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GERTRUDE LAWRENCE: “A STAR DANCED”
A star danced . . . and under it you were born.
THE MESSAGE DELIVERED BY A FORTUNE-TELLING MACHINE IN BRIGHTON TO THE YOUNG GERTRUDE LAWRENCE
The three most important women in Noël’s life were undoubtedly his mother, Violet (who gave him his drive), Esmé Wynne (who inspired him to write), and Gertrude Lawrence (who was often his Muse and always his perfect complement as an actor). Noël and Gertie first met in 1913 on the train to Liverpool. With ten other children, they had been hired by director/producer Basil Dean to appear for a three-week run of Hauptmann’s Hannele. She was, Noël recalled, “a vivacious child with ringlets . . . her face was far from pretty, but tremendously alive . . . She confided to me that her name was Gertrude Lawrence, but that I was to call her Gert because everyone else did . . . I loved her from then onwards.”
It would be ten years before they performed together again–in his 1923 revue for producer André Charlot, London Calling!–and then only briefly. She introduced the song “Parisian Pierrot,” which Cecil Beaton considered “the signature tune of the . . . 1920s.” The show seemed set for a long run when, to Noël’s horror, Charlot decided to put together a compilation of highlights from several of his previous revues and take it to Broadway as André Charlot’s Revue of 1924. The stars were to be Jack Buchanan, Beatrice Lillie (whom Gertie had several times understudied), and Gertrude Lawrence.
Dissolve to 1929 . . . Both of them are well-established now in their own right. Leaving revue behind her, Gertie opens in a straight play, Candle Light. Noël sends her one of what would be a string of teasing cables:
“LEGITIMATE AT LAST WON’T MOTHER BE PLEASED?”
Then, that same year, on a tour of the Far East, Noël found himself waiting in the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo, for his friend and traveling companion, Jeffrey Amherst. On the night before Jeffrey was due to arrive, Noël went to bed early, but as soon as he had turned off the light, the idea for Private Lives came to him. By the turn of the year he was in Shanghai and, when a bout of fever confined him to bed at the Cathay Hotel, he used the time to actually write the play.
That turned out to be the easy part. The hard part was pinning down Gertie’s butterfly mind. Noël cabled her immediately he put his pen down:
“HAVE WRITTEN DELIGHTFUL NEW COMEDY STOP GOOD PART FOR YOU STOP WONDERFUL ONE FOR ME STOP KEEP YOURSELF FREE FOR AUTUMN PRODUCTION.”
He then sent her a copy and she replied:
“HAVE READ NEW PLAY STOP NOTHING WRONG THAT CAN’T BE FIXED STOP GERTIE”
“THE ONLY THING THAT WILL NEED TO BE FIXED IS YOUR PERFORMANCE STOP NOEL”
There then followed an avalanche of cables in which confusion soon became worse confounded. She’d committed herself to André Charlot for a new revue. Could they open in the following January instead of this September? Why didn’t Noël appear in the revue with her to fill in the time? Why didn’t Noël cable and ask Charlot to release her from the contract? Well, actually it wasn’t so much of a contract as a moral obligation . . . Come to think of it, it probably was a contract of a sort and her lawyers were trying to get her out of it . . . She’d rather do Private Lives than anything. . . No, she couldn’t do it at all . . .
Noël had finally had enough. When–forty pounds’ worth of telegrams later–she finally remembered to give him her cable address, he wired her that he now planned to do the play with someone else anyway. He heard nothing more until he arrived back in England in May, by which time Gertie’s lawyer, the redoubtable Fanny Holtzmann, had pried her free of the Charlot contract.
Thursday or Friday?
Am I wrong or did I hear you mention something about a play we were going to do in London first then in America after?
Please let me know, because at present me ’ouse is full as a pig– and I would like to do something about putting up with you–sorry–I mean–well, you know–should you wish to visit me here to discuss ways and means.
“Dear Miss Lawrence,
With regard to your illiterate scrawl of 14th inst., Mr. Coward asks me to say that there was talk of you playing a small part in a play of his on condition that you tour and find your own clothes (same to be of reasonable quality) and understudy Jessie Matthews whom you have always imitated. [In fact, it was Matthews who had understudied and carbon-copied Gertie in the New York production of the 1924 Charlot Revue.] Mr. Coward will be visiting some rather important people in the South of France in mid-July and he will appear at Cap d’Ail [the location of Edward Molyneux’s house, which Gertie was renting], whether you like it or not, with Mr. Wilson, on the 20th. If by chance there is no room in the rather squalid lodgings you have taken, would you be so kind as to engage several suites for Mr. W [Jack Wilson] and Mr. C [Noël] at the Hotel Mont Fleury, which will enable same Mr. W and Mr. C. to have every conceivable meal with you and use all your toilets for their own advantage. Several complicated contracts are being sent to you by Mr. C. on the terms you agreed upon–i.e., £6.10s. a week and understudy.”
With Private Lives, “Noël and Gertie” were to become a single entity in the public mind, creating an impression that–like the Lunts–they invariably acted together. In point of fact, they co-starred in only three original productions, of which Private Lives was the second and the one that defined the partnership.
Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne are a divorced couple who meet up at the same hotel in Deauville while each is on honeymoon with a second spouse, only to discover that they are fated to be together, no matter the emotional cost to themselves or the people around them. The fictional relationship in many respects mirrored the real-life relationship between Noël and Gertie, two people deeply fond of each other but constantly bickering and testing the limits of that friendship in the certain knowledge that it is unbreakable.
Noël was both challenged and frustrated by Gertie’s mercurial nature, quite opposite but somehow complementary to his own more ordered approach.
“On stage,” he wrote a few years later, “she is potentially capable of anything and everything. She can be gay, sad, witty, tragic, funny and touching. . . She has, in abundance, every theatrical essential but one; critical faculty . . . But for this tantalizing lack of discrimination she could, I believe, be the greatest actress alive in the theatre today.”
On October 13, 1931, Cavalcade opened at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and Gertie was in the first-night audience.
Noël, my darling,
Here I am down on my knees to you in humble admiration and complete adoration.
I didn’t wire you last night because I felt too near you to mix my stupid pence worth of good wishes with those many who couldn’t have been feeling as deeply as I was; but please believe me when I tell you that I spent the whole evening from eight ’til eleven with my hand tightly clasped in yours–anything just to feel that I might perhaps be of some subconscious support to you. As you say it’s “pretty exciting to be English”. But also it’s pretty exciting to love you as I do!
It’s horrid how I miss you but deep down it’s rather grand; though not awfully satisfying!!
This you may be surprised to see is from
“Dear old Gert,
Among all the outpourings from the great and the good and the Would-Be-Goods (as my beloved E. Nesbit might put it) nothing pleased me more than your barely decipherable scrawl!
You know me well enough to know that when I stammered about it being pretty exciting to be English, I meant every naïve word. We’re a strange race and we persist in getting a lot of things wrong but we do have our hearts in the right place–and that’s what matters.
When I looked down at the stage–and when I’d got over worrying about what else might go wrong with the mechanics–a great many things went through my mind and you were in so many of them.
I could see you on that stage at the Phoenix standing there in that damned deceptive moonlight night after night and I would make my entrance, never knowing which Gertie I would find on any particular evening. You do know, my darling, that you are a chameleon–an elegant one but still a chameleon. You never play a part the same way two nights running but it certainly keeps whoever you’re playing with–in this case your author–on his tippy tip toes. And I must also admit–it’s pretty exciting to be playing opposite Miss Gertrud Dagmar Lawrence-Klasen and I can’t wait until the next time. And I can just hear you saying–“Well, darling, that’s up to you.”
I also found myself thinking back to that first time we played together. Do you remember Liverpool, Manchester and that tedious German play Basil was so keen on? And when we two budding thespians stuffed ourselves with peppermints and the curtain rose on the sight of two little angels being spectacularly sick! I do believe, my darling, we can do better than that and I shall endeavour to see that we do without too much further ado–and no error.
God bless you and keep you, Mother Macree!”
Reflecting on her in the mid-1930s–just before Tonight at 8:30–Noël mused on her complexity:
“I see her now, ages away from her ringlets and black velvet military cap, sometimes a simple, wide-eyed child, sometimes a glamorous femme du monde, at some moments a rather boisterous “good sort”, at others a weary, disillusioned woman battered by life but gallant to the last. There are many other grades also between these extremes. She appropriated beauty to herself quite early, along with all the tricks and mannerisms that go with it. In adolescence she was barely pretty. Now, without apparent effort, she gives the impression of sheer loveliness. Her grace in movement is exquisite, and her voice charming. To disentangle Gertie herself from this mutability is baffling, rather like delving for your grandmother’s gold locket at the bottom of an overflowing jewel-case.”
It’s a little misleading to say that Noël and Gertie played together only three times. Their next joint venture, the 1936 Tonight at 8:30, was, in reality, nine one-act plays–ten, if one counts Star Chamber, which played only once at a matinée. In each they played pairs of entirely different characters, a theatrical tour de force that, significantly, has never since been emulated by another couple. Almost certainly a wise decision, since to do so would invite comparison with performances that have passed into legend and can now never be adequately assessed.
One of the plays was Hands Across the Sea, a thinly veiled parody of the superficial social life of the Mountbattens. It’s impossible to know at this point in which direction Gertie erred in her portrayal of Lady Maureen “Piggie” Gilpin (Edwina Mountbatten), but it was sufficient to cause Noël in February 1936 to cable Jack–who was even then planning the subsequent American production:
“EVERYTHING LOVELY STOP CRACKING ROW WITH GERTIE OVER HANDS ACROSS THE SEA LASTING SEVEN MINUTES STOP HER PERFORMANCE EXQUISITE EVER SINCE.”
“VERY SORRY FIND MY ENGAGEMENTS WILL NOT PERMIT ME APPEAR UNDER YOUR BANNER IN AMERICA UNLESS I GET A FURTHER 58 PERCENT OF THE GROSS FOR ARDUOUS TASK RESTRAINING MISS LAWRENCE FROM BEING GROCK BEATRICE LILLIE THEDA BARA MARY PICKFORD AND BERT LAHR ALL AT ONCE.”
The Mountbattens, incidentally, saw the play and never realized that
they were its subjects. As late as 1968 Mountbatten is writing to Noël:
15th October 1968
My dear Noël,
On going through my library I have just come across a copy inscribed by you of your plays Tonight at 8:30.
Looking through them I suddenly remembered that you had told Edwina and me that Hands Across the Sea was a skit on ourselves, and on reading it this seems only too probable.
Can you confirm that it was written with malice aforethought, or did it just turn into a Naval couple because you had so many Naval friends? Did you play Commander Gilpin and did Gertie play Lady Maureen, “Piggie”?”
There is evidence in his notebooks that Noël at least contemplated another play (Tidewater) for himself and Gertie both in the late 1930s and probably soon after Tonight at 8:30, since his tentative casting notes include a number of the actors who had appeared with them in that. It would also seem that he was contemplating a play-within-a-play or “dream sequence” format, since all the principal characters double as historical characters of the Mary, Queen of Scots, period. Noël would have played Cedric Massingham (and Bothwell), while Gertie was to have been Loretta Gray (and Mary Stuart).
Noël and Gertie were never to appear together again on the Broadway or West End stage. When Tonight was revived in 1947, Noël stood in for an indisposed Graham Payn for one matinée in San Francisco. That was their nostalgic coda. Graham’s understudy “was a very very small Jewish gentleman who could neither act, dance, nor sing,” so at the following day’s matinée, “I popped on at an hour’s notice and there was a great fuss and fume. I really did it for Gertie’s sake. I couldn’t let her act with that horror again.”
Their careers proceeded in successful parallel.
Gertie spent most of her time in America, and on July 4, 1940, she married Richard Aldrich, a scion of one of America’s many prestigious families and owner of the Cape Playhouse in Maine. The new “Mrs. A” would devote a good deal of her professional time to the playhouse in the years ahead.
On her wedding day a predictable Coward cable arrived:
“DEAR MRS A HOORAY HOORAY AT LAST YOU ARE DEFLOWERED STOP ON THIS AS ANY OTHER DAY I LOVE YOU STOP NOEL COWARD.”
To which Gertie replied:
“DEAR MR. C YOU KNOW ME MY PARTS I OVERACT ‘EM STOP AS FOR THE FLOWERS I’VE SEARCHED FOR HOURS STOP DOROTHY [her maid] MUST HAVE PACKED ‘EM.”
Soon after, producer Moss Hart was negotiating with Lawrence to play the lead in the avant-garde Kurt Weill—Ira Gershwin musical Lady in the Dark. Once again this lady dithered, and it was Noël who firmly steered her toward doing something he knew would reestablish her Broadway reputation. On the opening night he sent her another cable:
“HOPE YOU GET A WARM HAND ON YOUR OPENING.”
The show was a critical and commercial success–though not with everyone. On October 25, 1941, Lynn Fontanne wrote to Noël:
“I also saw Gertie and I hate to seem such a sour puss, but because you know that I am really not, I shall confess that it was the longest and worst acted part that I have ever seen in my life. Alfred did not go with me but was waiting in the car when I came out. He asked me what it was like and all I could think of was, “But, Alfred, she stinks.” It’s not one of my expressions, but I could think of nothing else. I was really very amazed, as I had heard you tell about these performances which she throws from time to time and realized that I had never quite believed you. But I do, darling, oh how I do now. Apparently this is not a once in a while performance either, as I hear she is pretty much the same all the time. I wasn’t very crazy about the whole show, to be exact. What is happening to me? Am I getting to be an old bitch? I do hope not. Her “Jenny” song was wonderful but after all, there’s the whole show to be gone through!”
From the Hardcover edition.