People and their profiles: dukes, archbishops, actors, writers, monks, oddbods, the garish, the gregarious - here they are in single file, chosen by chance, by inclination, or by necessity ... and all reflecting, one hopes, the essential, but indefinable, spark that makes one human being interesting to many. Geoffrey Mather
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Gracie Fields: legend of the rock
(Pictured: Gracie, tape recorder, and me: I still have the tapes The dog, Stanley, was not there at the time. I superimposed him. Which all goes to show, you can't always believe what you see.)
There was something about Dame Gracie Fields (I898-I979) that puzzled me and perturbed me, and if I could have identified it, I would have been a great deal happier. The feeling was not logical (in that it had no origin known to me) and I could not rid myself of it, although I tried. I apologise for it. I am ashamed of it. She never hurt or offended me. On the contrary, she was both kind and attentive (referring to me, in correspondence as a "dear and especially good friend"); yet when I wrote about her the words did not entirely match my thoughts. They tended to reflect the conventional view of her as a much-loved heroine from the back streets of beyond, innocent (at any rate in her later years) of the flaws afflicting the rest of mankind in the manner of a Shirley Temple. Or Lassie.
Even her unpopularity during the last war was judged in retrospect to be unfair to her. Perhaps that was the trouble: this unflawed vision commonly held by those who wrote about her or referred to her, whereas I had jumbled impressions of aspedistras and alleys and over-jolly responses to people and things, the whole overlaid by an over-strong voice and a God-knows-what temperament. I had given up. Analysis was beyond me. And it should not have been so.
She was from Lancashire, my own county, which, in itself, demanded loyalty from me. She - pushed by a Iiighly-demanding mother - hauled herself out of a cotton mill background to become one of the highest-paid performers in the world, which is both unusual and admirable for a girl who, in the normal course of events, would have been required to work in a cotton mill from the age of 12.
I met her a year or so before her death. She was all laughter, sweetness and light, there in Capri. I had lunch with her and with Boris, her husband. We had Italian wine, carrots, courgettes, two kinds of meat, and fresh fruit from the garden. She played the piano and was loud in what she did: a clattering woman whose voice carried far. When she shopped on Capri she tended to be a little too much Gracie for my comfort; she was The Celebrity Abroad not particularly seeking, but certainly expecting, recognition of her status. No shrinking violet, she.
The villa was a series of rooms connected. on one level, the walls white, the floor green-tiled, the furniture deep, comfortable. Nothing over-opulent, but elegant, tasteful, unfussy. There was a log fire. She talked at length about her father and of Lancashire. Her conversation was loud, as ever, and gutsy and it remained so over the two days I stayed on the island (due to her deafness). She roamed her bit of rock like a conqueror. On the next Sir William Walton, the composer, a dour old soul with a lovely sense of humour whom I had met in England. They visited each other, I gather, through the good offices of Russell Harty and I am glad to hear it because I was under the impression that they existed in close isolation. Walton's roots were, of course, in Oldham but were of no great account to him (indeed, he had once been described as "exuding Chelsea from.every pore"' ). Both had been accused of betraying their birth-places, and she was more hurt by it than him. Walton had by far the greater sophistication, but then, he had been exposed to the Sitwells and their rarefied literary lifestyles, and when his wife referred to "your friend Ben," she meant Baron (Edward) Benjamin Brittan, a fellow composer.
Gracie was willing to talk about anything I cared to ask about, and yet it was a bad interview because of my own unease. Why was that unease so marked? Only now can I answer with any conviction.
What concerned me was the degree of her ambition and how it was reflected in her actions. Why should people talking about Gracie Fields (particularly in Lancashire) invariably do so nowadays with all their critical faculties removed? It is as if the very thought of her has the effect of temporarily numbing the brain. The monument must not be vandalised. We are supposed to believe that here was the high talent of a naive and uncultured girl exploited by the husbands of the first two of her three marriages. They were the predators, she the victim. Her blameless genius attracted avarice and opportunism and, at times, barely survived because of the emotional upsets this caused. Here was the generous, unsullied talent in a sullied world, doubly unfortunate in her choice of those closest to her.
This is too unlikely to be wholly, or even largely, true. I am not sure that we do Gracie Fields any service by pretending that she was so suffocatingly loved and misused. The one abiding impression I have is of tier force; sheer, unremitting force; force and energy as the principal elements, the talent following on. The timid child of chance is a fiction. I do not - and this is to her credit - believe she cared a fig for fortunes or large houses (the house her first husband built for them looks like something BUPA might acquire as a hospital); but she cared passionately for audiences and her power over them. And that power can only truly be appreciated by other performers of her rank or by leading politicians, for it is the same kind of power that all covet and enjoy and which only they truly know is superior to the power of money. Only the gods know greater power.
She married Archie Pitt, showman, on 2I April, I923, when she was 24 and he 43. He was seedy, short, bald, unfaithful, and she did not love him, nor he her.
At the age of I6, she was singing until her throat was raw - under the direction of this same Archie Pitt, who had no particular talent as a comedian, which he professed to be, but a considerable talent as in entrepreneur. His review, Mr Tower of London, opened in October, I9I8, ran for nine and a half years, and was seen by nearly seven million people. Since Gracie Fields was the star, he had to protect his investments. And the best protection was marriage. They married with both declaring their fervent and undying lack of love. He talked of French marriages of convenience; she said there was something she did not like about him.
But he had the drive and ambition to lead her on. Her scheming, pushing mother approved of it, and "mumma" was a considerable force in her own right. (The Lancastrian mumma, momma, or mtmma is is formidable as the Italian version any day). When the parting came (after Gracie's affair with an Irish painter named John Flanagan which could have led to marriage had he not decided that his artistic freedoms were more to him than her companionship) the professional relationship with Pitt continued: that is the telling point. She had finally left Pitt in I932 and he died of cancer in I94I.
In I940, the year of her divorce from Pitt, came marriage to Monty Banks, an Italian former Orient Express steward who had emigrated to America at the age of I8. He had come to England from America in I928 to forge a new career in British films, and he sought her out. They had met at Peacehaven, where she had bought a house, in I935. Banks had become one of the original Keystone Cops and had some reputation as a knockabout comic. He was small, like Pitt, a gambler; he chased women, but above all, he was a film director. He was her passport to the next important progression. Hollywood. Christmas with Darryl F. Zanuck, boss of Twentieth Century Fox: the apex of her chosen profession was here. She was offered £200,000 for four films by Zanuck's company and had completed three in England with Banks when war came in I939. Banks died in I950 - stricken suddenly on the Orient Express, as it happens - and he left £70,000, a large sum at the time.
Here, then, were the pushers, the sales-men of the talent. Neither, at this distance, sounds wholesome. Given a choice of an indifferent husband or a soaring career, I believe she would have chosen career every time. It is for others to decide whether such a priority is praiseworthy; I reserve my right to doubt. Husbands were secondary. Her love was for people in the mass. They could be wooed and won and yet kept at arm's length. She could bask in that love, and leave and rekindle it as she chose. What was the talent? Good voice; but then, good voices are not rare. Good actress? Hardly. You could dress her up in any costume you liked and she would still be Gracie Fields. By the standards of the time, she passed muster. What then? She was a huge presence. Charisma is beyond analysis (witness Chevalier, feted the world over for singing like an amiable frog). She certainly had that. But what was the nature of the charisma? Charisma is a wide-ranging attribute, with Mother Theresa on the one hand and Hitler on the other, so let us not assume that it is wholly good or wholly bad. It simply Is. This supposedly shy, misunderstood, reticent woman had an unstoppable power of character even in her eighties: she both expected and demanded total attention, and assumed she had retained the artistic merits which deserved it. She was said to be shy by some closest to her and even so, my view is that she was to shyness what Cassanova must have been to chastity. She was not shy when I followed her around Capri.'
She was the grand dame, the leader, and she required others to recognise and respect that role. Had they denied it, I suspect she would have rejected them out of hand, or crushed them. I imagined her riding her prejudices hard if she took offence, but I had no proof of that. It was instinct.
There was a second important point: popular conception had got her marriage to Boris, her husband at the time I met her, all wrong. Folk lore would have it that a humble Italian walked in one day to repair her radio set on Capri and they fell in love. Such a sequence of events would suggest that Boris saw his way out of a stultifying job and into the good life and that he targeted Gracie accordingly; an opportunist, a money-grubber.
It was not so. I believe she targeted him deliberately - and I do not blame her for it. On the contrary, the choice was better than she had made on past form. She was the pursuer, the one who would not be denied; he was the quarry, the demure one, the shy one, the intellectually superior one, and he brought to their marriage the nearest thing to real love that she ever knew. It reached her at the point of life where she did not have to make choices about career. The fires that drove her had abated and she could afford to be more true to her inner self. Theirs was not, one gathers, a marriage entirely without difficulty, particularly at the beginning. There has been talk of him assaulting her and I would not know the truth or otherwise of that. There is a strong impression around, too, that Boris hated the English tourists who pestered her; that he was over-protective and shocked to realise that he had married a big star., that but for him she might have been able to spend her later years in England, where she belonged. Others will no doubt reveal what they may in their own good time, but what I witnessed between the two of them was an obvious affection and it seemed to have more than a surface value. It went beyond what
was required if they were merely at pains to demonstrate to me (and through me, to newspaper readers) that their marriage had a degree of stability.
Boris Alperovici, half Rumanian, half Russian, born in Bessarabia of middle~class parents, was familiar with the rich and well-connected Cerio family on Capri. His relationship with Gracie, so far as I could observe it, was similar to that of the writer, Catherine Cookson and her husband, Tom, where the woman is dominant in public, but dependent on the man in private. Except that in Gracie Fields's case, she was gauche and he suave.
Gracie and Boris had been married for 25 years when I saw them together. Wherever Gracie and I walked, Boris, it seemed,was lurking behind a rock ready to emerge. It was a gentle game. He was never intrusive. When he and Gracie were together they walked hand in hand. She would pat his cheek during conversation. She doted on him. He was attentive to her and yet always a background figure.
Her own strength had dragged her to the summit of show business, and that was the strength that has nothing whatever to do with sex. It is simply will dragging its talents behind; and it could be observed in Elizabeth I, Boadicea, Mrs. Thatcher or, for that matter, Zsa Zsa Gabor. But then it pleased Gracie to relinquish the role and bask in the fact that she was a woman with a protector, an advisor, a friend. And that was Boris. She died first and he did not long survive her. He was the only husband who saw her as a human being rather than as an appreciating asset.
Well, then, such is the background to our meeting in the year I978 when she was about to celebrate her eightieth birthday in their 25th anniversary year. She died in September, I979, quietly, peacefully, in bed one sunny Capri morning. She was, in her own mind, a star to the end, and talked about "when I go on stage at night...... a thing she no longer did. A girl singer of the time cropped up in our conversation - her name escapes me and it is of little account; she was one of a number prominent at any one time in popular music. Gracie sang a few notes of one of her songs to show that she was superior. "She has no voice," she said. It was apparent that she saw this girl as a rival and the rivalry was not possible. They existed in different ages, but Gracie could not tolerate the rival's impertinence in acquiring her own piece of public adoration.
Before her death, she had shingles and was slightly stooped. "I don't want any fuss now," she said. "I like to be quiet. In summer, I go out and run so quick when I do a bit of shopping. I keep my head down and can't stop too long, otherwise I'm caught by Americans, Canadians, Australians. I behave myself when caught and I am nice to people." I suspected the shopkeepers occasionally found her blithe spirit tiresome: if they did, they were too polite to show it. As for the fuss, she would have been distraught had it not been there for her to avoid. Gracie Fields (Freedom of Rochdale, I937; C.B.E., I938, D.B.E., I978; ten Royal Command performances, the last as late as I978) had faced her greatest challenge because war with Germany and Italy coincided with her marriage to Monty Banks. Newspapers referred to him as Mario Bianchi, his true name.
They left England for the safety of the United States taking with them a considerable amount of money with Treasury permission. She was to explain that she removed £8,000 "to look after my parents in California" and that Banks took £20,000 of his own money. She put husband before country, and country was mortified because its emotional ties were of longer standing. Her songs for the troops were no compensation. When she decided to make her home abroad, author Howard Spring captured the moment: "She had achieved such a hold on the affection and imagination of the people that in this matter she could please herself only at the cost of displeasing them... The marriage of the people to the symbolic person is a marriage for better or worse, and if, when, for whatever valid and logical reason, worse comes, one partner walks out, then the marriage is off." It was not off. But it was strained for a long time.
So to Banks's sudden death: she was 52 and stranded on a rock.
"We had rooms in this (Capri) house originally, and after 20 years I was able to buy the property. I wanted to get away from people. Monty started a restaurant below the villa and died before it was completed. I did not know what to do with it. I would just have thrown it into the ash can."
Enter, Boris: Not a radio engineer calling to repair a set but someone to whom she was introduced. "The following year I got talking to him. My nephew said, 'Don't give him lunch by himsell He'll sit outside with us.' And I said, 'He doesn't speak English, does he?' and he said, 'Of course he does. He was in the Eighth Army.'
"I said he must be barmy. Then I found Boris knew more things than I did and everybody else did. I said, 'This is a fellow I'm not going to let get away.'
"I had been too shy (the italics are mine) to go down to the restaurant, which we had rented to people Monty had been talking to before he died. Bolis said he did not know anything about the restaurant business but that he would do his best to sort it out. He reorganised matters so that we could rent it out properly."
So the upheaval of Monty Banks's death turned into the relative tranquillity of life with Boris, aided by two servants.
"I get up at eight every morning and make porridge. In the evening we watch TV. Around 9 o' clock I say, 'Goodnight, everybody' unless there is a good film. We have a TV in our bedroom so that we can lie in bed and watch."
In a curious way she lived her pushy mother's life for her.
"My mother had this lovely voice and no way of getting out of Rochdale at all, and she must have had the gypsy in her." All the success her mother wanted and never achieved for herself became Gracie's. She turned her mother's daydreams into her own reality. At the same time, her mother basked in the proceeds. She did not find the first house Gracie bought for her in Peacehaven entirely to her liking, which is how it became an orphanage under Gracie's patronage; she moved on to a better property where she required a room for a maid, a tennis court, and a swimming pool. She had pushed all her children onto the stage, using Gracie as her lever.
Memories of Rochdale became clearer to Gracie Fields with time..
"My grandfather was barmy or something, my mother said. He would work very hard, make a lot of money, then get a cab and stay in it until the money was gone - going round singing at the top of his voice.
"What's happened to the muck tips of Rochdale? My father had a little hen pen with two cabins, one for hens, the other for people. They were betting there. It was his little Monte, Carlo...
"My dad would come home stinking drunk and I would try to creep upstairs quickly. My mother did not approve of his sense of humour at all."
Gracie Stansfield, unknown, became Gracie Fields, star; and that is all we really know, and all she wanted us to know. For someone so universally admired, she was curiously detached from others. She was not so much a person as an event. She visited Lancashire not long before her death, and she sent me a picture postcard of Capri with this message:
"It was wonderful to see so many old friends and we were quite overwhelmed by the warmth of the reception given us. It is good to be back on our peaceful isle again after all the excitement, which was a bit much for this old gal."
She is buried in a quiet graveyard overlooking the bay at Capri. That, to my mind, is entirely right. She no longer belonged to Rochdale. And if she puzzles me yet, I am well aware that her achievements, the sheer driving force of her, is exceptional, if not unique. We have to give her credit for that. And perhaps, given her temperament, she had little choice. I would like to have known her better. The knowledge might have eased my discomfort.
Geoffrey Mather © 2004
6 December, 2008