by Maureen Wlodarczyk
Being an unrepentant history addict, I enjoy discovering and reading about people who lived decades ago as I find their lives and times more intriguing and resonant than the exploits of the likes of the Kardashians or Lindsay Lohan. In that spirit, let me tell you the story of two Jersey City actresses who began their stage careers in the 1890s: Selene Johnson and Carrie Ewald. Each was the daughter of a successful local family and each would make a notable marriage, one of those tinged with suspicions about the groom’s character.
Selene Johnson was born in 1870 in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. (Most accounts give her birth year as 1876 but, using my genealogy research skills, I found her as a 6-month-old in the 1870 US census.) By 1880, the Johnson family was living on Sixth Street in Jersey City and Selene’s father Charles gave his occupation as a railroad “float master” (a person that supervises the movement of freight by barge between a ship and railroad). The Johnson household of six included Selene’s two older siblings and an 18-year-old servant named Annie Hankinson.
After graduating from No.2 school and beginning high school in Jersey City, Selene left public school to study music and pursue her theatrical interests. In 1893, she became a student at the Berkeley Lyceum School of Acting in New York, graduated in 1894 and soon joined the Frohman theatrical company performing in Hawaii, New Orleans, Seattle, Portland, British Columbia and even the Sandwich Islands. Her stage career blossomed over the ensuing years and, as the 19th century ended, she became the leading lady performing the role of Mercedes opposite the renowned Irish-born actor James O’Neill in his signature role as the Count of Monte Cristo. O’Neill, the father of Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill, was synonymous with the legendary hero created by French writer Alexander Dumas, performing the role of the Count more than 5,000 times over two decades to the delight of audiences. O’Neill paid Selene the great compliment of saying she was one of the two most gifted leading ladies he had worked with in his “Count of Monte Cristo” productions. She also appeared with James O’Neill in 1904 in a stage production of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventures of Gerard.”
In 1912, Selene married Irish actor F. Lumsden Hare who would be her leading man on and off the stage for many years. Hare, born in Ballingarry, County Tipperary, was the nephew of the Lord Chancellor of Ireland and a stage actor appearing in London and America. Selene and Lumsden appeared together in various productions and he became a well-known director and actor, appearing in over 140 films. The Hares lived a long life, residing first in New York and then in Los Angeles where each died in the 1960s.
Carrie Ewald was born in Jersey City in 1874 and lived with her family on York Street. Her father, William Ewald, was the prosperous co-owner of Ewald Brothers, a stationery store located on Newark Avenue. Carrie studied elocution at the Hasbrouck Institute in Jersey City and, like her parents, was an accomplished musician. She pursued theatrical training at the Empire Theatre Dramatic School in New York under the direction of noted English actor Nelson Wheatcroft. Like Selene Johnson, after her studies, she joined a Frohman acting company and toured nationally as part of their “Masqueraders” production.
In January 1897, newspapers reported that Carrie Ewald was to marry Count Julian Rado of Budapest, Hungary. The couple was said to have met at a masquerade ball in New York some months earlier when the Count had been captivated by Miss Ewald who was costumed as a water nymph. Along with the news of the engagement, the press identified Rado as a man who had been the subject of notoriety in his homeland and had fled to New York where he had been accused of being a swindler and fortune hunter courting the daughter of a wealthy local man. The following day, Ewald denied the two were engaged or had met at a ball as reported but confirmed that a Mr. Rado was calling on her. For his part, Rado insisted that he was an aspiring law student, never presented himself as nobility and threatened to “prosecute” the source of the story.
Six months after that sensation, Carrie Ewald and Julian Rado did marry in New York City, newspapers reporting that her parents were “satisfied with their daughter’s choice of a husband.” Carrie apparently left her theatrical life behind when she married. That marriage ended in June 1909 when she passed away at the age of thirty-four. Her obituary described her as the “beloved wife of Julian C. W. Rado.” She was laid to rest at New York Bay Cemetery.
Selene Johnson and Carrie Ewald, supported by the resources and encouragement of their families, pursued their dreams of a stage career, first performing for enthusiastic Hudson County locals and then entertaining thousands on stages across the country. Judging by the many laudatory reviews of their performances that appeared in newspapers from coast-to-coast, each did herself proud.
Article originally published in River View Observer
Maureen Wlodarczyk is a fourth-generation-born Jersey City girl and the author of three books about life in Jersey City in the 1800s and early 1900s: Past-Forward: A Three-Decade and Three-Thousand-Mile Journey Home, Young & Wicked: The Death of a Wayward Girl and Canary in a Cage: The Smith-Bennett Murder Case. For info: www.past-forward.com.