Lillian Roth: Vaudeville Star and Advocate for the Addicted by Klaudia Kendall

Lillian Roth, born Lillian Rutstein, and nicknamed Butterfingers, was a Jewish-American actress born the 13th of December 1910. Named after a famous singer at the time, Lillian Russell, the young vaudeville star, beginning her career in the Keith-Orpheum circuit, seemed destined for a life in the spotlight. Regardless of her namesake and her silly nickname, Lillian and her younger sister Ann were preened for showmanship from a young age by a pair of demanding parents, Katie and Arthur Rutstein. The pair were would-be actors themselves, and preened their children for showmanship in order to live vicariously through them and their success. Her father struggled with alcoholism throughout her childhood, which resulted in lengthy separations from the family and stress on her mother.

 Due to a number of hardships, some brought on by her mother's difficult and demanding nature, the actress often consoled herself with drink and was a victim of alcoholism like her father for a number of years following many personally traumatic events. Her career was regarded as over due to her addiction, but this was not to stand. After overcoming her addiction through Alcoholics Anonymous, Roth became an advocate for the hardships of alcoholism on one’s career and personal life following her open and touching autobiographical book and successful movie and Susan Hayward vehicle, I’ll Cry Tomorrow. The vaudeville star passed away in 1980, at the age of 69, from a stroke.

Sheet music from 1927 featuring Ann and Lillian Roth as the Roth Kids. From the University of Arizona School of Anthropology Vaudeville Collection.

As a vaudeville star, Lillian and her sister Ann were labeled "Broadway's Youngest Stars" after performing together and gaining notoriety in a successful vaudeville tour called "The Roth Kids." In this vaudeville act, Lillian performed dramatic impersonations of famous stars of the time while Ann delivered satirical commentary on Lillian's readings. Although she was a shy girl, Lillian Rutstein was continually thrust into the limelight by her mother and father. This constant pressure from her parents gave Lillian a number of nervous disorders, and led to full-scale nervous breakdowns that soon became all too frequent.

The emotional toll this stardom took on her further pushed her down a road of unhealthy coping mechanisms. Roth herself wrote about the fears and uncertainty that came with early reluctant exposure to a life of show business in her second autobiographical novel Beyond My Worth (Roth Beyond My Worth). Here, Roth outlined her own perceived shortcomings during her career and the unrealistic expectations that were placed onto her early on in her career. Her self-esteem and self-confidence were shattered, based on her own account of her childhood stress and pressure on her to be perfect from a very young age. In her own words: “My life was never my own. It was charted before I was born,” (Roth Beyond My Worth; I’ll Cry Tomorrow film, 1955)

At the age of six, Roth was cast as the model for the trademark of a major North American film distribution company, Educational Pictures. Her role was that of a statue, bearing a lamp of knowledge. In her autobiographical book, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, she writes of being molested by the artist that was hired to create the logo (Roth I’ll Cry Tomorrow). This particularly horrific account of sexual assault was just the beginning of a life of hardship within the American film industry for Roth. A year after this horrendous act, Lillian made her first Broadway debut in The Inner Man, and had stardom well within her reach. This seemed to only bring on the pressure and stress from her overbearing mother even more. A year later, at eight years old, Lillian Roth was cast as an extra for the 1918 film Pershing’s Crusaders, a semi-documentary film revolving around American troops and their endeavors in France during World War I. By age 15 she was already a minor star performing not only with her sister but also increasingly on her own. At the age of 17, she was signed by Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. as a headliner in his new show Midnight Frolics, putting her into the world of the Ziegfeld Follies  as a minor (Roth I’ll Cry Tomorrow; Trav S. D.).

The 1920s saw her career take off rather well with solo work by 1925 and her face on sheet music published by such luminaries as Irving Berlin. She also began to do sexy turns in such shows

Lillian Roth at the height of her fame in 1928 in the Earl Carroll Vanities. University of Arizona School of Anthropology Vaudeville Collection.

as the Earl Carroll Vanities 7th edition in 1928 despite supposedly being just 17 years old where she enhanced her image as a wild party girl and flapper and she introduced the ribald song Drizzle, Drizzle, The Party's a Fizzle, O! What A Night to Love.  From 1925 to 1934 she was on an ever increasing trajectory in popularity with the period between 1928 and 1934 her maximum time when she was becoming a household word. She was even appearing in films such as Animal Crackers with The Marx Brothers. But after being given more prominent roles in vaudeville and film, tragedy struck Roth’s life, most strongly when she was in her thirties. On the brink of stardom, things seemed to be running smoothly for her and the early 1930s marked her first million dollars earned, although she promptly lost it all due to her personal life's prompt decline and bad financial advice and investments (Roth I’ll Cry Tomorrow). In addition, she was newly engaged to be married at this time to a longtime friend, and gaining significant roles in theater and film. But amid this bliss, her fiancé suffered a sudden death. In her film I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Roth was blindsided by his heart attack during one of her vaudeville performances. Her mother allegedly kept this information from her before her performance and this led Roth to succumb, in the film, to her own hysterics when faced with the empty bed of her childhood friend and lover (I’ll Cry Tomorrow film, 1955). Her fiancé’s death drove her into deep despair. Roth found alcohol to be a calming agent, and soon after found herself using alcohol to distract her from the emotional pain of not only the death of her fiancé but the constantly overbearing nature of her mother. Her dependence eventually led to use before her acts, and by the early 1940s and several incidents, the public regarded her career as over (Trav S. D.).

After her fiancé’s death came another man, a hasty marriage, and more alcohol to distract herself from the emotional abuse she faced. In her movie, Roth attempts to escape both physical and emotional abuse from her second, controlling lover. Once she was free, she continued to drink to ease her emotional pain (I’ll Cry Tomorrow film, 1955). Soon after escaping this abuse, her life remained a shambles. Roth was married and divorced with four different men, including Ben Shalleck, a prominent judge in New York (Stark).

Lillian Roth in 1934 near the end of her cycle of fame. From the University of Arizona School of Anthropology Vaudeville Collection.

Roth’s abuse of alcohol soon pushed her into the world of drugs as well, and these substances took over her life, causing her to lose roles due to her erratic behavior. After years of a downward spiraling career, Roth’s family and loved ones decided to intervene in her use of both drugs and alcohol (Connolly). In the movie, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, based on her earlier autobiography of the same name, Roth’s mother attempts to cut her off from all substances after realizing her emotional problems stemming from her fiancé’s death and her abuse of alcohol, yet fails (film, 1955). However, later on, Roth realizes the error of her unhealthy ways and commits herself to a mental institution in 1945 (Cullen). This was not a permanent solution for her addiction, and she promptly relapsed after her release. In 1947, Roth entered the process of rehabilitation with Alcoholics Anonymous, and there she met her fifth husband, Bert McGuire (Stark).

Her new husband, a Catholic, affected her in such a way both spiritually and emotionally that Roth converted to Catholicism in 1948. Many of her friends and fans criticized her for forsaking Judaism, but Roth wrote in her autobiography that she was “so inherently Jewish” that she could not possibly forget her heritage as a Jew. Roth also mentioned that she believed herself to be more successful, or “the richer”, because of her Jewish upbringing (Stark). In her film, McGuire is portrayed as Roth’s ultimate savior, whisking her away from not only her alcoholism, suicidal tendencies, and life of hardship in show business, but away from the overbearing presence of her mother as well (I’ll Cry Tomorrow film, 1955).

Within two years of her entrance into rehabilitation and marriage to her last husband, Lillian Roth began to talk publicly about her experiences with alcoholism and show business.    

Before her autobiographical novel was released, Roth’s life story was aired on television by Ralph Edwards, on the program This is Your Life. Her episode drew the most fan mail in the show’s history.  In 1954, Roth, inspired by her success on the program This is Your Life, documented her experiences in show business and her struggle with alcoholism in her famous autobiography, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, with the help of both Mike Connolly and Gerald Frank (Brumburgh; “Trivia: I’ll Cry Tomorrow”). The public was so moved by her book and its experiences of her struggles throughout her stardom that more than 100,000 copies were sold in the first few months of its publishing. Unlike today, in the 1950s, celebrities were not known for baring their souls, experiences, and hardships to their fans. Roth’s autobiography shook the public in their opinion and understanding of addiction in the public sphere, as well as their perception of the dangerous effects of alcohol abuse (Lerner). It is also tore aside the curtain on show business and gave a shocking glimpse behind the stage.

1955 marked the release of the film adaptation of her autobiographical book, I’ll Cry Tomorrow. Roth was portrayed by Susan Hayward, and the film was a sensation with its portrayal of Roth’s alcoholic tendencies and nightmarish life. I’ll Cry Tomorrow gained another driven and intense celebrity, Susan Hayward, an Oscar nomination as well as a win for Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival in France. The film also won an Oscar for Best Costume Design in a Black and White Film, and was nominated for Best Cinematography in a Black and White Film and Best Set Direction in a Black and White Film. With earnings of over $8 million, I’ll Cry Tomorrow was the fourth-highest grossing film of 1956, and earned MGM a profit of over $2.9 million (“Trivia: I’ll Cry Tomorrow”). The film notably ended on a happy note, with Bert McGuire and Lillian Roth living what would seemingly be “happily ever after,” fairy tale ending (I’ll Cry Tomorrow film, 1955). However, outside the silver screen, life did not follow art. McGuire left Roth for another man just a few years after the film was released, delivering another emotional blow to Roth’s already tumultuous career and making the public wonder how much of her demise was self-pity and willful self destruction.

After her ultimate divorce from McGuire, Roth’s career slowed, but not to a halt. She appeared in Playhouse 90 as Irene Contino in 1957, but was then out of film until 4 years before her death in 1980 (Brumburgh). Her inspirational story  and successes as an actress and vaudevillian earned her a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in February of 1960, , preserved at 6330 Hollywood Boulevard (Stark).

Roth was representative of the aesthetics of the tail-end of the Jazz age, with her vampire makeup, pale skin, and dark hair. As a performer, Roth blurred the lines between a comedienne and a serious actress, and expanded her use of humor and hardships into her biography while simultaneously using her stardom as an outlet to help those affected by alcoholism and to spread awareness about the destructive nature that the substance had on her own life. Although Roth was subject to both physical and emotional hardship in her career as a vaudeville star, she has remained in the public’s memory as both an advocate for the previously unheard, a beauty, a star in her own right and a woman of mystery.

The University of Arizona School of Anthropology Vaudeville Collection has the following sheet musics featuring the Roth Sisters or Lillian Roth:

LILLIAN ROTH at age 15 already doing a solo act. From the David Soren / School of Music Vaudeville Collection

I WONDER WHERE MY BABY IS TO-NIGHT 1925 - Words by Gus Kahn. Music by Walter Donaldson. "Featured by LILLIAN ROTH". Published by Irving Berlin. Lillian Roth, ca. age 15, already in a solo act.

I'M HAPPY, YOU'RE HAPPY, THEY'RE HAPPY TOO, IT'S A HAPPY OLD WORLD AFTER ALL 1926 - by Tommy Malie, Jimmy Steiger, Paul Ash. Cover art by RALPH WEIR. Inset phot of ROTH KIDDIES.

THERE'S SOMETHING NICE ABOUT EVRYONE "BUT" THERE'S EVERYTHING NICE ABOUT YOU 1927 - Words by Alfred Bryan, Arthur Terker. Music by Pete Wendling. Featured by ROTH KIDS. Lovely flapper on cover is by AL BARBELLE.

FORGIVE ME 1927 - Words by Jack Yellen. Music by Milton Ager. Lovely lady portrait on cover by BARBELLE. "Successfully introduced by LILLIAN ROTH". This was a hit song for Lillian but it was also covered by many other artists.

DRIZZLE, DRIZZLE, THE PARTY'S A FIZZLE, O! WHAT A NIGHT FOR LOVE 1928 - Melody by Seger Ellis. Lyric by Jean Herbert, Al Koppel. "As introduced in EARL CARROLL VANITIES 7th Edition by LILLIAN ROTH".

I SAW STARS 1934 - by Maurice Sigler, Al Goodhart, Al Hoffman. "Featured by LILLIAN ROTH".