Digby Bell was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1849, son of William J. Bell, a broker. Though various sources state his birth name was Digby Valentine Bell, I suspect his birth name may have been William Digby Bell. There is a family in the 1850 Milwaukee census consisting of William J. Bell, 23, and wife Genet L. Bell, also 23, both born in New York. William is listed as a broker. They have one child, a son named William D. Bell, listed as 6 months old. Given that the ages listed were those at the time of the census date for the 1850 census, which was 1 June 1850, the age of William D. Bell would agree with Digby Bell’s known birthdate of 8 November 1849.
The 1908 edition of Who’s Who on the Stage by Walter Browne & Frederick Arnold Austin states that Digby Bell’s family moved to New York when he was five years old, where he received his education. I have been unable to find this family in the 1860 census, but this biography was published during Digby Bell’s lifetime, so one can assume the details were either provided by him or confirmed before publishing.
Where I suspect his “adopted” name came from is a Digby Valentine Bell, born in 1804 in St. Christopher (St. Kitt’s), West Indies. This Digby V. Bell was also a broker, later a member of the Michigan state legislature and other elected offices in Michigan, where he died in 1871. He is listed in the 1829-1830 New York City directory as a clerk, living at 35 Forsyth St. Though I have not been able to confirm that our Digby V. Bell’s father, William, was the son of the older Digby V. Bell, it seems likely he was indeed either a son or some close relation. Digby Bell’s father, William J. Bell, was born in New York about 1827, so the fact that Digby Valentine Bell, born 1804, was in New York about that time would be consistent with his being our Digby Bell’s grandfather.
In any case, Who’s Who on the Stage states our Digby Valentine Bell became a member of the Stock Exchange after graduating from college. However, the biography of Digby Bell in the 1901 edition of Louis C. Strang’s Celebrated Comedians of Light Opera and Musical Comedy in America makes no mention of this, but gives this glimpse of his early life:
His father was a Wall Street broker, and it was not until he failed that the son gave any thought to the necessity of earning his own living. After disaster came, Digby Bell first secured a position as cabin passenger clerk with the White Star Steamship Company. He was gifted with a baritone voice of excellent quality, and he finally decided that it was worth having it trained for opera. With this purpose in view he went to Italy, where he studied music for five years.
In 1876 he made his debut in grand opera at Malta, his first roles being those of the Count in La Sonnambula, and Valentine in Faust. Other appearances in Naples followed, and he then returned to America to appear in a series of concerts in Boston, Chicago, and Detroit. In 1878 he made his New York concert debut at Chickering Hall, supported by several other artists, including his wife, identified in the review as Signora Lilla Belletti.
Digby Bell’s first wife was born Lillian W. Dunton, in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Upon completing her education, she taught school for a short time in Portland, Maine. An item in The Maine Journal of Education in 1874 states she had resigned her teaching position in order to complete her musical education in Europe. She was already known in the area as a singer, and after three years of study abroad, made her debut at the Teatro Fondo in Naples in 1877, appearing in La Traviata and other operas. This is most likely where she met Digby Bell, who appeared in the same opera at that theatre during this period. The marriage ended in divorce about 1882-83. She continued to perform, being known in Europe as Lilla Belletti (an Italianization of her Bell surname?) and in America under the name Lillian Dunton. A local news item in the Bath Independent (Maine) in 1896 about her visit to the area still referred to her as Mrs. Digby V. Bell, nee Lillian Dunton. Lillian Dunton died suddenly of gastritis in Brecia, Italy in 1902. It is not known if she is buried there or if her body was returned to America for burial.
This item is from the Decatur Daily Republican, Decatur, Illinois, dated 17 March 1883:
‘Notwithstanding the decree of the New York Court, which granted a decree of divorce to Mrs. Digby Bell and prohibited the husband from marrying again, that gentleman made his appearance at a Chicago hotel on Sunday with a new wife, known to the stage as Miss Laura Joyce, who was herself divorced a short time ago from James V. Taylor, a wealthy New Yorker. Bell and Miss Joyce were married in Pennsylvania.’
No record of Bell’s marriage to Laura Joyce is found in Pennsylvania, but a marriage record for the couple is found in Jersey City, Hudson County, New Jersey. However, the date of the marriage is 21 April 1883, more than a month after the newspaper item in Illinois announcing their marriage. For some reason, many sources list their marriage as taking place in 1882.
Laura Joyce, whose birth name was Hannah Joyce Maskell, was born in Newport, England in 1856. She studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and made her stage debut at London’s Strand Theatre. She came to America and made her first New York appearance in 1872. A contralto, she appeared in many of the Gilbert & Sullivan operas, most often alongside her husband, Digby Bell. The couple also appeared together in a number of other theatrical plays, both musical and non-musical alike. Laura Joyce Bell died in 1904 at the couple’s home in New York City after a year-long illness. She was survived by her husband and several children from her previous marriage.
In the 1901 Celebrated Comedians of Light Opera and Musical Comedy in America, Digby Bell tells us in his own words how his career changed, almost overnight:
“My becoming a comedian was brought about by what might be called a freak of fortune,” continued Mr. Bell. “When I returned to this country, I started out in Italian opera, but finding that I would be wearing fringe on my trousers if I continued in that line, I next took up opera in English. The company was stranded in Montreal, and our only way of getting out of town was to produce ‘Pinafore,’ which had not then been done in Canada. I was cast as Sir Joseph Porter, and well do I remember how much beneath me I considered the part. But laughter proved a very pleasing recognition of my first efforts as a comedian, and by the time we had played three weeks in Canada I felt that I had found the proper place at last.”
What Mr. Bell may not have considered at the time was that, at a height of 5’ 5”, perhaps his stature was more suited to the comedic roles he would become famous for, rather than the heroic baritone characters of Italian opera!
Digby Bell was an avid golfer and a New York Giants baseball fan. In his love for the game, he was joined by his best friend and fellow cast member in many shows, DeWolf Hopper. Along with Francis Wilson, Equity’s first president, they spent many afternoons at the ball park. In the 1885 production of The Black Hussar, Bell and Hopper performed a skit to a baseball-themed song called “One to Nothing” in which Hopper played the pitcher, and Bell appeared as the catcher with a birdcage on his head and boxing gloves, while a Mme. Cottrelli endeavored to make a home run with a diminutive bat.
After a career in light musicals, Bell later appeared in non-musical comedies and even later, in vaudeville. He made two films near the end of his life, playing the title role in The Education of Mr. Pipp (1914), a role he performed on stage in 1905, and Father and the Boys (1915). As a widower, he lived at the Lambs Club in his later years, and was living there when his final illness struck in June of 1917. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery alongside his wife, Laura Joyce Bell.
Born: 8 November 1849, Milwaukee, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin
Married 1st: ca. 1878-Lillian W. Dunton aka Lilla Belletti (b. 5 July 1852 Gloucester, Essex County, Massachusetts-d. 7 November 1902 Brescia, Lombardy, Italy)
Married 2nd: 21 April 1883, Jersey City, Hudson County, New Jersey-Laura Joyce Maskell (née Hannah Joyce Maskell) (b. 6 May 1856 Newport, England-d. 29 May 1904 New York City, New York
Died: 20 June 1917, New York City, New York
Buried: Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York
Member of The Lambs