Fanny Davenport

By Anthony Sansonetti

Fanny Davenport (1850-1898), nicknamed Fanny Lily Gipsy1 and Miss Fanny,2 was born to celebrated actors Edward Loomis (E. L.) Davenport and Fanny Elizabeth Vining in a hospital across the street from the renowned British Museum in London.3 Some argue that the monument signifies fate. E. L. Davenport was an American4 theatre scholar and performer­, a master of versatility vis-à-vis genre.5 Later, with the help of French actress Anna Cora Mowatt who joined him on tour, he earned momentous praise for his dramatic abilities in London.6 While E. L. Davenport certainly filled the role of inspirational parent to an extent, Fanny Vining, a celebrated English actress of a noted family of actors, was, like her child, seduced by theatrical productions and dramatic literature at a young age.7 Christened after her mother, Fanny Vining’s societal influence on the success of Fanny Davenport’s career as a performing child is not lost on a perceptive journalist.8

Benefiting from being the firstborn child of two well-known actors, Fanny Davenport was also mentored by writer Charles Dickens,9 actor Edwin Booth10 and opera singers Madame Tietgems and Madame Celestes.11 These personal relationships with accomplished artists from various disciplines certainly left their imprint; by the age of ten, Fanny Davenport wrote and performed in an original play titled Farwell12—a title reminiscent of an emotional parting or, more specifically, her voyage to the United States of America in 185613—and started to appeal to the Boston public. There is, however, reason to believe that Fanny Davenport received “legitimate” acting training—a secret weapon, if you will—in the company of her established family and friends in London before she crossed the Atlantic for the first time.14

The Davenport family’s arrival in Boston, Massachusetts, marked the start of Fanny Davenport’s schooling15 and theatrical career in the United States. Once E. L. Davenport returned to his birthplace,16 he ensured that his daughter obtained the part of the child whenever a production called for a juvenile performer.17 As one of the school children and the princess’ attendant (a soubrette), Fanny Davenport made her debut at the Howard Athenaeum in the “old-time” burlesque Pocahontas before her seventh birthday.18 During the Howard Athenaeum’s 1857 season, Boston’s most popular theatre house was under the control of artistic director Jacob Barrow while Davenport was particularly memorable as the child,19 either the “Indian” boy or the orphan, in Metamora.20

Doubling as his daughter’s new fledged agent, E. L. Davenport sought more opportunity for his family’s theatrical success and decided to settle down in New York City toward the end of 1857. It appears to have been a wholly joyful occasion, although Fanny Vining’s disappearance from the public eye is unexplained, thus strange and mysterious. Relocating here from Boston, E. L. Davenport and actor Harry Watkins took on managerial positions at Burton’s Chamber Street Theatre, which they quickly renamed “The American Theatre.”21 The inauguration of The American Theatre featured a chorus of little girls singing The Star-Spangled Banner, albeit “Miss Fanny” was definitely set apart from the rest of the chorus insofar as she danced ballet and sang her fair share of solos.22 Three years later, the Davenport family travelled to Louisville, Kentucky,23 and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where Fanny Davenport took on the role of the soubrette at the Arch-Street Theatre.24

Far from unproductive or insignificant, these preparatory roles lead Fanny Davenport to New York’s most influential theatrical manager at the time: Mr. John Augustin Daly. In a late interview, Fanny Davenport remembers Daly as a born leader, an artistic adviser to the best actors of her time, and the sure forerunner of her success in New York.25 The relationship between Daly and Fanny Davenport lead to her “real” metropolitan debut on February 14, 1862, where she appeared as Charles II, the King of Spain, in Faint Heart Never Won Fair Lady at Niblo’s Garden in New York.26 The role, as evidenced by James R. Planché’s script, calls for a clever fifteen-year-old king who dons flashy costumes of pastel colour schemes and lavish textiles such as velvet, lace, and silk.27 Reviewers were in agreement: twelve-year-old Fanny Davenport was decidedly the perfect fit for this major character.

Fanny Davenport’s success in high comedy improved steadily until she secured an engagement under Daly’s management at the old Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York. Here, she played Lady Gay Spanker in London Assurance alongside her “courtly father” who appeared as Sir Harcourt, yet was much more successful in her portrayal of Lady Teazle in The School for Scandal.28 Fanny Davenport continued to perform for Daly throughout her teenage years and into adulthood, eventually launching her own career as a director, writer, and performer before transforming into a celebrity who was at the center of noteworthy scandals,29 indulged in fashion,30 and married “the juvenile man in her company.” 31 Critics talk of Daly as a somewhat magical figure or genius,32 since his young actors always received significant success and attention after working with him. One reporter confidently tells us, “All the young actors that used to be under Daly’s management have turned out well.”33

True or false, Daly’s charm is significant in that it gives a notion of the collaborative atmosphere of New York’s theatrical scene in the nineteenth century. Fanny Davenport’s career as a performing child was a communal endeavor. It foregrounded collaboration and collaborative processes, querying the fixity of uncritical and ultimately essentialist phrases—uncritical and essentialist seeing as they give the child performer an innate quality rather than engaging with the child’s personal relationships and training—such as “born to the stage.”34 Phrases such as this call into question the ways in which theatrical mentors play the ironically undervalued role of educating and producing child performers. Several questions spring to mind. What, for example, defines a successful mentor? Why or in what ways should we engage with the relationship between adult mentor and child trainee? And how does a performing child’s milieu (familial, national or otherwise) contribute to their collaborative success? Just as a child performer’s contribution to a moneymaking project is always an interdependent embodied process, the beginning of Fanny Davenport’s career emphasizes that mid-nineteenth century child performers rarely crossed the Atlantic alone.


  1. “Fanny Davenport,” The Sun, April 16, 1916, 9.
  2. Richard F. Fox, “Miss Fanny Davenport,” The Era, November 11, 1882.
  3. T. Allston Brown, History of the American Stage (New York: Dick & Fitzgerald), 93.
  4. Fox, “Miss Fanny Davenport,” The Era.
  5. “Cleopatra,” The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 20, 1893, 4.
  6. D. Wilkins, “Fanny Davenport.” The Aldine, January 1, 1877, 361.
  7. “A Sketch of the Career of Fanny Davenport.” The Anaconda Standard, September 28, 1898, 8.
  8. “Cleopatra,” The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 4.
  9. Wilkins, “Fanny Davenport,” The Aldine, 361.
  10. “As They Looked of Yore.” Los Angeles Daily Herald, March 18, 1895, 9.
  11. “Fanny Davenport’s Visit.” The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 11, 1891, 13.
  12. “As They Looked,” Los Angeles Daily Herald, 9.
  13. “Miss Fanny Davenport, Tragedienne.” The True Northerner, January 16, 1889.
  14. “Fanny Davenport,” Los Angeles Daily Herald, October 6, 1889.
  15. “Famous Women,” The Washington Herald, April 10, 1915.
  16. Brown, History of the American Stage, 93.
  17. Fox, “Miss Fanny Davenport,” The Era.
  18. “Fanny Davenport is Dead,” Kansas City Journal, September 27, 1898.
  19. Fox, “Miss Fanny Davenport,” The Era.
  20. John Augustus Stone, Metamora & Other Plays (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 7.
  21. Fox, “Miss Fanny Davenport,” The Era.
  22. “Fanny Davenport’s Debut,” Barbour County Index, August 15, 1906.
  23. “Fanny Davenport’s Visit,” The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 13.
  24. Fox, “Miss Fanny Davenport,” The Era.
  25. “Fanny Davenport’s Visit,” 13.
  26. Brown, History of the American Stage, 93.
  27. James R. Planchè, Faint Heart Never Won Fair Lady: A Comedy in One Act (New York: Samuel French), 4.
  28. Fox, “Miss Fanny Davenport,” The Era.
  29. “Fanny Davenport’s Diamonds,” New York Times, February 24, 1887, 1.
  30. “For and About Women,” Salt Lake Daily Herald, November 13, 1881, 14.
  31. “Well-Known Actress Dead,” The Goodland Republic, September 30, 1898.
  32. “Fanny Davenport,” The True Northerner, January 16, 1889.
  33. “Theatrical Comment,” Los Angeles Daily Herald, February 3, 1895, 11.
  34. “A Sketch of the Career of Fanny Davenport,” The Anaconda Standard, 8.

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