Born in 1884 in Washington DC, Mary William Appleton Burke was called Billie after her father, an American clown of Irish descent who appeared in Barnum and Bailey’s circus. After an early childhood touring the US and Europe, Billie’s family settled in London where she had the opportunity to visit the theatres. Her ambition to be an actress was achieved when, at the age of 18, she appeared in George Edwardes’ musical “The Schoolgirl” with Edna May and Marie Studholme. But Billie Burke’s real fame came in 1907 when she returned to the States to star in musical comedies on Broadway.
The Ziegfeld Girls were a more relaxed version of the Gibson Girls of the early 20th century. Billie joined this group of showgirls who looked very similar in appearance and in stature. They were beautiful young women with many young male admirers. They danced in complete synchronization, wearing costumes designed by the Russian fashion designer Erté. Inspired by the Folies Bergère, the Ziegfeld Follies, the creation of Florence Zeigfeld, were a series of stunning revues which incorporated the best of Vaudeville and the Broadway shows.
Ziegfeld’s common-law wife Anna Held was a Ziegfeld girl, but she divorced him in 1913 for his infidelity with another Ziegfeld girl, Lillian Lorraine and early the following year he married Billie Burke. Three years later their daughter Patricia was born and they moved into a 22 acre estate with a mansion of 19 rooms and a swimming pool. They kept a herd of deer, two lion cubs, an elephant and many other animals.
The Ziegfeld Follies continued on Broadway until 1931 and Florenz Ziegfeld died in 1932. The Follies became a radio programme in 1932 and 1936. Many of the girls left the show to make wealthy marriages. Billie continued to appear in stage comedies and in film.
“I never was the great‐actress type,” she remarked years later. “I generally did light, gay things. I often had cute plays but never a fine one.”
Much of the wealth of Florenz and Billie had gone in the stock market crash of 1929 so it was lucky that Billie was able to move successfully from silent movies to spoken film roles. Her success continued into the 1950s and her last appearance was in 1960. She is perhaps most famous for her performance as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North in “The Wizard of Oz” originally released in 1939. She died in Los Angeles on May 14th 1970, aged 84.