Skip to main content


William A. Brady

July 2024
4min read

Few men have looked more like what they were than William Aloysius Brady. The canny figure on the opposite page, comfortable in the insolent swank of his Broadway suit, could not possibly be a soldier, or an inventor, or a statesman. He could only be a showman.

On his seventy-fifth birthday, in 1938, Brady said he had produced over 260 plays. And along the way he found time to manage wrestlers, bicycle races, a full-scale simulation of a Boer War battle—and two world heavyweight boxing champions. He knew every theatrical figure of his day, fought with a good many of them, and was possessed, according to a contemporary, of “more charm than was right for any one man to have.”

He began making and losing fortunes back, as he put it, “when the nineteenth century was still a going concern.” Although he occasionally sank horrifying amounts of money into a turkey, and once explained to the young Adolph Zukor that movies were “just a fad,” he had far more than his share of hits. In one of his two autobiographies (modesty was not a desirable trait in his calling), he gave his recipe for success: “Never tackle anything but champions. Nothing else is worthwhile.”

The man who casually tossed off that dictum could scarcely have had a less promising start in life. Born in 1863 to a San Francisco newspaperman, Brady was three years old when his father kidnapped him and brought him to New York City. There the elder Brady made a miserable living as a free-lance writer while his son sold newspapers and learned to use his fists along the Bowery. When Brady was in his teens, his father died in a fall under the el. The boy bummed his way west to Omaha, where he got a job as a candy butcher on the Southern Pacific. (Recalling this in 1910, he wrote with satisfaction that “I am to-day paying the railroads of the United States something like four hundred thousand dollars a year for the transporting of my companies. …”)

Eventually he made his way back to San Francisco, where he managed to inveigle a job as callboy in a rouser called The White Slave . When one of the stars fell ill, Brady, following a tradition hoary even then, stepped forward and announced that he knew the lines. He got the part, and with it “a swelled head that wouldn’t have gone through a man-hole without shoving. ”

His move into management, he said, “had a good deal to do with the old-time tradition of piracy and plagiarism.” He cobbled together a gaudy version of H. Rider Haggard’s She , started to take it East, but on the way met a still gaudier production of the show steaming west with a cast headed by William Gillette. Outclassed, he abandoned She in favor of After Dark , a melodrama he had bought from Dion Boucicault back on the Coast. It wasn’t really Boucicault’s to sell, though, and when Brady opened in New York he got slapped with an injunction by the prominent producer Augustin DaIy, who claimed that the climactic scene—the last-minute rescue of a man strapped to the railroad tracks—had been stolen from his own show, Under the Gaslight . The pugnacious Brady chose to fight. He twice took the suit to the supreme court and, though he lost, he made a good deal of money from the contested show.

“I figured,” he wrote, “it was about time I got something good and hung on to it awhile. And in due time I found it. Its name was James J. Corbett. ” Corbett had gained a reputation as a pretty fair fighter when Brady hired him at $150 a week to play a role in After Dark . Brady nurtured the idea of using Corbett to topple the great John L. Sullivan: “I was convinced I had the new era of boxing right in my hand in the person of Corbett, who was to Sullivan what the first rifle was to a smooth-bore musket.” He badgered the Boston strong-boy—who hadn’t fought in six years—into issuing a challenge. The match was set for September 7, 1892, in New Orleans.

Betting was running five-to-one for the champion when Brady and Corbett arrived in the city, and Brady’s nerve began to fail. He had, after all, never managed a fighter before, and had seen only one fight in his entire life. He chose to put three thousand dollars on Sullivan as a hedge, but in the end decided it was a Jonah bet, and backed his own man. Waiting for the fighters to enter the ring, Brady was so nervous that he ate a palm-leaf fan. He needn’t have fretted. Corbett fought with a supple, darting style that confounded his ponderous opponent. “That,” wrote Brady, “was the end of the professional career of the so-called invincible John L. It had taken Corbett twenty-one rounds to do the job. He could have done it in three.”

The exultant Brady immediately put his man on the boards in a show called Gentleman Jack , which he optimistically had prepared before the bout, and cast about for other properties. He found a promising one when a booking agent approached him with a show that his wife had written called Annie Laurie . Brady set about reworking it. It took two years before it “began to sit up and smile at us,” but when he finally got it rolling under the title of Way Down East , the show ran for a generation. “Cleveland never went for it, nor Kansas City nor Toledo. But in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Chicago and the one-night-stand country all over she was a little daisy.” In time, the play brought in a million dollars.

Brady occasionally tried to sever himself from the sporting world, but he couldn’t quite make the break. It was a schizophrenic career: he recalled managing Jim Jeffries in a bout at Coney Island one night, and opening a new production of King Lear the next. He was in charge of Jeffries when he took the title from Bob Fitzsimmons in 1899.

That same year he married the actress Grace George. “No two people,” recalled the director Guthrie McClintic, “ever battled more in the theater.” Once, during a rehearsal, Brady bellowed out from the orchestra, “I don’t get your last word.” His wife rounded on him. “You wouldn’t anyway, it’s French.” But, McClintic added, “no two people I ever knew battled … with better results.” Brady knew how to get the best out of actors, and his relentless hectoring helped make his wife one of the foremost stars of her era.

Brady kept turning out hits until 1929, when the stock market crash wiped out his entire fortune. But the resilient old showman had been through it all before—“if you couldn t starve well on occasion,” he once wrote, “you didn’t belong in the old-time theater”—and he scraped together six thousand dollars to mount a show by Elmer Rice that every manager in New York had passed over. It was called Street Scene : it ran for six hundred performances, took the Pulitzer prize, and made him half a million dollars.

When Brady died in 1950, his wife of half a century showed the old professional grit that had drawn them together in the first place. She left his deathbed and hurried downtown to the Booth Theater to take her place in that evening’s performance of The Velvet Glove .

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.