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Selina Dolaro

1849 – 1889

by Michele Siegel

A woman of gusto and talent, Selina Simmons Belasco Dolaro was an exceptional performer and single mother in late nineteenth-century England and America. Through her income from singing, dancing, acting and writing, she raised and supported four children.

She was born in England on August 20, 1849, to Benjamin and Julia (Lewis) Simmons. Her father was a violinist at one of the city’s opera houses, and as a young girl Selina received music instruction from his masterful colleagues. Barely a teenager, she entered the Paris Conservatory to continue studying music. In 1865, just sixteen years old, she married an Italian Jew of Spanish descent named Isaac Dolaro Belasco in Upper Kennington, England. Isaac’s ancestral family name was Miara D’Olivares, but the Spanish Inquisition forced his family to take refuge in the Italian town of Belasco. D’Olivares then became Italianized to Dolaro. Five years later, Selina adopted the stage name Dolaro and made her debut in London at the Lyceum Theater in an Offenbach opera. She went on to appear in several London operas, most notably in the title role of the first English version of Carmen, and produced Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury herself at London’s famous Haymarket Theatre.

In 1879, Dolaro arrived in New York and made her American debut as Carmen at the Academy of Music. Reviews were mixed. “She’s impersonating a Spanish gypsy, yet she looks neither Spanish nor Gypsy,” remarked one critic in New York World in 1880. The same year, a reviewer in New York Spirit of the Times praised her as a “plump and pleasing prima donna” who was “much more at home” performing burlesque and comic opera.

Dolaro’s sharp and witty presence followed her offstage. In 1883, the New York Herald printed a quintessentially Victorian opinion piece from a Reverend Philip Germond, in which he denounced “play-acting as a godless life.” Dolaro, irritated by his narrow-minded characterization, responded, “Had I not been ‘launched’ on this ‘godless life,’ I should probably have been a burden to some parish or perhaps launched on what I regard as indeed a godless life.” She concluded her letter inquiring, “Is it not enough that we must slave as we do to earn the means to educate and train our children so as to enable them to become useful members of society without being assailed even from the pulpit with such outrageous slander?” Fueled by her tenacity, evidenced in her charged defense of the acting profession, Dolaro’s determination was as integral to her success as her talent.

In 1873, while still in England, Selina Dolaro divorced her husband on the grounds of adultery and desertion, and she alone raised her two sons and two daughters on the income from her professional engagements. In addition to acting and singing, she wrote two plays, Justine and Fashion, neither of which was a success, a novel, Belle Demonia, and a book of poetry, Mes Amours, based on love letters she had received. Dolaro did not appear to be involved in late nineteenth-century New York’s flourishing world of Yiddish theater or other Jewish cultural spheres. After a bout with tuberculosis, which lasted several years, Dolaro died at her home in New York on January 3, 1889.

This indefatigable woman, much admired by the public, seemed to reach near icon status with her London and New York audiences. One American newspaper’s notice of her death read, “Evidently of Hebrew descent, she had a youthful beauty, the cleverness, and versatility of her race. … Both here and in London she was recognized as a veritable Queen of Bohemia.”

Bibliography

JE; Music and Drama, March 17, 1883; and New York Spirit of the Times, February 28, 1880, and July 17, 1880, and January 26, 1889; Robinson Locke Scrapbook Collection, vol. 368. New York Public Library, Lincoln Center; UJE.

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5 Comments

The online book ''Belasco from Boxing to Theatre and Film'' contains the only full length biographies of David James Belasco , Selina Dolaro , and Jay Belasco, and Aby Belasco the boxer. The first edition of the book is listed as a source for Boston University's project about David Belasco. All the details are given there. Selina did not bring up her children alone. They lived with her ex husband Isaac and his second wife in a more stable environment than Selina could provide.

Does anyone know where Selina Dolaro was buried? Was she cremated?

Further research suggests that she was buried in Brooklyn NY at the Cypress Hill Cemetery on Jan. 26, 1889. In attendance were 3 of her children: Esther, Benjamin & Geneviere; also her close friend Edward Heron-Allen. To date, it appears that she was buried in an unmarked grave; possibly in this cemetery's "Jewish Section". An London newspaper stated that she was buried in an "unmarked grave". Whether or not the 1889 Jewish section of the Cypress Hill Cemetery still exists today or has had a name change is unknown. Of interest, The current cemetery administration claims that Selina Dolaro(aka Selina Simmons, or Selina Belasco, or Selina D'Olivares) was never interred at Cypress Hills Cemetery despite two independent reports of the burial, one by Edward Heron-Allen who was in attendance! Another newspaper report merely stated that she was buried in the "Jewish Cemetery", not otherwise specified. To add to the mystery, there is no record of New York City issuing a death certificate on Selina Dolaro despite having her personal physician in attendance at her death.

There is a $250 reward to the person who first solves the mystery. Date is 3/14/2012

The $250.00 award has been won by a USA researcher who published the burial site findings with photo in the Autumn 2012 No. 21 The Heron-Allen Society Newsletter.

"Mystery Resolved - Selina Dolaro's Final Resting Place".

4th Shearith Israel Cemetery/Beth Olom Cemetery on the border between Queens and Brooklyn, on Cypress Hills Street.

Regular Row Plot No. 18, Grave No. 38.

Congrats JN.

This name reminds me of research done or being done by various distant relatives (especially in the USA and Canada) into the very complicated Belasco family tree. My grandmother was registered at birth (in the UK in the 1870s) as Rachel Simmons Belasco. Somewhere in the researches a Selina Simmons appears.

How to cite this page

Siegel, Michele. "Selina Dolaro." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 27, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/dolaro-selina>.

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