Caroline Louise Dudley (June 10, 1862 – November 13, 1937) was an American silent film and stage actress who used her married name, Mrs. Leslie Carter, as her stage name to spite her former husband. She was called "The American Sarah Bernhardt".
At the time of her 1880 marriage in Dayton to lawyer Leslie Carter, a Chicago millionaire, she was considered a great belle, as she was a strikingly beautiful girl with great vivacity. They had one child, a son, Dudley Carter. In 1887 she filed for divorce on the grounds of physical assault and abandonment, but in 1889, Mr. Carter obtained the divorce naming an actor as correspondent. Son Dudley chose to live with his mother and was cut out of his father's will as a result. Press coverage of the trial was suppressed, but the filing and results were front page scandal.
Describing to an interviewer his first meeting with Mrs. Carter, David Belasco was quoted: "I saw before me a pale, slender girl with a mass of red hair and green eyes gleaming under black brows. She began to cry, and then she smiled. Her gestures were full of unconscious grace and her voice vibrated with musical sweetness."
Her association with Broadway impresario Belasco skyrocketed her to theatrical fame. Her first hit was as the lead character in The Heart of Maryland (1895), a huge hit that was followed by the even more sensational Zaza (1898) and Madame Du Barry (1901). In The Heart of Maryland, she wore a wig with six-foot tresses. Her great scene came as the heroine swinging in the belfry tower, her hands gripping the clapper to prevent the ringing of a huge curfew bell. The sensational swinging out of Mrs. Carter thirty-five feet above the stage with off-stage fans sending her long tresses streaming set New York audiences cheering.
Carter became her generation's greatest dramatic actress. When she broke with Belasco in 1906 after her surprise remarriage, she was already considered a relic and abandoned Broadway in favor of vaudeville. In July 1906, she married actor (William) Louis Payne (1875 – August 17, 1955) who was often her leading man on stage, and later managed her business affairs. They adopted a daughter, Mary Carter Payne.
In 1915, pioneer producer George Kleine hired her to recreate Madame Du Barry for the motion picture cameras. She was already in her fifties and too old for the part, but it was nevertheless followed by a screen version of her first success, the civil war melodrama The Heart of Maryland. Neither film was a success. Her last stage hit was as a decayed coquette, in Somerset Maugham’s drawing-room comedy, The Circle, in 1921.
Returning to vaudeville, Carter's career collapsed in 1926 when she was fired during a Newark, New Jersey, tryout of The Shanghai Gesture, in which she had been cast as Mother Goddam. As she owned a half-interest in the show, which went on to be a Broadway success, she received half the royalties. She appeared in the road version of the show after its New York run.
She died in 1937 at Santa Monica, California of heart disease. She is buried in Woodland Cemetery, Dayton, Ohio in the family plot with her second husband, her son Dudley, several other Dudley and Payne family members.
Carter's ascendancy in the theatrical world was fictionalized and sensationalized, in The Lady With Red Hair (1940). Kay Francis and Bette Davis in turn had been slated for the role, but it was Miriam Hopkins who portrayed her. Claude Rains portrayed David Belasco. Second husband Louis Payne was a technical adviser on the film. Louis Payne died in 1955 at the Motion Picture Country Home.