Louisa Lane (1820-1897)

Louisa Lane
Louisa Lane
New York Public Library, TH-09620

Louisa Lane Drew was a forceful and independent girl who managed to be both a child star and a managerial success all of her life.  Known for her skill as a character actor and comedian, Louisa Lane was a stage star in both America and England.  From an early age she was celebrated in the world of theater, considered a prodigy, and ultimately became the matriarch of one of the greatest acting families of all time. Her legacy lives on in her descendents who are famous actors in their own right, including the modern Drew Barrymore.

Louisa Lane was born in London on January 10, 1820 to Thomas Frederick Lane and Eliza Trenter.  Both were involved in theater:  Thomas was an actor and stage manager, while Eliza both acted and sang.  Her father died during her infancy, and Louisa’s first experience on the stage occurred when she was only nine months old:  her mother carried Louisa onto the stage in a play called Giovanni in London

Like many children of her era, she had little formal education.  Instead, Louisa grew up in the world of theater and later said, “I learned my lessons from experience and the open book of life.”  In June of 1827, Louisa and her mother moved from London to New York City. At the age of seven, she made her American stage debut at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia as the young Duke of York in Shakespeare’s Richard III.

She also performed in several theaters in New York. Louisa traveled throughout the United States with her mother, playing roles such as “Little Pickle” in The Spoiled Child and Dr. Pangloss in the Actress of All Work.  Young Louisa was a very talented mimic and quick to memorize lines, which made her ideally suited for comedy and able to play many roles. She was soon recognized as a prodigy and became well known in the theater world.

In 1833, when she was just 13, she toured the United States with the Bowery Theatre Stock Company. She also appeared in plays with Junius Brutus Booth and his son, John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1865.  Although she had no awareness of his politics, John Wilkes Booth influenced her dramatic skills; she had known him since 1827, when they worked together in Richard III.

In 1836, at the age of 16, she married Henry B. Hunt, an Irish tenor who was 40 years old. Shortly after this marriage, she became a leading lady, starring in plays with Edwin Forrest, a well-known American actor. She later divorced Hunt, and in 1848, married George Mossop, an Irish singer and comedian who died the following year.

Her fame increased during this pre-Civil War era, when she gave magnificent performances as Lady Teazle in The School for Scandal and Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals, both written by Brinsley Sheridan.  “Malapropos” became part of the language, meaning a pretentious and humorous misuse of words.  After two years of widowhood, she married for the last time in 1850 and was known thereafter as “Mrs. John Drew.”  

Like her previous husbands, John Drew was Irish; unlike her first marriage to a much older man, Drew was younger than she.  Although she was 30 when they wed, they had three children together and adopted a fourth child.  A continually working mother, she also began to choose more comedic roles, for which critics considered her best suited, and which helped her husband become America’s leading Irish comedic actor.

In 1853, John was appointed the manager at Arch Street Theater in Philadelphia.  He was not particularly suited for management, and left Philadelphia several times during his tenure to perform as far away as Australia.  Unhappy stockholders made Louisa the manager in 1861, renaming it “Mrs. John Drew’s Arch Street Theater.”  John returned to Philadelphia in 1862 and drew big audiences, but died suddenly in May of that year.  He was just 34.

With a family to support alone, Louisa Lane Drew intensified her managerial work while also continuing to act.  Her efficient production methods were very successful, and under her direction the theater became one of America’s most successful stock companies.  She held this entrepreneurial position for the next three decades, not resigning until 1892.

Even after retirement, she continued to tour for the next nine seasons, usually as Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals. She then toured briefly under the management of her adopted son Sidney, but was unhappy with the performances.  After forty years based in Philadelphia, she moved to Larchmont, New York, the home of her only other surviving child, John.  She might well have taken to the stage again, but death overtook her on August 31, 1897, and Louisa Lane Drew died at age 77.  Her unfinished book on her life, Autobiographical Sketch,was published in 1899.

John also was an actor, but the most famous of her children was Georgiana Drew, who married Anglo-American actor Maurice Barrymore.  They were the parents of Lionel Barrymore, Ethel Barrymore, and John Barrymore, making Louisa Lane the great-great grandmother of today’s famed Drew Barrymore.  Louisa Lane Drew was the matriarch perhaps of the most influential and famous acting family in the world.


Taken from Young and Brave: Girls Changing History

Works Cited:

  • Drew, Louisa Lane. Autobiographical Sketch of Mrs. John Drew. (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1899).
  • Kleinfield, H.L. Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary. Ed. Edward T. James, Vol 1, p. 521-522.
  • Hoffman, Carol Stein. The Barrymores: Hollywood’s First Family. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001).