Matilda Heron was born in poverty in Labby Vale, Draperstown, Ireland in 1830 and came to the U.S. as a child. Matilda came to Philadelphia in 1842 with her parents and two sisters, Fanny and Agnes, where she took lessons from Peter Richings of the Walnut-street Theatre. She was said to have “began her career as an actress under discouraging circumstances, and fought against the entreaties of her friends in the determination to cast her fortunes upon her natural ability…” Though Richings initially discouraged Heron from attempting a theatrical career, two years later she made her first public appearance at his theater in 1851. Heron toured Baltimore and Washington as an actress, “meeting with some harsh criticism, but achieving a gratifying popular success.” Heron visited San Francisco as an unknown in 1853, but eventually found an enthusiastic audience in her role as “Bianca” at the American Theatre (“Matilda Heron”).
On January 22, 1857, Matilda starred in Camille or the Fate of a Coquette at Wallack’s Theater. She played the part of Camille, her most famous role, for seven weeks and forty-six performances across the country. O’Brien became her press agent that same year, while developing an infatuation for her (Wolle 139-40). She reportedly earned $200,000 for this part alone (Wilson & Fiske, ed. 184). Heron married the "accomplished musician" Robert Stoepel (Old Friends 100) in December of 1857, but the pair split in 1862. The couple had one daughter, Bijou, who also became an actress (“Matilda Heron”).
In explanation of her popularity, Tice Miller writes that "[s]he exhibited a style of emotional acting which seemed real to the audiences of her day" (10). Henry Clapp, Jr. was greatly impressed by Heron’s use of the "emotional school" of acting (Miller 35). According to Charles Bailey Seymour, Heron learned this approach from Mr. H. H. Davis (328). He saw her performance of Camille multiple times because, as Clapp explains, "she puts so much of herself into it--so much of her strong, impulsive, irrepressible genius--that she could no more play it exactly the same way two consecutive evenings than she could be exactly the same person two consecutive evenings" (35). Edward G. P. Wilkins disagreed with Clapp and criticized Heron’s performance in Camille as "a high pressure first-class Western steamboat, with all her fires up, extra pounds of steam to the square inch. The effect is fine, but the danger of an explosion is imminent" (62).
While there are no definitive sources placing her at Pfaff’s, several Pfaffians in addition to Clapp and Wilkins were familiar with Heron’s work. Clare discusses her performances in several articles in the New York Saturday Press (Clare). On March 15, 1862, William Winter "joined the Pfaffians in praising Matilda Heron as the ’most characteristic actress on the American stage,’ and described her as possessing ’a peculiar genius and natural power for acting’" (Miller 80). Heron eventually fell out of favor with Winter because she "pandered to vulgar tastes" by playing characters of questionable morality (T. Miller 91), but he later wrote, “She was a magnanimous, great-hearted, loving woman, and she was one of the most potent elemental forces in the histrionic vocation that have ever been exerted on the American Stage” (Winter 71-72). Andrew C. Wheeler was also critical of Heron, writing, “To-day she was the actress of the world, tomorrow she became the abject wreck” (Miller 151). Fitz-James O’Brien, on the other hand, cites her as an example of an actor “who has the courage to utterly and entirely lose himself in his part” (3). Rose Eytinge mentions meeting Heron at Bulfinch Place in Boston, a selective “actors’ Mecca” and living area (57).
Heron went abroad following this success, making her debut in London in 1861, but soon returned to the U.S. after failing to find similar success. Heron acted until 1875, after which she lived quietly in New York City as a teacher of stage elocution (Wilson & Fiske, ed. 184). Having had wavering health throughout her career, Heron died at the age of forty-six, with “Camille” engraved on her casket along with her real name. She reportedly “suffered in her last days mental as well as physical pain which many strong men would have quailed before and sunk under” (“Matilda Heron”). According to an article detailing her funeral, “the house was crowded with sympathizing friends,” including Pfaffian Charles Gaylor, and “floral pieces, the tributes of friends, stood in every available place in the room” (“Matilda Heron’s Funeral”).
C.B.S. credits Mr. H.H. Davis as the theatrical man "who first taught Matilda Heron 'to clutch the dramatic diadem at a bound'" (328).[pages:328]
Clare discusess Heron and Keene when posing the question of whether or not another actress gains any fame by discrediting their talent (2).[pages:2]
Clare discusses Heron's performance in the role of "Imogen" in Bertram (2).[pages:2]
Mentions Heron as one of the actors Eytinge met at Bulfinch Place in Boston (60). Eytinge refers to this place as "the actors' Mecca" and says "only the elect were admitted there, and it would have been a serious mistake to have referred to it as a boarding-house" (57).[pages:60]
Figaro discusses his inability to "tire" of Heron's Camille because of her personal interpretation of the role (4).[pages:4]
According to Gunn, Grant owes Matilda Heron money: "Story of Richard Grant White, 'Shakspeare's scholar' and editor. He borrowed $1,800 of Matilda Heron and wont pay her. Not the first Scoundrelism of that sort he has been guilty of."[pages:123]
Matilda Heron is mentioned in connection with the Bateman Children: "O'Brien has been in town some weeks, is apparently a hanger-on of Bateman's, a theatrical man who once had a lawsuit with Barnum about the 'Bateman Children', played in by Matilda Heron. Sam Cowell the vocalist is Mrs B's brother. Cahill, Arnold, Bob Gunn and others were introduced to Cahill, one night, round at the French theatre."[pages:165]
Described as an "overnight success" after performing the role of Marguerite Gautier in Alexandre Dumas' La Dame aux Camelias at Wallack's Theatre on January 22, 1857 (10). Over a seven week period, she played "forty-six sold-out shows" (10). "She exhitibted a style of emotional acting which seemed real to the audiences of her day" (10).
Describes the reactions of Henry Clapp, Jr. and Edward Wilkins' responses to her performance in Camille (35, 62).
"Wilkins concluded that Heron's acting was a 'little too broadly colored to suit our individual taste,' but that she deserved to rank as a grand tragedienne. Her success is 'un fait accompli'"(62).
William Winter worked as tour manager for Heron in September/October of 1859 (73). On March 15, 1862, William Winter "joined the Pfaffians in praising Matilda Heron as the 'most charactertistic actress on the American stage,' and described her as possessing 'a peculiar genius and natural power for acting'" (80). Heron eventually fell out of favor with Winter because she "pandered to vulgar tastes" by playing characters of questionable morality (91).
Heron's emotional performance style was problematic for Andrew C. Wheeler. In a review of her career, he wrote that "She had no patience, no remorse, no wait in her. It was all impulse, mood, fever or chill. To-day she was the actress of the world, tomorrow she became the abject wreck" (151).[pages:10, 30, 35, 61-62, 73, 80, 91, 151]
O'Brien reports that there are a few authors working on a drama for Heron "which rumor says is of peculiar and extraordinary interest(3)".[pages:3]
Heron played in a benefit Feb. 23, 1865. Odell claims her "glory methinks was withering" and this performance seems to be her single visit to the Bowery that season (44).
Heron presented Camille with George C. Boniface March 12, 1866, in Brooklyn (108). Odell calls her a "diminishing force in the theatre, as must be all, ultimately, who depend on temperment rather than art" (292). Odell makes this statement while referring to her performance as "the everlasting, never-dying Camille" at the end of the 1867-1868 season at the Broadway (292).
Heron did a week of performances during the Williamsburgh part of the 1867-68 season (May, 1868). She starred in Gamea, the Jewish Mother May 4, Camille May 5, Medea May 6, The Hunchback May 8, and Mathilde May 9 (404). Odell mentions that the actors had to hold a benefit at the the end of the month because the manager left with everyone's salaries (404).
Heron played "her inevitable Camille" Saturday nights in Novemeber, 1868 at Niblo's (442). She filled in with Camille during Mrs. D.P. Bowers' illness that prevented her show from going on at Niblo's that same season (442).
Heron becames the acting teacher of a Miss Agnes Ethel during 1868. Odell reprints reviews of Ethel's debut as Camille. Agnes Ethel is described as "destined to a short, but bright career on the stage" (509-510).[pages:44, 108,292-3,404,442, 509-510,633]
Odell records her first appearance in New York at the Bowery during the 1852-53 season.
Odell claims that Heron "is the most famous of American Camilles" and that her interpretation of this role influenced other actresses (281). Heron's "Camille" is described as the biggest hit of the 1856-57 season at Wallack's. Odell speculates that "Miss Heron, in her heyday, must have been complete mistress of emotional effects" (534). Odell states that she presented herself in a sensational new version of Camille and that "few things so striking as her acting of the French demi-mondaine had even been seen in New York." Odell also makes the claim that she "was a genius; she made her own rules, or possibly had none, but a more moving performance than her Camille it would have been hard for 1857 to conceive of." Odell also makes note of her appearances at Wallack's in 1856-57 season (534).
Odell reprints sections of Heron's favorable reviews from the Herald and notes the number of encores she had to give. Most of Heron's review in the Tribune is also reproduced.
According to Odell, Heron's fame allowed her to produce her own version of Legouve's Medea,. Her roles during the 1856-57 season were often supported by E.A. Sothern. Odell claims that the roles Heron played that season were hugely successful and that the 1856-57 was one of of the most successful theatrical seasons to date.
Odell also discusses Heron's tempermental nature and her finding success at Wallack's. Odell mentions other actresses playing the role of Camille, but that they were not really a threat to Heron - Camille seems simply to be hugely popular at this time.
Heron also seems to have taken part in a low-ticket cost and amateur benefit in 1856-57 season given by one of the many dramatic associations. Her success made a burlesque of Camille inevitable - The Black Camille, or, the Fate of a Washerwoman.[pages:221,281,342, 534(ill), 534-36,538,542,552,578,587]
Odell discusses comparisons critics made between her and Miss Cushman; Heron is called "intense, deep, and sensual."
She appeared at Wallack's on the first night of the regular 1857-1858 season (Sept 7) in Fiammina. Heron adapted the play from the French version by Mario Uchard. The show ran for 5 nights.
Heron was known for her "Camille" and played it for several engagements in the 1857-1858 season, including a benefit for herself.
According to T. Allston Brown during the June 10, 1858 performance of Mathilde at what became Laura Keene's theater "it was rumored that a fracas too place in the greenroom between the respective allies of Laura Keene, Matilda Heron, and Mrs.D.P Bowers, and that during the melee Mr. Sothern rushed forward and made the above announcement to prevent an expose." This event ended the season.
Odell claims that Heron was a "fiery" Camille. She received positive reviews for Geraldine for Mrs. Bateman, which was one of the highlights of the 1858-1859 season. Heron also starred in her own version of Lesbia that was put on the stage by Jefferson.
Heron's 1859-1860 season at Niblo's seems to have been very successful. Heron gave her most popular performance of Camille and was also seen in Medea, Bertram, Ingomar and The Stranger.
Odell calls Heron during the 1861-1862 season "emotional." She wrote The Belle of the Season and starred in it at the Winter Garden. The play ran until she resumed the role of Camille. The audience was predictably reduced to tears. Heron played in several other shows at the Winter Garden during this season.
Heron also played several roles in an unspecified-cause benefit in 1862-1863 season at Laura Keene's. With Laura Keene, Heron helped to popularize Brooklyn as a 1-2 night stand for talented and attractive actresses in the 1862-1863 seasons.
Heron's husband, Robert Stoepel, arranged "Hiawatha" to music and Heron recited the poem while other performers did the musical parts (1863-1864 season).[pages:8,20,38-39,118,126,159, 214,249,253, 393,474,483, 531, 533,559,560,563, 608]
Personnne reports that Lesbia, starring Heron, will open at the Winter Garden this week (3).[pages:3]
Personne reprints Jefferson's announcement of Heron's performance as Nancy Sykes in Oliver Twist at the Winter Garden. Personne expresses his frustration at the phrase that she "condescends" to play the role (3).[pages:3]
Personne refers to her here as Mrs. Heron-Stoepel and remarks that her husband's production of "Hiawatha" is a success. She has been providing the "illustrative readings" during the musical production (2).[pages:2]
Personne reprints a letter from Heron-Stoepel to the Editor of the Tribune that corrects the reports about the negative nature of her contractual and business relationships with Mr. Bateman (2).[pages:2]
Personne notes that Mrs. Heron-Stoepel's readings during "Hiawatha" were well done and would have prompted him to a burst of enthusiasm if he were a naturally enthusiastic person (2).[pages:2]
Personne reports that Heron performed in Camille at Niblo's "for the 520th time" (3).[pages:3]
The letter from Nancy Scudder addresses Personne's criticism of Matilda Heron and his review of Lesbia (3). Heron is also mentioned in "Extracts" (3). Personne reviews her performance as Nancy Sykes in Oliver Twist (3).[pages:3]
Personne reports that Miss Heron has returned to town and has done Tiemann a favor by appearing in his benefit for Eddy at Niblo's (2).[pages:2]
Personne reports that "the Heron" will in a new play in Boston, Lesbia (3).[pages:3]
Personne mentions that Matilda Heron-Stoepel has been engaged by "Bateman the Bold" for two years. Personne reprints the "card" written by Mr. H.L. Bateman announcing this (3).[pages:3]
Personne compares Miss Davenport's version of Dame aux Camelies to Miss Heron's (2).[pages:2]
Personne mentions that Heron-Stoepel is onstage in Boston. Personne reports that Heron is getting good reviews in Boston in Geraldine (2).[pages:2]
Personne reports that Heron will be in town for a performance of Pauline at the Winter Garden for the benefit of Bourcicault (3).[pages:3]
Personne discusses Heron's return to the city the debut of Heron's Lesbia. Personne claims it is a "hoax," a "Heron-version of Les Noces Venitiennes." Personne reviews her performance. He claims that her acting style has not changed since she first performed at Wallack's. Personne claims that both Heron and Keene are mistaken for being artists because they are "clever" and possess "stage tact" (3). (3).[pages:3]
Personne reports that she will play the title role in Lesbia at the Winter Garden (3).[pages:3]
Appleton cites as Heron's gretaest theatrical achievement as being her role in Camille, for which she earned about $200,000.[pages:184(ill.)]
Winter recalls first meeting O'Brien in Boston, when O'Brien was working as an assistant to the theatrical manager H.L. Bateman, who was directing Heron's professional tour. Winter mentions that the "beautiful actress" Heron would later marry the "accomplished musician" Robert Stoepel (100).[pages:100]
The last time I met Matilda Heron,--it was not very long before her death,--she clasped me in her arms, almost lifted me from the floor, kissed me on the forehead, and impetuously exclaimed: "Willy Winter, you put the first gray hair in my head that ever was there!" This fervid assurance was allusive to articles that I had written, in the newspaper press, condemnatory of the pernicious influence of the play of "Camille," to the exposition of which she had been devoted during the greater part of her career. (59-60) That the courtesan and the virtuous woman are alike pure--that chastity is immaterial--is the chief meaning conveyed by the sophistry of the play. (68) Once, speaking to a writer, about a play that she wished should be written for her, she wildly exclaimed, "Give me a lost woman!" I know no why a woman "lost" should be thought to be more dramatic than a woman "found," but that was the kind of woman Matilda preferred to represent, and beyond question she made her intensely and movingly dramatic. (69-70)
Matilda Heron's career was gloriously bright for a while, and then dark with trouble and sorrow. It is easy for the moralist to say that she brought her miseries upon herself; it is,--as in all such cases,--more true and wise to say that Fate, which is Character, made her what she was, and shaped and ruled the current of her destiny. . . . She was a magnanimous, great-hearted, loving woman, and she was one of the most potent elemental forces in the histrionic vocation that have ever been exerted on the American Stage. (71-72)[pages:59-72]
The object of O'Brien's infatuation in 1857; he also became her press agent. Heron was also praised by Wilkins in the Herald.[pages:139, 140,179]
Tributes to a dead actress. Large attendance of professional friends-A profusions of floral offerings-The funeral cortege-Services in "The Little Church Around the Corner"
The Vault at Pfaff's
27 Memorial Drive West, Bethlehem, PA 18015