The Last (Curtain) Call

Recounting the 90-year-old tale of Eleonora Duse, once the most famed actress in the world, who spent her final days in an Oakland hotel.



At the turn of the last century, Eleonora Duse was a superstar. Although she usually performed in her native Italian, she was an internationally famous actress; her modern, naturalistic style was a revelation and earned rave reviews everywhere she appeared. Her only real competition in fame and praise was the flamboyant French actress Sarah Bernhardt — but many critics and theatergoers, including playwrights Anton Chekhov and George Bernard Shaw, preferred Duse’s more controlled style of acting.

Leading the way for such single-name stars as Cher, Madonna and Beyoncé, she usually was known simply as Duse, sometimes La Duse. She was early fodder for gossip columnists due to her very active love life, which featured several husbands and (allegedly) lovers of both sexes. Her famous relationship with the Italian poet and soldier Gabriele d’Annunzio inspired Duse to new heights of artistry — but when the couple split in 1909, Duse was devastated and retired from the stage.

In 1921, she decided to make a farewell tour of Europe and America, and her fans — including many in Pittsburgh — were elated. In July 1923, she became the first woman to be featured on the cover of Time magazine. In spring 1924, after several stops on the West Coast and in Detroit, Duse arrived in Pittsburgh to appear on stage at the Syria Mosque in Oakland.

She checked in to the stately William Penn Hotel on April 1 but soon changed hotels after learning the elegant Hotel Schenley in Oakland (which now serves as the University of Pittsburgh’s Student Union) was much closer to the theater. Word got out that Duse wasn’t in the best of health, but the show had to go on.

On a very rainy April 5, Duse was driven across the street to the Syria Mosque; they were met with confusion, as the stage door was locked. The great tragedienne and her assistant were left standing in the rain until the door could be opened. (Ironically, she was here to perform in a play titled “La Porta Chiusa” — “The Closed Door” — by Marco Praga.) Exposure to the rain may have seriously exacerbated her already frail condition.

She nonetheless wowed the Pittsburgh audience that evening and received glowing reviews from the local press. Her next scheduled stop was Cleveland, but she lingered at the Hotel Schenley. People speculated that she was enamored of Pittsburgh as a good place to pause and rest; in reality, she was very sick with pneumonia. She canceled the Cleveland appearance. Despite public denials that anything was amiss, her condition worsened, and on April 21, at age 64, she died in her room at the Hotel Schenley.

It was news around the world. The Italian ambassador came to Pittsburgh to make arrangements. People paid respects at Samson Funeral Home on North Neville Street in Oakland. Later, her body was taken to New York, where fans came to pay homage for days. Her casket was eventually loaded onto a ship headed to Italy.

In 1949, on the 25th anniversary of her death, a special plaque was installed at the Hotel Schenley; you still can find it in the marble-paneled lobby of the Pitt Student Union. Another plaque honoring her hangs in the School of Drama at Carnegie Mellon University. 


Hot Reads

From Field to Fork

From Field to Fork

We put together this dynamic guide to help you find and engage with the region’s sustainable producers of meat, honey, alcohol, fruits and vegetables.
Sometimes Your Best Friends in Life Aren't on Facebook

Sometimes Your Best Friends in Life Aren't on Facebook

PittGirl wonders if it's still possible to raise kids to be big-hearted people in an age of self-obsession.
Review: Café Zinho

Review: Café Zinho

Seasoned chef and entrepreneur Toni Pais continues to impress folks who dine at his longstanding Mediterranean establishment, Café Zinho.
City Guide: 200+ Fun Things to Do (No Matter Where You Are)

City Guide: 200+ Fun Things to Do (No Matter Where You Are)

We explore every inch of Allegheny County (and beyond) for a look at the communities where we live, work and play.

The 412

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Pittsburgh's Polo Scene

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Pittsburgh's Polo Scene

(Yes, there's a polo scene).
A Pitt Computer Team Just Proved a 400-Year-Old Theory

A Pitt Computer Team Just Proved a 400-Year-Old Theory

Hundreds of years after Johannes Kepler presented a theory on how to best stack spherical objects, Pitt reps confirm that the German mathematician was correct.
Next Month, the City of Pittsburgh Will Turn Into the Best Gym Class Ever

Next Month, the City of Pittsburgh Will Turn Into the Best Gym Class Ever

Act like a kid again at the City of Play Best Games Fest.
5 Painless Pittsburgh Running Routes

5 Painless Pittsburgh Running Routes

If you’re going to sweat, you might as well enjoy some beautiful views of the city.

Hot Reads

From Field to Fork

From Field to Fork

We put together this dynamic guide to help you find and engage with the region’s sustainable producers of meat, honey, alcohol, fruits and vegetables.
Review: Café Zinho

Review: Café Zinho

Seasoned chef and entrepreneur Toni Pais continues to impress folks who dine at his longstanding Mediterranean establishment, Café Zinho.
Sometimes Your Best Friends in Life Aren't on Facebook

Sometimes Your Best Friends in Life Aren't on Facebook

PittGirl wonders if it's still possible to raise kids to be big-hearted people in an age of self-obsession.
City Guide: 200+ Fun Things to Do (No Matter Where You Are)

City Guide: 200+ Fun Things to Do (No Matter Where You Are)

We explore every inch of Allegheny County (and beyond) for a look at the communities where we live, work and play.
6 More Things You Might Not Know About Pittsburgh

6 More Things You Might Not Know About Pittsburgh

PittGirl's at it again — this time with a list of a half-dozen fun facts you'll want to mention at your next cocktail party.
'Which Neighborhood Should I Live In?'

'Which Neighborhood Should I Live In?'

We pick the perfect neighborhood for six breeds of ’Burgher.