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Fame, fortune all too fleeting for star of the stage

A century ago this Thursday — March 20, 1914 — Marie Jansen died in Milford, where she was a housekeeper for her cousin’s widower. A decade previously, she had filed for bankruptcy over nonpayment of her $7-a-week boardinghouse rent. A decade earlier than that? Jansen was one of the most famous musical theater performers in the country.

Born in Boston, she was adopted as an infant — and named Hattie Johnson — by Benjamin Johnson, a merchant known as the “Dean of Faneuil Hall.” Johnson sent her to the New England Conservatory; outside of school, she sang in music halls. Composer and conductor John J. Braham, who introduced the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan to the United States, spotted Jansen and told her that she had stage presence. “I felt it was a nice thing to possess,” she remembered.

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Jansen debuted at Boston’s Park Theater in an 1880 flop called “Lawn Tennis.” Not long after, the lead in a production of Edmond Aubran’s “Olivette” fell ill; Jansen took over to immediate success. She was soon headlining in Boston, London, and New York.

“She of the Circe eyes, ravishing dimples, and poetic legs,” wrote one critic. She sang the title role in the American premiere of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe”; other, now-forgotten pieces brought even greater acclaim. She played Javotte, the cunning maid in Edward Jakobowski’s “Erminie,” once she cajoled the Casino Theatre’s manager, Rudolph Aronson, into writing her an extra number. After Aronson secured a set of rush-delivered gowns, Jansen stepped into the lead in Francis Chassaigne’s “Nadjy” — another triumph. She toured for years in a tailor-made role: Trixie Hazelmere, Queen of the Vaudevilles, in Glen MacDonough’s “Delmonico’s at Six.”

She started her own company, but a blithe attitude toward finances scuttled the troupe and her fortune. Upon Benjamin Johnson’s death in 1906, Jansen found herself largely cut out of his will; she sued, accusing Johnson’s third wife of undue influence. Jansen appealed (“The supreme court,” the Globe remarked, “will now have an opportunity to see Marie Jansen without going to the theatre”), but lost. Soon after, she left the stage altogether, spending the rest of her life — in the euphemism of the time — in much reduced circumstances.

Even at the height of her stardom, Jansen, with the coquettishness that was her dramatic specialty, acknowledged the fleeting value of fame. “I mean to do all the good I can,” she once said, “so that when I die I may be remembered 10 days instead of the traditional nine.”

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.
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