Charlotte Mignon (Lotta) Crabtree was born in 1847 in New York City but grew up in the wild Gold Rush town of Grass Valley, California. At the age of eight, her mother Mary Ann embarked her on a theatrical career which made her a child star throughout gold country. However, it was the theaters of San Francisco which brought her to a real stage for the first time and started her on the road to fame.
The American theatre of the mid 19th century was quite a bit different than today and Lotta’s early act included dancing, singing, and banjo playing. Lotta’s mother served as her manager and collected all of Lotta’s earnings in gold. Lotta was soon a favorite in San Francisco and at age 16 she and her family set off to conquer the rest of America. In April 1864, Lotta performed a farewell show in San Francisco and the Crabtree’s sailed back to New York. From here she began touring the country and by the 1870’s she had become America’s favorite actress. It was said that if you put Lotta’s name on the program it was sure to be a hit.
Lotta began playing roles in plays such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. With her petite size, she became a favorite for her portrayals of children (often male). Lotta’s act remained remarkably consistent throughout the years. She sang up-tempo tunes and ballads, danced energetically and made slightly naughty asides (some books suggest she mastered the double entendre long before Mae West). The New York Times called her the “eternal child” and throughout the 1870’s and 1880’s she was “the nation’s darling.” She was described by critics as mischievous, unpredictable, impulsive, rattlebrained, teasing, piquant, rollicking, cheerful and devilish. In New York City, Lotta became the “belle of Broadway.” “The face of a beautiful doll and the ways of a playful kitten,” reported The New York Times. Lotta never married. Some said her mother would not allow it as it would end her ability to be considered forever young. But the redhead never lacked admirers. In fact, newspapers frequently ran articles about the “the loves of Lotta.”
Lotta’s association with Lake Hopatcong began in the 1880’s. When not on tour, Lotta and her mother lived in an apartment on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Their neighbors and close friends were Mr. & Mrs. Robert Dunlap. Mr. Dunlap owned a very fashionable men’s hat store located at street level in the building. Dunlap’s store sold hats to New York’s wealthiest gentlemen such as J.P. Morgan, Jay Gould and John Jacob Aster and he had close acquaintances throughout New York City’s rich and famous. It was in this manner that he became involved with a development being planned in the hills of northwestern New Jersey. In the 1880’s, Lake Hopatcong was just beginning to develop as a resort and a group of wealthy gentlemen conceived the idea of constructing a very exclusive resort at the lake. Dunlap was a key member of this group. While the development centered around hotel magnate William Breslin’s massive hotel, it featured a colony of millionaires “cottages” built around the hotel to be known as “Breslin Park.” Dunlap built one of the first cottages and Mary Ann Crabree worked with Dunlap to purchase a choice parcel in Breslin Park to build a grand summer cottage as a surprise gift for Lotta. Lotta’s cottage was one of the finest built in Breslin Park – an 18 room mansion with a wine cellar, billiard room, music room, library, beautiful fireplaces, and sweeping verandas. The house was designed by the famous Philadelphia architect Frank Furness and Mary Ann was involved in all of the planning including the ornate furnishings. She named the house “Attol (Lotta spelled backwards) Tryst.”
Lotta used the lake as a place to rest and entertain in the summers when most theaters went dark. She was Lake Hopatcong’s most famous resident for many years and was often seen around the Breslin Hotel and Mount Arlington. When Lotta retired from the stage in 1892 at the age of 42 she was America’s wealthiest actress and newspapers reported that she had retired to her Lake Hopatcong estate. She owned a motorboat and sailboat on the lake which she stored in the large boat house fronting on Van Every Cove. Her brother Jack loved visiting her at the lake and even brought a steam launch from Boston to the lake via the Morris Canal in 1895.
As Lotta’s mother’s health declined, Lotta’s use of the Lake Hopatcong house declined. She sold the house after her mother’s death in 1905, ending a twenty year “run” at the lake. In the ensuing years, Lotta still maintained a relationship with Lake Hopatcong and her friends at the lake, last visiting in the fall of 1922. Lotta died September 25, 1924, one of the wealthiest woman in America. Her money was all left to charities and the Lotta Crabtree Trust still operates to this day. At the lake, some 100 years after she sold “Attol Tryst,” the house still proudly stands on Edgemere Avenue. Wonderfully maintained and restored in recent years, the house is a great tribute to one of America’s greatest stars.
Copyright 2009 Lake Hopatcong Historical Museum