by Ralph Lucas, Publisher
Fifi D’Orsay started out in life on April 16, 1904 as Marie-Rose Angelina Yvonne Lussier. One of 12 children of a postal clerk, she dreamed of being an actress when she grew up. Educated in a convent, the young Marie-Rose Lussier landed work as a typist in her hometown of Montreal but a chance encounter with the singer Helen Morgan would change her life and make her childhood dreams come true. Morgan, who once sang in Chicago nightclubs and appeared on Broadway in the first production of Show Boat in 1927, was on tour with a stop in Montreal. Their meeting provided the inspiration the starry-eyed Lussier needed. Whether she knew of the hard work that lay ahead or was simply mesmerized by a perception of a life of travel and glamour, the girl who would become Fifi D’Orsay set out for New York. It was an enormous distance from St. André Street in Montreal to Broadway in New York, measured in something far more than miles, but she was smart enough to ask for help. Once in New York, Lussier contacted Morgan who befriended the young Canadian and gave her tips on how to find a job in the competitive world of showbiz.
Not quite 20 years old, Lussier landed an audition for a role in the 1923 production of the Greenwich Village Follies. For the audition she sang a popular song from that time, Yes, We Have No Bananas but she sang it in French. It may just be a bit of showbiz lore, or there might be some truth to the tale, but apparently after finishing the song, in which she really layered on an accent, she told the play`s director that she was from Paris and… had worked in the Folies Bergères. If it was the singing, the lie or the young girl`s good looks we’ll never know. One way or the other the director was impressed enough to give her the break she wanted and needed and also gave her her stage name. Marie-Rose Angelina Yvonne Lussier began her career being billed as Mademoiselle Fifi.
The newly christened FiFi met and worked with Edward Gallagher, who was also appearing in the Follies. Gallagher was half of the successful Broadway comedy team of Gallagher and Shean and he took a liking to the new, young singer. Younger by thirty-seven years to be exact. As the Follies wrapped, Gallagher joined Fifi in putting together a vaudeville act and over the course of the next two years that they performed together he taught her the ins and outs of her chosen career.
Lussier next teamed up with actor Herman Berrans in an act written by the noted vaudeville sketch writer Herman Timberg. Timberg was a great humourist and satirist who wrote and produced shows for such headliners as The Four Marx Brothers, Fred and Adele Astaire, Milton Berle, Ed Wynn and many others. For this new show, Fifi would play a sexy music student and Berrans would be her teacher. The act was a hit and toured successfully on the Orpheum Circuit, which unfortunately did not have a theatre in Montreal but had opened one in Vancouver in 1927.
By the late 1920s there was a well-worn path between Broadway and Hollywood. Fifi would not be the first to be tempted by the growing popularity of the moves, and having lost none of her ambition despite her stage success, she decided to see what a screen test might bring. It brought her to Hollywood.
It was in Hollywood that Fifi gained her last name. To this day there is a famous Paris perfume company that carries the name of its founder, Gabriel Alfred Guillaume d’Orsay, the Chevalier d’Orsay. He had started making perfume in 1830. Having once fooled a New York producer that she was from Paris, Fifi changed her last name to D’Orsay, which was her favourite Parisian perfume.
Beginning in 1929 with They Had to See Paris, starring Will Rogers, Fifi D’Orsay went on to land major roles in 16 more films in the next six years. Of those first 17 films, three were directed by Raoul Walsh, two by Frank Borzage and one by Ernst Lubitsch.
Her better-known films include The Life of Jimmy Dolan with Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Loretta Young; Going Hollywood with Bing Crosby, Marion Davies and Patsy Kelly, and the 1934 Dick Powell, Al Jolson, Dolores Del Rio feature Wonder Bar. In 1935 on the Paramount lot, she appeared in the comedy Accent on Youth, which costarred Herbert Marshall and Sylvia Sydney.
The next decade, from approximately 1937 to 1947, saw her output and choice of roles decline. The roaring 20s were well over and the depression and subsequent aptly named Dirty 30s had changed America. D’Orsay only worked in eight films and it`s fair to say that most of them were B features. A typical title was her 1947 outing in The Gangster starring Barry Sullivan. Then nothing.
If Hollywood was in her past, her past was in her future. In 1950, D’Orsay returned to New York and once more appeared on stage, this time at the Palace Theater. There was also work on the small screen as the television industry exploded following World War Two. She had roles in such popular shows from that era as the detective series Mr.& Mrs. North (1953), and her star power remained strong enough for The Pepsi Cola Playhouse to dedicate a production to her in 1954, titling the show Fi Fie Fifi. Other small screen credits include Bonanza, starring fellow Canadian Lorne Greene and two episodes of Perry Mason starring yet another Canadian-born actor Raymond Burr. She also showed up on The Lucy Show. And she made her last six films, appearing essentially as an extra in titles like What A Way To Go with Shirley MacLaine, Robert Mitchum, Gene Kelly, and Paul Newman, and her last film, the 1968 feature Assignment to Kill, starring Patrick O’Neal, Joan Hackett, John Gielgud and Herbert Lom.
It is an ancient adage used by many but perhaps best expressed by the writer Ray Bradbury when he wrote “Our endings are in our beginnings.” This could not be more true than for the career of Fifi D’Orsay. At 19 she began her career on stage in New York in the Greenwich Village Follies and at sixty-seven years of age she returned to Broadway to appear in the musical titled simply Follies. Produced by the legendary Harold Prince with music by Stephen Sondheim, Follies opened on April 4, 1971 and ran for 522 performances until July 1, 1972. Originally titled The Girls Upstairs, the musical called for a huge cast, and included Alexis Smith as Phyllis Rogers Stone and Yvonne De Carlo playing a character named Carlotta Campion. Fifi D’Orsay played the role of Solange LaFitte, a former headliner. Her big song was, naturally, Ah, Paris and she stopped the show. Follies won seven Tony Awards in addition to Best Musical from the New York Drama Critics.
Somewhere in all that work there was a personal life. D’Orsay married twice, first to Peter LaRicos and later to Maurice Hill but neither marriage lasted and she had no children. On December 2nd, 1983 Fifi D’Orsay, the former Marie-Rose Angelina Yvonne Lussier from Montréal, Quebec passed away in Woodland Hills, California after suffering from cancer. She is buried in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
Also see: Fifi D’Orsay’s filmography.
All of the images used in this biography were scanned from originals in the Northernstars Collection.