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performer Marguerite Curtis

by Allison Brewer | June 28, 2000

It wasn’t unusual for Marguerite Curtis to feel just a little nervous before a performance. But it was more than a case of butterflies this time. Beads of sweat formed on her brow as she clutched her abdomen, lost for a moment in a spasm of pain. This was no small town crowd, and it was no ordinary concert hall. The gifted woman from Blackville, New Brunswick, was about to make her debut on the stage of Carnegie Hall, and she was in the midst of an attack of appendicitis.

Marguerite was born on Valentine’s Day 1866 at the small settlement of Gray Rapids on the Miramichi River, New Brunswick. The eldest daughter in a family of ten children, she often stayed home from school to do chores around the farm. Nevertheless, she learned to love to read aloud. Her recitations at the Curtis home became a public affair and made her a bit of a local celebrity.

Before long, Marguerite felt her recitations were more suited to the stage, so, with the help of her brother William, she built a reading platform in the back yard, where she entertained gatherings of family and friends during the long summer evenings.

She became highly accomplished during those early years. Her clever wit and dazzling performances made her a popular attraction in dance halls up and down the Miramichi and at the Old Arctic Rink in Fredericton. She was able to imitate popular singers of the day, as well as mimic a variety of songbirds.

In 1890, she married a Fredericton man named Chip Chase. Not long after, they sailed from St. John to Boston and settled in nearby Chelsea. She took a job with the Dennison Paper Company, designing and arranging paper flowers. That was during the day. Her evenings were spent at a private reading school studying under its owner, Madame Berucho. It was there that she learned what was to become her claim to fame – dialect reading. Under Madame Berucho’s tutelage, she learned to copy dialects and to direct her gestures and postures. Madame Berucho was greatly impressed with the brilliant young woman from New Brunswick, and took great interest in her talents.

It is difficult to keep such a gift hidden. Soon Marguerite was getting invitations to perform at social gatherings all over Boston and New York. By the turn of the century, she had performed in some of the finest concert halls and opera houses in the United States.

However, her marriage to Chase was unable to withstand her success and it ended in divorce.

In 1908, she married a successful businessman named Philip J. Blank. He had fallen in love with her during her performances at Faneuil Hall in Boston. He was so smitten that he engaged an artist to paint her portrait during one of her performances.

Marguerite and Philip moved to his home in Winchester, near Boston, a palatial estate shaded by giant oak trees, where she enjoyed the kind of luxury that accompanies great wealth. They lived there until his death in 1924.

Marguerite, still known by her surname Curtis, performed for a time after her second marriage, although she was beginning to be plagued by ill health.

She was lucky to have survived the appendicitis that struck the evening of her Carnegie Hall appearance. Despite the pain, Marguerite delivered a brilliant performance, collapsing backstage afterwards. All through her ill health, she never disappointed an audience by cancelling an appearance.

Her genius turned to eccentricity after Philip’s death. She began to turn down invitations to perform, and eventually stopped making public appearances altogether. She preferred to live alone with house cats for companionship. As many as 20 cats at a time shared the comforts of her home, and her special favourites sported gold-capped teeth. Her love of animals was so great that she left the local humane society the bulk of her fortune after her death.

While she received many visitors, she seldom ventured outside during those later years.

She was 89 when a caretaker found her lying unconscious on a floor in her home. On July 4, 1953, Marguerite Curtis began her last journey home to be laid to rest on the land where she was born.

A long mournful whistle signalled the arrival of the funeral train in Blackville that hot July evening. It moved slowly along a ridge near town, a dim purple light glowing through its curtained windows. Family and friends gathered for the last time to welcome home one of the most celebrated daughters of the Miramichi.

resources for this story
  • Continuity and Change in Women’s Work, by ALISON PRENTICE, chapter 5 of the book Canadian Women: A History, second edition, Harcourt Brace Canada, ISBN: 0774732938. Includes background information on how women lived during Marguerite Curtis’s lifetime. | 1996
  • Canadian Women Making Music, by K. LINDA KIVI, Green Dragon Press, ISBN: 0969195583 | 1992

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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