“The woman Matthews writes letters which show her to be a person of an odious mind.” – Sir Maurice Hill
Once upon a time it was fair to say that Jessie Matthews was one of the most famous women in the country. Before the Second World War she was easily Britain’s biggest film star by far. Today, except for the eldest amongst us and a blue plaque on the wall of the Blue Post pub on the corner of Berwick Street, she is now almost completely forgotten.
She was born on March 11 in 1907, in a small, cramped and overcrowded flat above a Butcher’s shop in Soho’s Berwick Street. Matthews was the sixth of eleven children and her father was a costermonger in the market for which Berwick Street is still famous. Twenty years later, with elocution lessons having removed her natural cockney accent, the saucer-eyed actress took the West End by storm.
In 1927, already a star, Jessie Matthews was booked to perform in the 29 year old Noel Coward’s new revue This Year of Grace. Her co-star in the production was a bespectacled and short comic actor called Sonnie Hale who was married to the regally beautiful blonde actress called Evelyn Laye. Laye was seven years older than Matthews and was an extraordinarily popular West End singer and actress at the time.
Evelyn Laye held a small supper party, at the end of 1927, for her close friends at Soho’s recently opened Gargoyle Club. The guests included the actress Ruby Miller and the young actor Frank Lawton. After one of the rehearsals for This Year of Grace her husband brought along his young, pretty and dangerously charming co-star (the Sunday Times’ theatre critic James Agate would later describe Matthews as ‘the rogue in porcelain’).
Matthews was already married at this time, unfortunately to a womanising debt-ridden actor called Henry Lytton Junior. She had married Lytton, who was from a famous theatrical family to seek stability in a life which must have seemed completely unreal to her at her young age. His family also offered social advantages to the young actress that her working-class upbringing would have lacked.
Their wedding occured only eighteen months after she had been initially courted and then raped at the age of sixteen by a louche, handsome Argentinean friend of the Prince of Wales called Jorge Ferrara. He must appeared utterly sophisticated and seemingly from another world when the extremely innocent Matthews met him on a ship to New York where she was to appear on Broadway as an understudy for Gertrude Lawrence.
When Jessie returned to London she had a secret and illegal abortion from which she never really recovered psychologically (and maybe physically as she suffered from miscarriages though out her life). She made fourteen films during the thirties and maybe had as many breakdowns. She later wrote in her autobiography; “All my life I have been frightened.”
Unfortunately the stability she sought in her marriage started to crumble after just eight months when Lytton, who had not only had been sleeping with chorus girls behind Matthews’ back (indeed he’d been having an affair with one girl in particular from the very week they had been married), had started to become increasingly envious of her growing success.
At the Gargoyle club, situated in Meard Street – a stone’s throw from Berwick Street – a friendly Laye (at least on the surface) genially greeted Matthews when she arrived with her husband. The two women would have previously met at theatrical parties but they didn’t know each other well and sitting at the table facing each other, observers of the two well-known actresses would have noted how they contrasted in looks and temperament.
The blue-eyed blonde Laye was tall, cool and sophisticated but maybe slightly aloof (Sonnie would later say that she was sexually frigid), although certainly not classically beautiful, Matthews’ brown pageboy fringe and huge sparkling eyes contributed to a sexual attractiveness and zest for life that most men found utterly irresistible.
They both had one thing in common, however, and that was their love for, it has to be said less than Greek, Sonnie Hale.
Early in the new year of 2008 Evelyn Laye had travelled up to Manchester where Coward’s This Year of Grace was previewing and on arriving she accidentally caught her husband and Jessie holding hands. The co-stars rather to0 quickly and expeditiously unclasped the hands on seeing her. Laye pretending to joke, asked whether they were in love with each other, to which they laughingly assured her that the idea was absurd and foolish. It was, as Sonnie pointed out, less than a month to their second anniversary.
Although genuinely upset and confused, Jessie and Sonnie were lying. They had been lovers for several weeks.
This Year of Grace opened to rave reviews both for Jessie and for the writer Noel Coward (it resurrected his career). The Sunday Express ironically ranked Jessie Matthews with Evelyn Laye as ‘the brightest female stars on our English light musical stage’. This would have really rankled Laye, who saw herself as London’s reigning stage beauty, and it only got worse when Room With A Veiw a song from This Year of Grace became a huge hit that summer and it would have been played on every radio show and in every night club.
A few weeks later Evelyn Laye found passionate and rather explicitly detailed love letters, albeit in an ill-educated childish scrawl, from Jessie to her husband. After confronting Hale with them, he admitted his love with Matthews, and it wasn’t long before Laye moved out of the Hale home in Linden Gardens and moved into a small flat in South Audley Street in Mayfair.
On the 2nd June 1930 the decree nisi granted, in absence to Jessie Matthews against Henry Lytton, was made absolute. Five weeks later in the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, Evelyn Laye’s divorce petition came before Sir Maurice Hill – a judge who was close to retirement but particularly averse, in almost a prehistoric fashion, to divorce.
Evelyn Laye wasn’t present as she was filming One Heavenly Night in Hollywood, however, and against all advice, Jessie Matthews decided to attend. She realised her mistake when her letters to Sonnie were read out in open court:
‘My Darling, I want you and need you badly, all of you, and for a very long time. I am lying here, waiting for you to possess me. The dear little boobs, which you love so much, are waiting for you also.’
At one point Jessie Matthews fainted during the reading of one letter and had to be helped outside but this didn’t help with the brutal severity of the judge’s final comments:
‘It is quite clear that the husband admits himself to be a cad, and nobody will quarrel with that, and the woman Matthews writes letters which show her to be a person of an odious mind.’
Jessie Matthews and Evelyn Laye, not surprisingly, hardly spoke to each other again – quite difficult, one suspects, in the relatively small world in which they lived and worked. In January 1931 Sonnie Hale and Jessie Matthews married at Hampstead registry office.
After all the scandal that the relationship had caused it wasn’t a particularly long and happy marriage and Jessie had many affairs including Salvador Dali during a holiday in Barcelona, and the bisexual actors Tyrone Power and Danny Kaye.
It was while she was performing with Kaye in a disastrous Broadway musical that Matthews had the worst of her breakdowns and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. She was diagnosed with chronic paranoid schizophrenia and the hospital reported to Hale that she was ‘on the edge of madness’.
When Jessie returned to Britain she found out that Hale had fallen in love with the nanny who had been employed to look after their adoptive daughter and a year later they were divorced.
Jessie Matthews never retained the popularity of her pre-war years. Her style of dancing and singing appeared old fashioned not helped by the cut-glass accent caused from her elocution lessons from when she was a teenager.
By 1970, when she was awarded an OBE, she had become, if not fat, slightly more rotund and matronly than in her lithe graceful days as an actress and dancer during the twenties and thirties. Around this time Evelyn Laye, seeing her perform at an all-star charity gala, said waspishly:
‘Oh look, the dear little boobs have become apple dumplings.’
Evelyn Laye married again in 1936 to the handsome young actor Frank Lawton who ironically had been at the late supper at the Gargoyle club where Laye and Matthews had first formerly met. They were happily married until Lawton’s death in 1969 and Evelyn continued to work in the theatre until well into her nineties.
Evelyn Laye in One Heavenly Night
Jessie Matthews in Evergreen
Jessie Matthews in First a Girl
A lot of the information for this post has come from the biography of Jessie Matthews by Michael Thornton which although out of print can be found here.
Two songs made famous by Jessie Matthews sang by two of her contemporaries:
Jessie Matthews DVDs and music can be bought here
Evelyn Laye music can be bought here, alas copies of her films seem to be short on the ground, although apparently her acting style, like Jessie’s singing, has dated somewhat. It’s safe to say that her extraordinary beauty certainly hasn’t.