May Robson

Mary Jeanette Robison (19 April 1858 – 20 October 1942), known professionally as May Robson, was an Australian-born American-based actress, whose career spanned 58 years, starting in 1883 when she was 25 years of age. A major stage actress of the late 19th and early 20th century, Robson is best known today for the dozens of 1930s motion pictures she appeared in when she was well into her 70s, usually playing cross old women with hearts of gold.

May Robson
Mary Jeanette Robson

(1858-04-19)April 19, 1858
DiedOctober 20, 1942(1942-10-20) (aged 84)
Resting placeFlushing, New York
Years active1883–1942
Spouse(s)Charles L. Gore (1875–c. 1883)
Augustus H. Brown (1889–1920; his death)
ChildrenEdward Hyde Leveson Gore (1876–1954) 2 others who died during their childhood

Robson was the earliest-born person to enjoy a major Hollywood career and receive an Academy Award nomination, which she got for her leading role in Lady for a Day in 1933.[1] She was also the first Australian to be nominated for an Oscar.[2]

Early life

Mary Jeanette Robison was born on 19 April 1858 in Moama, New South Wales, Australia,[3][lower-alpha 1] in what Robson described as "the Australian bush".[9] She was the fourth child of Henry and Julia Robison;[4][10] her siblings were Williams, James, and Adelaide.[3]

Henry Robison (1810–1860) was born in Penrith, Cumberland, England[11] and lived in Liverpool.[12] He served 24 years in the foreign trade of the British Merchant Navy as a mate and a sea captain.[9][11] Robison retired at half-pay due to his poor health[9] and traveled with Julia Robison to Melbourne, Victoria, Australia in 1853 on the SS Great Britain.[13] By April 1855, Henry was a watchmaker, jeweller, silversmith and ornamental hairworker in Melbourne.[12] According to Robson, her parents both suffered from phthisis pulmonalis, and moved to "the bush" for their heath.[9] Henry bought a large brick mansion in Moama, New South Wales in August 1857 and opened the Prince of Wales Hotel. From there, he co-operated Robison and Stivens, coach proprietors for the Bendigo - Moama - Deniliquin service.[7] The hotel was Robson's first home.[3] Henry Robison died in Moama Maiden's Punt on 27 January 1860.[8][lower-alpha 2]

On 19 November 1862, Julia married Walter Moore Miller, solicitor and mayor of Albury, New South Wales at St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne.[14] Julia, Walter, and the four children moved to Melbourne in 1866.[3] Miller was a partner with De Courcy Ireland in the firm of Miller and Ireland in Melbourne in November 1867, and until 20 January 1870, when it was mutually dissolved.[15]

In 1870, the family moved to London.[3][lower-alpha 3] Robson attended Sacred Heart Convent School at Highgate, north London[10][9] and studied languages in Brussels. She went to Paris for her examinations in French.[9] According to her obituary, Robson was also educated in Australia.[4]

Marriages and children

Robson ran away from home to marry her first husband, 18 year-old Charles Leveson Gore, in London.[9][10] They were married on 1 November 1875 at the parish church in Camden Town, London.[16][lower-alpha 4] The couple traveled on the steamer SS Vaderland and arrived in New York on 17 May 1877. The Gores purchased 380 acres of land in Fort Worth, Texas where they built a house and established a cattle ranch. According to Jan Jones, "the Gores survived two years in their prairie manor house before homesickness, rural isolation, and repeated bouts of fever convinced them to sell and try their fortunes in the more settled east."[17] They moved to New York City[10] with little money and Robson says that shortly after, Gore died.[10][lower-alpha 5]

Robson produced crocheted hoods and embroidery, designed dinner cards, and taught painting to support her three children.[10][9] By the time she began her acting career in 1883, two of Robson's three children had died due to illness.[22][lower-alpha 6] The surviving child was Edward Hyde Leveson Gore.[25][lower-alpha 7]

Six years after beginning her stage career, Robson married Augustus Homer Brown, a police surgeon, on 29 May 1889. They remained together until his death on 1 April 1920.[18][29] Robson's son, Edward Gore, was her business manager.[4]


On 17 September 1883, she became an actress in Hoop of Gold at the Brooklyn Grand Opera House stage.[30][31] Her name was incorrectly spelled "Robson" in the billing, which she used from that point forward "for good luck".[30] Over the next several decades, she flourished on the stage as a comedian and character actress. Her success was partly due to her affiliation with powerful manager and producer Charles Frohman and the Theatrical Syndicate. She established her own touring theatrical company by 1911.[17]

She appeared as herself in a cameo in the 1915 silent film, How Molly Made Good.[32] Robson starred in the 1916 silent film A Night Out, an adaptation of the play she co-wrote, The Three Lights.[33]

In 1927, Robson went to Hollywood where she had a successful film career as a senior aged woman.[34] Among her starring roles was in The She-Wolf (1931) as a miserly millionaire businesswoman based on the real-life miser Hetty Green.[35][36]

She also starred in the final segment of the anthology film If I Had a Million (1932) as a rest home resident who gets a new lease on life when she is given a $1,000,000 check by a dying business tycoon.[37] She played the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland (1933), Countess Vronsky in Anna Karenina (1935), Aunt Elizabeth in Bringing Up Baby (1938), Aunt Polly in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938), and a sharp-tongued Granny in A Star Is Born (1937). Robson was top-billed as late as 1940, starring in Granny Get Your Gun at age 82. Her last film was 1942's Joan of Paris.[35][38][39]

Academy Award nomination

In 1933, Robson was nominated for an Academy Award at age 75 in the Best Actress category for Lady for a Day but lost to Katharine Hepburn;[40][41] both actresses appeared in the Hepburn-Grant classic film, Bringing Up Baby.[42]

Robson was the first Australian-born person to be nominated for an acting Oscar, and, for many years, she held the record as the oldest performer nominated for an Oscar.[40][41]


May Robson died in 1942 at her Beverly Hills, California home at age 84.[28] In its obituary of Robson, the Nevada State Journal stated that Robson died of "a combination of ailments, aggravated by neuritis and advanced age."[43][lower-alpha 8] Her remains were cremated[44] and buried at the Flushing Cemetery in Queens, New York, next to her second husband, Augustus Brown.[18][23]

The New York Times obituary for Robson called her the "dowager queen of the American screen and stage".[1]



The following is a partial list of her stage performances:[18][45]

  • Called Back (1884)
  • An Appeal to the Muse (1885)
  • Robert Elsmere (1889)
  • The Charity Ball (1890)
  • Nerves, adapted from Les Femmes Nerveuses (1891)
  • Gloriana (1892)
  • Lady Bountiful (1892)
  • Americans Abroad (1893)
  • The Family Circle (1893)
  • The Poet and the Puppets (1893)
  • Squirrel Inn (1893)
  • No. 3A (1894)
  • As You Like It (1894)
  • Liberty Hall (1894)
  • The Fatal Card (1895)
  • The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)
  • A Woman's Reason (1895)
  • The First Born (1897)
  • His Excellency, The Governor (1900)
  • Are You a Mason? (1901)
  • Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1904)
  • Cousin Billy (1905–1907)
  • The Rejuvenation of Aunt Mary (1907)
  • The Three Lights (A Night Out) (1911)




See also


  1. The obituary for Robson in the Berkshire Evening Eagle and Billboard Magazine,[4][5] as well as the summary of her life at the Library of Congress, stated that she was born in Melbourne,[6] but the family was living in Moama, New South Wales at the time of her birth.[7][8]
  2. Nissen states that Robson was seven when her father died,[10] but her father died in 1860[8] and she was born in 1858.[10] Robson says in her biography for Theatre Magazine that she was three months old when her father died.[9]
  3. Nissen says that the family moved to London when Robson was seven.[10]
  4. Although Robson said that she was 16 when she married,[9][10] she was 17 years-of-age, based upon her date of birth, when she married Charles Gore.[16] Her husband's name has been said to be Charles Leveson Gore,[17] Charles Livingston Gore,[10] Edward H. Gore,[18][19] and E. H. Gore.[5][20]
  5. According to Jan Jones, when Gore wanted to return to England, Robson decided that she wanted to stay in New York and the couple divorced. Gore returned to London.[9][21] He died in the early 1880s.[10]
  6. Robson says that the children both died of scarlet fever.[9] Axel Nissen states the causes of death as diphtheria and scarlet fever.[23] Who's Who on the stage states that the children's death came about as the result of poverty (i.e., not a specific cause of death, but an influencing factor).[24]
  7. Her son, whose full name was Edward Hyde Leveson Gore, was born on December 2, 1876[26] and died September 23, 1954[27] Her son Edward and daughter-in-law were alive at the time of his mother's death.[28] They had a son, Robson Gore.[5]
  8. She was critically ill for three weeks before her death and in ill health for months before.[5] A biographical sketch of Robson in the Notable American Women, 1607–1950 stated that she died of cancer.[28]


  1. Nissen, Axel (2007). Actresses of a Certain Character: Forty Familiar Hollywood Faces from the Thirties to the Fifties. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. p. 184. ISBN 978-0-7864-2746-8.
  2. Phillipa Hawker (February 21, 2009). "O stands for Oscar and also for Oz". The Age. Retrieved November 13, 2016.
  3. Marea Donnelly, History Writer (January 15, 2016). "A Town like Moama". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved November 12, 2016.
  4. "May Robson, Stage, Screen Star, Is Dead: Character Actress Began Long Career in 1883". Berkshire Evening Eagle. Pittsfield, Berkshire, Massachusetts: 1. October 20, 1942.
  5. "May Robson". Billboard. Nielsen Business Media, Inc. October 31, 1942. p. 27. ISSN 0006-2510.
  6. "May Robson Papers: A Finding Aid to the Collection in the Library of Congress" (PDF). Library of Congress. Retrieved November 11, 2016.
  7. "Advertising". Bendigo Advertiser. VI, (1145). Victoria, Australia. January 25, 1859. p. 1. Retrieved October 28, 2016 via National Library of Australia.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  8. "Family Notices - Henry Robison". Bendigo Advertiser. VII, (1463). Victoria, Australia. February 1, 1860. p. 2. Retrieved October 28, 2016 via National Library of Australia. On the 27th ult., in his 49th year, at his residence, Prince of Wales Hotel, Maiden's Punt, Murray River, New South Wales, Henry Robison (of the firm of Robison and Stivens), late of Bourke-street, Melbourne, deeply regretted by a large circle of friends, leaving a wife and four children to lament their loss."CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  9. Robson, May (November 1907). "My Beginnings". The Theatre. 7 (81): 305–310. Retrieved June 1, 2015.
  10. Nissen, Axel (2007). Actresses of a Certain Character: Forty Familiar Hollywood Faces from the Thirties to the Fifties. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. p. 185. ISBN 978-0-7864-2746-8.
  11. Henry Robison, Master's Certificate of Service, Number 52.653, Liverpool, Registrar General of Seamen, London, February 21, 1853
  12. "Advertising". The Age. I, (163). Victoria, Australia. April 27, 1855. p. 2. Retrieved October 28, 2016 via National Library of Australia.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  13. "Advertising". The Sydney Morning Herald. XXXIV, (5128). New South Wales, Australia. October 27, 1853. p. 5. Retrieved October 28, 2016 via National Library of Australia.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  14. "Family Notices". The Argus (Melbourne) (5, 139). Victoria, Australia. November 24, 1862. p. 4. Retrieved October 28, 2016 via National Library of Australia.
  15. "Advertising". The Argus (Melbourne) (7, 377). Victoria, Australia. January 31, 1870. p. 7. Retrieved October 28, 2016 via National Library of Australia.
  16. "Marriages". The Times (28465). London, England. November 5, 1875. p. 1.
  17. Jones, Jan. Renegades, Showmen & Angels: A Theatrical History of Fort Worth, 1873-2001. Texas A & M University Press. pp. 37–38. ISBN 0-87565-318-9.
  18. Edward T. James; Janet Wilson James; Paul S. Boyer (1971). Notable American Women, 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary, vol 2. Radcliffe College. p. 185. ISBN 0-674-62734-2.
  19. Alison McKay; Bayside Historical Society (August 4, 2008). Bayside. Arcadia Publishing. p. 132. ISBN 978-1-4396-2027-4.
  20. "May Robson, 78, film and stage actress is dead". Chicago Tribune. October 21, 1942. Retrieved November 12, 2016.
  21. Jan Jones (2006). Renegades, Showmen & Angels: A Theatrical History of Fort Worth from 1873-2001. TCU Press. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-87565-318-1.
  22. "Two Brilliant Women, They are Both Bright Ornaments of the Stage: Viola Allen and May Robson". The Olean Democrat. Olean, New York: 6. November 29, 1892.
  23. Axel Nissen (2007). Actresses of a Certain Character: Forty Familiar Hollywood Faces from the Thirties to the Fifties. McFarland. p. 189. ISBN 978-0-7864-2746-8.
  24. Walter Browne; Fredrick Arnold Austin (1906). Who's who on the stage; the dramatic reference book and biographic al dictionary of the theatre. W. Browne & F. A. Austin. p. 191.
  25. Alison McKay (July 30, 2008). Bayside. Arcadia Publishing. p. 96. ISBN 978-1-4396-2027-4.
  26. "England and Wales, Birth Registration Index, 1837–1920". FamilySearch. Retrieved July 4, 2014.
  27. "California, Death Index, 1940–1997". FamilySearch. Retrieved July 4, 2014.
  28. Edward T. James; Janet Wilson James; Paul S. Boyer (January 1, 1971). Notable American Women, 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Harvard University Press. p. 185. ISBN 978-0-674-62734-5.
  29. New York State Medical Association, Medical Society of the State of New York (1920). New York State journal of medicine, Volume 20. p. 170.
  30. Nissen, Axel (2007). Actresses of a Certain Character: Forty Familiar Hollywood Faces from the Thirties to the Fifties. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. pp. 184–185. ISBN 978-0-7864-2746-8.
  31. George Clinton Densmore Odell (1940). Annals of the New York Stage. Columbia University Press. p. 364.
  32. Grey Smith and James L. Halperin (Editor). Heritage Vintage Movie Posters Signature Auction #603. Heritage Capital Corporation. p. 3. ISBN 978-1-932899-15-3.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  33. "Screenplay Info for A Night Out (1916)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved June 1, 2008.
  34. Nissen, Axel (2007). Actresses of a Certain Character: Forty Familiar Hollywood Faces from the Thirties to the Fifties. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-7864-2746-8.
  35. Palmer, Scott (1988). A Who's Who of Australian and New Zealand Film Actors: The Sound Era. p. 142. ISBN 0-8108-2090-0.
  36. Hall, Mordaunt (May 28, 1931). "The She-Wolf (1931)". The New York Times. Retrieved August 3, 2012.
  37. Hall, Mordaunt (December 3, 1932). "If I Had a Million (1932)". The New York Times. Retrieved August 3, 2012.
  38. John C. Tibbetts, James M. Welsh, ed. (2010). American Classic Screen Features. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press. p. 253. ISBN 978-0-81087678-1.
  39. Nissen, Axel (2007). Actresses of a Certain Character: Forty Familiar Hollywood Faces from the Thirties to the Fifties. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. pp. 3, 187–8. ISBN 978-0-7864-2746-8.
  40. Nissen, Axel (2007). Actresses of a Certain Character: Forty Familiar Hollywood Faces from the Thirties to the Fifties. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. pp. 3, 187. ISBN 978-0-7864-2746-8.
  41. Edwards, Anne (2000) [1985]. Katharine Hepburn: A Remarkable Woman. New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 456. ISBN 0-312-20656-9.
  42. Leonard Maltin (August 4, 2009). Leonard Maltin's 2010 Movie Guide. Penguin Group US. p. 425. ISBN 978-1-101-10876-5.
  43. "Hollywood's Oldest Film Queen Dies; May Robson's Age is Revealed as 78". Nevada State Journal. Reno, Nevada. October 21, 1942.
  44. "Robson Burial Services Set". Reno Evening Gazette. Reno, Nevada: 5. October 22, 1942.
  45. Brown, Thomas Allston (1903). A History of the New York Stage from the First Performance in 1732 to 1901, Volume 3. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company. pp. 42, 63, 180, 217, 263, 265, 267, 349, 352, 366, 425–6, 427, 429, 431, 439, 523, 533, 536, 538.

Further reading

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