Lawrence, Gertrude (1898–1952)
Lawrence, Gertrude (1898–1952)
British singer, dancer, and actress, an idol of the interwar generation, who achieved, enhanced, and maintained her status as a "star" on both sides of the Atlantic for nearly 30 years. Born Gertrud (Gertie) Alexandra Dagmar Klasen on July 4, 1898, in Clapham, London; died of cancer on September 6, 1952, in New York; daughter of Alice Louise (Banks) Klasen and Arthur Klasen (a singer, known professionally as Arthur Lawrence); educated at various local schools and Miss Italia Conti's Stage School; married Frank Gordon Hawley, in 1918 (divorced 1927); married Richard Stoddard Aldrich, on July 4, 1940; children: (first marriage) Pamela Hawley (b. 1918).
Grew up with extended family—grandparents, mother and stepfather—whose frequent moves through South London suburbs meant sparse education; made professional debut as child dancer in Babes in the Wood at the Brixton Theatre, London (1908); attended Italia Conti's Stage School for four years (1911–14); met Noel Coward (1913); went to live with father (1914) and remained working as chorus member in a variety of shows in London and the provinces until engaged as understudy to Beatrice Lillie in Andre Charlot's Revues (1916–19); met and married talent scout Frank Gordon Hawley, 20 years her senior (1918); separated from Hawley and returned to work with Charlot, leaving daughter with her mother; did cabaret at Murray's Nightclub and various touring engagements (1920); met Philip Astley and began to socialize with wealthy members of the aristocracy, including Edward, prince of Wales; scored successes in several musical shows quickly becoming the talk and toast of London's West End (1921–24); made first appearance on Broadway in Andre Charlot's Revue of 1924 (1924); divided professional life (appearing in musicals, plays and films) between London and New York, with holidays in the South of France (1925–35); sent daughter Pamela to Roedean (exclusive boarding school for girls); declared bankrupt (1935); transferred to New York with Tonight at 8:30 (1936) and did not return to the British stage until 1944; met Richard Aldrich (1939); dubbed "the greatest feminine performer in the American Theater" when Lady in the Dark opened at the Alvin Theater (September 1941); hosted a weekly chat show over network radio and also broadcast a condensed version of Pygmalion; made wartime tour through Europewith ENSA (1944); made USO wartime tour of the Pacific (1945); began relationship with Daphne du Maurier during "September Tide" in London (1949); won a Tony Award for The King and I, playing at the St. James' Theater, New York (1951).
Stage productions include:
A to Z, with Jack Buchanan, the Trix sisters and Beatrice Lillie (1921); London Calling! with Noel Coward (Duke of York's Theater, 1923); Andre Charlot's Revue of 1924 (Times Square, NY) and Andre Charlot's Revue of 1926, in which she sang "Poor Little Rich Girl"; Oh Kay! (New York and London, 1926–27), singing "Do, Do, Do" and "Someone to Watch Over Me"; played Marie in Candle-Light (Southampton, England and Empire, NY, 1929); appeared as Amanda in Private Lives with Noel Coward and Laurence Olivier (London and NY, 1930–31), singing "Someday I'll Find You"; appeared as Sarah Casanove in Behold We Live with Gerald du Maurier (London, 1932); had nine roles in Tonight at 8:30 with Noel Coward (London and New York, 1935); appeared in Susan and God (1937), Lady in the Dark (1941), September Tide (1949), and The King and I (1951). Films include Lord Camber's Ladies, Rembrandt, Men Are Not Gods, and The Glass Menagerie. Made numerous recordings of songs, medleys and scenes.
In July 1918, England was still at war and the German air-raids over London were increasing. It had been a hot day in London, and Gertrude Lawrence—newly married to "impresario" Frank Hawley and several months pregnant—was feeling distinctly unwell as she boarded the bus for work. Despite misgivings, her employer Andre Charlot had forgiven her the unprofessional behavior and pranks played during previous seasons and rehired her for the chorus of his revue Tabs. Lawrence was also understudy to her great friend and partner in mayhem, Beatrice Lillie . On this particular evening, Gertie arrived late to sign in at the theater. As she stepped through the stage door, an ashen-faced stage manager greeted her with "For God's sake! Where the hell have you been? Lillie's off. Went riding in Hyde Park and the horse threw her. Concussion, they say she's got. You've got to go on." Hardly able to grasp the significance of the opportunity, Lawrence squeezed herself into Lillie's costumes and, for the next two hours, held a packed audience in thrall. Charlot was delighted.
For several weeks thereafter, with her girth increasing as rapidly as her confidence, Gertie starred in the West End. On the night of her last performance, she went into labor and produced her first and only child, Pamela, less than 48 hours after taking three encores. Within weeks, her marriage was at an end, and she had gone back to live with her mother. The juxtaposition of these events shaped her life. The brief taste of stardom, of being able to capture the hearts, imagination, and applause of a doting audience, had strengthened her resolve to earn her own place at the top of her profession. The birth of her daughter, and the need to support her, gave Lawrence determination and focus. Until that year, she had been very much on the fringes of show business: a lucky, plucky "child actress and danseuse" as her card had read, with a strongly independent streak and an ambitious mother. The common aspiration of the chorus girl was to marry well and settle down to a comfortable life in the country, raising children and playing the gracious host. Lawrence already suspected that she was not cut out for that scenario.
Gertrude Lawrence had come into theater in a roundabout way. She was born Gertrud Alexandra Dagmar Klasen in 1898 in Clapham, a respectable, lower-middle-class area of South London and, though her great friend Noel Coward teased her about the exaggerated childhood accounts of a barefoot urchin, singing and dancing on street corners and gnawing fishheads in the gutter, the family's fortunes fluctuated rapidly. Proud Mrs. Banks, wife of a master builder, always believed that her daughter Alice had taken a sorry step down when she fell for the handsome, young entertainer of Danish extraction, Arthur Klasen, who sang under the name Arthur Lawrence. Apparently his appalling temper when under the influence of alcohol quickly drove Alice back to mother. She soon remarried, and Gertie adored her stepfather whom she always called Dad. Though undoubtedly loving and caring, it is not clear that Dad ever had a steady means of employment. He gambled on the horses, was usually out of pocket, and the family moved house frequently—always leaving debts behind. This involved a kind of ritual that Gertie long recalled. When the bills mounted up so high that a move was inevitable, "a van drove up and men smelling of sawdust and beer" repossessed the hired piano and other pieces. But Dad had always ensured that one of his creditors (usually the grocer) was properly reimbursed—so that the family would have an ally when making their final getaway. After dark, the grocer's boy would arrive with a cart, and Gertie would watch as her mother took down the curtains and packed their few possessions into parcels. Then the three fugitives would creep away into the night, heading for a new life in another part of town where landlords and shopkeepers were unaware of their distressed circumstances. Lawrence seems to have enjoyed the excitement and drama of these "Midnight Flits" and wasn't conscious of any of the demeaning aspects, probably because, as she recalled, they were always dressed proudly in their best clothes.
She cheerfully dedicated her own life to a series of elaborate and glorious imitations of life—imitations that were just a little better, a little brighter, than life itself. This was her fun. This was her mission. This was why she gave herself to us.
However, by the time Gertrude was ten, her mother had grown tired of relocating. Giving up hope that Dad would ever be anything approaching "a provider," Alice applied for a job as one of Robin Hood's Merry Men in the local Christmas show. As it happened, the management were also looking for a child who could sing, dance, and be relied on to turn up on time. Ambitious for her daughter and in need of the extra six shillings (80 cents) a week that this would bring, Alice landed parts for both herself and Gertie in the Brixton version of the pantomime Babes in the Wood. Realizing the need for child performers, both Alice and her daughter decided that Gertie should have some sort of training to open more doors into the profession. Miss Italia Conti had a basement studio in central London where she taught singing, dancing, elocution, and the rudiments of stagecraft. Gertrude's audition impressed Conti, who offered her one afternoon's classes free of charge for six weeks and the opportunity to stay on and become a pupil-teacher in lieu of fees, "if I showed promise," said Lawrence. She did.
Through hard work, Lawrence was offered more chorus work in Christmas shows in London and touring productions nationwide. Traveling north on the train to play an Angel in Hannele, she met the young man who was to have the most consistent influence on her life. "She gave me an orange and told me a few mildly dirty stories and I loved her from then onwards," recalled Noel Coward. He was 13; she was 14.
Not long after, on a trip to the seaside, Lawrence invested a penny in a gypsy fortune-telling machine. The card read: "A star danced, and you were born." Her fate was sealed. When she discovered that her real father Arthur Lawrence was topping the bill at a nearby theater she began to concoct a plan. One day, when her mother was out for the afternoon, she packed her belongings in a small case, wrote a brief note to explain her whereabouts, and left home to join her father "on the road." Though he was more than a little surprised, he took her in, and she toured with him for nearly two years. But, by age 16, Gertie was on her own.
The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 brought business to box-offices everywhere, and, after a few false starts, Lawrence found herself working in the West End for three years running—in the chorus and understudying at the Vaudeville Theater in Andre Charlot's "intimate" revues. When the war finally drew to a close, Gertie's audacious personality provided many young officers returning from the front with all the fun and laughter they craved. Her dressing room was filled with flowers and admirers, and she was now becoming a star offstage as well. While performing cabaret in a nightclub called Murray's, she made some useful conquests, not the least being the dashing Captain Philip Astley. Well-bred and well-connected, Astley was carving out a career in the Household Cavalry. He fell deeply in love with Lawrence, and during their long relationship she was more or less reinvented. He guided her taste in clothes and style, and taught his eager pupil the behavior and jargon of the smart set to which he belonged. Lawrence emerged a gracious, polished, sparkling product of Mayfair, and her social passport into high society was issued without question.
And so began the Legend of Gertrude Lawrence. In 1921, she again took over from Beatrice Lillie, this time to star in Charlot's A to Z with Jack Buchanan. In London Calling!, Noel Coward (a co-author) and Gertrude Lawrence sang the timeless "You Were Meant for Me" and danced to the choreography of their friend Fred Astaire who happened to be in town. Already the toast of London, Lawrence went to New York. Andre Charlot borrowed several of the best songs from his past revues and wove them into a package acceptable for Broadway. The result was a magnificent vehicle for the talents of Gertie, Bea Lillie, and Jack Buchanan. But the "Big Three" (as they had become known) were not certain if their comparatively modest show would appeal to New Yorkers, who were more used to the Ziegfeld extravaganzas. As it turned out, the critics were ecstatic. When the show and tour finally finished 15 months later, plans were already being laid for the next edition of Andre Charlot's Revue. Advance sales amounted to $200,000, and the three stars were to be paid an enormous $2,500 per week when they returned to the States in 1925. At this point, Gertie seemed to lose any vestige of common sense about money. She spent freely and continuously.
All three performers were admired, but reviewers singled Lawrence out for special praise. One remarked that she danced with "magical lightness," sang true and clear (not a judgment universally shared), could convulse an audience with a touch of Cockney horseplay and move them to tears with a sentimental ballad—concluding "she is the ideal star." In the spring of 1925, the show began a long American tour during which Gertie seemed to conquer the hearts of the entire nation. She was 28 years old, rich, famous and pleased with her life. Anxious to capitalize on her success, she decided to stay on in New York when a new musical entitled Oh Kay! by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, with music and lyrics by the Gershwins, was offered to her. Her triumph in this production both on Broadway and later in London secured her status as a star in her own right. It was her wistful rendition of the vintage song "Someone to Watch over Me" that stopped the show and possibly provoked Philip Astley to propose at last. Gertie's
refusal indicates that she may have realized that being Mrs. Anybody was unlikely to bring her any kind of fulfillment. The theater was her life, her home, and her happiness. An engagement, however, was all right. Engagement would mean an attentive escort and respectability without responsibility. Perfect. So she became engaged to a New York banker, Bert Taylor, and at once turned her attention to her future career. This, she wisely realized, would have to include straight plays (there were no musical stars over the age of 40) and films (to widen her public following). The film The Battle of Paris (which included songs by Cole Porter) was described as a "floperetta" but the play Candle-Light was a hit—presumably because a comedy about the extramarital affairs of Viennese princes provided a welcome distraction from the grim realities of the Wall Street crash. Lawrence was delighted to find her photograph next to that of Helen Hayes on the wall of fame at the Empire Theater, and Noel's cable read LEGITIMATE AT LAST. WON'T MOTHER BE PLEASED?
Not long after, Coward confided that he had a play forming in his head for both of them: Private Lives. The prospect thrilled Gertie, and they spent several weeks together honing the script and rehearsing in the South of France. Unfortunately, this meant that her daughter Pamela was more or less neglected once again. Though Lawrence was sensitive and loving, the role of "a real-life mother" eluded her. Private Lives—a hilarious and deceptively frivolous comedy about two people (Amanda and Elyot) who cannot live with or without each other—premiered in Edinburgh in August 1930. It was the third time Noel and Gertie had appeared together on stage, and they were to work together only once more (in Tonight at 8:30 in 1935); yet theirs was perhaps the most successful light-comedy partnership of the century and never better expressed than in this play.
However, by the time the show finished in London and America, the main force driving Lawrence was the need to clear her burgeoning debts. Fortunately, she had an astute advisor in Fanny Holtzmann —a fragile-looking lawyer and accountant whose toughness would be proved again and again over the next 20 years. But trying to curb Gertie's spending habits was virtually impossible. "She spends like an entire fleet of drunken sailors" said Holtzmann. Lawrence's generosity was legendary, her entertainment lavish, her tastes expensive. She never really changed her ways through all her financial crises (which included bankruptcy in 1935), she simply worked harder and earned more money with each venture. And there were many ahead. During the "turbulent '30s," Lawrence had supreme success in the theater on both sides of the Atlantic but fairly limited success in movies. On the whole, her style was too broad and her discipline too loose for the screen. Perhaps her most forgettable film was Mimi (a celluloid version of La Bohème) in which she appeared with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. The two were enjoying a robust affair at the time. Fairbanks, some ten years her junior, had admired her for many years. He adored her sense of fun, which he found "kind of rare," and appreciated that to her, "being a star was a full-time job." Rembrandt, co-starring Charles Laughton, was better received and remains her best screen performance.
While in America, Lawrence was deeply disturbed when her friend Edward VIII gave up the throne of England in favor of marriage to the woman he loved—Wallis Warfield , soon to be the duchess of Windsor. To Lawrence, it represented a dangerous crack in the carefully constructed social order of Britain and the act was also indefensibly unprofessional. She and Noel vowed to be home in time to attend the Coronation of George VI—an event for which Gertie had her jewelry dipped in gold. She was always glad to have seen London in that summer of 1937: "It was wonderful—a last burst of splendour before the storm burst."
Back in New York, Holtzmann urged her to seek out an interesting new play that would keep her employed for as long as possible. Susan and God, by pioneering feminist playwright Rachel Crothers , was just that. The 288 Broadway performances were followed by a tour of 27 cities (24 of which gave their keys to Lawrence) and a radio production. She became an American resident and, shortly after the show closed, met the man she was to marry. Richard Stoddard Aldrich was an ex-banker of conservative New England stock, a Harvard graduate, who just happened to be manager of a theater in Cape Cod—part of the "summer straw-hat circuit." Gertie appeared there in Skylark, a show in tryouts en route to Broadway. Their friendship began cautiously. He thought her at first a "spoiled prima donna"; she found him puzzling and stuffy. By the time Lawrence boarded the train for New York, there was more than a glimmer of romance between them. Lawrence, now 41, had experienced some loneliness during the past few years—the loneliness of the star too revered to approach. She was aware that she needed roots, and Aldrich was certainly "a very firm root." The wedding took place quietly on the Cape on July 4, 1940—Gertie's 42nd birthday. On hearing the news, actress Constance Collier quipped, "Poor man, he thinks he's marrying Miss Lawrence and will wake up to find he's married Myth Lawrence," while Aldrich's mother sighed reassuringly, "We will not mention it to anyone and naturally none of the people we know will mention it to us."
Meanwhile, the Second World War had broken out in Europe, and Lawrence's sense of patriotic duty, combined with her new status as "Mrs. A.," led her to fund-raise tirelessly for the British war effort and to organize the evacuation of 60 children from the English Actors' Orphanage to Canada. At the same time, she was being pursued by Messrs. Hart, Weill, and Gershwin to star in their major new musical Lady in the Dark. Newcomer Danny Kaye was also in the cast. His virtuoso number "Tchaikovsky" might have threatened a lesser actress, but, for the moment at least, Gertie was perfectly confident of her skill and command. On the first night, when the audience had finished applauding Kaye, she came slowly to the front of the stage and almost whispered her next song "Jenny." The effect was stunning—Lawrence's showmanship had triumphed once again. The show ran until 1943. This time America had entered the war, and Gertie was feeling the pressure of playing several roles simultaneously: leading lady, radio broadcaster, and American navy wife. Fiercely denying rumors of a rift in her marriage, Lawrence joined the British Services entertainment group ENSA and, in the summer of 1944, toured her own revue through England, Belgium and France. Back on the Cape, she completed and published her autobiography A Star Danced and went off on a promotional tour. But Lawrence longed to have a brilliant return to the London stage. That opportunity came from the pen of Daphne du Maurier , daughter of one of Gertie's favorite co-stars, Gerald. The play was September Tide. During rehearsals, the pre-London tour, and the West End run, a deep friendship developed between the two women. Daphne slowly became infatuated with the moody, demanding, mercurial star and enthralled by her performance in the play. Later, in the winter of 1950, they vacationed together in Florida and according to du Maurier "behaved like two silly schoolgirls." When she was sent the snapshots of their holiday, reputedly du Maurier blushed at the "incriminating things" Lawrence had written on the back.
By that time, though, Lawrence was back on the Cape and having "a year off" to devote herself to Richard and consider her next foray onto Broadway. But Holtzmann was full of plans. Rodgers and Hammerstein were busy adapting Margaret Landon 's book Anna and the King of Siam to be ready for Gertie to start rehearsals early in 1951. The show presented huge vocal and physical challenges to her, and her behavior was increasingly erratic and unpredictable. Sheer determination saw her through the first months of the run of The King and I. The show collected several Tony Awards and many accolades, but Gertie's recurring bad health was beginning to worry those closest to her. Although she had had lengthy tests which revealed no problems other than exhaustion, she was repeatedly "off" and frequently giving almost embarrassingly bad performances. But she was determined to see out her two-year contract and would not even listen to Coward, who implored her to gracefully give up a show that required her to run four miles a night around the stage, wearing huge crinolines that weighed 75 lbs. each. In the fall of 1952, Lawrence finally collapsed when returning to her dressing room one afternoon. She was rushed to the hospital where the doctors diagnosed hepatitis. Although Richard was called to her bedside and friends were everywhere alerted, there was no reason to think the disease would be fatal. Then, early on the morning of September 6, her condition suddenly grew much worse. She fell into a coma and passed away shortly thereafter. The autopsy revealed that cancer had completely consumed her liver, though the primary source was never discovered. Gertrude Lawrence was 54.
Friends and fans throughout the world were devastated. On the evening of her funeral, the lights of Broadway, London, and Hollywood were dimmed for two minutes as a tribute. Five thousand mourners stood outside the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church to pay their last respects—another 1,800 were inside. Lawrence was buried in the Aldrich family plot in Upton, Massachusetts, beside the mother-in-law who had eventually come to love her.
Aldrich, Richard Stoddard. Gertrude Lawrence as Mrs. London: Odhams Press, 1954.
Forster, Margaret. Daphne du Maurier. London: Chatto & Windus, 1993.
Lawrence, Gertrude. A Star Danced. London: Merritt and Hatcher, 1945.
Morley, Sheridan. A Bright Particular Star. Pavillion Michael Joseph, 1986.
Berkman, Edward. The Lady and the Law: A Biography of Fanny Holtzmann. Boston: Little, Brown, 1976.
Coward, Noel. Present Indicative. London: Heinemann, 1937.
De Mille, Agnes. Speak to Me, Dance With Me. Boston: Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973.
Bonnie Hurren , freelance actor, director, and artistic director of Show of Strength Theatre Company in Bristol, England