This Is Rutherford
This Was Famous Actress Lillian Russell
Updated: Oct 30, 2022
By Rod Leith, Borough Historian
More than a century ago, the famed stage and film actress, Lillian Russell (nee Leonard) Moore (1861-1922) owned two properties on what became Courier Place. She resided at 5 Courier Place, off and on, Her niece, Leona Cynthia Van Mater, daughter of Lillian’s sister, Ida Kate Schultze (1854-1916), resided next door, at 9 Courier Place with her husband, Everett P. Van Mater.
In July of 1912, when the house was still owned by Lillian Russell, an unusual funeral was conducted at 9 Courier Place. The deceased, Jacob R. Van Mater, 64, died suddenly as he attempted to climb the steps at 9 Courier, crying out to his son for help. Jacob had just attended the dedication of the cornerstone for the Christian Science Church on Park Avenue.
In June of 1916, Ida Kate Schultze, 62, was visiting with her daughter, Leona Van Mater, when she suddenly passed away as she sat on the stoop of the Van Mater house at 9 Courier Place. The death of her sister was a tragedy for Lillian Russell. It came about the same time the actress lost her grand-niece, Helen Louise, the only child of Leona Cynthia and Everett Van Mater.
A more recent occupant of the house at 5 Courier Place related a story that recalled those tragic events that befell the family of Lillian Russell. The woman said her daughter would sometimes hear a child’s cry from an upstairs room. It seemed to recall the sad death of Helen Louise, in 1916, who was then just 4 ½.
It is just a small stretch of roadway between Erie and Morse avenues, but the history of Courier Place offers both a remarkable snapshot of some famous residents as well as a rather eerie saga of tragic human events.
Few know that among those residents was an Iowa-born lady who was once considered one of America’s most beautiful women. In her prime, she served as an ambassador of goodwill. Her husband, Alexander P. Moore served as ambassador to Spain, Peru, and Poland, as well. This was Lillian Russell (nee Leonard) Moore who was attracted to Rutherford in the early 1900s by her older sister, Ida Kate, who arrived in 1903. Ida Kate had married into a prominent Rutherford family, got involved in the community, and became a founder of the Christ Scientist Church, along with Jacob Van Mater.
Lillian and her sister were marked for fame long before. This was due to their lineage, tracing it back to John Howland, who was a settler of the Plymouth Colony. Lillian and Ida Kate join other luminaries such as George Bush and the poet Florence Earle Coates.
This was a wonderful time for Lillian. She had just married Alexander P. Moore, who was editor of the Pittsburgh Leader. Moore was her fourth husband. Her stage career began under the name “Nellie Leonard,” but by 1880, she became known as Lillian Russell, on the advice of Tony Pastore, who engaged her for vaudeville shows. Her career was on the rise. She had just starred in a performance with the famed opera star, John G. Brammall, in a musical comedy, “In Search of a Sinner.” Her niece, Leona Cynthia Schultze Van Mater was "discovered" by Arthur Hammerstein as an outstanding vocalist.
Lillian’s stage career was based in New York, but she sought the peace and quiet of the rustic environment offered by the rural setting in Rutherford. She would often take the Erie Railroad train to the Carlton Hill station, a short distance by taxi to her Courier Place home. She had two Victorian-style houses built at what is now 5 and 9 Courier Place.
Number 5 Courier was Lillian’s “home away from home.” It was her way of escaping the pressures of the New York theater set. Next door, at 9 Courier would be reserved for her sister’s daughter, Leona, who had married Edward Van Mater in 1909. The sister, Ida Kate Schultze, would often visit there to be with her daughter, and her baby niece, Helen Louise.
Lillian’s visits to Rutherford would cause a stir in the West End neighborhood. Members of the McKenzie family, who lived on Sidney Avenue, told neighbors of occasions when Lillian Russell would be seen in the neighborhood. The rumors were that Lillian would be seen arriving in town with James Buchanan Brady, aka, Diamond Jim Brady. Since Diamond Jim, a successful New York financier, died on April 13, 1917, these sightings would probably have coincided with Lillian’s trips to Rutherford to the Carton Hill train station after her purchase of the Courier Place houses in 1912.
Unlike her older sister, Lillian Russell did not involve herself in Rutherford’s community affairs. But, besides her acting career, she frequently served as a lecturer. One of her most popular subjects was women’s health and welfare. In fact, a talk entitled, “How to Live a Hundred Years” brought large female audiences. She drew a standing-room audience at the Fulton Theater in Lancaster, PA.
She was asked by President Warren Harding to investigate immigration. Shortly before her death in1922, Lillian was invited to give a talk by the New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Club. Her subject was immigration.
Lillian and her sister Ida Kate could trace their family lineage to the Mayflower Compact. On their mother’s side, the sisters were also related to Daniel Hicks, another of the Mayflower Compact signers.
With her stage career on the wane, Lillian had turned to motion pictures. She appeared with Lionel Barrymore in the 1915 film, “Wildfire.” The renowned actress’s life was documented in a 1940 film, “The Life of Lillian Russell.”