Posts Tagged ‘divorce’

Berwick Street, and the rivals in love – Jessie Matthews and Evelyn Laye

Sunday, April 5th, 2009

“The woman Matthews writes letters which show her to be a person of an odious mind.” – Sir Maurice Hill

Jessie Matthews as a boy

Jessie Matthews as a boy in ‘First A Girl’.

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 often voted Britain’s favourite film-star. 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 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. The sixth of eleven children 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.

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Early 20th century views of Berwick Street

Jessie aged 16 appearing in the Music Box revue

Jessie aged 16 appearing in the Music Box revue

In 1927, at the age of twenty already a West-End 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.

Already a West End star, the 17 year old Evelyn Laye 1917

Already a West End star, the 17 year old Evelyn Laye in 1917

Evelyn Laye

Evelyn Laye

Evelyn Laye and Sonny Hale at their wedding in 1926

Evelyn Laye and Sonny Hale at their wedding in 1926

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 occurred 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 have appeared utterly sophisticated and from another world when the young, 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.

jessie-and-lytton

Jessie and Henry Lytton Jnr performing together in Charlot’s Revue in 1925, two months before they married.

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.

The starlet Jessie Matthews in 1927

The 20 year old starlet Jessie Matthews in 1927

Sonnie Hale in 1926, the year he married Evelyn Laye

The ‘less than Greek’ Sonnie Hale in 1926, the year he married Evelyn Laye

Jessie in 1926

Jessie in 1926

Early in the new year of 1928 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.

Evelyn appearing in Ziegfeld's production of Bitter Sweet in 1930

Evelyn appearing in Ziegfeld’s production of Bitter Sweet in 1930

evelyn-laye-august-1932

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.’

Evelyn Laye in One Heavenly Night 1930

Evelyn Laye in One Heavenly Night 1930

Evelyn Laye and John Boles in One Heavenly Night

Evelyn Laye and John Boles in One Heavenly Night

Evelyn Laye in 1933

Evelyn Laye in 1933

Jessie and Sonnie Hale on their wedding day.

Jessie and Sonnie Hale on their wedding day.

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 in a blonde wig appearing in Evergreen 1930

Jessie Matthews in a blonde wig appearing in Evergreen 1930

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jessie-matthews-as-young-girl

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 teenage elocution lessons.

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 and her second husband Frank Lawton

Evelyn Laye and her second husband Frank Lawton

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:

Noel Coward – Room With A View

Al Bowlly – Over My Shoulder

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.

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Mayfair, the Duchess of Argyll and the Headless Man polaroids

Sunday, October 5th, 2008

“She is a highly sexed woman who has ceased to be satisfied with normal sexual activities.”

Margaret, Duchess of Argyll

Margaret, Duchess of Argyll

48 Upper Grosvenor Street was once dubbed by John Paul Getty as “Number One, London” and it was the Mayfair house where one of the most celebrated sex scandals of the Sixties took place.

A series of Polaroid photographs were used as evidence in the bitter and acrimonious divorce case between the Duke and Duchess of Argyll in 1963. They featured Margaret the Duchess, a former debutante of the year, in her Art Deco-style bathroom at her Upper Grosvenor Street home dressed in nothing but her signature three-strand pearl necklace. More shockingly they showed her performing fellatio on a naked man whose identity was concealed because his head was not captured within the frame. Other polaroid photographs showed a man masturbating for the camera in the same bathroom.

The press, overexcited with the ongoing Profumo affair, started to question who exactly was the headless man? There were very strong rumours that it might be be a cabinet minister or even a famous film star.

Number One, London

Number One, London

Duke and Duchess of Argyll not long after their wedding

Duke and Duchess of Argyll not long after their wedding

The Duke and the Duchess, both divorcees, had met on a blind date in 1950 and married in 1951 at Caxton Hall registry office. The marriage quickly crumbled however and the Duchess later admitted that she was having affairs by 1954 and the Duke filed for divorce in 1959 after finding his wife’s salacious diaries and the compromising polaroids. After four years of legal wrangling the case reached the court in 1962 but it wasn’t until May 1963 that the judge Lord Wheatley issued his damning verdict and in a four-and-a-half hour judgement, read out:

“She is a highly sexed woman who has ceased to be satisfied with normal sexual activities and has started to indulge in disgusting sexual activities to gratify a debased sexual appetite. A completely promiscuous woman whose sexual appetite could only be satisfied by a number of men, whose promiscuity had extended to perversion and whose attitude to the sanctity of marriage was what moderns would call enlightened, but which in plain language was wholly immoral.”

The press had a field day and the Duchess’s reputation was ruined, not only because of the polaroid photos, but that she was accused of sleeping with eighty eight men including two cabinet ministers and two members of the royal family.

It was said that an accidental fall, forty feet down a lift-shaft during the war, left her not only with a lack of taste and smell but with a voracious sexual appetite bordering on nymphomania.

The Duchess in July 1963

The Duchess in July 1963

Within two weeks of the judge Wheatley’s verdict on June 5 John Profumo resigned after admitting that he had slept with Christine Keeler. The Duke and Duchess and the headless man photos were for a short while almost forgotten. However, at a stormy cabinet meeting on June 20, the Defence Secretary Duncan Sandys (pronounced Sands), incidentally the son-in-law of Winston Churchill, confessed that he was rumoured to be the headless man.

Sandys offered to resign, but he was dissuaded by Prime Minister Macmillian who, because of the Profumo affair, was frightened of even more scandal for the Government. Lord Denning, who had already been commissioned to investigate the Profumo scandal, was also asked to investigate the identity of the headless lover as part of the remit.

Lord Justice Denning on the day his report was published

Lord Justice Denning on the day his report was published

Duncan Sandys

Duncan Sandys

Douglas Fairbanks Jnr around the time of the affair

Douglas Fairbanks Jnr around the time of the affair

There were four polaroids of a man in different states of arousal each with handwritten captions: “before”, “thinking of you”, “during – oh”, and “finished”. Denning knew that if he could match the handwriting, he would find his man. He cunningly invited the five key suspects – Sandys, the American actor Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, American businessman John Cohane, Peter Combe, an ex-press officer at the Savoy, and Sigismund von Braun, the diplomat brother of the Nazi scientist Werner von Braun – to the Treasury and asked for their help in a “very delicate matter”.

On arriving they all signed the visitor’s register and their handwriting was analysed by a graphologist. The result proved conclusive. Although Denning didn’t include the result in his report the headless man was identified by the handwriting expert as the actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Duncan Sandys, much to his relief, appeared to be in the clear, but thirty seven years later in the year 2000 a Channel 4 documentary about the case featured a man called Paul Vaughan, a friend of the Duchess’s. He reported that she had once said to him;

“Of course, sweetie, the only Polaroid camera in the country at this time had been lent to the Ministry of Defence.”

The programme analysed the film and found that it was taken in 1957 (Sandys was the Defence Minister at this time) and concluded with this new evidence that there had been two men in the photos and that Duncan Sandys had been one of them.

Although I admit that I haven’t seen the documentary, but in 1957 Polaroid cameras had been selling commercially for eight years and Polaroid had actually sold their millionth camera the year before in 1956. It therefore defies credibility that the Ministry of Defence had had the only Polaroid camera in the entire country. So it seems to me that the documentary’s conclusion is on very shaky ground and perhaps Sandys was completely innocent after all.

Early Polaraoid Camera from 1949

Early Polaraoid Camera from 1949

Polaroid Camera model 95B - probably the type used in the Duchess's bedroom

Polaroid Camera model 95B - probably the type used in the Duchess's bedroom

The Duchess’s reputation, of course, was ruined after the divorce case and ensuing scandal, but she was also ruined financially and eventually had to sell her house in Upper Grosvenor Street. She died in a Pimlico nursing home in July 1993 and was buried next to her first husband, the amateur American golfer Charles Sweeney.

Duchess of Argyll at her house in Upper Grosvenor Street

Duchess of Argyll at her house in Upper Grosvenor Street

Incidentally, before she died the duchess wrote:

“I had wealth, I had good looks. As a young woman I had been constantly photographed, written about, flattered, admired, included in the Ten Best-Dressed Women in the World list, and mentioned by Cole Porter in the words of his hit song ‘You’re the Top’.”

She was indeed mentioned in the Porter’s classic song, under her name from her first marriage to Charles Sweeny, but the lyrics were from PG Wodehouse’s slightly rewritten and quietly forgotten British version of the song which changed Porter’s lyrics from:

You’re the nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire
You’re an O’Neill drama,
You’re Whistler’s mama!
You’re camembert.

to

You’re Mussolini
You’re Mrs Sweeny
You’re Camembert.

Mussolini with his pet lion cub Ras

Mussolini with his pet lion cub Ras

PG Wodehouse, although one of the wittiest writers ever, was always slightly politically suspect especially when it came to accidentally appeasing fascists. He didn’t really do himself any favours in that respect when he rhymed Mrs Sweeny with Mussolini in his version of You’re The Top.

TheLondon transfer of Porter’s musical Anything Goes opened on June 14, 1935 and it was only three months later that the Italian dictator, who had been in power since 1922, ordered the bombing and the use of poisonous mustard-gas in the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.

If Wodehouse thought Mussolini was the top, God only knows what he considered the bottom. There again perhaps it was just playful irony from Wodehouse and he just enjoyed comparing Mrs Sweeny with Mussolini.

Ethel Merman – You’re The Top
Ethel Merman – Blow, Gabriel, Blow
Frank Sinatra – Anything Goes
Eileen Rodgers – I Get A Kick Out Of You
Divine Comedy – A Lady Of A Certain Age

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