Thursday, 25 July 2019 12:42

History of Saratoga - Lillian Russell & Diamond Jim Brady

By Charlie Kuenzel | History
Illustration of Sir William Johnson’s visit to High Rock Spring. Image from Bolster Collection. Illustration of Sir William Johnson’s visit to High Rock Spring. Image from Bolster Collection.

The romance and glamour of Saratoga Springs in the summer season during the 1800’s is told in many stories. One of the most renowned stories of a man and woman in this time period is that of the relationship between millionaire Diamond Jim Brady and theater starlet, Lillian Russell. Many would call this a love story, but was it?

In a time period without motion pictures and television the heart throbs of the country were developed on the theater stage. Lillian Russell rose to prominence quickly as a beautiful young actress with the foremost singing voice of the day.

Lillian was born Louise Leonard in Clinton Iowa in 1860 and lived her early years in Chicago. At age 18 she moved to NYC with her mother after her parents divorced. She studied music and dance and at age 19 she was hired by producer Tony Pastor to perform in the comic opera H.M.S. Pinafore. She was an overnight success and soon began a tour of Europe and the United States, performing other operas with his troupe. 

James Brady was born in NYC on August 12, 1856 and began his work experience in hotels but soon went to work for the N.Y. Central Railroad. At the age of 21 Brady had risen to the position of Chief Assistant to the General Manager of the N.Y. Central. At age 23, Brady took his knowledge of railroads to work for the rail equipment company, Manning, Maxwell and Moore as a salesman. He had tremendous success in sales and became a millionaire with the nick name “Diamond Jim” because of his many pieces of jewelry composed of diamonds and other jewels. Jim earned millions as a salesman and made sure people saw his wealth. At the time of his death he had over 20,000 diamonds and 6,000 other precious jewels. His favorite ring contained a 25.5 carat diamond.

Jim was a regular theater goer and quickly became fascinated with the young Lillian Russell. Every opening night Lillian received from him a large bouquet of flowers usually with a piece of jewelry placed in the arrangement with a note from her biggest admirer. This friendly relationship went on for over 20 years both in and out of the theater. Lillian and Jim were seen often together at social events or in restaurants. As you might imagine the rumor mills went to work and the common gossip of the day was that the two must be in a torrid romantic relationship since they were seen together so much. The truth was that Jim was never married while Lillian had married four times and always remained friends with Brady. That continued friendship fueled the daily gossip on the front porches of the grand hotels that there must be a romantic connection.

Lillian and Jim both came to the city numerous summers and enjoyed the social life of the day. Lillian was seen daily walking Broadway or riding in her beautiful Victoria carriage drawn by a pair of matched black hoses with white doeskin harnesses. Once Richard Canfield opened his famed restaurant in the Casino, Lillian dined there nightly enjoying her favorites of sweet corn and crepes suzette always prepared table side by the famous chef Jean Columbin.

Lillian introduced Diamond Jim to the new craze of bicycle riding. Diamond Jim never did anything half way and ordered twelve bicycles to be delivered to him for use. One of the bicycles was modified to have silver plated spokes and a gold-plated frame with diamonds and emeralds mounted on the handle bar and frame area. This gift from Jim to Lillian cost $1,900 at that time. 

Lillian drew attention every summer at Saratoga, and as a regular at the racetrack she was always surrounded by admirers. As she aged, her position as the most beautiful performer in the country was being challenged by younger performers. Louise Montague was one of those young challengers. One summer Louise appeared at the racetrack and sat relatively close to Lillian each day. Both attracted attention and as they bet on the horses in each race, a friendly rivalry developed to see who would pick the most winners during the season. The onlookers kept track of the number of wins for each woman and daily discussions of which woman would ultimately win followed. Louise was once asked about Lillian’s skill at predicting winners and Louise was heard to say that “she thought that Lillian closed her eyes and stuck the program with a hat pin to pick the winner”. This statement caused the rivalry to heat up. When the last day of racing began both women were tied with number of wins. At the end of the last race, Lillian was pronounced the ultimate winner. Lillian threw a large party that night and invited Louise to attend along with many other socialites. When Louise arrived, she brought her host a gift in the traditional pale blue color of the Tiffany Company. When Lillian opened it, she found a beautiful three prong silver plated fish fork. When Lillian thanked Louise, Louise told her “Now you can use the fork to pick win, place and show everyday next year”.

At the end of the 1890’s Lillian was between marriages and in a relationship with Jesse Lewisohn and Jim was in a long-term relationship with a woman named Edna McCauley. After years of the four being together Jesse fell in love with Edna and they married, leaving Jim and Lillian to console each other. At that point Jim proposed marriage to Lillian in her NYC home and she refused saying” We make better friends than husband and wife”. They remained friends until Jim’s death at age 60. Lillian lived on and passed away at the age of 61 in 1922.

The story of Lillian Russell and Diamond Jim Brady has many more chapters, but I feel they only paint a picture of long-time friendship and not the torrid romance that most people of the time wanted. Their true love affair at the spa was not with each other but with the city of Saratoga Springs.

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