— Profiling that larger-than-life American actor, singer, comedian, and theatrical producer, DeWolf Hopper (1858 - 1935). His insatiable appetite for young actresses may have been the reason for his nickname "Wolfie," while his many marriages earned him the title "Husband of His Country."
William DeWolf Hopper was born in New York City to John Hopper, a wealthy Quaker lawyer, and Rosalie DeWolf, granddaughter of U. S. Senator James DeWolf, scion of a notable Colonial family. Young Hopper was expected to follow his father into the legal profession, but he was of an entirely different bent. In 1878, he used his inheritance to experiment with what had long been his dream: he formed his own theatrical company (albeit short-lived), then studied voice, all in hopes of becoming a classical actor and/or an opera singer.
Hopper's dream was to play Shakespearean roles. He was handsome and self-confident, and carried his 230 pounds effortlessly on an unusually tall (6' 4" or 6' 5") frame. But to his chagrin, he was considered too large for most dramatic roles. However, the young actor's big bass-baritone voice and his quick wit moved producer John A. McCaull (often called "The Father of American Comic Opera") to cast him as a singing comedian in Désirée in 1884. Hopper was thrilled with his success in the role, and recognized immediately that he had found his life's work.
His newly found success may have gone to his head, however, because in 1885, he and his wife of 5 years, Ella Gardiner, were divorced. He was 27 at the time, and already the leading man in The Black Hussar, a musical which was packing them in at Wallack's Theatre. He followed that with The Beggar Student (also in 1885), then in 1886, he married Ida Mosher, whom he had met when she was in the chorus of Désirée. Within a year or so, the couple had a son, and by all reports, were a happy little family
It was often noticed and commented on by theater friends just how well Wolfie and Ida got along. They were described as "an ideal pair of married lovers." It was said that Mr. Hopper lived only for his wife and little boy. Frequently, both wife and son would accompany him to the theater, where he performed in The Begum (1887) and The Lady or the Tiger (1888), and where the little boy was quite popular among cast and crew members.
But when Hopper went into rehearsals for Castles in the Air, his first starring vehicle (1890), he couldn't deny the attraction he felt for his diminutive leading lady, Della Fox. It didn't take long for their cast mates and friends to recognize that those kisses on stage were real, and that off stage, the couple displayed all the signs of a love affair. Also noticed: Ida and the little boy no longer visited Hopper at the theater.
Adding insult to injury (from Ida's p.o.v.), Wolfie and Della teamed up for two more musicals: Wang (1891) and Panjandrum (1893). Wolfie's friends had all decided that Della was a shoo-in to become the next Mrs. Hopper, as soon as he was free to marry again. But here's the kicker: On June 28, 1893 — only a few hours after a quiet divorce was obtained by Ida — Wolfie married actress/singer/comedienne Edna Wallace, then a member of Charles Frohman's stock company.
The new Mrs. Hopper was a surprise to one and all — most especially, I suspect, to Della Fox. Conjecture, certainly, but it's not a stretch to think it could have triggered Della's slide into alcohol and drug abuse. It wasn't long before she became ill and had to leave the cast of Panjandrum. I wonder how Della felt when she learned that her successor on stage was the same woman who took her place in her lover's heart. Edna Wallace Hopper made a successful debut in comic opera when she assumed Della's role in Panjandrum. Together, the Hoppers costarred in Dr. Syntax (1894), a revival of Wang (1895) and John Philip Sousa's comic opera, El Capitan (1896). By 1898, they had separated and filed for divorce.
In 1899, Wolfie married Nella (Reardon) Bergen in London. It was her second marriage (she was divorced from actor James Bergen), and Hopper's fourth marriage (in case you haven't been keeping score). Nella, her sister, and two brothers, were born and reared in Brooklyn, where their father, John Edward Reardon, was a Police Captain. Nella was a singer/actress in comic opera and it is believed that she was on tour in England in John Philip Sousa's comic opera,The Bride Elect, when she became Mrs. Hopper.
Following the development of a postcard promotion in 1905, Wolfie appeared in Happyland in 1905, and had a big hit with A Matinee Idol in 1910.
It appeared that Wolfie and Nella had succeeded in finding the secrets of a happy and lasting marriage. Wolfie did, indeed, set a new record for himself: not quite 14 years of wedlock. They were divorced in 1913, the very year Wolfie met and married Elda Furey. Some of you may remember her as the acerbic-tongued Hedda Hopper. (She took the name "Hedda" in 1919, reportedly chosen for her by a numerologist.)
They moved to Hollywood in 1915, the year their son* (see sidebar) was born, and established motion picture careers. It was also the year Wolfie made the film Don Quixote. Wolfie was a star of silent films, whereas Hedda played occasional supporting roles, and eventually became a character actress. It's interesting to note that, in 1921, Wolfie finally played a Shakespearean role: Sir John Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor.
The Hoppers were divorced in 1922; Hedda began her career as a gossip columnist, and Wolfie started writing his autobiography, "Once A Clown, Always A Clown."
Wolfie was slowing down some, still working in the occasional revival of one of his musical-comedies, still making a picture now & then — but it was three years before he married again. His sixth wife was Lillian "Lulu" Glaser, with whom he tied the knot in 1925. He was Lulu's third husband. She had been a popular Broadway performer, and a vaudeville star for many years. She was highly regarded as a versatile actress and singer. After retiring in 1917, she divided her time between New York and a quiet farm in Connecticut.
This was a comfortable time for Wolfie. He finished his autobiography, which was published in 1927. He made a Broadway appearance in White Lilacs in 1928, and in 1932 he performed, amid an array of Broadway's oldsters, in the Radio City Music Hall Inaugural. He died of a heart attack in 1935 in Kansas City, Missouri, where he was making a radio appearance. He was 77. His ashes are inurned at Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn.
Wolfie's life was written indelibly on the memories of everyone with whom he came in contact — his sweethearts, his longtime friends, his ardent fans, his baseball team. 'Tis true, he was a bit of a bounder, but as much as he loved women, I believe he loved baseball, if not more, at least as much! He was a lifelong baseball enthusiast (his friends called him a "baseball crank") and he was an ardent New York Giants fan, known to travel from the theater to the Polo Grounds after a matinée, just to see the last two innings of a home game; then travel back to the theater in time to prepare for the evening performance. Wolfie founded the Actors' Amateur Athletic Association of America (AAAAA), organizing actors' benefits, and all-actor baseball tournaments (in which he was a talented player). He could have made a career of reciting "Casey at the Bat" in his big, booming voice, which he did about 10,000 times — during stage performances, in curtain calls, and on radio — and eventually on record. Just thought you'd like to know about that side of him.
Wolfie's & Hedda's son, William DeWolf Hopper, Jr., eventually established his own career as William Hopper in movies and television. He started acting in summer stock at Ogunquit Playhouse in Ogunquit, Maine, and had roles in 25 or 30 movies over the years. A navy frogman during WW2, he returned from service in 1945 with a bronze star for bravery and heroic action, but didn't restart his career until the mid-1950s. In 1957 he was cast as private investigator Paul Drake in the CBS-TV series Perry Mason. He remained in that role until the series ended in 1966, at which time he retired from the acting profession. He died in 1970, the result of a stroke complicated by pneumonia. He was only 55.
Stage Whispers is published by carlacushman.blogspot.com/