Oscar Actors: Burke, Billie

Born as Mary William Ethelbert Appleton Burke on August 7, 1885 in Washington, D.C.; died in 1970.

The only child of William (Billy) Burke, a singing clown in the Barnum and Bailey circus, she adopted her father's nickname before making her debut on the London stage in 1903. The family had moved to London when Billie was eight, and she received her education in England and in France. She appeared on the English stage for four years, then, after her father's death, she was brought to New York in 1907 to star opposite John Drew in “My Wife.

A delicate beauty, she soon was the toast of Broadway. Celebrities like Mark Twain, Enrico Caruso, James M. Barrie, and W. Somerset Maugham were among her admirers. In 1913, the latter escorted her to a New Year's party at Astor Hotel, where she met Florenz Ziegfeld.

The following year the producer and the actress eloped and were married in Hoboken, N.J. Until Ziefeld's death, in 1932, they lived in a Hastings-on-Hudson estate, surrounded by a menagerie that included an elephant, two bears, two lion cubs, 15 dogs, and a herd of deer.

In 1915, Miss Burke accepted an offer of $300,000 from film pioneer Thomas H. Ince to appear in the film “Peggy.” She went on to star in about a dozen silent films, with Ziegfeld acting as her agent. In 1921, she returned to Broadway. In 1931, in an attempt to help her husband financially–he had been wiped out by the 1929 crash–she went back to Hollywood and into sound films.

She played some leads and scores of supporting roles in her new screen image as a feather-brained, twittery comedienne, memorably in Topper (1937) and its sequels, and as Glinda, the Good Fairy, in The Wizard of Oz (1939). In 1936, she acted as an advisor on the film The Great Ziegfeld, in which she was portrayed by Myrna Loy.

She was nominated for an Academy Award for “Merrilly We live (1938). The winner, however, was Faye Bainter in “Jezebel.”