“Peggy O’Neil is a girl who could steal any heart, anywhere, any time”, so the refrain went. These lyrics, taken from a vaudeville hit song, were written about Peggy O’Neil, an Irish-American actress who was stealing hearts in the first half of the 20th century thanks to her photogenic appearance and charismatic personality.
O’Neil’s story is made up of the stuff of legend, one of incredible highs and tragic lows. At the peak of her career, she treaded the boards of theatres in Dublin, London and Paris, as well as on Broadway.
She appeared in Hollywood movies and was the first professional artist to appear on British television.
But after some ill-considered financial decisions, a catastrophic stock market crash and illness, she spent her later years in relative obscurity.
To begin, where she was born was always a bit of a mystery. She used to insist that she came from the village of Gneeveguilla in the Sliabh Luachra region of east Co Kerry. However, she was actually born in Buffalo, New York, to parents who hailed from Kerry.
Her first stage performance was as a child dancer in the musical comedy The Sweetest Girl in Paris in Chicago in 1910. Three years later, she landed the leading role in the romantic comedy Peg O’ My Heart, beating 400 other young hopefuls in the process. She referred to it as her “first taste of real fame”.
Her first big break on this side of the Atlantic came in 1920 when she starred in Paddy the Next Best Thing, a play based on a novel set in the area around Carlingford Lough. It told the story of a tomboy who marries the son of a wealthy landowner. It ran at London’s Savoy Theatre for over 800 performances.
Peggy made several appearances in Dublin including at the Theatre Royal in 1922, where she starred as a servant girl in Kippers and Kings. In 1925, she appeared in The Sea Urchin at the Gaiety Theatre. During her time in Ireland, she visited Co Meath, where Paddy the Next Best Thing was set.
She also travelled to Gneeveguilla where she met with relatives of her late mother and gave the local teacher £10 to provide “comforts for the school children”.
Along with news of her acting successes, stories of her romances, financial misadventures and a bizarre poisoning attempt, which almost cost her life, appeared in newspapers across the English-speaking world.
One night in early October 1920, an unknown messenger left a box of chocolates at her dressing room door in the Savoy Theatre. Peggy ate three pieces and gave her dog a piece. The Pomeranian died after consuming the chocolate that had been laced with some sort of poison.
Peggy recovered after taking several weeks off. The culprit was never caught.
Just before an appearance in London in 1924, the Freeman’s Journal announced that she was engaged to an English sculptor who lived in Paris. The marriage proposal was made in a most unique fashion.
She was said to have received a gold-painted statuette of Cupid with the proposal presented in the sprite’s sheath together with the arrows. A note marked “Yes” was dispatched by return but it is not clear what became of this romantic liaison as there were no further reports of it in the papers.
Peggy almost became a star of the small screen as well as the stage. She was one of the performers at an exhibition to showcase John Logie Baird’s new technology in London’s Olympia in September 1928. She provided a “charming entertainment, chatting and smiling, and telling Irish stories”. In April 1930, at the Ideal Home exhibition in Southampton, she made history by giving the first ever live television interview.
Sadly, a run of unfortunate setbacks in the 1930s, which prompted a series of legal cases, made her bankrupt. These complications included losing “several thousands of pounds” in theatrical ventures and losing around £3,000 in an American Building and Loan Association that went bust following the Wall Street Crash. Jewellery worth somewhere between £2,000 and £3,000 was also stolen from her London flat.
A court appearance in 1942 marked another sad turn in her fortunes. She was fined £20 plus £10 costs for stealing a box of biscuits and a carton of chocolate spread which cost 2/4 from Fortnum and Mason in Piccadilly.
In tears throughout the proceedings, she claimed that she had no intention of stealing the goods and that she meant to pay for them later. “One of the most famous actresses of this generation” was how her solicitor described her, while witnesses said that she was a “lady of the highest character” and the “very soul of honour”.
She died at age 61 in January 1960 having suffered from arthritis and having spent the last 12 years of her life in a wheelchair.