Like many another performer who achieved super-star status by performing before audiences in California, this 19th century starring player arrived from somewhere else – in this case, New York. Her parents had emigrated from the British Isles sometime in the 1840s; her father had a trade as a bookseller, by which one can surmise a degree of literacy and interest in the wider culture. John Ashworth and Mary Ann Livesey Crabtree named their baby daughter Charlotte Mignon, when they were blessed with a little shoot on the family tree in 1847.
Four years later, John – evidently seeing adventure and a fortune – took ship to San Francisco; the Gold Rush had bit and bitten hard. Alas, by that time, most of the easily-made fortunes had already been made, and later comers either had to be insanely lucky or able to finance extensive and expensive deep-rock or hydraulic mining ventures. John Crabtree had neither luck nor deep pockets, and by the time his wife and daughter followed him in 1852, he had already given up any delusions of striking it rich. Legend has it that he was not on the docks to meet them, when they arrived in San Francisco. Undeterred, Mary Ann and the five-year old Charlotte found friends to stay with, while they awaited word from John. Eventually a message arrived – they should join him in the boom-town of Grass Valley, located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
Sensibly, he had given up on mining gold and resolved on a course of mining it from the gold miners by running a boarding house. In the biographies of Charlotte ‘Lotta’ Crabtree that I can locate, this marks as about the last life-significant decision he may have made regarding his daughter. From then on, Mary Ann seems to have ruled Charlotte’s life and career choices – establishing herself as the first and possibly the most successful of California stage mothers to date. Mary Ann also encouraged her red-haired, dark-eyed little daughter in learning songs and performing long sentimental ballads, playing the old-fashioned minstel-show banjo and enlarging on a large repertoire of dance moves; Irish jigs, a little ballet, fandangos and soft-shoe, Highland flings and reels.
The child was a born entertainer, and was encouraged by a neighbor, the notorious adventuress and dancer Lola Montez – born Eliza Gilbert, fresh from a turn as the official mistress of the mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, and eventually to travel on to Australia to perform in gold camps there. One story has it that she wanted Lotta to come with her – but of course her parents would not permit that. It did confirm that the kid had talent, though, and Mary Ann – the soul of stubborn practicality – had no reservations about her child performing in public. The Crabtree family moved to another gold camp, Rabbit Creek, where a local tavern-keeper, one Matt Taylor, often hosted traveling dramatic groups, singers and musicians in his business. Lotta Crabtree made her professional debut there at the age of six, dressed in in a green long-tailed coat, knee-britches, a tall green top-hat and brandishing a miniature shillelagh. She sang and danced an Irish jig … this brought down the house, and a rain of coin and gold nuggets.
For two or three years – Lotta and her parents toured the gold camps; a kind of 19th-century road-show Shirley Temple and every bit as popular. Mary Ann turned out to be a hard-headed and scrupulously careful manager of her daughter’s fame and money. By the end of the decade, the family had moved back to San Francisco – a base from which Lotta continued touring and performing. Having conquered the West, the family returned East – where Lotta continued to perform to rapturous applause and tour with her own company. She performed in roles especially written for her; lively, petite, given to performing in male clothing and daring to smoke slender black cigars. By any standards she was attractive, and had many admirers and brief romances, but never married.
Mary Ann cannily invested the takings from Lotta’s theatrical performances in bonds and real estate – generating wealth sufficient to support the family when Lotta retired from performing at the age of 45. She spent the rest of her life in comfort and mild luxury, dabbling in painting, charitable work and foreign travel. Lotta Crabtree left a fortune estimated at 4 million dollars when she died in 1924. The bulk of it was in a charitable trust to benefit aging actors, animals and veterans.
(Lotta and Mary Ann Crabtree will feature as walk-on characters in the current work in progress, The Golden Road – the picaresque Gold Rush adventure that I always wanted to write, although I haven’t yet worked up to that part of the plot where they will feature. An amazingly large number of soon-to-be important or interesting people were in California in the mid-1850s; Roy Bean, Edwin Booth and William T. Sherman among them – and I am working them into the plot as well.)