Rutherford, Margaret (1892–1972)

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Rutherford, Margaret (1892–1972)

English actress who rose to stardom in middle age and created an ensemble of eccentrics for film and stage, including Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. Born Margaret Taylor Rutherford on May 11, 1892, at 15 Dornton Road, Balham, England; died on May 22, 1972, at Chalfont St. Peter, England; daughter of William Rutherford Benn and Florence (Nicholson) Benn; married (James Buckley) Stringer Davis (an actor), on March 26, 1945; children: adopted four children, including writer Dawn Langley Hall Simmons (d. September 18, 2000, who before her sex-correction operation in 1968 was known as Gordon Langley Hall).


Dusty Ermine (Hideout in the Alps, 1936); Talk of the Devil (1936); Beauty and the Barge (1937); Catch as Catch Can (1937); Quiet Wedding (1940); The Yellow Canary (1943); The Demi-Paradise (Adventure for Two, 1943); English Without Tears (1944); Her Man Gilbey (1944); Blithe Spirit (1945); Meet Me at Dawn (1946); While the Sun Shines (1947); Miranda (1948); Passport to Pimlico (1949); The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950); Her Favorite Husband (The Taming of Dorothy, 1950); (cameo) The Magic Box (1951); Curtain Up (1952); Castle in the Air (1952); Miss Robin Hood (1952); (as Miss Prism) The Importance of Being Earnest (1952); Innocents in Paris (1953); Trouble in Store (1953); The Runaway Bus (1954); Mad About Men (1954); Aunt Clara (1954); An Alligator Named Daisy (1955); The Smallest Show on Earth (1957); Just My Luck (1957); I'm All Right Jack (1959); On the Double (1961); Murder She Said (1961); The VIPS (1963); Murder at the Gallop (1963); The Mouse on the Moon (1963); Murder Ahoy (1964); Murder Most Foul (1964); (cameo) The Alphabet Murders (1966); Chimes at Midnight (1966); A Countess from Hong Kong (1967); (voice) The Wacky World of Mother Goose (1967); Arabella (1968).

Margaret Rutherford was 13 when she learned that her father, whom she had been told had died in India nursing the sick when she was a baby, had not died at all. Instead, he was living in Broadmoor, an asylum for the criminally insane. Throughout her life, she kept the news secret, fearful of exposure that would end her career and fearful for her own sanity.

Soon after her parents married in 1882, her father William Rutherford Benn, having manifested symptoms of manic-depression, had entered the Bethnal House Asylum in East London. William was known to talk to himself and quote from the Bible. His father, the Reverend Julius Benn, a dedicated evangelist who worked with the poor, was concerned for his son and arranged to have him stay at a home in Matlock to live with a "Godly and properly Christian couple" for a period of rest. Margaret's mother Florence Benn , too young to cope, heartily agreed. Thus, it was the Reverend Benn who accompanied his son to Matlock and stayed the night with him before returning home. The next morning, Reverend Benn was dead. The Derbyshire Times (March 7, 1883) reported that when the master of the cottage in Matlock entered the guest room, he found William Rutherford Benn standing "silent and erect in front of him in his night dress, his throat, beard, hands, night dress, legs and feet, dripping with blood, and without uttering a sound he dramatically pointed to the bed." He had smashed his father's skull in with a Staffordshire chamberpot, then unsuccessfully tried to take his own life by slitting his throat with a small pocket knife.

William's brother John came to his aid at the inquest, exhorting the judge to allow evidence as to William's state of mind, but the judge would have none of it and pronounced him guilty. When William, however, confused the chief constable with Pontius Pilate, he was remanded to Broadmoor. Seven years later, William was released and turned over to the care of his brother. Because of all the publicity, William legally dropped his surname and went by his mother's maiden name, Rutherford. Meanwhile, Florence had remained true, writing him daily, and the couple reunited. Now known as Mr. and Mrs. Rutherford, they moved into a home in Balham. There, on May 11, 1892, Margaret Taylor Rutherford was born.

Five years later, the family moved to India, where William, a poet at heart, worked as a silk merchant. Like his father, William also spent long hours working with the poor and nursing victims of cholera. When Florence became pregnant once again, William offered to send her back to England but she refused. It was now Florence, nearing term, who was manifesting restless and disturbed behavior. William wired for her sister Bessie to come help. But before Bessie could arrive, an Indian servant found Florence hanging from a tree. She had killed herself. The ordeal sent William over the edge once more. In October 1902, he was admitted to the Northumberland House Asylum. Over a year later, when he showed signs of homicidal tendencies, he was removed to Broadmoor where he remained until he died in 1921, age 66.

The unmarried Aunt Bessie, who lived in Wimbledon, became Rutherford's mother. After consulting the rest of the extended family, Bessie told Margaret her father had died. "I was allowed my own dream world," recalled Rutherford, "which my adoptive mother punctuated with her discipline. For instance, my back was weak, so every day I was made to lie motionless on the floor while she read to me in French. Later in my career I have been many times complimented on my carriage, ability to wear period clothes, and my meticulous French accent. This is all due to those morning sessions on the floor with Aunt Bessie."

Rutherford, known to family as Peggy, grew up lonely, her loneliness lessened only by occasional visits from a favorite cousin; the two wrote plays together. By age eight, Margaret knew she wanted to be an actress. Another cousin, however, was so against theater that Margaret had to "write a part for her where she was confined to a dark dreary cupboard for most of the performance."

At 13, the news of her father's existence sent Rutherford into "a fit of deep depression with long periods of silence broken occasionally by crying." Bessie, despite the significant drain to her finances, wanted her cherished daughter to experience a change of scene and learn something of the real world. Shortly after, in 1906, Rutherford was sent to Raven's Croft School, then located in Upper Warlingham, Surrey.

When Peggy Rutherford informed the head-mistress that she intended to be a professional actress, she was immediately steered to the piano, a more respectable artistic endeavor for a lady. Unlike actresses, pianists did not form liaisons with the prince of Wales. Rutherford, who enjoyed the school, stayed an extra year because she loved taking care of the "little ones." "I have always had this motherly instinct," she once said, "and people find it easy to share their problems with me." Returning to Wimbledon to live with her adoptive mother while giving piano lessons, Rutherford became a familiar figure, biking to the homes of her students. But she still longed to be an actress. When Aunt Bessie dug down and found a little more money for acting lessons, Rutherford began studying with an old Shakespearean actor named Acton Bond and joined her local drama society. She spent some time during World War I reciting poetry to convalescing soldiers.

But after the war, Bessie endured a series of strokes and needed Margaret's care. "With her usual sense of order," wrote Rutherford's biographer and adopted daughter Dawn Langley Simmons , Bessie "calmly announced one morning to a tearful Margaret, 'It is quite unfair to you. I am taking much too long to die.' Moments later she was gone." The year was 1925 and Rutherford was now 33. With her small inheritance as well as money from the sale of the Wimbledon house, she rented a bedsitter (one-room apartment) in London, next door to Holloway Prison, and engaged a 60-year-old maid, Elizabeth Orphin , because Margaret was "bad with a sewing needle"; the two would remain good friends until Elizabeth's death years later.

With the help of acquaintances, Margaret managed to scare up an audition with the intimidating Lilian Baylis , who ran the Old Vic. Though Baylis seemed less than impressed, she accepted Rutherford as a trainee actress for the 1925 September–May season. Unfortunately, it turned out to be only one season of nine roles; then Baylis let her go. For the next two years, Rutherford was once again biking to piano students. She joined the Wimbledon Amateur Theatrical Society and quickly learned two things: she had a knack for making people laugh and she thrived on it. She was finally engaged as an understudy for Mabel Terry-Lewis in A Hundred Years Old at the Lyric in Hammersmith. When Terry-Lewis took ill, Rutherford went on for 15 weeks. In 1929, she worked a season in repertory at the Grand in Fulham; 29 parts gave her ample experience. Between jobs, Margaret began to experience deep depression, a pattern that would continue the rest of her life; she was terrified that she might go mad.

While appearing in Ben Travers' comedy hit Thark at the Oxford Playhouse, Rutherford met Stringer Davis, an actor seven years her junior. Their courtship would last 15 years. Invited to join Esmé Church 's company at Croydon's Greyhound Theater, she suggested Davis sign with the theater as well. There, she played opposite Donald Wolfit as Mrs. Solness in The Master Builder. Though an impressed Wolfit claimed that she was the best Solness he had ever worked with and had the makings of a great tragic actress, Rutherford, despite her efforts, was acquiring a substantial reputation as a character actress and beginning to be typecast. "The parts I had been given had begun to show signs of the eccentricity that I later developed into my own special technique," she said.

In 1933, a small part at the Lyric in Wild Justice grew during rehearsals and the play was transferred to the West End. Following that, she reprised The Master Builder with Wolfit at the Embassy Theater, Swiss Cottage, and then went into rehearsal for Jane Cowl 's Hervey House, which starred Gertrude Lawrence and Fay Compton . Though the play had a short run, Rutherford's reviews were glowing. After that, she was featured in Robert Morley's Short Story, directed by Tyrone Guthrie. She was also handed her first film, Dusty Ermine, in another role which was expanded as the filming progressed. Margaret Rutherford was now working steadily.

In 1938, while playing the part of Aunt Bijou Furze in The Spring Meeting, a play by Molly Keane and John Perry (written under the joint name M.J. Farrell), the character actress attained stardom. Her reputation now secure, she was offered the part of Miss Prism in the milestone production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, with John Gielgud directing and Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell. (In 1947, Rutherford would replace Evans as Lady Brack-nell for the North American tour; she remained, however, Miss Prism for the film version.) Earnest opened for eight charity performances at the Globe in January 1939 and was revived for a short run at Golders Green Hippodrome.

When World War II intervened, Stringer joined the military and along with most of the British army was rescued from the beach at Dunkirk. But Rutherford, who was living with her close friend and stand-in Grace Bridges , had a career that was sizzling. She agreed to play the menacing Mrs. Danvers to Celia Johnson 's Mrs. de Winter in Daphne du Maurier 's Rebecca. The play opened in April 1940 and only closed because a bomb shuttered the theater that September. Rutherford followed that with the role of Madame Arcati, the ditzy medium in Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, though she warned Coward that she had great respect for mediums and would play Arcati straight. Of Madame Arcati, the critic for the Tatler wrote: "Miss Rutherford is not one of your pale anaemic dabblers in the psychic but a thoroughly hearty, bicycling

bon viveuse, breathing deeply and skipping about with a triumph when she brings off a coup. To see her Madame Arcati get up from an armchair is a lesson in eccentric observation." Blithe Spirit ran for 1,997 performances. Despite the fact that Rutherford loathed long runs, she stayed with the show for over a year. (The play would be filmed in 1945 with David Lean directing.) From Prism to Danvers to Arcati, Rutherford had put her stamp on three magnificent roles in a row. Another favorite part of hers would be that of Lady Wishfort in William Congreve'sThe Way of the World, again directed by Gielgud at the Lyric in Hammersmith.

Near war's end, on March 26, 1945, Rutherford married Stringer Davis. "Ours was one of those romances that took a long time to bloom," she said. "For many years he had his mother, whom he loved dearly, to consider and I had my career. It was the war separation that changed everything. [He] suddenly realized that there is nothing worse in life than loneliness and that perhaps after all he might be husband material. It took him all that time to find himself in that respect, if you see." Since her career had eclipsed his, Rutherford generally had written in her contracts that Stringer be given a small role. In the 1950s, the couple lived on the second floor of Old Hall in Highgate, ex-home of Francis Bacon. Rumer Godden and her husband lived on the main floor and the couples became friends. Mr. and Mrs. Stringer Davis would eventually settle at Elm Close, Gerrards Cross, outside London.

Rutherford, still concerned about her mental health, suffered when not working. In 1956, she had an extended bout with depression. "My nerves aren't the best," she told Howard Thompson of The New York Times. "I've had two breakdowns. Work can be a cure, but psychiatry saved me." In a BBC interview, she told Alex McIntosh: "One only has a breakdown when one feels that the whole of one's object for living has gone. One has lost one's roots, one has lost one's bearings; that, I think, is almost the deepest sadness that can be imagined in the world today and it is for that, that I have the most compassion, for people who are in that state, I think because I have been in that state myself." She called it her "melancholia." A bad patch required rest in a nursing home, or a guesthouse near the sea. For that reason, Rutherford took in orphans, many people who had lost their way. Among these were writer Gordon Langley Hall, then a 19-year-old who had been born with a swollen clitoris, been deemed a boy, and had lived with the unattended abnormality until she underwent a sex-correction operation in 1968, became Dawn Langley Hall, got married and became Dawn Langley Simmons, and had a child.

In 1962, Rutherford received an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) from Queen Elizabeth II . Shortly thereafter, she was offered the role of Miss Marple, Agatha Christie 's stellar woman sleuth, in Murder, She Said for MGM. In order to take the part, Rutherford had to break a long-held rule. Because of her father, she had refused to do any role having to do with crime. But Rutherford was told that Marple was involved with solving puzzles, not crime; besides, Stringer had been offered the role of the village librarian. When she finally accepted, everyone was happy except Agatha Christie, who deplored the casting until she met Rutherford on the set and they became boon companions. Rutherford would go on to make three more "Miss Marple" movies.

Next came the role of the duchess of Brighton in the movie The VIPs with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. At first, Rutherford turned down the job, but the writers were willing to listen to her criticism and came up with a duchess who had "both substance and integrity," noted Rutherford. That same part won her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1963.

Another prolonged depression arrived in June 1965 and she had to bow out of a production of the Solid Gold Cadillac in London. Rutherford was also having trouble with her memory. As Mrs. Malaprop in the 1966 production of The Rivals at the Haymarket, she sometimes had to create her own malapropisms because she wasn't always sure of the lines. Even so, that same year Orson Welles requested her presence in his movie Chimes at Midnight. But, hired for a cameo in another movie, her problem grew worse, and her small scene had to be shot over so many times that she was replaced. "On that terrible day," wrote Eric Johns, "she was discovered hunched on a chair in the hall of her own home, sobbing her heart out as she repeated over and over again, 'I've been sacked!'" Essentially, it was the end of her career.

In 1967, with her inclusion in the queen's New Year's Honors List, she became Dame Margaret Rutherford. That November, while filming Arabella, an Italian movie in Rome, the 75-year-old Rutherford fell in her hotel room and broke her hip. Though the Italian doctor begged her to stay with her hip in plaster for a month, she returned to London. From then on, she walked with two canes.

Margaret Rutherford had always been much too generous with her money and barely one step ahead of the English tax collector. Now, with no income, she was forced to sell her beloved Elm Close, and she and Stringer moved to a small bungalow at Chalfont St. Peter. She died there on May 22, 1972. Stringer followed 14 months later, on August 7, 1973. Margaret Rutherford, brilliant at comedy, once said to a friend, "I never play for laughs."


Johns, Eric. Dames of the Theater. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1974.

Simmons, Dawn Langley. Margaret Rutherford: A Blithe Spirit. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1983.

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Rutherford, Margaret (1892–1972)

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