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May Robson
Mary Jeanette Robison

(1858-04-19)19 April 1858
Died20 October 1942(1942-10-20) (aged 84)
Resting placeFlushing Cemetery, Queens, New York City
Years active1883–1942
Charles L. Gore
(m. 1875; died 1883)
Augustus H. Brown
(m. 1889; died 1920)

Mary Jeanette Robison (19 April 1858 – 20 October 1942), known professionally as May Robson, was an Australian-born American-based actress whose career spanned 58 years, starting in 1883 when she was 25. A major stage actress of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, she is remembered for the dozens of films she appeared in during the 1930s, when she was in her 70s.

Robson was the earliest-born person, and the first Australian to be nominated for an Academy Award (for her leading role in Lady for a Day in 1933).[1][2]

YouTube Encyclopedic

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  • Lady By Choice (1934) - (TCM Movie Clip)
  • Janet Gaynor May Robson ~ A Star Is Born 1937


Early life

May Robson carte de visite

Mary Jeanette Robison was born 19 April 1858 at Moama,[a] in the Colony of New South Wales,[8][b] in what she described as "the Australian bush".[9] She was the fourth child of Julia, née Schlesinger (or Schelesinger) and Henry Robison;[3][10] her siblings were Williams, James and Adelaide.[8]

Henry Robison was born in Penrith, Cumberland, England[11] and lived in Liverpool.[12] He served 24 years in the foreign trade of the British Merchant Navy as a mate and a sea captain.[9][11] He retired at half-pay due to his poor health[9] and travelled with Julia Robison to Melbourne, Victoria, Australia in 1853 on the SS Great Britain.[13] By April 1855, he was a watchmaker, jeweller, silversmith and ornamental hairworker in Melbourne.[12] According to Robson, her parents both suffered from phthisis pulmonalis, and moved to "the bush" for their health.[9] Henry bought a large brick mansion in Moama, New South Wales in August 1857 and opened the Prince of Wales Hotel. From there, he co-operated Robison & Stivens, coach proprietors for the Bendigo-Moama-Deniliquin service.[6] The hotel was Robson's first home.[8] Henry died in Moama Maiden's Punt on 27 January 1860.[7][c]

On 19 November 1862, Julia married Walter Moore Miller, solicitor and mayor of Albury, New South Wales, at St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne.[14] Julia, Walter and the four children moved to Melbourne in 1866.[8] Miller was a partner with De Courcy Ireland in the firm of Miller & Ireland in Melbourne in November 1867, and until 20 January 1870, when it was mutually dissolved.[15]

In 1870, the family moved to London.[8][d] Robson attended Sacred Heart Convent School at Highgate in north London[10][9] and studied languages in Brussels. She went to Paris for her examinations in French.[9] According to her obituary, she was also educated in Australia.[3]

Marriages and children

Robson ran away from home to marry her first husband, 18 year-old Charles Leveson Gore, in London.[9][10] They were married on 1 November 1875 at the parish church in Camden Town, London.[16][e] They traveled on the steamer SS Vaderland and arrived in New York on 17 May 1877. They purchased 380 acres of land in Fort Worth, Texas where they built a house and established a cattle ranch. According to Jan Jones, "the Gores survived two years in their prairie manor house before homesickness, rural isolation, and repeated bouts of fever convinced them to sell and try their fortunes in the more settled East."[17] They moved to New York City[10] with little money and Robson said that Gore died shortly thereafter.[10][f]

Robson supported her children by crocheting hoods and embroidery, designing dinner cards, and teaching painting.[10][9] By the time she began her acting career in 1883, two of her three children had died from illnesses,[22][g] leaving only Edward Hyde Leveson Gore.[25][h]

Six years after beginning her stage career, Robson married Augustus Homer Brown, a police surgeon, on 29 May 1889. They were together until his death on 1 April 1920.[18][29] Robson's son, Edward Gore, was her business manager.[3]


May Robson in 1907
Warren William and May Robson in Lady for a Day (1933)
May Robson in A Star is Born (1937)
May Robson in Four Daughters (1938)

On 17 September 1883, Robison became an actress in Hoop of Gold at the Brooklyn Grand Opera House stage.[30][31] Her name was misspelled "Robson" in the billing, and she used it from that point forward "for good luck".[30] Over the next several decades, she flourished on the stage as a comedian and character actress. Her success was due partly to her affiliation with powerful manager and producer Charles Frohman and the Theatrical Syndicate. She established her own touring theatrical company in 1911.[17]

Robson's initial appearances in film date back as early as 1903 or 1904 with uncredited roles in Edison short film productions. She appeared as herself in a cameo in the 1915 silent film How Molly Made Good;[32] which was probably her first feature film and starred in the 1916 silent film A Night Out, an adaptation of the play she co-wrote, The Three Lights.[33] She picked up another film role in 1916 appearing in the Marguerite Clark version of Snow White and in 1919 made a guest appearance in the Jack Pickford In Wrong. Respected and firmly established in the theatre Robson's fame and recognition allowed her to appear in films uncredited. As so many silent films are missing or lost, she may have appeared in many more.

In 1927, she went to Hollywood, where she began a successful film career as a senior woman often in comedic roles and nearly rivaling her long time friend Marie Dressler.[34] Among her starring roles was in The She-Wolf (1931) as a miserly millionaire businesswoman, based on real-life miser Hetty Green.[35][36]

She also starred in the final segment of the anthology film If I Had a Million (1932) as a rest-home resident who gets a new lease on life when she receives a $1,000,000 check from a dying business tycoon.[37] She played the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland (1933), Countess Vronsky in Anna Karenina (1935), Aunt Elizabeth in Bringing Up Baby (1938), Aunt Polly in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938), and a sharp-tongued Granny in A Star Is Born (1937). She was top-billed as late as 1940, starring in Granny Get Your Gun at 82. Her last film was 1942's Joan of Paris.[35][38][39]

Academy Award nomination

In 1933, at age 75, Robson was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for Lady for a Day, but lost to Katharine Hepburn.[40][41] Both actresses appeared in the Hepburn–Grant classic Bringing Up Baby (1938).[42]

Robson was the first Australian to be nominated for an acting Oscar, and, for many years, was also the oldest performer nominated.[40][41]


Robson died in 1942 at her Beverly Hills, California, home at age 84.[28] In its obituary, the Nevada State Journal said that she died of "a combination of ailments, aggravated by neuritis and advanced age."[43][i] Her remains were cremated[44] and buried at the Flushing Cemetery in Queens, New York, next to those of her second husband, Augustus Brown.[18][23]

The New York Times called Robson the "dowager queen of the American screen and stage".[1]



The following is a partial list of her stage performances:[18][45]



Year Film Role Notes
1906 The Terrible Kids Short
1907 Getting Evidence Short
1915 How Molly Made Good Herself
1916 A Night Out Granmum
Snow White Hex Witch Replaced originally scheduled Alice Washburn
1919 In Wrong Woman visiting store Uncredited
1920 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Prostitute outside of music hall Uncredited
1926 Pals in Paradise Esther Lezinsky
1927 Rubber Tires Mrs. Stack
The King of Kings Mother of Gestas
The Rejuvenation of Aunt Mary Aunt Mary Watkins
The Angel of Broadway Big Bertha
A Harp in Hock Mrs. Banks
Turkish Delight Tsakran
Chicago Mrs. Morton - Matron
1928 The Blue Danube


Year Film Role Notes
1931 The She-Wolf Harriet Breen
1932 Letty Lynton Mrs. Lynton, Letty's Mother
Red-Headed Woman Aunt Jane
Strange Interlude Mrs. Evans
Little Orphan Annie Mrs. Stewart
If I Had a Million Mrs. Mary Walker
1933 Men Must Fight Maman Seward
The White Sister Mother Superior
Reunion in Vienna Frau Lucher
Dinner at Eight Mrs. Wendel, the cook
One Man's Journey Sarah
Broadway to Hollywood Veteran Actress
Beauty for Sale Mrs. Merrick
Lady for a Day Apple Annie Nominated - Academy Award for Best Actress
The Solitaire Man Mrs. Vail
Dancing Lady Dolly Todhunter
Alice in Wonderland Queen of Hearts
1934 You Can't Buy Everything Mrs. Hannah Bell
Straight Is the Way Mrs. Horowitz
Lady by Choice Patricia Patterson
Mills of the Gods Mary Hastings
1935 Grand Old Girl Laura Bayles
Vanessa: Her Love Story Madame Judith Paris
Reckless Granny
Strangers All Anna Carter
Age of Indiscretion Emma Shaw
Anna Karenina Countess Vronsky
Three Kids and a Queen Mary Jane 'Queenie' Baxter
1936 Wife vs. Secretary Mimi Stanhope
The Captain's Kid Aunt Marcia Prentiss
Rainbow on the River Mrs. Harriet Ainsworth
1937 Woman in Distress Phoebe Tuttle
A Star Is Born Grandmother Lettie Blodgett
The Perfect Specimen Mrs. Leona Wicks
1938 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Aunt Polly
Bringing Up Baby Aunt Elizabeth
Four Daughters Aunt Etta
The Texans Granna
1939 They Made Me a Criminal Grandma
Yes, My Darling Daughter 'Granny' Whitman
The Kid from Kokomo Margaret 'Maggie' / 'Ma' Manell
Daughters Courageous Penny, the Housekeeper
Nurse Edith Cavell Mme. Rappard
That's Right—You're Wrong Grandma
Four Wives Aunt Etta
1940 Granny Get Your Gun Minerva Hatton
Irene Granny O'Dare
Texas Rangers Ride Again Cecilia Dangerfield
1941 Four Mothers Aunt Etta
Million Dollar Baby Cornelia Wheelwright
Playmates Grandma Kyser
1942 Joan of Paris Mlle. Rosay Final film role

See also


  1. ^ The obituary for Robson in the Berkshire Evening Eagle and Billboard Magazine,[3][4] as well as the summary of her life at the Library of Congress, stated that she was born in Melbourne, Victoria,[5] but the family was living in Moama, New South Wales at the time of her birth.[6][7]
  2. ^ At the time, New South Wales (NSW) was a self-governing colony of Britain; Australia did not officially exist until the federation of six separate British colonies, in 1901.
  3. ^ Nissen states that Robson was seven when her father died,[10] but her father died in 1860[7] and she was born in 1858.[10] Robson says in her biography for Theatre Magazine that she was three months old when her father died.[9]
  4. ^ Nissen says that the family moved to London when Robson was seven.[10]
  5. ^ Although Robson said that she was 16 when she married,[9][10] she was 17 years-of-age, based upon her date of birth, when she married Charles Gore.[16] Her husband's name has been said to be Charles Leveson Gore,[17] Charles Livingston Gore,[10] Edward H. Gore,[18][19] and E. H. Gore.[4][20]
  6. ^ According to Jan Jones, when Gore wanted to return to England, Robson decided that she wanted to stay in New York and the couple divorced. Gore returned to London.[9][21] He died in the early 1880s.[10]
  7. ^ Robson says that the children both died of scarlet fever.[9] Axel Nissen states the causes of death as diphtheria and scarlet fever.[23] Who's Who on the stage states that the children's death came about as the result of poverty (i.e., not a specific cause of death, but an influencing factor).[24]
  8. ^ Her son, whose full name was Edward Hyde Leveson Gore, was born on December 2, 1876[26] and died September 23, 1954[27] Her son Edward and daughter-in-law were alive at the time of his mother's death.[28] They had a son, Robson Gore.[4]
  9. ^ She was critically ill for three weeks before her death and in ill health for months before.[4] A biographical sketch of Robson in the Notable American Women, 1607–1950 stated that she died of cancer.[28]


  1. ^ a b Nissen, Axel (2007). Actresses of a Certain Character: Forty Familiar Hollywood Faces from the Thirties to the Fifties. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. p. 184. ISBN 978-0-7864-2746-8.
  2. ^ Phillipa Hawker (February 21, 2009). "O stands for Oscar and also for Oz". The Age. Retrieved November 13, 2016.
  3. ^ a b c d "May Robson, Stage, Screen Star, Is Dead: Character Actress Began Long Career in 1883". Berkshire Evening Eagle. Pittsfield, Berkshire, Massachusetts: 1. October 20, 1942.
  4. ^ a b c d "May Robson". Billboard. Nielsen Business Media, Inc. October 31, 1942. p. 27. ISSN 0006-2510.
  5. ^ "May Robson Papers: A Finding Aid to the Collection in the Library of Congress" (PDF). Library of Congress. Retrieved November 11, 2016.
  6. ^ a b "Advertising". Bendigo Advertiser. Vol. VI, no. 1145. Victoria, Australia. January 25, 1859. p. 1. Retrieved October 28, 2016 – via National Library of Australia.
  7. ^ a b c "Family Notices - Henry Robison". Bendigo Advertiser. Vol. VII, no. 1463. Victoria, Australia. February 1, 1860. p. 2. Retrieved October 28, 2016 – via National Library of Australia. On the 27th ult., in his 49th year, at his residence, Prince of Wales Hotel, Maiden's Punt, Murray River, New South Wales, Henry Robison (of the firm of Robison and Stivens), late of Bourke-street, Melbourne, deeply regretted by a large circle of friends, leaving a wife and four children to lament their loss."
  8. ^ a b c d e Marea Donnelly, History Writer (January 15, 2016). "A Town like Moama". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved November 12, 2016.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Robson, May (November 1907). "My Beginnings". The Theatre. 7 (81): 305–310. Retrieved June 1, 2015.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Nissen, Axel (2007). Actresses of a Certain Character: Forty Familiar Hollywood Faces from the Thirties to the Fifties. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. p. 185. ISBN 978-0-7864-2746-8.
  11. ^ a b Henry Robison, Master's Certificate of Service, Number 52.653, Liverpool, Registrar General of Seamen, London, February 21, 1853
  12. ^ a b "Advertising". The Age. Vol. I, no. 163. Victoria, Australia. April 27, 1855. p. 2. Retrieved October 28, 2016 – via National Library of Australia.
  13. ^ "Advertising". The Sydney Morning Herald. Vol. XXXIV, no. 5128. New South Wales, Australia. October 27, 1853. p. 5. Retrieved October 28, 2016 – via National Library of Australia.
  14. ^ "Family Notices". The Argus (Melbourne). No. 5, 139. Victoria, Australia. November 24, 1862. p. 4. Retrieved October 28, 2016 – via National Library of Australia.
  15. ^ "Advertising". The Argus (Melbourne). No. 7, 377. Victoria, Australia. January 31, 1870. p. 7. Retrieved October 28, 2016 – via National Library of Australia.
  16. ^ a b "Marriages". The Times. No. 28465. London, England. November 5, 1875. p. 1.
  17. ^ a b c Jones, Jan (2006). Renegades, Showmen & Angels: A Theatrical History of Fort Worth, 1873-2001. Texas A & M University Press. pp. 37–38. ISBN 0-87565-318-9.
  18. ^ a b c d Edward T. James; Janet Wilson James; Paul S. Boyer (1971). Notable American Women, 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary, vol 2. Radcliffe College. p. 185. ISBN 0-674-62734-2.
  19. ^ Alison McKay; Bayside Historical Society (August 4, 2008). Bayside. Arcadia Publishing. p. 132. ISBN 978-1-4396-2027-4.
  20. ^ "May Robson, 78, film and stage actress is dead". Chicago Tribune. October 21, 1942. Retrieved November 12, 2016.
  21. ^ Jan Jones (2006). Renegades, Showmen & Angels: A Theatrical History of Fort Worth from 1873-2001. TCU Press. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-87565-318-1.
  22. ^ "Two Brilliant Women, They are Both Bright Ornaments of the Stage: Viola Allen and May Robson". The Olean Democrat. Olean, New York: 6. November 29, 1892.
  23. ^ a b Axel Nissen (2007). Actresses of a Certain Character: Forty Familiar Hollywood Faces from the Thirties to the Fifties. McFarland. p. 189. ISBN 978-0-7864-2746-8.
  24. ^ Walter Browne; Fredrick Arnold Austin (1906). Who's who on the stage; the dramatic reference book and biographic al dictionary of the theatre. W. Browne & F. A. Austin. p. 191.
  25. ^ Alison McKay (July 30, 2008). Bayside. Arcadia Publishing. p. 96. ISBN 978-1-4396-2027-4.
  26. ^ "England and Wales, Birth Registration Index, 1837–1920". FamilySearch. Retrieved July 4, 2014.
  27. ^ "California, Death Index, 1940–1997". FamilySearch. Retrieved July 4, 2014.
  28. ^ a b c Edward T. James; Janet Wilson James; Paul S. Boyer (January 1, 1971). Notable American Women, 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Harvard University Press. p. 185. ISBN 978-0-674-62734-5.
  29. ^ New York State Medical Association, Medical Society of the State of New York (1920). New York State journal of medicine, Volume 20. p. 170.
  30. ^ a b Nissen, Axel (2007). Actresses of a Certain Character: Forty Familiar Hollywood Faces from the Thirties to the Fifties. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. pp. 184–185. ISBN 978-0-7864-2746-8.
  31. ^ George Clinton Densmore Odell (1940). Annals of the New York Stage. Columbia University Press. p. 364.
  32. ^ Grey Smith and James L. Halperin (ed.). Heritage Vintage Movie Posters Signature Auction #603. Heritage Capital Corporation. p. 3. ISBN 978-1-932899-15-3.
  33. ^ "Screenplay Info for A Night Out (1916)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved June 1, 2008.
  34. ^ Nissen, Axel (2007). Actresses of a Certain Character: Forty Familiar Hollywood Faces from the Thirties to the Fifties. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-7864-2746-8.
  35. ^ a b Palmer, Scott (1988). A Who's Who of Australian and New Zealand Film Actors: The Sound Era. Scarecrow Press. p. 142. ISBN 0-8108-2090-0.
  36. ^ Hall, Mordaunt (May 28, 1931). "The She-Wolf (1931)". The New York Times. Retrieved August 3, 2012.
  37. ^ Hall, Mordaunt (December 3, 1932). "If I Had a Million (1932)". The New York Times. Retrieved August 3, 2012.
  38. ^ John C. Tibbetts, James M. Welsh, ed. (2010). American Classic Screen Features. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press. p. 253. ISBN 978-0-81087678-1.
  39. ^ Nissen, Axel (2007). Actresses of a Certain Character: Forty Familiar Hollywood Faces from the Thirties to the Fifties. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. pp. 3, 187–8. ISBN 978-0-7864-2746-8.
  40. ^ a b Nissen, Axel (2007). Actresses of a Certain Character: Forty Familiar Hollywood Faces from the Thirties to the Fifties. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. pp. 3, 187. ISBN 978-0-7864-2746-8.
  41. ^ a b Edwards, Anne (2000) [1985]. Katharine Hepburn: A Remarkable Woman. New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 456. ISBN 0-312-20656-9.
  42. ^ Leonard Maltin (August 4, 2009). Leonard Maltin's 2010 Movie Guide. Penguin Group US. p. 425. ISBN 978-1-101-10876-5.
  43. ^ "Hollywood's Oldest Film Queen Dies; May Robson's Age is Revealed as 78". Nevada State Journal. Reno, Nevada. October 21, 1942.
  44. ^ "Robson Burial Services Set". Reno Evening Gazette. Reno, Nevada: 5. October 22, 1942.
  45. ^ Brown, Thomas Allston (1903). A History of the New York Stage from the First Performance in 1732 to 1901, Volume 3. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company. pp. 42, 63, 180, 217, 263, 265, 267, 349, 352, 366, 425–6, 427, 429, 431, 439, 523, 533, 536, 538.

Further reading

  • Margherita Arlina Hamm (1909). "May Robson". Eminent Actors in Their Homes: Personal Descriptions and Interviews. J. Pott. pp. 115–124.

External links

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