Growing up, I was under the impression there were glamorous actresses who could do what they want, buy what they want, seduce whom they want. They began sentences by drawling the word “darling”, and they punctuated those sentences with pouts and eyelash fluttering, all of which came across as charming rather than sickening. This impression came from watching lots of old movies, and TV shows with characters who wore feather-festooned gowns (shout-out to the Gabor sisters!) or coordinated leopard-print outfits (shout-out to the baaad women on Perry Mason).
There’s a good example of this type o’ woman in The Man Who Came to Dinner. In the movie, based on the play, Ann Sheridan plays Lorraine Sheldon, an actress known for chasing after rich guys and decimating every man in her path. She makes a line of cab drivers melt and she’s known to handily “eat men alive”. (I assume this is a metaphor, but I’m fine either way.) I read that Lorraine was based on Gertrude Lawrence, the legendary British actress best-known for co-starring with Noel Coward in his sophisticated comedies, her roles in musical theatre (including The King & I) and a handful of dramatic parts, like the matriarch in The Glass Menagerie. She introduced the song “Mad About the Boy”, and during her life she was mad for several boys, and even more were mad for her. I wanted to find out more about this woman who led the life that reminds me of the line from the Beyonce song, “Bow Down”, because when we were little girls we dreamt of being in that world. So, Gertrude, was it all it was cracked up to be?
Gertrude Alice Dagmar Klasen (ee-aye-ee-aye-oh!) was born in London on July 4th, 1898. Her mother, Alice, volunteered her talented daughter to join her troupe on the stage. Then Alice heard of Italia Conti, an Italian actress and the founder of the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts in London where she taught dance, elocution and the rudiments of acting. Her daughter auditioned and Italia was impressed enough to give little Gertrude free lessons. (An aside – being Italian and being named Italia would be like me being named Americana if I lived in Italy, right? I’m just saying, a little on the nose.) Anyway, the girl’s got talent. Let’s just fast-forward to the most important professional relationship in her life and one of theater’s most legendary partnerships: Noel Coward. A year younger than our Gertie, Noel Coward was one of the twentieth century’s most talented and prolific writers of musicals and sophisticated comedies. Since I love comedy, music, sophistication and the twentieth century, you can imagine I am a huge fan. He wrote Design for Living, Private Lives and Blithe Spirit, and so many classic plays, films and songs.
Before embarking on their successful platonic and professional twosome, Lawrence got canned by a play’s producer when she got caught at a party when she was supposed to be home sick. (This is either infuriating or ingratiating, or if you’re like me, both. Lawrence actually ended up having to leave tours for a variety of illnesses, including lumbago, double pneumonia and pleurisy, all those kind of sophisticated mid-century illnesses you seldom hear about these days.) Gertrude eventually insinuated herself back into the floodlights and she went on to star in various musical revues and introduce a host of famous songs that were associated with her for decades to come, like “Limehouse Blues” and “Parisian Pierrot”. Charlot’s Revue of 1926 (Charlot’s the producer that had fired her – see above) starred Lawrence and fellow UK show biz biggies Beatrice Lillie and Jack Buchanan, and opened on Broadway in late 1925. In Alexander Woollcott’s review, the critic extolled Gertrude as “the personification of style and sophistication” and “the ideal star”. Clearly, Gertrude had that certain something that makes a star a star, and cabbies melt.
In November 1926, Lawrence became the first British performer to star in an American musical on Broadway when she opened in Oh, Kay! All this time our Gertie had been in a variety of relationships, was married once, had a daughter, and various boyfriends and fiancés. Gertrude Lawrence liked men and men liked her. Her liaisons included Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who described Gertie as “very temperamental, very jealous, could be exhausting, moody, difficult – but also enchanting and alive and very funny.” Her most controversial fling was with the Prince of Wales – the future Edward VIII and Duke of Windsor. His mother, Queen Mary, wasn’t having it and disliked Lawrence forever after that. In this era, it was not uncommon for stage stars to “marry up” into British aristocracy (like Adele Astaire, Fred’s sister) but the expectation was for the performers to retire to rural Britain and hostess it up in chiffon and tweed. But you and I, and Gertrude, know being a star is way more fun, especially when you’ve got that whole “personification of style and sophistication” thing going. In 1940 she found romance, I guess, when she married American Richard Aldrich on her birthday. They had homes in England and Manhattan, and stayed married until her death in 1952. The widower wrote a flattering biography after she died, and a wife can’t ask for more. (Especially when that wife is Gertrude Lawrence, who wasn’t everyone’s idea of a perfect wife, if you take into account affairs and idiosyncrasies like that.)
Now, if you’re going to be a star, hey, be a star. Gertrude Lawrence was said to have “a radiance which could hold theatre audiences spellbound”, so since she was loaded with “It”, she figured “why not buy it?” And by “buy it”, I mean “buy those”. Lots of ‘em. Gertrude loved to live extravagantly, which is star-rific, but the problem is that she spent more on being a star than she made being a star. Her lawyer said Lawrence always spent money “like an entire fleet of drunken sailors”.
Except for the WWII years, throughout her entire adult life she spent more than she had. Even when she made good coin from Private Lives, she was still deeply in debt. At one point she owed fashion designer Hattie Carnegie $10,000 (almost $200,000 in today’s money). The diva opened accounts with dozens of shops and just blithely spent and spent as if she had unlimited credit and never paid attention to the invoices when they arrived. Turns out, star or no star, not paying your bills has consequences, and in 1935 her apartment, her cars, clothes and jewelry were all seized by the “London bankruptcy court”. Her maid and dog in tow, Gertrude decamped to an apartment owned by her agent. She was accused of “gross extravagance” (as if extravagance could ever really be ‘gross’), and ordered to pay a 50 pounds weekly from her current nightclub engagement and 25% form anything earned by any other source.
Refusing to lower her standard of living, Lawrence decided to make more so she could pay more. To support her spending habits, she worked on films during the day, appeared on stage at night, and left the theater to go off to her third daily gig, performing in late-night cabarets. But she wasn’t just working to keep herself in the lifestyle to which she’d become accustomed. Gertrude upped the ante by buying a house and farm in the English countryside, and then left it vacant during a lengthy stay. When her beleaguered agent questioned the wisdom of such a move, she responded by asking him to find out how much it would cost to add a swimming pool to her English estate.*
Anyway, back to her bio. In 1928, Lawrence returned to Broadway opposite Clifton Webb in a Gershwin musical, Treasure Girl. She was sure it would be a hit, and anticipating a long run, she settled into a lush Park Avenue apartment, with her daughter Pamela, a personal maid, and 2 (!) cars in tow. But the play was not a hit and debts piled up. (This spending/debt pattern became a familiar one throughout her life. The baller could spend!) Luckily, in 1930 her buddy Noël Coward cast her in his play Private Lives, where they became the embodiment of the sophisticated, clever British twosome. (Fun fact: around this time Johnny Green composed his most famous song, “Body and Soul“, especially for Lawrence.)
Remembering the success of Private Lives, Noel Coward went on to write something to feature his and Gertrude’s brand chic, cultured awesomeness. In 1936, Lawrence and Coward starred in Tonight at 8.30, a cycle of ten one-act plays. Gertrude went back to starring in a musical with 1941’s Lady in the Dark, a complex piece by the not-too-shabby Moss Hart, Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin. The music, the content – a woman with a big-time career, psychanalysis – were pretty sophisticated for the time. Also, the part of Liza Elliot, an indecisive magazine editor undergoing psychanalysis requires a lot from a performer in terms of acting, singing and dancing. (In fact, First Lady of the Theater Katherine Cornell had to drop out; it was just beyond her considerable gifts.) But Gertrude’s star thing had her nailing it. Critic Richard Watts called her “the greatest feminine performer in the American theater” and the New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson deemed her nothing less than “a goddess”. She stayed with the show’s entire Broadway run and the three-year national tour.
After Lady in the Dark, 1945 saw the publication of Gertrude Lawrence’s memoir, the rather, um, romanticized narrative, A Star Danced. (Side note: Was there a meeting about that title? I can think of 10 better ones off the top of my head.) Probably basking in the glow of her idealized tale, the author went on a cross-country tour to promote her book, the first person in history to ever do this kind of extensive publicity tour.
During all this a war was going on, and Gertrude did her part. She traveled across the Atlantic to perform for soldiers. In her book Gertrude described landing on Normandy Beach and going from town to town with no electricity or water, performing in bombed out cinemas and other make-shift stages. Lawrence did the tour (with my girl, Margaret Rutherford, by the way) with the well-known British stiff upper lip, braving poor sanitation, scanty food. After the war she once again returned to Great Britain to star in September Tide, a play written specifically for her by the famous Daphne du Maurier. There is some evidence that Gertrude and Daphne were more than friends. Daphne once said, “”To be blatantly vulgar, anyone with a spice of imagination would prefer a divan with Gertrude to a double-bed with her.” Daphne called Gertrude “Cinders”, short for Cinderella. Divans aside, I’m much more interested in the quote where du Maurier said about Lawrence, ““Boiling water in her tea kettle for a visitor was stressful for her.” I can relate, Gertrude.
Whether the two women “did it” or not**, Gertrude’s widower Richard Aldrich echoed many of Daphne du Maurier’s sentiments in his best-selling biography, Gertrude Lawrence as Mrs. A.: “I am sure that she was frequently bewildered by the rapidity and mutability of her own impulses.” He was probably referring in part to the overwhelming task of wanting, making and then giving up making tea.
Between 1929 and 1950, Lawrence was only in nine films, the best-known being her last, as Amanda Wingfield in the film version of Tennessee Williams’ first hit, The Glass Menagerie (1950). (This was quite a coup; both Bette Davis and Tallulah Bankhead really wanted the part.) The part had Lawrence wearing padding and affecting a Southern American accent, and friends, critics and Williams himself thought the casting was a huge mistake. (Still, writing about her performance in the Saturday Review, Richard Griffith wrote “Not since Garbo has there been anything like the naked eloquence of her face, with its amazing play of thought and emotion.”)
Back to Broadway, Lawrence’s last and perhaps biggest hit came about thanks to Lawrence herself. She saw the film Anna and the King of Siam, starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne and the King and the Anna, and looked into acquiring the rights to the book on which the movie was based. Gertrude saw it as a musical, and asked Cole Porter to write the score. Cole was pretty much, “Meh,” but Rogers and Hammerstein jumped on board, and The King and I was born. Rogers wrote around Lawrence’s limited vocal range and her tendency to sing flat (again, when you have star power, no one cares) and they had a big hit on their hands. Turns out Gertrude also got a non-marquee worthy, much younger Yul Brynner on her hands, and other body parts, but again…star power.) The King and I opened on Broadway in March 1951, and Lawrence won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance.
Sadly, once again Gertrude’s ill health popped up and after missing numerous performances Lawrence was hospitalized with what was her final illness. She was only 54 when she died. Right before her passing on September 5th, 1952, the star instructed her agent to arrange for co-star Yul Brynner‘s name to be added to the marquee, which up until then had only featured hers. (Very grand selfishly unselfish and fabulously diva-ish last request – you gotta love it!) When Oscar Hammerstein told Yul Brynner he’d now get top billing, he started to cry. According to Hammerstein, “He told me, and I believed him, that losing Gertie was a tremendous price to pay for advancement. It was the only time I ever saw him cry.”***
According to the New York Times, 5,000 people crowded the intersection of East 55th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, while 1,800 others attended her funeral, including Yul Brynner, Marlene Dietrich, Phil Silvers, and Luise Rainer. Oscar Hammerstein II gave the eulogy, and Gertrude Lawrence was buried in the Irene Sharaff-designed champagne-colored gown worn for the “Shall We Dance?” number in The King and I. Truly a STAR, Gertrude Lawrence was the first person whose passing had the house lights dimmed in all the Broadway theatres.
In 1968, huge star Julie Andrews made her first flop when she appeared as Gertrude Lawrence in the biopic, Star! Most people then and today don’t know the name Gertrude Lawrence. But her talent, charm and magnetism made Gertrude Lawrence the world’s first international theatrical superstar. Sadly, her incandescence was largely ephemeral, as she made very few films and those she did appear in failed to capture what captivated live audiences. While Gertrude introduced many eternal classic songs like “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Body and Soul”, her recordings also fail to give us a hint of the magic she made on stage.
Noel Coward, who first met Gertrude when she was only 14****, described her face as “far from pretty, but tremendously alive.” Without all the make-up, furs, hats and accoutrements on which she spent so much money, Lawrence was rather plain, nothing special to look at. But when the curtain went up, or the orchestra began to play, something magical happened. Again, this is that intangible essence we grope to describe as “star quality”. Noel Coward said, “’Sometimes, in Private Lives, I would look at her across the stage and she would simply take my breath away.” Whether it’s mesmerizing cabbies, Noel Coward, Yul Brynner or thousands of theater-goers, Gertrude Lawrence had what stars in the sky have, a shining brilliance that captivates. If you throw in a personal maid, a pool, a smart London flat and a leopard-print outfit, it sounds pretty good. I’ll take it.
* It was later discovered that Gertie never paid a cent in American taxes either. Her lawyer worked out an arrangement where $150 was deducted from her salary every week she worked in the United States until her tax debt was paid off.
** In terms of Gertrude’s relationship with the ladies, her daughter Pamela said, “It makes me laugh when I keep hearing stories about my mother supposedly being a lesbian. She was the complete reverse. Her appetite for men verged on nymphomania.” Pamela seems to think sexuality is an either/or proposition and it never occurs to her that her mom’s interest in sex was so big it extended to every sex, which seems the most likely scenario to me.
*** Yul’s grief was sincere. Pamela Clatworthy, Gertrude’s daughter, once opened the door of her mother’s dressing room at New York’s St James Theatre, and saw mom in flagrante. Lawrence’s hooped satin ball gown was over her head like an inverted circus tent. (Fun fact: This was the same dress she was buried in.) Burrowing beneath it with dedicated zeal was a man of whom Pamela could see only his bare feet and equally bare buttocks. “When they noticed I was there, and he emerged, his head was as bald as his backside, and I realized it was Yul Brynner.” Gertrude and Yul – a married man 17 years her junior – were involved in a closely guarded, very secret love affair. THAT, my friends, is STAR! Power.
**** At their first meeting, Lawrence told the 13-year-old Coward a few ‘mildly dirty stories’ and later took him into a bedroom and introduced him to the facts of life.