Billie Burke (1885-1970)

Billie Burke
Billie Burke

Billie Burke is best remembered today for her inspiring acting as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, in 'The Wizard of Oz' in 1939. Her career, however, was both long and multi-faceted. She started as a child performer in the Barnum and Bailey Circus and after a successful stint as a stage performer in England, she became a star in Broadway musical comedies. She started in Silent movies in 1915 and became the highest paid actress in Hollywood by her early twenties.

Billie received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her performance in 'Merrily We Live' in 1938 and she was a great success in the series of three ''Topper' films in 1938,39 and 41.

In 1914 she married Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., the marriage lasting until his death in 1932.


She was born in Washington, D.C.on August 7, 1885, with the birth name Mary William Ethelbert Appleton Burke. It was a theatrical family and Billie's first appearance in public was as a child performer touring the United States and Europe with her father, who worked for the Barnum & Bailey Circus. as a singer and clown.

She moved with her family to London and in 1903, aged 18, she made her stage debut in 'The School Girl' followed by 'The Duchess of Dantzic'. She quickly became very popular and in 1910 she returned to America to gain experience on Broadway, working on musical comedies, such as 'Mrs. Dot', 'The Runaway' and 'The Land of Promise'. During this time she met Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., the rich and successful producer of the lavish stage spectacles known as the Ziegfeld Follies. The two married in 1914 and two years later, their daughter, Patricia, was born.

Billie had made a big impact during her short Broadway career and it was not long before the big studios in the developing film capital called Hollywood showed interest.

Movie Star

Billie was signed for the movies by Jesse Lasky in 1915 and made her cinematic debut in the title role of 'Peggy' in 1916. She was an immediate success and she followed it with a 15-part serial 'Gloria's Romance', which again proved hugely popular with filmgoers and critics alike.( Serial films, also called chapter plays, were shorter films that were typically run before the main feature film, each of which was part of a longer story, and ended in a cliffhanger, thus encouraging the audience to return every week.).

Billie's impact on the movie world was immense and she was reputed to be earning the highest salary of any other film actress. She became famous also for her love of ultra-fashionable clothes and jewelry. The couturier she used was the famous London fashion house, Maison Lucile, and she gained a devoted female fan following.

During her early stint in Hollywood, Billie appeared in numerous films including 'Let’s Get a Divorce' in 1918, 'Good Gracious Annabelle' the following year, and 'The Frisky Mrs. Johnson' in 1920. All the movies were, of course, silent, and Billie, who loved speaking roles, made sure that she continued to appear on stage in Broadway where she played lead roles in productions such as 'Caesar's Wife' in 1919 and 'The Intimate Strangers' in1921.

Early Retirement

Also in 1921, Billie took the lead role in 'The Education of Elizabeth' after which she decided to retire. She was only 37 years old but after marrying the wealthy impresario Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. and, having investments in the stock market, she and her husband felt that there was no financial imperative to work. They were to be proved wrong within a few years.

In 1929 their investments were made all but completely valuless in the stock market crash, which heralded the Great Depression. Billie had to return to the screen to get involved in the new medium of Sound movies. And get involved she did. For the next two decades she worked furiously and got back to the top rung of the ladder. And this despite losing her husband during the making of her comeback film, 'A Bill of Divorcement' in 1932..

She turned in a brilliant performance in the hit movie 'Dinner at Eight' in 1933 but was bitterly disappointed in 1936 when she was not selected to appear in the biopic of her husband, 'The Great Ziegfeld'. Billie was informed that she was too old to play herself and Myrna Loy played her in the film.

She soldiered on and gave another high quality performance as Mrs Topper in 'Topper' in 1937, another hit film which produced two sequels, each of which were box-office hits.

In 1938, Billie was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her performance in 'Merrily We Live'. It was the only nomination she received but she was destined to be made forever famous the following year in the classic 'The Wizard of Oz' playing Glinda, the Good Witch of the North.

Billie continued to work extremely hard during the 1940s, making 25 films during the decade. most of them very average. Then she appeared with a strong supporting role in the major hit 'Father of the Bride' in 1950 and its sequel, 'Father's Little Dividend' the following year.

Later Career

Thereafter her movie career wound down but she successfully moved into a radio and television career. CBS aired “The Billie Burke Show” for three years from 1943 and she had a talk show on television called “At Home with Billie Burke”which ran for a year in 1951.

Billie wrote two autobiographies, 'With a Feather on My Nose' in 1949 and 'With Powder on My Nose' ten years later.

She was 75 when she made her final screen appearance as Cordelia Fosgate in John Ford's Western 'Sergeant Rutledge' in1960. She then retired from showbusiness for good.


Billie's marriage to Florenz Ziegfeld was not a happy one and it was marked by the inveterate womanising of her husband. Billie was his second wife and she stayed with him until his death in 1932.

Billie lived in Los Angeles, California during her final years and she died there of natural causes on May 14, 1970. She was 85 years old. She was interred at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York, USA.

Billie Burke Academy Awards

One Unsuccessful Nomination:
Best Supporting Actress ... Merrily We Live (1938)

Billie Burke Filmography

Our Mutual Girl
Gloria's Romance
The Mysterious Miss Terry
Arms and the Girl
The Land of Promise
Eve's Daughter
Let's Get a Divorce
In Pursuit of Polly
The Make-Believe Wife
Good Gracious, Annabelle
The Misleading Widow
Sadie Love
Wanted: A Husband
Away Goes Prudence
The Frisky Mrs. Johnson
The Education of Elizabeth
Glorifying the American Girl
A Bill of Divorcement
Christopher Strong
Dinner at Eight
Only Yesterday
Finishing School
We're Rich Again
Forsaking All Others
Society Doctor
After Office Hours
Becky Sharp
Doubting Thomas
She Couldn't Take It
A Feather in Her Hat
My American Wife
Piccadilly Jim
Craig's Wife
The Bride Wore Red
Navy Blue and Gold
Everybody Sing
Merrily We Live
The Young in Heart
Topper Takes a Trip
Bridal Suite
The Wizard Of Oz
Eternally Yours