leadville was a booming city in the later part of the 1800s, with a population of more than 40,000, and one of the world’s largest silver camps, so there was no shortage of paying customers to admire Baby!
Leadville was a little rough around the edges, however. After Oscar Wilde lectured in Leadville in 1882, he told the story of a visit to a local saloon, where said he saw, “the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across. Over the piano was a printed notice—‘Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best.’”
But Baby McDonald didn’t need a sign to keep the audiences in check. In A History of Leadville Theater: Opera Houses, Variety Acts and Burlesque Shows, author Gretchen Scanlon writes that Baby, “lit up the stage with each performance, not only at the Chestnut Street Theatre but also later at Grand Central, McDaniel’s, Ben Loeb’s and Mike Goldsmith’s Theaters. No matter which stage she was on, she was one of Leadville’s most popular hits.”
Baby Come Back
At the tender age of thirteen, Baby decided to marry. On a Sunday afternoon, Baby and a man named A.E. Lewis ran off and got hitched. Baby’s parents were less than pleased and began searching for their new son-in-law. Lewis, fearing that they would take Baby, had locked her in his house for safekeeping.
Proving that hell hath no fury like a mother who encounters the grown man who ran off and married her thirteen-year-old daughter, Mrs. McDonald tracked down Lewis and had a few words with him. She didn’t need more than a few words to get her point across (though the loaded shotgun poking him in the face may have helped in that matter.) She simply said, “Baby or brains?”
Lewis weighed his options and he wisely decided to keep his brains and allow Baby to return home with her parents. Lewis was charged with assault and battery for locking Baby away and the two were divorced. Lewis, however, fancied himself as Baby’s liberator, pointing out that her family mistreated her. He also maintained that Baby was over nineteen. He was wrong on that point, but goodness knows the McDonald’s didn’t make it easy to keep up with Baby’s real age.
Baby Bride, Parts II and III
In 1884, Baby eloped again. This time she was seventeen or eighteen and the groom was a miner, by the name of Alexander Martin. Mrs. McDonald again tried having a discussion involving a shotgun, but she wasn’t as successful as in her previous negotiations. The marriage lasted until the couple had a fight in the winter of 1885 and Baby walked thirteen miles in a snowstorm to return home to Mama. The couple divorced and Baby return to the stage.
She soon married a New York merchant, but continued performing. The new act lasted longer than the new marriage. By the late 1880s, Baby was appearing under the name Polly McDonald.
1891 found “Polly” starring in the burlesque, “Me and Jack.” In 1892, while doing a road show of “Me and Jack,” Polly was staying at the City Hotel in Providence, Rhode Island. Unable to sleep, she decided to read by the gaslight. When the match landed under her dress, she was engulfed in flames. The woman formerly known as “Baby,” died five hours later in a local hospital.
Just like the fictional life of Baby Jane Hudson, Baby McDonald’s life began with promise and ended in tragedy. And that, my friends, is what happened to Baby McDonald.
Here’s a little video you’ll enjoy, with documentary footage of vaudeville acts from the late 19th century!
Happy Trails, y’all!