Victoria Lawrence was born in Leeds, England on November 26th, 1873 into a theatrical family. Her mother, Annie Lawrence, whose stage name was “Marion Nelson,” was a singer; her father, Joe Lawrence, was called “The Up-Side-Down Comedian” for singing on his head (Fields 30-31). She toured with her parents as a little girl, performing at the age of six as “Baby Victoria.” In 1883, at the age of nine, she first performed at the Royal Cambridge Theater in London, as “Little Victoria.” She evolved into a solo performer between the ages of fifteen and nineteen, finally adopting her stage name “Vesta Victoria” (31).
At age twenty, after being recruited by American talent managers, Vesta completed her first American tour (Fields 31). She made her American debut in New York at the Tony Pastor Theater. Vesta’s run was extended, making her “one of the very few single women to play there for a season” (Laurie). Quickly gaining fame and fans, she received gifts of jewelry, which would eventually grow into a vast jewelry collection (Fields 31-32). She earned a higher wage than most new performers, initially $400 a week. Later, on a ten-week contract with the Keith circuit, she made $3000 a week (Laurie). Consistently a box office hit, Vesta earned one of the highest wages of any female vaudevillian.
The voluptuous, “singing comedienne” had a voice that was “low, clear, and energetic, ‘bell-like with a bit of throatiness’” (Fields 31). Vesta was known for her comedic songs, inspired by her personal sad stories with happy–endings. A vaudeville audience would expect audience participation, sing-along, choreography, impersonations, and vivid characterizations in a Vesta Victoria act (32). She usually changed costumes for each song, wearing lavish, brightly colored, costumes, or even tattered clothing, depending on the character of the song (Whaley). With the help of her songwriters, Harry Pether and Fred Leigh, Vesta had many hit songs. One of her most popular was “Waiting at Church,” about a bride being stranded at the altar because her husband to be's wife wouldn’t let him leave. Her song “Poor John” describes a girl meeting a future mother-in-law who is disappointed in her son’s choice fiancée, lamenting: “Poor John!” (Gray). Other favorite songs included “Daddy Won’t Buy Me A Bow-Wow,” “It Ain’t All Honey,” and “Some Would Marry Anything with Trousers On” (Slide 159).
Possessing “personal magnetism that fairly lift[ed] her audience of their seats,” Vesta was particularly gifted at building a “rapport with audiences” (Whaley; Fields 32). Vesta effectively customized her act for American and English audiences, always building rapport and receiving praise from critics. Between 1893 and 1911, Vesta performed in both America and England, though she preferred performing in her home country. For some time in England, Vesta collaborated with vaudevillian Vesta Tilley. The two became the most successful English female performers of their time (Fields 32). After 1911, Vesta remained mostly in England, not returning to perform in America until 1927 (33).
Both audiences and critics loved Vesta’s irony and self-deprecation in her songs. Critic Cady Whaley wrote in The Billboard in 1907 that she could be “funny by the crook of a finger of the position of the feet.” Her act developed between 1893 and 1911 into her signature humorous yet alluring style, while her stage presence and rapport with the audience always remained strong. Critic Sime Silverman wrote about her 1907 tour: “Miss Vesta has not lost any of her charm; she still remains the magnetic, pretty, buxom character songtress, the idol of the New York public” (Silverman). Vesta frequently added new songs to her repertoire. Additionally, her charismatic stage presence allowed her longer stage time than most vaudeville acts. While most acts were under twenty minutes, Vesta’s were often longer. In 1907, her act spanned forty-nine minutes, “the record length for a single act in vaudeville” at the time (Laurie).
On September 20th, 1897, she married Fred McAvoy, who managed a music hall (Fields 32). In 1898, they had a daughter, Irene, but later divorced in 1903. In 1912, remarried to Herbert Terry; the couple divorced in 1926. During WWI, she performed in vaudeville theaters in England and entertained English troops (Gray). Vesta retired in 1918 at the end of the War, after a thirty-five-year career in vaudeville (Fields 33). In the next decades, Vesta came out of retirement for a handful special appearances onstage and in film. In 1927, she performed in America for the first time since 1911 (33). In 1931, Vesta recorded many of her signature songs from her time on the vaudeville stage. Vesta Victoria was unique as she “continued to perform successfully long after vaudeville disappeared” (33).
She died in London on April 7th, 1951. Joe Laurie Jr. writes in an obituary: “Miss Victoria was the pioneer of the great English ear-and-eye-arresting artists who came to America.” Critics and audiences loved Vesta Victoria for her catchy songs, powerful voice, humor, and buxom beauty. Vesta was one of the most successful and influential female vaudeville performers from Britain. As critic Sime Silverman wrote in 1907, she was “unexcelled and impossible of imitation. Many try, but all fail.”
Here is a typical Vesta Victoria "Poor Me" type song complete with lyrics so you can follow her clearly:
The University of Arizona has the following sheet music featuring Vesta Victoria:
WAITING AT THE CHURCH; OR MY WIFE WON'T LET ME 1906 - by Fred W. Leigh, Henry E. Pether. Cover VESTA VICTORIA on a swing and in a bridal outfit. From the series "Vesta Victoria's New Song Successes as Featured by the Famous English Comedienne on Her American Tour".
POOR JOHN! 1906 - by Fred W. Leigh, Henry E. Pether. Cover VESTA VICTORIA. From "Vesta Victoria's New Songs, Featured by the Famous English Comedienne on her Third American Tour".
AND HE BLAMES MY DREAMY EYES 1907 - by Arthur J. Lamb, Albert Gumble. Cover VESTA VICTORIA. "Vesta Victoria's Sensational American Song Hit".
MOTHER HASN'T SPOKEN TO FATHER SINCE 1908 - by William Jerome and Jean (Jeannot) Schwartz (Schwarz). "As introduced by England's Famous Comedienne VESTA VICTORIA". "Jerome and Schwartz' Big-Comic Song Hit".
MARY TOOK THE CALVES TO THE DAIRY SHOW 1908 - by Harry Castling. From the series "Five New Songs Sung by the World's Greatest Comedienne VESTA VICTORIA",
NOW I HAVE TO CALL HIM FATHER 1908 - by Charles Collins, Fred Godfrey. From the same series as the preceding entry.
Gray, Frances. “Victoria, Vesta (1873–1951).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. OxfordDNB.com. Web. 29 Dec 2016.
Fields, Armond. “Vesta Victoria.” Women Vaudeville Stars: Eighty Biographical Profiles. Jefferson: McFarland, 2006. 30-33. Print.
Laurie, Joe. "Vaudeville: Vesta Victoria." Variety 11 Apr. 1951: 53. ProQuest. Web. 29 Dec. 2016.
Slide, Anthony. “Vesta Victoria.” The Vaudevillians: A Dictionary of Vaudeville Performers. Westport: Arlington House, 1981. 159-160. Print.
Silverman, Sime. "New Acts of the Week: Vesta Victoria." Variety 19 Jan. 1907: 8. ProQuest. Web. 29 Dec. 2016.
Whaley, Cady. "Miss Victoria." The Billboard 13 Apr. 1907: 41-5, 17. ProQuest. Web. 29 Dec. 2016.