Mary William Ethelbert Appleton, known as Billie Burke, she toured the United States and Europe with her father, the singer and clown Billy Burke. Her family ultimately settled in London where she was fortunate to see plays in London's West End. In 1903, she began acting on stage, making her debut in London in The School Girl. She eventually returned to America to become the toast of Broadway as a musical comedy star.
Burke went on to play leads on Broadway in Mrs. Dot, Suzanne, The Runaway, The "Mind-the-Paint" Girl, and The Land of Promise from 1910 to 1913, along with a supporting role in the revival of Sir Arthur Wing Pinero's The Amazons. There she caught the eye of producer Florenz Ziegfeld, marrying him in 1914. In 1916, they had one daughter, Patricia Ziegfeld Stephenson (1916–2008).Burke was quickly signed for the movies, making her film debut in the title role of Peggy (1916). She continued to appear on the stage, and sometimes she starred on the screen. She loved the stage more than movie-business, not only because it was her first love, but also because it allowed her to have speaking parts (impossible in silent movies). But when the family's savings were wiped out in the Crash of 1929, she had no choice but to return to the screen.
In 1932, Burke made her Hollywood comeback, starring as Margaret Fairfield in A Bill of Divorcement, directed by George Cukor. (Burke played Katharine Hepburn's mother in the film, which was Hepburn's debut). Despite the death of Florenz Ziegfeld during the film's production, Burke resumed filming shortly after his funeral.
In 1933, Burke was cast as Mrs. Millicent Jordan, a scatterbrained high-society woman hosting a dinner party in the comedy Dinner at Eight, directed by George Cukor, co-starring with Lionel Barrymore, Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery. The movie was a great success, and revived Burke's career. She subsequently starred in many comedies and musicals, typecast as a ditzy, fluffy and feather-brained upper-class matron with her high-pitched voice.
In 1936, MGM filmed a sanitized biopic of Florenz Ziegfeld (The Great Ziegfeld), a film that won Academy Awards for Best Picture andBest Actress (Luise Rainer as Ziegfeld's common-law wife, Anna Held). William Powell played Flo Ziegfeld and Myrna Loy played Burke.
In 1937 she appeared in the first of the Topper films, about a man haunted by two socialite ghosts (played by Cary Grant and Constance Bennett), in which she played the tremulous and daffy Clara Topper. Her performance as Emily Kilbourne in Merrily We Live (1938) resulted in her only Oscar nomination. In 1938 she was chosen to play Glinda, "the Good Witch of the North", in the musical The Wizard of Oz (1939), directed by Victor Fleming, with Judy Garland. Burke had worked on a Garland film, Everybody Sing, in which she played Judy's histrionically hysterical actress-mother. Another successful film series followed with Father of the Bride (1950) and Father's Little Dividend (1951), both directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Spencer Tracy, Joan Bennett, and Elizabeth Taylor.
Burke wrote two autobiographies, both with Cameron Van Shippe, With a Feather on My Nose (Appleton 1949) and With Powder on My Nose (Coward McCann, 1959).
Radio and television
On CBS Radio, The Billie Burke Show was heard on Saturday mornings from April 3, 1943 until September 21, 1946. Sponsored by Listerine, thissituation comedy was initially titled Fashions in Rations during its first year. Portraying herself as a featherbrained Good Samaritan who lived "in the little white house on Sunnyview Lane," she always offered a helping hand to those in her neighborhood. She worked often in early television, appearing in the short-lived sitcom Doc Corkle (1952). She was a guest star on several TV and radio series, including Duffy's Tavern.
On television, Burke starred in her own talk show, At Home With Billie Burke, which ran on The Dumont Network from June 1951 through the spring of 1952. Burke may have been the first female talk show host.
Burke tried to make a comeback on the New York stage. She starred in two short-lived productions: This Rock and Mrs. January and Mr. Ex. Although Burke got good reviews, the plays did not. She appeared in several plays in California as well, although her mind became clouded, and she had trouble remembering lines. In the late 1950s, her failing memory led to her retirement from show business, although her explanation for that was, "Acting just wasn't any fun anymore."
Her last screen appearance was in Sergeant Rutledge (1960), a Western directed by John Ford.
Burke was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as Emily Kilbourne in Merrily We Live.
Burke was the wife of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., of Ziegfeld Follies fame, from 1914 until his death. She resided in Beverly Hills, California. She died in Los Angeles of natural causes, aged 85, in 1970 and was interred at Kensico Cemetery, Valhalla, Westchester County, New York, survived by her daughter, Patricia, and four grandchildren.