While it has always been an area that movie stars, journalists like Jim Bishop, tv personalities, and entertainers like to call home because of its serenity and natural beauty, Highlands had more than its share of popular stars of the stage and screen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Nellie McHenry Webster was just such one of those famous names.
Known professionally as Nellie McHenry, she was born in St. Louis, Missouri, this lady who toured the country as well as Canada with other stage stars like Edwin Booth and Lillian Russell. She began her career in her native city, but then went on to Chicago where she performed with the Hooley Comedy Company. She met John Webster, whom she later married, and Nate Salisbury, a theatrical impresario, and the trio formed the Salisbury Troubadours, touring for nearly 20 years in the 1870s and 1880s.
It was Salisbury, who also lived in Highlands, who organized actors into a small series of plays joined with a single threat of a plot, an idea that was hugely successful and led to the troop, Nellie included, even going to Australia and Tasmania of all places, to display their talent. The Troubadours disbanded around 1890 but Salisbury kept things alive as co-owner of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show which went on to even greater acclaim.
Nellie toured numerous countries of Europe as well, bringing her stage talent to the public through her expertise in both comedy and drama. At one time, in the 1880s, she had a week’s engagement at the Chestnut Street Theater in Philadelphia, and many extras were needed for minor roles at those performances. They were provided by none other than J.S. Hoffman, who also happened to be a Highlands councilman in 1935 at the time of her death.
Nellie and her husband had their home atop the hill on Portland Road, a gracious old Victorian with massive porches on two levels to ensure constant views of the Shrewsbury river and Atlantic Ocean. Salisbury also lived in the area, as did Wallace Reed and Franchon Campbell Webster, Nellie’s daughter, who, like Nellie’s son, John, Jr., made her living on stage and was a highly regarded actress.
After starring in “M’liss” and having a huge success with that one-act play, Nellie bought the rights to the play, then conducted her own highly successful tour around the country with it.
Nellie died at Monmouth Medical Center, then known as Hazard Hospital in Long Branch, when she was 82 years old. Her funeral was at the A.M. Posten Funeral Home in Atlantic Highlands and the service was held at All Saints Memorial Church in Locust, with the rector, the Rev. Charles P. Johnson, officiating. She is buried in the church cemetery.
Her husband, John Webster, disappeared one night in 1899 and it is believed he committed suicide by jumping into the rapids at Niagara Falls. His body has never been found. Their son, John, Jr. died in 1925 in his dressing room at the Henry Miller Theater on West Forty-Third Street, NY, of a heart attack. It was a scarce few minutes before his curtain call for the play “The Poor Nut”.
This article was first posted on Muriel Smith's website, Veni Vidi Scripto. If you are interested in reading more about local history and current events, visit Veni Vidi Scripto.