Vesta Victoria (1873–1951) was an English music-hall singer and comedian, renowed for her performances of songs such as “Waiting at the Church” and “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow Wow”, both of which were written for her. Vesta’s comic laments, delivered in deadpan style, were even more popular in the USA than in England; she was, at the beginning of the 20th century, one of the most successful British entertainers in America.
According to the theatrical historian Carol Morley, Vesta’s particular talent was to poke fun at the disappointments endured by Victorian women, such as the pressure to get married, as exemplified by her song “Some would marry anything with trousers on”, while retaining “an essential self-confidence”.
Vesta amassed a great fortune during her career – at one time she was reportedly the highest-paid Vaudeville performer in America – but by the time of her death in 1951 it had been lost, partly owing to the robbery of her jewellery collection.
Vesta was born Victoria Lawrence at 8 Ebenezer Place in Leeds, Yorkshire on 26 November 1873; her parents, Joe and Emma (née Thompson), were themselves entertainers,[a]Vesta’s father was a “blackface” performer who specialised in singing while standing on his head. and she made her stage debut aged six weeks in one of her father’s sketches. Billed as “Baby Victoria” until she was almost ten, she was “Little Victoria” by the time of her first London appearance in 1883. Her father along with her agent, George Ware, decided on the stage name of Vesta, as “Swan Vesta safety matches were all the rage, guaranteeing a ‘shining light at all times’ ”.
Although Yorkshire-born, Vesta assumed a Cockney stage persona. Her singing career took off in 1892, when “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow Wow” became a huge hit. She first sang it at the South London Palace, a music hall in Lambeth, and subsequently to great acclaim on her first trip to the United States in 1892, where she appeared for eight weeks at Tony Pastor’s theatre in New York City. By 1906 Vesta’s fame in America was such that one of San Francisco’s main roads was renamed Vesta Victoria Avenue in her honour; she performed numerous benefit concerts for the relief of victims of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
By 1907 the trade newspapers were reporting that Vesta was the highest-paid performer in American Vaudeville, and by the 1920s she is estimated to have been worth about £3.25 million, the equivalent in 2018 of about £180 million.[b]Calculated using the percentage increase in the retail price index from 1925 to 2018. She retired in 1918, but made a successful comeback in 1929 with Fred Collins’s road show Vaudeville Past and Present, and in 1931–1932 she toured with other music-hall veterans including Wilkie Bard and Harry Champion in Lew Lake’s Stars that Never Failed to Shine. In 1931 she also re-recorded many of her hits in a series of Old-Time Medleys. Although she appeared in a number of films in the 1930s, Vesta remained principally a live performer in England, unlike her younger music hall contemporaries Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel; almost nothing remains of her film work. She last performed in the royal variety show of 1932, at the London Palladium.
From 1894 until 1904 Vesta was married to the music-hall manager Frederick Wallace McAvoy, with whom she had a daughter, Irene. Their marriage ended in divorce, owing to McAvoy’s cruelty, abuse and adultery. Vesta’s second marriage, to the dramatist William Edward Herbert Terry, took place at Niagara Falls, New York on 30 May 1912; the couple had a daughter, Iris, the following year. The marriage ended in 1926, when Vesta filed for divorce on the grounds of “Ill-usage and association with other women”.
Vesta died of breast cancer in Hampstead, north London on 7 April 1951, and was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium. She died intestate, and at probate her estate was valued at £15,631.17s. 5d. The fortune she had amassed during her career is thought to have been lost owing to the scheming of handsome young men, and partly as a result of the newsworthy robbery of her famous jewellery collection.
One of Vesta’s biographers, Frances Gray, has commented that by her late teens Vesta had “developed an inventive, not-so-dumb-blonde stage persona, a prototype to be further explored by comedians such as Gracie Allen and Marilyn Monroe”. Carol Morley has in addition argued that Vesta’s characterisations of downtrodden women laughing off problems influenced the development of the then emerging musical form of the blues.
The actor Helen Fraser toured her one-woman show Vesta in the 1990s, based on Vesta Victoria’s life and work, giving more than ninety performances in the UK and across America.