A Granddaughter in Vienna

Naturally before writing my biography of nineteenth century conwoman, Sophie Lyons, I researched her life extensively. I was successful in tracing the lives of her various husbands and children. But one notable exception to my success was Sophie’s third daughter, Charlotte Lyons, known as Lotta Belmont.

Born 1875 in Montreal, Canada, Lotta arrived during a turbulent time in the life of her mother. Sophie and her husband, Ned Lyons, were on the run from American law enforcement after having managed a dramatic escape from Sing Sing Penitentiary in December 1872. Ned and Sophie weren’t getting along when Lotta was born, and they would later divorce. I suspected that Lotta may have been the daughter of another New York criminal, a handsome man named Frederick Bennett, who sometimes used the alias Frank Belmont.

With her mother in and out of prison, Lotta had a turbulent childhood. At one point, Sophie even temporarily lost custody of Lotta. By 1891 Sophie and 16-year-old Lotta were living in a boarding house in the Marylebone, a district in London. Lotta was apparently training to be an opera singer. Sophie had just had her seventh and final child, Sophia Brady, with her soon-to-vanish husband, a notorious bank robber named Jim Brady.

After dropping baby Sophia off with a nanny in France, Sophie returned to her home in Detroit, Michigan. Lotta remained in London on her own, presumably to continue her stage training. Over the next few years she began to have success on the London stage, appearing regularly in small roles at the Prince of Wales Theatre, a West End theater in Coventry Street. Her performing career, it seemed, was taking off.

The last newspaper mention of Lotta’s presence on the London stage was in 1898. In March 1901 she was recorded on the census as living at a boarding house in Chelsea and pursuing “stage/art” as an occupation, possibly in less notable roles that didn’t make the news. But after 1901 she simply vanished from the records and did not reappear for 20 years. Just before Christmas in 1921, she turned up at a workhouse in Britten Street, Chelsea, impoverished and in need of food and shelter. According to the workhouse’s records, she’d been working as a teacher of foreign languages before she fell on hard times.

The Prince of Wales Theatre, c. 1884.

Back in Detroit, Sophie had often bragged to American reporters that her daughter was very successful as a stage performer. When she made her will, in 1922, she stated that Lotta was working as an opera singer at a hotel in Geneva, Switzerland. I was unable to verify any of Sophie’s claims about her favorite daughter. But workhouse records proved that Lotta had given up performing long before 1922. After Sophie died in 1924, the executors of her estate couldn’t locate Lotta, so her small inheritance went uncollected.

Recently a new record appeared on Ancestry.com that revealed a little more of Lotta’s story and confirmed what I had suspected: She had a child under difficult circumstances. Marie Leontine Belmont was born in Vienna, Austria in 1902. The Catholic Church in Vienna recorded the baby’s christening in December 1903. Born at 24 Magdalenenstrasse on December 18th, she was illegitimate; her father’s name was left blank on her christening record. Hand-written notes on the record indicate that Marie Leontine’s surname was changed to Mareš in 1905. In 1918, Zdenko Mareš and his wife, Elsa Erna Zervas, officially adopted the girl. It’s likely she lived with them by 1905 and maybe even earlier. Possibly the law required waiting until she turned 16 for her formal adoption to take place.

The left side of the christening record (in German) of Marie Leontine Belmont.
The right side of the christening record. Information about the adoption is at written in at the bottom. The first column (for the father’s name) has been left blank.

Why Lotta had the baby in Austria is a mystery. Had she been pursuing her singing career there? Was the baby’s father Austrian? Sophie was born in Germany, and she made sure her daughters learned to speak German and French, so the language would not have been a barrier. The artistic and intellectual culture of turn-of-the-century Vienna might have been a draw for a woman who loved music and opera.

Lotta would have have struggled to support herself and her little girl. Bearing a child out of wedlock, then losing custody of her, would have been a terrible ordeal, reminiscent of her own mother losing custody of her, albeit temporarily, when she was a child. Could this be what drove Lotta to the fringes of society after such a hopeful start to her life? No records have yet come to light that might help sort out what happened after Marie Leontine was born. I have requested a search of the archives in Vienna, and if more relevant information is found, I will make another post. For now all that’s known is that Lotta died in a charity hospital in Chelsea, London in 1935, three days after she turned 60.

Magdalenenstrasse, the street where Marie Leontine Belmont was born, c. 1908.

And what about Sophie? Did she know she had a granddaughter in Vienna? Did they meet on one of Sophie’s many trips to Europe during the early 20th century? If they did meet, Sophie never mentioned it to a reporter or in her memoirs. And she didn’t include her granddaughter in her will.

Hopefully Marie Leontine had a good life with her adoptive family. Maybe she never even knew about her notorious grandmother.

[First image: Lotta in The Sketch, a British illustrated weekly journal, photo circa 1898, collection of the author; illustration of The Prince of Wales Theatre, circa 1884, V&A Museum; third and fourth images: the christening record of Marie Leontine Belmont, Archiv de Erzdiözese Wien via Ancestry.com; fifth image: postcard image of Magdalenenstrasse, Wikimedia Commons.]

5 thoughts on “A Granddaughter in Vienna

    1. Thank you! It’s good to be back. When she entered the workhouse in 1921 she was listed as a “spinster.” Her death certificate has her name as “Charlotte Belmont” so I don’t think she ever married. But you’re right! She would have had many admirers!

      Liked by 1 person

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