Dame May Whitty DBE (19 June 1865 – 29 May 1948) was an English stage actress who appeared in numerous films in later life, achieving recognition in several character roles.
Born in Liverpool to William Alfred Whitty (c. 1837–1876) and Mary Louisa (née Ashton, ca. 1837–1894), she made her first stage appearance in Liverpool in 1881, later moving to London to appear in the West End.
She married actor-manager Ben Webster in 1892 in St Giles's Parish Church, London, and in 1895 they visited the United States, where Whitty appeared on Broadway. Their first child, a son, died at birth. Their only surviving child, a daughter born in the USA in 1905, Margaret Webster, was a stage actress and held dual US/UK citizenship. Whitty's stage career continued for the rest of her life. In March 1910, she made her transition to middle-aged and elderly character roles, playing Amelia Madras in Harley Granville-Barker's four-act comedy The Madras House.
In 1918, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE, gazetted under her legal married name Mary Louise Webster) in recognition of her charitable work during World War I. She was the first film and stage actress to receive a damehood, along with opera singer Nellie Melba, who were both so honoured in 1918.
I have everything Betty Grable has—I've just had it longer.
She made her first major Hollywood film appearance recreating her stage role in the film Night Must Fall (1937), which also starred Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell, and received a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. This led to several supporting roles in films, including that of the 'vanishing lady', "Miss Froy", in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938).
She moved permanently to the USA (although she never became a U.S. citizen) in 1939 and appeared both on stage and in Hollywood films, usually playing wealthy dowagers. It was one such part, as "Lady Beldon" in Mrs Miniver (1942), that brought her a second Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
She continued to act for the remainder of her life and died in Beverly Hills, California, from cancer at the age of 82; her husband had died the previous year during surgery.