Saturday, March 29, 2014

Isn't She a Beauty? The Elusive Lotta Miles

Lotta Miles, as she appeared in I'll Say She Is, 1924
Labor Day, 1923. I'll Say She Is had just completed its triumphant engagement at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, where it had run all summer. It had been a sensation, a phenomenon, in a city eager to prove that it could support a summer show, and was therefore in the same league as New York, Chicago, and Boston. The stars (the Marx Brothers) and the writers (the Johnstone brothers) were sure they were now ready for Broadway, but producer Joseph "Minimum" Gaites said not yet, boys -- on to Boston. In the end, it would be nearly a year on the road before the show docked in New York.

In Philadelphia, the show's ingenue (identified only as Beauty) had been played by Muriel Hudson, and then by Peggy McClure. But when it opened in Boston, on Labor Day, there was a new name in the program, one that would remain through Broadway and beyond, until the very last performance:

Ah, Miss Miles, that evasive enigma of Marxian lore. All that is widely known about her was summed up by Groucho Marx in 1973: "She was used in ads for the Springfield Tire Company, and her face was all over the place. Lotta Miles wasn't her real name, but they called her that because of the tires. She was beautiful, really beautiful."

Florence Reutti in 1916.
Her real name was Florence Reutti, and she was born on December 18, 1893 at 559 Main Street, Buffalo, New York. Her father, Joseph Reutti, had managed the Hamilton, Ohio branch of the American Malting Company, then moved to Buffalo to run a mercantile house. Florence's older sister, Henrietta, was a popular Buffalo singer and "pianologuist," who drafted Florence into show business, casting her in amateur vaudeville shows to benefit the local mission, and so on. By 1914, Henrietta was embroiled in a very juicy scandal involving an heir and his mother, and Florence was seeking professional work as a performer and model.

Shortly thereafter, she began posing for Kelly Springfield Tire advertisements, which identified her as Lotta Miles. However, she was neither the first nor the last Kelly Springfield girl, and they were all called Lotta Miles -- though our Miss Reutti was alone in the temerity to continue using the name. The original Lotta Miles was Jean Newcombe, who went on to a long career in Broadway musicals. A later Lotta Miles, post-Reutti, was Norma Shearer. Fuzzy dates, rerun ads, artists' renderings, and a basic physical resemblance among all the Lotta Mileses, make identifying Florence Reutti in Kelly ads more difficult than it should be. At any rate, she had probably assumed the role by the time a 1916 item in Photoplay included Lotta Miles, along with Cleopatra, Xantippe, and Eva Tanguay, on a list of "Notable Women of History."

(The list also includes actress and fashion icon Kitty Gordon. Three years later, she starred in Love For Sale, written by Tom and Will B. Johnstone and produced by Joe Gaites. It concerned the adventures of a bored heiress looking for thrills. It was later reworked as Gimme a Thrill and then I'll Say She Is.)

So here she was, twenty-two years old and a Notable Woman of History. Naturally she sought film work. She was cast as the heroine of Florence Rose Fashions, a series of Pathé shorts conceived mainly to showcase fashionable clothing. By 1918, the press (or her publicist) was calling her "The Most Photographed Beauty in America"; the photographer Dr. Arnold Genthe declared that he "has never before photographed so perfect a type of beauty." ("Incidentally, beauty in this case brings its own reward, as the advertisers willingly pay Miss Reutti a comfortably large income for merely looking like herself.") In January of 1919, theatrical manager B. S. Moss "discovered" her singing in a benefit for wounded soldiers, and signed her to a contract.

Norma Shearer as Lotta Miles.
(Thanks to Professor Pau Medrano
Bigas for clarifying this caption!)
Sometime in this period, she married Raymond Anthony Court, an interior decorator. The marriage was short and unhappy, and it further confounds us by adding to her long list of names: Florence Reutti, Lotta Miles, Carlotta Miles, Florence Court (sometimes Cort), Florence Reutti-Court (or Reutti-Cort)…it just goes on and on. Later, she was sometimes billed as Charlotte Miles. And everyone knew her as Nancy.

Her first legitimate role was in Fifty-Fifty Limited, a musical adaptation of William Gillette’s All the Comforts of Home. (Jean Newcombe was also in Fifty-Fifty Limited, making it the only known instance of multiple Lotta Mileses sharing the stage.) Around the same time, she appeared (now billed as Florence Court) in the musicals Linger Longer Letty and Tangerine. In 1921 she appeared, as Lotta Miles, in two silent comedy shorts (now lost), Shoeing the Horse of Progress and Blowout Bill’s Busted Romance, which were produced by the Kelly Springfield Tire Company. The following year, she appeared in the road version of Ziegfeld’s Frolic, starring Will Rogers. This seems to have been the first time she used the stage name Lotta Miles outside the context of Kelly Springfield Tires.

(Update: Author Michael J. Hayde, in the comments section below, reveals that Blowout Bill's Busted Romance has been found, and can be seen at the Library of Congress!)

Lotta Miles at the wheel, in a still
from Shoeing the Horse of Progress
In 1922, she sued Raymond for a separation, filing an affidavit "charging Court with 'gross intoxication,' riotous living and abusive language toward her, and making allegations of an affair with a manicurist in a fashionable hotel." In response, Mr. Court asserted that his wife "was not contented with being Mrs. Court" (imagine!) and "desired to go on the stage" despite his disapproval. Our heroine sought $150 per week in alimony and $1,000 in legal fees. The decorator countered that he was only making $100 per week, whereas "Mrs. Court received an income of over $10,000 in the past year." The verdict came down from New York Supreme Court: "Repeated intoxication is not alone a cause for separation in this state. It seems not always to have been considered a serious matter in this household. The plaintiff seems to have been the first to leave the home. Moreover, she seems adequately supporting herself in the profession of her choice."

I'll say she is. How she found her way to the Marx Brothers, though, is not clear. Perhaps B. S. Moss was still acting as her manager. (Moss, despite the B. S., was a significant figure in early twentieth-century Broadway. His family's organization, as well as his Broadway Theatre, survives today.) She was a good find for the show, not only because of her beauty and singing ability ("a rich clear soprano voice," according to the Clipper), but because she was already, in her way, a famous star. I'd like to think that her stage name, practically a Marx Brothers joke in itself, helped win her the role.

All we have of her, today, are these biographical fragments, and some photographs. Since so little of Miss Miles is available to us, I'll to turn the microphone over to her at this point, with an extended quotation from the only substantial interview I've been able to discover, conducted by the Hamilton, Ohio Evening Journal during the I'll Say She Is tour.

Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Lotta Miles:
Lotta Miles, or Florence
Court, in 1919, around the
time of Fifty-Fifty Limited
I am the most photographed girl in America. You see, I started my career as a professional photographer's model. It is a regular business. I was posed in every possible way and my picture adorned tooth paste advertisements, automobile ads, ads for silk underwear and corset ads. 
That is how I happened to take the name of Lotta Miles. I am known all over the United States as the girl who is photographed in the ads about a certain well known automobile tire…When I went on the stage I took the name Lotta Miles – because the automobile tire is supposed to last a "lot of miles." Isn't that unique? 
…I like musical comedies best. I never had the slightest desire to be a second Ethel Barrymore. I'm content to be myself as long as I can be a success. I worship success, and I don't care just how I make my success as long as it's genuine. If I have any ambition it is simply to be a success.  
I am not like many people you interview. Most musical comedy stars want to sing in opera, and most operatic stars want to be acrobats or something similar. Well, I'm different. I want to be a musical comedy star. And that's that!…I'm not working towards anything, and I am content to let nature take its course. I have never played anything but leads in my life and I think that is a good reward. 
I don't believe in starting in at the bottom and working up. I didn't enter the theatrical world by the cellar door – I'll say I didn't! No, I began on leads and I am continuing on them. My first show was Fifty-Fifty Limited in which I played the ingénue lead. I started out big and I hope I'll keep on that way. No chorus for me. When I started playing pictures I never was an extra. They gave me featured parts from the beginning… 
I had a two-ton asbestos curtain fall on my head, and I am the only person on the stage who ever had this happen and lived to tell the tale. I was in Brooklyn, New York, playing vaudeville. I was in the midst of one of my songs when the asbestos curtain, which had never been used, and was rotten for want of care, suddenly slipped down on my head. The crowds screamed and there was a tremendous panic as I was taken away to the hospital. It was believed that I was dead, but here I am, as good as ever. It takes more than a two-ton curtain to kill me.
The Napoleon Scene
In Hamilton, hometown of the Reuttis, Lotta Miles got better press than the Marx Brothers. The Evening Journal critic wrote, "Miss Miles...won her way into the hearts of Hamilton theatre goers through her charming personality, clever singing and dancing and unsurpassed acting...In a word, Miss Miles was 'the' attraction. Back to the scenes of her childhood days she outdid her best efforts." In yet another article, the Journal opined: "Especially in the Napoleon scene did the comedy of Miss Miles delight." And all this time we thought it was a Marx Brothers scene!

On Broadway, billed as Carlotta Miles in the program but Lotta Miles in the press, she received generally positive reviews. The Times regarded her as "a beauteous young person...who sings well enough and wears gorgeous clothes to advantage." Other critics said essentially the same thing, praising her looks in echo of the show's libretto ("Isn't she a beauty?" "I'll say she is!"). Many of the major critics, including Alexander Woollcott, Robert Benchley, and George Jean Nathan, neglected to mention her at all in their opening-night notices -- a forgivable oversight, we must concede, when you have just been knocked senseless by the revolution of the Marx Brothers. Not until the show had been open for over three months did Woollcott name her in his New York Sun theatre column, "Plays and Players in These Parts." He commended her as "ample and good looking and good humored," and noted:
At the end of seventy weeks, during which the hilarious brothers have cavorted and gamboled around her, she is still able to listen to the synthetic harp playing of Harpo Marx and the enchanting piano playing of Leo Marx as if she asked no pleasanter lot in life than just the rich privilege of listening to them all her days on earth. The first prize for cooperation and good sportsmanship is hereby awarded to Miss Miles.
In the same column, Woollcott hinted that "Miss Miles's real name is as German as that of Frau Schirmer," and explained about the tire ads. But that didn't stop the Sun from reporting, four weeks later, that "so many inquiries have come to the Four Marx Brothers at the Casino in regard to the full name of Lotta Miles that they explain her real name is actually Carlotta and she reduced it to Lotta in honor of I'll Say She Is." What?

During the nine-month Broadway run, Miss Miles enjoyed some prominence as a Manhattan fashion celebrity, modeling clothes for various publications, and appearing on the cover of the New York Times' "Mid-Week Pictorial." She took an apartment at 202 West 79th Street. In November, she finally obtained a divorce from Raymond Court, after witnesses testified that Court had been seen in the company of "a beautiful young blonde" in an apartment on Lexington Avenue. This time she declined alimony, saying Court had given her a settlement. Shortly thereafter, her sister Henrietta embarked on a second marriage, and Miss Miles attended the wedding in the company of two Marx Brothers at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

She stayed with I'll Say She Is through its final Broadway performance (February 7, 1925), and then for its additional four months on the road, all the way up to its abrupt closing in Detroit. There, Chico abandoned the show and disappeared without a word, and was missing for a few days, invoking the worry and ire of his wife and brothers. It turned out he'd gone into hiding because of a threat to his life, resulting from unpaid gambling debts. By the time Groucho and Harpo were ready to forgive him and return to the stage, George S. Kaufman and Irving Berlin were working on The Cocoanuts, and I'll Say She Is was history.

New York Sun, September 10, 1924
And it's at this point that the trail of Lotta Miles goes rather cold. At some point, she moved to Hollywood to pursue a film career, but without much luck. In 1931, she was reunited with the Marx Brothers, appearing on stage with them in Buffalo. It's likely that they performed the Napoleon scene, which the Brothers are known to have revived during this tour, under the title "Schweinerei." In 1935, she supposedly had a bit part in the film Waterfront Lady, but I've watched the damn thing twice and I can't find her.

She died of a heart attack, in her Hollywood home, on July 25, 1937. She was forty-four years old. Her obituary in the Hamilton Journal said that "she was discovered by the Marx Brothers," and noted that "some time ago she suffered a nervous breakdown." Also that her mother, Anna Reutti, was still alive -- maybe back in Hamilton, Ohio or Buffalo, New York, with a scrapbook full of Florence's modelling photos, and all that great press from the Hamilton run of I'll Say She Is.

At the time Beauty made her final exit, the Marx Brothers were enjoying one of their greatest commercial successes, A Day at the Races. There's no record of any association between Lotta and the Brothers after 1931. But because their paths crossed at a crucial time, she's achieved a kind of immortality, or at least a little piece of theirs. Because she was in I'll Say She Is, we've spent hours thinking about her, looking at her pictures, and wondering what it was like to be present in the Casino Theatre on May 19, 1924.

She played a key role in the greatest showbiz story ever told, and I, for one, am a fan. In my adaptation of I'll Say She Is, the character of Beauty is referred to as Lotta, in tribute to this elusive star.

(Thanks to Michael J. Hayde, Robert Moulton, Rodney Stewart Hillel Tryster, Mikael Uhlin, and Pau Medrano Bigas for information and insight.)


  1. "Blowout Bill's Busted Romance" has been found. I viewed it at the Library of Congress last year.

  2. Really! Thanks so much for the tip -- I've revised the article to include this revelation, and clearly a trip to Washington is in order. What were your impressions of the film and its star?

    1. A number of us watched the film, including Ben Model, Steve Massa, Rob Farr and other east coast silent comedy experts. I don't think anyone realized it would be a commercial for Kelly Springfield Tires; we were hoping for an obscure silent comedy. What "comedy" is in the film is forced and the unknown actor playing "Blowout Bill" has no charisma. Lotta Miles is charming, but to be honest, we were speculating that Kelly-Springfield probably had employed a chain of young ladies to portray Lotta over the years. Had we known this was truly the Lotta of I'LL SAY SHE IS, we would've paid closer attention.

  3. Very interesting! The fullest and most well-researched piece EVER on Lotta Miles! There's just one thing; if she was born in 1893 she couldn't have been 38 years old when she died in 1937.

  4. Haha...yes, that's an excellent point, Mikael! She couldn't have pulled that off no matter how talented she was. I've corrected the post...thanks!

  5. Dear Noah.

    I just wanted to point out that the "Lotta Miles" portrayed in the ad with red background showed in your post is sure Norma Sharer, not Florence Court.

    Congratulations for your work
    (I done a similar research on 2012, because I''m writing one capitle in my Master Thesis Doctoral Degree dedicated to the "Lotta Miles" character trademark used by Consolidated Rubber/Kelly Springfield Tire Company).

    Professor Pau Medrano Bigas, University of Barcelona.

    1. Thank you, Professor Bigas, for your comment. You're absolutely correct about that advertisement, and I'm adding a clarifying caption right now. Best of luck with your thesis!

  6. I have been searching for months to find the missing "wife" of Walter Hanson Jr. You found her and than you for such an interesting article. Her first husband was Walter Hanson Jr. an heir to the fortune of Leland Stanford. When I finish my article on the Lathrops of Saratoga (his mother's name) I will send you a copy.

    1. Thanks, I'd love to read it!

      That's Henrietta Reutti (older sister of Florence aka Lotta Miles) who was married to Hanson, and there was quite a sensational public scandal around their marriage and divorce. It's a very juicy story -- though unfortunately, a bit too far from the subject of the Marx Brothers to include in my book! (This article, somewhat revised, forms a chapter of GIMME A THRILL, my book about the history of I'LL SAY SHE IS.)

      Anyway -- I have some research, mostly old newspaper articles, on Henrietta and Walter's marriage, which I'd be happy to share if it would help with your article. You can email me here: