Matthews, Jessie (1907–1981)

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Matthews, Jessie (1907–1981)

British actress and dancer . Born Jessie Margaret Matthews on March 11, 1907, in the Soho district of London, England; died of cancer on August 20, 1981; daughter of George Matthews (who ran a market stall) and Jane Matthews; educated at Pulteney Street School for Girls; married Henry Lytton, Jr. (an actor), in 1926 (divorced 1931); married Sonnie Hale (an actor), on January 24, 1931 (divorced 1944); married a third time; children: (second marriage) one adopted daughter.

Selected filmography:

The Beloved Vagabond (1923); This England (1923); Straws in the Wind (1924); Out of the Blue (1931); There Goes the Bride (1932); The Midshipmaid (Midshipmaid Gob , 1932); Friday the Thirteenth (1933); Waltzes from Vienna (1933); The Good Companions (1933); Evergreen (1934); First a Girl (1935); It's Love Again (1936); Gangway (1937); Secrets of the Stars (1937); Sailing Along (1938); Climbing High (1938); (as director) Victory Wedding (1944); Candles at Nine (1944); Tom Thumb (1958); The Hound of the Baskervilles (1977).

Jessie Matthews was born in the working-class neighborhood of Soho in London, England, on March 11, 1907. Her father ran a stall in the local market, and her family, which ultimately included 16 children, was extremely poor. After seeing the silent-film serial The Perils of Pauline, Jessie became determined to become a professional actress. She began training in classical ballet in 1917 and had her first theatrical role in Seymour Hicks' production of Bluebell in Fairyland in London in 1919. Matthews was offered a role in Charlot's Revue of 1924 and subsequently became the understudy to Gertrude Lawrence , the revue's star. She was also in Charlot's Revue of 1925 and secured the starring role in Charlot's Revue of 1926. Later the same year, Matthews married her co-star, Henry Lytton, Jr.

Known as the "Dancing Divinity," Matthews was famous in both England and America throughout the late 1920s and the 1930s. She made a number of light films in Britain and starred in such productions as Earl Carroll's Vanities, with which she toured the

United States in 1927, One Dam Thing After Another, and Cole Porter's Wake Up and Dream, which introduced his song "Let's Do It." Perhaps her most memorable role was in Rodgers and Hart's Ever Green in 1930; she also starred in the 1935 movie version Evergreen. Matthews' on-stage fame did not negate the turmoil of her personal life. She entered into a long-running feud with fellow actress Evelyn Laye , and eventually divorced Lytton to marry Laye's former husband, Sonnie Hale, in 1931.

Among the movies Matthews made was Alfred Hitchcock's 1933 Waltzes from Vienna, but her first love remained the stage. Her last starring role was in Wild Rose, which opened in London in 1942. During the play's production, Hale ran off with their daughter's nanny, and Matthews suffered a nervous breakdown. Her career never fully recovered. In 1944, she directed a 20-minute war propaganda piece, Victory Wedding. She continued to appear on stage sporadically in a series of nondescript productions throughout the 1950s, and had a role on the radio soap opera "Mrs. Dale's Diary" from 1961 to 1966. Matthews attempted several stage comebacks during the 1960s and 1970s, but these were also unsuccessful. She received the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1970, and in 1974 published an autobiography (co-written with Muriel Burgess ), Over My Shoulder. Her last stage appearance was in the role of the Duchess of Berwick in Lady Windermere's Fan, which toured the United States in 1978. Jessie Matthews died of cancer on August 20, 1981.


Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Perennial, 1994.

Lamparski, Richard. Whatever Became of … ? 2nd series. NY: Crown Publishers, 1968.

Morley, Sheridan. The Great Stage Stars. Australia: Angus & Robertson, 1986.

Grant Eldridge , freelance writer, Pontiac, Michigan

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