Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
Famous Italian actress Eleanora Duse died in the Schenley Hotel (now the Pitt Student Union).
Actress Eleonora Duse was born on October 3, 1858, in Vigevano, Italy. Her parents, Alessandro and Angelica Duse, were actors in the Duse Troupe. Duse started acting at four years of age, portraying Cosette in Les Miserables. Her role as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet marked her as a strong actress. However, once her mother passed away, Duse was on her own. She acted in many companies, establishing herself as the best actress in Europe. Her fame grew overseas, and she performed her last tour in America. Eleonora Duse died on April 21, 1924, after a performance in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Eleonora Duse was born on October 3, 1858, in the small town of Vigevano, located in the Lombardy province of Italy. Duse’s parents, Alessandro Duse and Angelica Duse, as well as her extended family, were all actors in the Duse acting troupe. Eleonora’s childhood was rough because of the constant moving around from city to city with the troupe and the unpredictability of living the life of a performer. Her first major role was when the Duse troupe performed Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables; Duse, playing the role of Cosette, was only four-years-old. She never got any formal education and learned whatever she could from her mother with whom she shared a very close bond. As she grew up, young Eleonora looked up to Angelica Duse in every aspect of her life, and with her mother’s love and teaching, Duse trudged through the daily hardships of being a traveling performer. In fact, she became an official member of the group in 1863 at the age of five. However, Duse, at 14-years-old, began to be recognized after the Duse troupe combined with the Rosaspina. With her talent and passion, she became the “means of livelihood” for her troupe. The turning point in her career came in May 1873, when she portrayed Juliet in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. By this point, she was 14-years-old and already had ten years of acting experience. Duse loved the attention she was getting and placed great importance on the fact that she was the main attraction of the troupe, yet that happiness was short lived because, in September 1873, her mother died. With the death of Angelica Duse, the troupe began to fall apart. Eleonora’s father, Alessandro Duse, isolated himself more, leaving Eleonora Duse alone. Duse consoled herself with her love for art and moved from troupe to troupe between 1874 and 1878. In these troupes, she never got the recognition that she had in her own family troupe, and she accepted the supporting roles given to her. Her belief in her talent made her disobey authority figures in each troupe. With her rebellious attitude, Duse became known as a rebel, and she soon decided to distinguish herself as an artist, separating herself from other actors. After many years of hardship, Duse finally got a leading role, though by accident, in the company of Ciotti-Belli-Blanes. As a replacement for Giulia Gritti, who became sick, Duse performed the main roles of many performances for a period of time in Rome. She instantly gained fame, with critics stating that she had a bright future. Being part of the major theatre company like Ciotti-Belli-Blanes gave Duse enough exposure to make large strides in the acting world. In May 1878, at 19 years of age, Duse received huge acclaim for her portrayal of Marcella in Frenchman Victorien Sardou’s Borghesi di Pontarcy. Duse traveled with Ciotti-Belli-Blanes to Naples, where, through another accidental opportunity, she played the lead role of Maia in I Fourchambault, and she was noticed by prominent actor-manager, Giovanni Emmanuel. She was soon offered a position in his acting company, Fiorentini. Through Fiorentini, Duse cultivated an impressive repertoire of roles, each varying in personality and emotion. In Naples, she met her first lover, Martino Cafiero, a man twenty years her senior by whom she got pregnant. Near the end of 1879, Fiorentini began to fall apart, and she signed a new contract with Cesare Rossi’s company. However, leaving with Rossi’s company also tore her relationship with Cafiero apart. Cafiero rejected both Duse and their baby son who died in infancy. Duse once again got caught up with the hectic lifestyle of a star actress working under Rossi’s company. In this company, Duse became acquainted with her next lover, Tebaldo Checchi. While her career progressed, her affair with Checchi also became stronger and they got married on September 7, 1881. Duse, by this time, was already pregnant with Checchi’s daughter, Enrichetta. With newfound joy, Duse began to travel throughout Italy, and her main base was with the Rossi company in Venice. With fame and glory to her name, Eleonora Duse began to dream of going outside of Italy and carrying her name to many parts of Europe and the world. By Spring 1885, Duse was traveling outside of Europe to other parts of the world, such as South America. Her tour of South America was successful, though Duse faced a hostile split with her husband, Checchi. That did not stop Eleonora Duse. After another two years working in Rossi’s company as the leading actress, Duse created her own company with prominent actor, Flavio Ando, named Compagnia della Citta di Roma. She also started a fresh affair with Arrigio Boito, a playwright. With her new company gaining recognition, Duse was able to make a home for her and her daughter in Venice. Within the coming years, Eleonora Duse would have many lovers, including her leading actor, Flavio Ando, as her fame within Europe grew. By 1893, Duse was able to start touring in major cities, such as New York and London. In 1895, she met Gabriele d’Annunzio, a playwright and poet. Some of her most well known roles were to d’Annunzio’s plays such as “La Citta morta” [The Dead City]. After they broke up, d’Annunzio wrote a fictionalized account of their love in Ilfuoco [The Flame] that caused a great public scandal. With her acting dubbed as the “truest” of all, Duse kept her audiences enthralled and even performed better than the local actors in foreign countries. One example was when she took on the role of Magda in Hermann Sudermann’s Heimat[Homeland] (1895). With this success, she soon had a rival, Sarah Bernhardt. By 1909, Duse decided it was time to go into retirement, since she already had so many great performances to her name. Moreover, at 46, Duse also needed to focus on her physical health, which had taken a toll from many years of acting. During her retirement, Duse recuperated, satisfying her own needs and wishes. However, that did not keep her from gracing the stage once again, this time with Ermete Zacconi’s company in 1921. Eleonora Duse, after returning to the stage in 1921, went on to perform all throughout Italy and Europe. She went on to give her last tour in 1923 in America. She gave many performances throughout America, starting in New York, going through Washington D.C., Baltimore, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Boston. Her final performance was on April 5, 1924, in Pittsburgh, at the Syria Mosque, when she took ill immediately after the show. Word of Duse’s illness was kept quiet until April 18 when the Pittsburgh Press wrote “not the slightest inkling as to the famous woman’s condition has escaped from her retinue.” One day later, the Press quoted Dr. Charles J. Barone, who said: “La Duse is fighting like a true sportsman, fighting determinedly for her life, and it is the only chance she has, just a fighting chance.” The Pittsburgh Post wrote that “the magic voice of Mme. Eleonora Duse, regarded by many as the greatest actress in the world, may never speak to another audience.” Eleonora Duse died on April 21, 1924, in the Hotel Schenley, now the Union Building of the University of Pittsburgh.