Monday, March 2, 2009

Rochester's Famous Actress

If you are thinking Madonna, you're way off base! Look back a century before Madonna left the halls of Rochester Adams High School for the glamour of New York, and you'll find that Florence Gillette was Rochester's claim to fame in front of the footlights.

Florence Lillian Gillette was born near Birmingham in Oakland County on October 3, 1851, and came with her parents, Hartson and Lucia Fidelia Woolley Gillette, to Avon Township when she was a small child. Young Florence attended school in Rochester, but also received tutoring from her mother, a published author and well-known lecturer who was a Universalist minister and is believed to have been the first woman clergy person ordained in the province of Ontario.

As a child, Florence showed early interest in drama and hungrily devoured her mother's volumes of Shakespeare. She corresponded with Edwin Booth, and entered the dramatic profession on the strength of her contacts with Booth and actress Charlotte Cushman, who was known for using her own fame to champion the fledgling stage careers of other women. Florence played leading roles in New York and Chicago theatres, including the parts of Juliet and Camille, and toured extensively throughout the United States, Canada and England.

Florence Gillette met and married George A. Flett in 1889 and soon after retired from public life. The marriage ended in divorce within a decade and produced no children. Florence, by then in poor health, returned to Rochester to live with her widowed mother. She died in Rochester at the age of 48 on October 25, 1900. After her daughter's death, Lucia Fidelia Gillette told the Rochester Era that she planned to relocate away from Rochester, and that once she was settled, she would have the remains of her late husband and daughter re-interred near her new home. Lucia retired soon thereafter to the Messiah Universalist Home near Philadelphia, and arranged for the remains of Hartson and Florence Gillette to be buried at Ivy Hill Cemetery in nearby Germantown, Pennsylvania.

Photo: This photo of Florence Gillette was published in the 1897 pamphlet Beautiful Rochester. A better portrait of Florence made during her stage career is part of the New York Public Library's Billy Rose Theatre Collection photograph file, and may be viewed by clicking here.

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