1910 – 1980
Lillian Roth, singer-actor whose career met with early success but was eventually sidetracked by alcoholism and mental illness, was born in Boston on December 13, 1910. At age five, she was pushed into show business by her stagestruck parents, Arthur and Katie (Silverman) Rutstein, and a year later, she was cast in a Broadway play. As a child, she attended the Professional Children’s School with classmates Ruby Keeler and Milton Berle; the latter would remain a lifelong friend. Throughout her childhood Roth’s father’s alcoholism resulted in his periodic lengthy separations from the family. As a result, her ambitious mother molded her and her younger sister Ann (born in 1913) into vaudeville headliners known as “The Roth Kids” on the Keith-Orpheum circuit.
When Roth was fourteen, she was signed by the Shuberts for Artists and Models. She was soon transferred to the Chicago company of the show because New York legal authorities considered her too young to be in a “risqué” show. By age seventeen, she was appearing in Earl Carroll’s Vanities of 1928 and Ziegfeld’s Midnight Follies. Variety and New York City newspapers praised Roth’s singing voice and stage personality. Her next step was to go to Hollywood, where she signed a seven-year contract with Paramount Pictures in 1929. Her movie career coincided with the beginning of the talkies. Her first film was The Love Parade (1929), starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. In 1930, she made The Vagabond King, Honey, Animal Crackers with the Marx Brothers, and Madame Satan. These films were followed by Ladies They Talk About and Take a Chance in 1933.
The early 1930s were a series of professional triumphs and personal disasters for Roth. She acknowledged that she earned over one million dollars, and lost it all. During this period, she drank heavily and married and divorced four husbands, including New York judge Ben Shalleck. By the early 1940s, people regarded her career as over. In 1945, she committed herself to a New York mental institution, but the treatment did not provide a permanent cure for her illness. In 1947 she joined Alcoholics Anonymous, where she met her fifth husband, Burt McGuire, who was a Catholic. Roth’s personal and spiritual feelings led her to convert to Catholicism in 1948. Friends accused her of forsaking Judaism; however, in her autobiography, I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1954), Roth observed that although her parents had believed in God, she and her sister had not been brought up religiously. Roth declared that she was so inherently Jewish that she could not really forget her heritage and thought that she was “the richer” because of it.
On February 4, 1953, Roth told her tragic story to millions of Americans on the popular television program This Is Your Life. The favorable response she received encouraged her to write her autobiography, which described her struggle against alcoholism and mental illness; it became an international best-seller. The book was made into a film in 1955, starring Susan Hayward. As a result of the publicity, Roth was able to make a modest comeback in nightclubs, on television, and on the stage. In the 1960s, she appeared in the theatrical production I Can Get It for You Wholesale and in the touring company of Funny Girl. Her last movie was Communion in 1977.
Lillian Roth died in New York City on May 5, 1980, at age sixty-nine.
Animal Crackers (1930); Communion (1977); Honey (1930); Ladies They Talk About (1933); The Love Parade (1929); Madame Satan (1930); Take a Chance (1933); The Vagabond King (1930).
Contemporary Authors (1981); “Lillian Roth, Actress and Singer Dies.” NYTimes, May 5, 1980, C20; Obituaries. Newsweek (May 26, 1980): 93, and Time (May 26, 1980): 89, and Variety Weekly (May 14, 1980): 14; Roth, Lillian. I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1954); Smith, Cecil. “She Won’t Cry Tomorrow.” Los Angeles Times, January 8, 1956, sec. 4, p. 1:4