Julia Arthur started out in life as Ida Lewis, a bouncing baby girl born in Hamilton, Ontario, to Irish and Welsh parents. She liked dressing up and playing “pretend,” and, thanks to her background, developed a love of language at a very early age. By time she was 11, she was being given roles at an amateur dramatic club usually reserved for older, more experienced players. For example, Julia played Portia in The Merchant of Venice and Gamora in The Honeymoon. Her career path was set and, taking her mother’s maiden name she went professional as Julia Arthur just three years later.
Arthur was 14 when she was cast to play the Prince of Wales in the play Richard III. In England, she studied both dramatic art and took up the violin, but her real success came in New York. She first appeared in The Black Masque, which opened at the Union Square Theater. A few years later she was mentioned in the notes of the Actor’s Fund for helping out by appearing in The Broken Seal in 1892. The next year things really started to happen for her. Arthur, now 25, was coming into her own when she opened in the title role in Lady Windermere’s Fan on February 5, 1893. Hired by producer A. M. Palmer, she played many roles for his company. Like many stage performers of that era, Arthur was able to find work on both sides of the Atlantic and when she wasn’t busy in New York there was always demand from British theatre. She made her London debut February 1, 1895, as a member of the Henry Irving company.
Back in New York Julia played in More than Queen, which opened on October 24, 1899, the first of a long string of plays that kept her busy right up until 1921. Some titles are The Eternal Magdalene (1915), Seremonda (1917), which she produced, directed and starred in, Out There (1918) and in 1921 she shared the stage with the legendary Lionel Barrymore, he as Macbeth and Arthur as Lady Macbeth. Like most actors of that era, she was truly at home with Shakespeare. In her case she had started out learning a number of his plays when she was just a child. Later she would appear in Romeo and Juliet.
Movies were born in 1895, and like so many stage actors since, the lure of performing for the camera was just too great. Julia Arthur appeared in a handful of films, beginning in 1908. Her status allowed her to move in high circles and she met and married B. P. Cheney Jr. His father, Benjamin P. Cheney, was a fabulously wealthy American industrialist, who owned, among other things, Calf Island in Boston Harbour and was one of the early investors in the railroad expansions into the western United States. He was president of the General Silver Mining Company and had, in 1874, acquired a 230-acre estate known as Elm Bank, one of the most beautiful and exclusive county seats in Massachusetts.
Arthur retired from acting and lived out her life in relative ease and comfort. A record in the Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston from 1946 shows a number of antiquities donated by Julia Arthur Cheney. By time she died, in 1950 at age 82, Julia had lived to see the coming of movies, the creation of radio, the invention of “the talkies,” and finally, television. It had been a very full, very exciting and very wonderful life for the little girl who had started out as Ida Lewis in Hamilton, Ontario.
Also see: Julia Arthur’s Filmography.