In February of 1932, actress Dorothy Gish was starring on Broadway in a George M. Cohan production of The Bride the Sun Shines On. On Saturday, February 6, she became ill with influenza and couldn’t perform. Elinor Harriot, a 22-year-old actress from Duluth who had a small role in the play, went on in Dorothy’s place for the matinee and evening performances. She had just an hour’s notice to prepare. It is said that the cast rewarded Elinor with a string of amber beads for her success, and it marked the start of an accomplished acting career.
Elinor was born Eleanor Harriet Hirschfield in Duluth on August 30, 1910, the youngest of three daughters of Dr. Max and Edith Hirschfield. Max, who was born in Russia and immigrated to the U.S. in 1885, earned his medical degree in St. Paul with the help of his brother Adolph, also a physician. Edith was born in Germany in 1880 and came to the U.S. in 1881. She was a student in Minneapolis when she met Max, and they were married in Minneapolis on June 10, 1903, at a ceremony in Adolph’s home on Lyndale Avenue. The couple moved to Duluth the following year.
As a child, Eleanor was interested in performing. She took dance lessons from an early age at the Nellie M. Stoughton school, along with her older sisters, Annette and Beatrice. At four years of age, she appeared in a skit as Charlie Chaplin. In sixth grade, Eleanor gave a recitation for the Jefferson School PTA. At Central High School, she was involved in a variety of activities. She starred in the senior class play, Dulcy, a 1921 comedy by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, playing the title character Dulcinea Smith. She belonged to the Philomatheon Club, a literary and service organization open only to senior girls, and the Mask and Wig Club, which devoted itself to dramatics and presented several one-act plays. And she twice participated in the state declamation (speech) competition. She graduated from Central in 1927.
Eleanor next attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison. While there she met fellow student and future actor Don Ameche. Leaving college after a year, she traveled around the country appearing in plays with stock companies. By October of 1929, she had landed in New York with a part in The Bonds of Interest with Walter Hampden at Hampden’s Theater. By then she had taken the stage name Elinor Harriot. Three years later she filled in for Dorothy Gish in The Bride the Sun Shines On.
In 1933, Elinor moved to Chicago to take on radio acting jobs, including the daily soap operas Backstage Wife, Bachelor’s Children, and The Couple Next Door. She worked on other radio shows as well, including The Story of Mary Marlin, The Diary of Jimmy Mattern, and as Sally the hatcheck girl on Jan Garber’s Supper Club. She was the voice of several sponsors including Old Dutch Cleanser and Munsingwear. In 1935, Elinor got two big breaks. In April she signed a long-term contract with NBC and later that year she appeared on NBC’s hit radio show Amos ’n’ Andy. She made her first appearance on the show on Christmas Day of 1935 as Ruby Taylor, the wife of Amos—and the first female to appear on the show. Subsequently, Elinor also portrayed Arabella (Amos’s baby), Mrs. Kingfish, and a six-year-old girl adopted by Andy.
The Amos ‘n’ Andy show moved from Chicago during the winter of 1936–1937 to broadcast from Palm Springs, California. It was there Elinor met Frank Nathan, a very successful Los Angeles insurance salesman. Frank sold multi-million-dollar policies to movie stars and publishers and is thought to have been the role model for Robert Young’s character in the TV series Father Knows Best. Elinor and Frank were married on August 18, 1937, after which Elinor resigned from Amos ’n’ Andy. The Nathans lived in Beverly Hills and raised two daughters, Judy and Nancy. Elinor’s parents both died in California, Max on September 5, 1943, while visiting her in Beverly Hills, and Edith on September 16, 1966, having presumably moved there to be with her daughter.
Elinor returned to perform on Amos ’n’ Andy in 1943, and by that time become very active in Beverly Hills community life. In addition to volunteering with the PTA, she was elected for two four-year terms on the Beverly Hills Board of Education. Later she was appointed to the board of Pitzer College, one of the Claremont Colleges, and she and Frank were instrumental in raising funds to create the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
Elinor died on June 10, 2000, in Beverly Hills at the age of 89.