Posts Tagged ‘divorce’

Children from Hoxton Visit Charlie Chaplin at the Ritz in 1921

Monday, September 1st, 2014
Charlie Chaplin at the Ritz with 50 children from Hoxton in 1921.

Charlie Chaplin at the Ritz with 50 children from Hoxton in 1921.

Charlie Chaplin was woken up on the morning 17 September 1921 while in his bed at the Ritz Hotel on Piccadilly. “Visitors from Hoxton” he was told, and from outside the window he could hear children singing a song over and over again:

When the moon shines bright on Charlie Chaplin

His boots are cracking, for want of blacking

And his little baggy trousers need mending

Before we send him to the Dardanelles

The song had originally been written in protest about Chaplin not enlisting during WW1 (it was said that he had tried, but at 5 feet 4 inches tall and not much more than 126 pounds was told he was too small) but by 1921 the song had lost its original connotation or at least it had to the group of children from Hoxton School that had walked across London to see him.

Chaplin had arrived in England from America only a week earlier, disembarking at Southampton after a pleasant and sunny voyage. He had sailed across the Atlantic on the RMS Olympic, the elder sister ship of the Titanic but now, of course, complete with the requisite number of lifeboats and luxuriously re-fitted after life as a troopship during WW1. The comedian had come back to England mainly to promote his new and first full-length (six-reeler) film called ‘The Kid’. Already a huge success in America it eventually became the second highest grossing film of 1921.

The Manchester Guardian, in rather a gushing style – although not that dissimilar to most other newspapers describing the event – wrote of the first glimpse of the homecoming Hollywood star:

Mr Chaplin just bubbled over with good nature and good humour. He poured out smiles and laughter and merry jokes in bumper measure, and all with the utmost simplicity and perfect freedom from affectation.

The Mayor of Southampton greeted Chaplin and began speaking rather nervously, with an apology about the weather, “It does not always rain in England…” Chaplin quickly interrupted, “I am an Englishman, Mr Mayor,” he said, “and English weather, whatever it is, is good to see. It was raining, I remember, when I went away nine years ago.

Chaplin was now an incredibly rich man but his childhood in Walworth had been a desperately poor one. Both his parents, Charles and Hannah Chaplin, were music hall performers but of no great fame. When Charlie was just three, Charles Snr left the family home after his wife gave birth to a boy whose father was Leo Dryden – another music hall performer. Not long after the birth Dryden came and forcibly took his child, Charlie’s half-brother, away from Hannah.

Struggling financially, Hannah Chaplin had a breakdown in 1895 and the following year, along with Charlie and his brother Sydney, entered the Lambeth Workhouse. Although within a few weeks, however, the two boys were sent to Hanwell School for Orphans and Destitute Children.

In 1903, after further breakdowns, Hannah was placed in the Cane Hill Lunatic Asylum in Surrey. Chaplin later wrote about a visit to see her in 1912, just before he left to live in America:

It was a depressing day, for she was not well. She had just got over an obstreperous phase of singing hymns, and had been confined to a padded room. The nurse had warned us of this beforehand. Sydney saw her, but I had not the courage, so I waited. He came back upset, and said that she had been given shock treatment of icy cold showers and that her face was quite blue. That made us decide to put her into a private institution – we could afford it now.

The brothers took their mother from Cane Hill and placed her at Peckham House – a private asylum in south London that cost 30 shillings a week. Not an inconsiderable sum in 1912.

Chaplin had been performing to audiences from the age of five – it was said that he was literally pushed on to a stage when an audience started jeering after his mother when she suddenly lost her voice half way through a song. By the age of 19 he had become a member of Fred Karno’s prestigious music hall troupe, and it was with them that he first took him to America in 1910 (one of the other members of Karno’s company was Stanley Jefferson who would later become known as Stan Laurel). On a second visit in 1912 Chaplin caught the eye of Mack Sennett and he began to work in the still very young film business. Within a few years he had appeared in more than sixty films, most of which he had directed himself. By 1918 Charlie Chaplin was one of the most famous men on the planet.

When Chaplin stepped off the train onto platform 14 at Waterloo Station, just a mile or so away from where he had grown up as a child, he was visibly shocked at the thousands and thousands of people waiting ready to greet him. “A fierce roar of the great crowd smote his ears,” wrote one newspaper, while the Times wrote, “At Waterloo the stage might have been set for the homecoming of Julius Caesar, Napoleon, and Lord Haig rolled into one.”

The police managed to get Chaplin into a waiting car which then drove down to the Ritz on Piccadilly. Another enormous crowd was waiting and ‘Everybody – including the police – went mad,’ reported the Manchester Guardian. Chaplin, his hair dishevelled, but bronzed by his voyage and dressed immaculately in a grey overcoat stood up in the car and shouted:

Thank you, very much, for this generous, kind and affectionate welcome. This is a great moment for me. I cannot say much. Words are absolutely inadequate.

The police were almost overpowered by the boisterous and excited crowd and there was a struggle on the steps of the hotel before they managed to get Chaplin inside. The crowd continued cheering until he appeared at a first-floor window where be broke up a huge bunch of carnations and threw them down to the crowd. A few days later he received a letter (one of thousands, many of them begging), “My boy,” it read, “tried to get one of your carnations and his hat was smashed. I enclose you a bill of 7s. 6d. for a new one.”

Chaplin outside the Ritz on Piccadilly.

Chaplin outside the Ritz on Piccadilly.

Chaplin throwing carnations to the crowd from his balcony at the Ritz Hotel.

Chaplin throwing carnations to the crowd from his balcony at the Ritz Hotel.

The south London Waterloo area c.1921

The south London Waterloo area c.1921

Waterloo Bridge in 1921.

Waterloo Bridge in 1921.

Chaplin told the press that he was tired and needed to rest but actually soon slipped out of the Arlington entrance of he hotel and took a taxi to Waterloo Bridge and then, on his own, he walked to Lambeth Walk an old haunt of his childhood. A few days later, on another trip to south London, he visited 3 Pownall Terrace in Kennington (the street would be demolished in 1968) where he had lived in a little room at the top of the house.

It was now occupied by a Mrs Reynolds, ”many’s the time I’ve banged my head on that sloping ceiling,” he said to her after she had taken him to see his old room. Mr Charles Robinson, described as Chaplin’s manager by the Daily Mirror, told the newspaper in an interview in 1921, that the attic scenes in The Kid were based on a replica of that room in Charlie’s old ‘diggings’ in Kennington.

Le Petit Journal dated 25th September 1921. Chaplin is seen visiting the Lambeth room, where he once lived and which had inspired his film 'The Kid'.

Le Petit Journal dated 25th September 1921. Chaplin is seen visiting the Lambeth room, where he once lived and which had inspired his film ‘The Kid’.


The house in Pownall Terrace in Lambeth, where Charlie Chaplin once lived. It was demolished in 1968.

The house in Pownall Terrace in Lambeth, where Charlie Chaplin once lived. It was demolished in 1968.

Back at the Ritz, on the morning of the 17th of September, Chaplin got dressed and walked into the sitting room of his suite to meet the young visitors from Hoxton. He found fifty excited boys and girls from the Hoxton school. One boy, called Charles Loughton, stepped forward and handed him a box of cigars and a letter. It read:

You were one of us. You are now famous over the world. But we like to think you were once a poor boy in London as we are. You are now a gentleman, and all gentlemen smoke cigars. So we have chosen a box as a little gift to ‘Our Charlie.’

A young girl, Lettie Westbrook aged thirteen, gave Charlie a bouquet with a note saying, “with our thanks for all the fun you give to us.”

After Chaplin had given each child a package of “candy,” he impersonated an old man in a picture gallery. By a skilful use of his overcoat, hat, and stick, he appeared to grow gradually to a height of some nine feet in order to look at the highest pictures, and the children screamed with laughter.

Three weeks after Chaplin met the boys and girls from Hoxton School he left London, via Waterloo again, for New York, this time on the Cunard liner Berengaria. He had also decided, along with his brother Sydney, to bring his mother back with him to California. After a particularly harsh and tragic life much of which had been spent in workhouses and mental institutions Hannah Chaplin was being properly looked after in a home in Los Angeles.

"Six Reels of Joy" - The Kid released in 1921.

“Six Reels of Joy” – The Kid released in 1921.

During the production of ‘The Kid’ Chaplin had met a 12 year old girl called Lita Grey who appeared as the flirtatious angel in the dream sequence at the end of the film. Three years later he cast her again, this time as the female lead, in ‘The Gold Rush’. During the early stages of the production the 35 year old Chaplin became ‘romantically’ involved despite Lita being only 15. It wasn’t long before Lita discovered she was pregnant and was quickly replaced in the film by another of Chaplin’s lovers Georgia Hale.

Lita Grey in 'The Kid' released in 1921.

Lita Grey in ‘The Kid’ released in 1921.

Charlie Chaplin and Lita Grey not long after they were married in 1924.

Charlie Chaplin and Lita Grey not long after they were married in 1924.

Grey and Chaplin were wed on November 25th 1924 in Empalme, Mexico. The New York Times, reporting on the event, listed her age as 17. They had two children, Charles Jnr born in 1925 and Sydney born the following year. On August 27th they were divorced due to ‘extreme cruelty’. Chaplin was ordered to pay $600,000 and $100,000 in trust for each child – the world’s largest divorce settlement at the time.

Exactly a year after the divorce Chaplin’s mother, the woman whose life he had based so many of his female characters, and who had probably been suffering from the symptoms of Syphilis for over twenty years, died at the Physicians’ and Surgeons’ Hospital in Glendale in August 1928.

Hannah Chaplin in Los Angeles, not long before she died.

Hannah Chaplin in Los Angeles, not long before she died.



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’.

Today, except for the eldest amongst us and the blue plaque on the wall of the Blue Post pub on the corner of Berwick Street, Jessie Matthews is almost forgotten. It is fair to say, however, that once upon a time she was one of the most famous women in the country. Before the Second World War she was often voted Britain’s favourite film-star.

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. 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 was taking the West End by storm.



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, and already a star, Jessie Matthews was booked to perform in a new revue called This Year of Grace – written by the 29 year-old Noel Coward. Her co-star was to be the bespectacled and short comic actor Sonnie Hale – well-known at the time for not only his comedic abilities but that he was married, somewhat incongruously, to the extraordinarily beautiful and popular West-End actress Evelyn Laye.

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

Not long before the opening night of This Year of Grace, Evelyn Laye held a small supper party for her close friends at Soho’s recently opened Gargoyle Club. The guests included the actress Ruby Miller and the young actor Frank Lawton. Slightly late, and after a rehearsal for Coward’s new revue , her husband came along too. He brought with him, however, his young, pretty and dangerously charming co-star. There was a reason that the Sunday Times theatre critic James Agate described Matthews as ‘the rogue in porcelain’ and Laye was about to find out.

Jessie Matthews by now had been married for almost two years but unfortunately to a womanising debt-ridden actor called Henry Lytton Junior. He was from a famous theatrical family and she married Lytton to seek a stability in a life which must have become totally unreal after her almost overnight success as a West End star. She was well-off by now but his family offered social advantages to the young actress that her Soho working-class upbringing would have lacked.

The wedding occurred only eighteen months after Matthews 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. They had met 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 probably physically too – she suffered from miscarriages though out her life). She made fourteen films during the thirties and 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 crumbled after just eight months. 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), started to become increasingly envious of her growing success.


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, not a stone’s throw from the street where Matthews was born but in some respects a million miles away, Evelyn Laye genially greeted Matthews when she arrived with her Sonnie. The two women had met at various theatrical parties but they didn’t know each other well. Sitting opposite each other at the table, observers that night noted how the two actresses contrasted both in looks and in temperament.

The blue-eyed blonde Laye was tall, cool and sophisticated but maybe slightly aloof. Whereas Matthews, although not classically beautiful, had a sexual attractiveness and zest for life that a lot of men found utterly irresistible.

They both had one thing in common, however, and that was their love for 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. When she arrived at the theatre she accidentally caught her husband and Matthews holding hands. The co-stars quickly and expeditiously unclasped their hands on seeing her and Laye, pretending to joke, asked whether they were in love with each other. They nervously laughed and assured her that the idea was absurd and foolish. It was, as Sonnie pointed out, less than a month to only their second anniversary. Jessie and Sonnie were lying. They had already 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 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.

A few weeks later Evelyn Laye found passionate and rather explicitly detailed love letters, albeit in an ill-educated childish scrawl, from Jessie to Sonnie. After confronting her husband with them, he admitted his love for 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


On the 2nd June 1930 Jessie Matthews and Lytton were divorced. Five weeks later in the Royal Courts of Justice on 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 in court as she was filming One Heavenly Night in Hollywood. Against all advice, however, Jessie Matthews did attend. She soon 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.

During the reading of one particularly embarrassing letter Matthews fainted and she had to be helped outside. Whether it was an act or not it didn’t garner much sympathy from Sir Maurice Hill. His final comments were spoken with brutal severity:

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. In January 1931 Sonnie Hale and Jessie Matthews married at Hampstead registry office. Sadly, particularly after all the scandal that the relationship had caused, it wasn’t a long and happy marriage. 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 an American 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. 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



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 from her teenage elocution lessons. In 1970, she was awarded an OBE, but by now had become slightly more rotund and matronly than in her lithe graceful days as an actress and dancer during the twenties and thirties. This comes to most of us but after watching Matthews at a charity gala, Evelyn Laye, who retained her slim graceful figure throughout her life, waspishly said:

Oh look, the dear little boobs have become apple dumplings.

Evelyn Laye had married again in 1936 this time 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.