Happy Birthday, Mr. A – 153rd Anniversary and the Story of Mrs. Isabella Stewart Gardner and “Master Billy Arliss”

April 10, 1868 was a long time ago but through the magic of films we in the 21st century can watch a man who lived in the 19th century give performances in 20th century motion pictures. This year I managed to uncover some long unseen photos of George Arliss with his dog. For years I had a beautiful image of Mr. A alighting from a car carrying a little fluffy white pooch. I never knew the dog’s name until now. And thereby hangs a tail, I mean tale (no pun intended).

A recent online search in the Billy Rose Theater Collection at the New York Public Library revealed some “snapshots” of Mr. A with a small floppy-eared dog. This discovery led me to search for more info on the pooch. The photos are undated but I am guessing the time is the early 1910s. I searched further on the ‘net with the simple term “Arliss and dog” and found many references – to Old Yeller.

Images courtesy of the Billy Rose Collection, New York Public Library

Further digging revealed a newspaper story from the Sacramento Union of January 10, 1921. The story is titled, “DEAD ANIMALS NOT FORGOTTEN – Wreaths Placed on Graves of Cats and Dogs in Cemetery.” The burial ground, Pine Ridge Cemetery in Dedham, Massachusetts, is described as a “dog and cat cemetery” and among other graves notes the following: “A plain granite cube over one grave is marked; ‘In Memory of Master Billy Arliss.’ This is the last resting place of the fluffy white terrier of George Arliss, the actor. Billy died last winter while Mr. Arliss was playing In Boston, and his owner bought a lot and erected the memorial.”

Thus matching the name to a description I realized that for many years the Arliss Archives held a beautiful photo of Billy and his master. Here are two versions:

Also, the doggy in the snapshots does not appear to be the same dog in our portrait with the car. Further research led me to find a wonderful site – the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The museum was built by its namesake who lived from 1840 to 1924. She was a devoted patron of the arts who amassed a huge collection of art from around the world, then established her museum so everybody could enjoy its treasures. Mrs. Gardner was somewhat unconventional in the very conventional city of Boston. In 1912 she made news by attending a concert of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra wearing a white headband stating, “Go Red Socks.” This sort of thing simply wasn’t done.

She also befriended George Arliss and the website offers two portraits of Mr. A, one of them with Billy, and also four letters he wrote to Mrs. Gardner dated 1913 through her final year in 1924. According to the information, Mrs. Gardner liked the Billy portrait so much that she hung it in her private study that she called the Vatichino Room where she kept her personal treasures. It’s unclear whether Mr. A’s 1913 letter is referring to the Billy photo or to a separate portrait of himself:

Here are both portraits that Mr. A sent to Mrs. Gardner:

Courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum here are the four letters from Mr. A. His 1920 letter refers to a stroke that she suffered in 1919. His February 27, 1924 letter was written some five months before her death on July 17. He would not return to the USA until September of that year.

Given George Arliss’s love of dogs we should note that for many years he was president of the National Anti-Vivisection Society. It was an activist group that opposed the live dissection of animals, purportly for “medical research.” Mr. A was convinced that claims citing the “necessity” of such procedures were unsubstantiated.

Finally, here is an unusual item I have never seen before – Mr. A’s calling card to Mrs. Gardner with his annotation:

Happy 153th Birthday Mr A!

Published in: on April 10, 2021 at 1:17 PM  Comments (1)  
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