- Category : Actress
- Type : MGE
- Profile : 4/6 - Opportunistic / Role Model
- Definition : Split - Small (20,55)
- Incarnation Cross : RAX Tension 2
Gertrude Lawrence (July 4, 1898 – September 6, 1952) was an English actress, singer, dancer and musical comedy performer known for her stage appearances in London's West End and on New York's Broadway.
Lawrence was born Gertrude Alice Dagmar Klasen, of English and Danish extraction, in the Newington area of London Borough of Southwark. Her father was a basso profundo who performed under the name Arthur Lawrence. His heavy drinking led her mother Alice to leave him soon after Gertrude's birth.
In 1904, her stepfather took the family to Bognor on the Sussex coast for the August bank holiday. While there, they attended a concert where audience members were invited to entertain. At her mother's urging, young Gertrude sang a song and was rewarded with a gold sovereign for her effort. It was her first public performance.
In 1908, in order to augment the family's meager income, Alice accepted a job in the chorus of the Christmas pantomime at Brixton Theatre. A child who could sing and dance was needed to round out the troupe, and Alice volunteered her daughter. While working in the production Alice heard of Italia Conti, who taught dance, elocution and the rudiments of acting. Gertrude auditioned for Conti, who thought the child was talented enough to warrant free lessons.
Her training led to appearances in Max Reinhardt's The Miracle in London and Fifinella, directed by Basil Dean, for the Liverpool Repertory Theatre. At some point during this period, the child decided to adopt her father's professional surname as her own. Dean then cast her in his next production, Gerhart Hauptmann's Hannele, where she first met Noël Coward. Their meeting was the start of a close and sometimes tempestuous friendship and the most important professional relationship in both their lives.
Early stage career
Following Hannele, Lawrence reconnected with her father, who was living with a chorus girl. They agreed to let her tour with them in two successive revues, after which Arthur announced he had signed a year-long contract with a variety show in South Africa, leaving the two young women to fend for themselves. Lawrence, now aged sixteen, opted to live at the Theatrical Girls' Club in Soho rather than return to her mother and stepfather. She worked steadily with various touring companies until 1916, when she was hired by famed impresario André Charlot to understudy Beatrice Lillie and appear in the chorus of his latest production in London's West End. When it closed, she assumed Lillie's role on tour, then returned to London once again to understudy the star in another Charlot production, where she met dance director Francis Gordon-Howley. Although he was twenty years her senior, the two wed and soon after had a daughter Pamela, Lawrence's only child. The marriage was not a success, and Lawrence took Pamela with her to her mother's home in Clapham. The couple remained separated but did not divorce until ten years later.
In 1918, Lawrence contracted lumbago and was given a fortnight to recuperate by Charlot, who then saw her at an opening night party at Ivor Novello's invitation two days before she was cleared to return to work by her doctor, and immediately sacked her. When the apparent reason for her dismissal became common knowledge among other West End producers, she was unable to find work, and in early 1919 she accepted a job singing in the show at Murray's, a popular London nightclub, where she remained for the better part of the next two years. While performing there she met Captain Philip Astley, a member of the Household Cavalry. He became her friend, escort, and ultimately lover, and taught her how to dress and behave in high society. When Lawrence became involved with Wall Street banker Bert Taylor in 1927, Astley proposed marriage, an offer Lawrence refused because she knew Astley would expect her to leave the stage and settle in rural England. The two remained close until he married actress Madeleine Carroll in 1931. When Lawrence divorced Gordon-Howley, she and Taylor became engaged and remained so for two years, with each free to enjoy a social life separate from the other.
At the end of 1920, Lawrence left Murray's and began to ease her way back into legitimate theatre while touring in a music hall act as the partner of popular singer Walter Williams. In October 1921, Charlot asked her to replace an ailing Beatrice Lillie as star of his latest production, A to Z, opposite Jack Buchanan. In it the two introduced the song "Limehouse Blues", which went on to become one of Lawrence's signature tunes.
In 1923, Noël Coward developed his first musical revue, London Calling!, specifically for Lawrence. Charlot agreed to produce it, but brought in more experienced writers and composers to work on the book and score. One of Coward's surviving songs was "Parisian Pierrot", a tune that would be identified closely with Lawrence throughout her career. The show's success led its producer to create André Charlot's London Revue of 1924, which he took to Broadway with Lawrence, Lillie, Buchanan and Constance Carpenter. It was so successful it moved to a larger theatre to accommodate the demand for tickets and extended its run. After it closed, the show toured the US and Canada, although Lawrence was forced to leave the cast when she contracted double pneumonia and pleurisy and was forced to spend fourteen weeks in a Toronto hospital recuperating.
Charlot's Revue of 1926, starring Lawrence, Lillie, and Buchanan, opened on Broadway in late 1925. In his review, Alexander Woollcott singled out Lawrence, calling her "the personification of style and sophistication" and "the ideal star." Like its predecessor, it toured following the Broadway run. It proved to be Lawrence's last project with Charlot. In November 1926, she became the first British performer to star in an American musical on Broadway when she opened in Oh, Kay!, with music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, and a book by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse. Following a run of 256 performances, the musical opened in the West End, where it ran for 213 performances.
In 1928, Lawrence returned to Broadway opposite Clifton Webb in Treasure Girl, a Gershwin work she was confident would be a huge hit. Anticipating a long run, she arrived in New York with her daughter Pamela, a personal maid and two cars, and settled into a flat on Park Avenue. Her instincts about the musical were wrong; audiences had difficulty accepting her as an avaricious woman who double-crosses her lover, and it ran for only 68 performances. She starred opposite Leslie Howard in Candle Light, an Austrian play adapted by Wodehouse, in 1929, and in 1931 she and Noël Coward triumphed in his play Private Lives, first in the UK, and later on Broadway.
Later stage career
In 1936, Lawrence and Coward starred in Tonight at 8:30, a cycle of ten one-act plays he had written specifically for the two of them. In 1937, she appeared in the Rachel Crothers drama Susan and God, and in 1939 starred in Skylark, a comedy by Samson Raphaelson. Lawrence felt the play needed work prior to opening on Broadway, and a run at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts was arranged. The theatre was run by Harvard University graduate Richard Aldrich, and he and the actress became involved in a romantic relationship. The two wed on her birthday in 1940 and remained married until her death in 1952. They had homes in Dennis and in Turtle Bay. Manhattan.
In 1941 Lawrence's daughter Pamela married a New York doctor named Bill Cahan. Lawrence was friendly with her son-in-law but lost contact with him after he and Pamela divorced. Lawrence did not have any grandchildren during her lifetime.
Lawrence returned to the musical stage in Lady in the Dark in 1941. It originally had been planned as a play with recurrent musical themes for Katharine Cornell by Moss Hart, Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin, but by the time the first act was completed it was clear it was very much a musical Cornell agreed was beyond her capability as a performer. Soon after Hart met Lawrence at a rehearsal for a revue designed to raise funds for British War Relief, and he offered her the role of Liza Elliott, a magazine editor undergoing psychoanalysis to better understand why both her professional and personal lives are filled with indecision. The show was very ambitious and stretched the star's talents for singing, dancing and acting. Her performance prompted Richard Watts of the New York Herald Tribune to call her "the greatest feminine performer in the American theatre," and Brooks Atkinson described her as "a goddess" in his review in the New York Times. She remained with the show throughout its Broadway run and its subsequent national tour over the next three years.
Decades later, Ira Gershwin told American songwriting historian Sheila Davis about a contribution Lawrence made to honing the lyrics of the song "My Ship" in Lady in the Dark. "During a Lady in the Dark rehearsal," Davis wrote, "Gertrude Lawrence suddenly stopped singing midline and called out to Gershwin, who was monitoring from the orchestra, 'Why does she say 'I could wait four years' – why not five or six?' Of course, the line was 'I could wait for years.' The painstaking lyricist immediately substituted the to clarify the aural ambiguity."
In 1945, Lawrence starred as Eliza Doolittle opposite Raymond Massey as Henry Higgins in a revival of Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, who initially resisted the idea of Lawrence playing the role. Following the Broadway run, she toured the United States (including a stint in Washington, D.C.) and Canada in the play until May 1947.
In 1945, Lawrence published the autobiography A Star Danced. Her longtime friend Noël Coward later suggested it was a romanticised and less than wholly factual account of her life. Although Lawrence claimed the work was solely hers, many suspected her business manager and attorney Fanny Holtzmann had written much of it. The author embarked on a cross-country tour of the United States to publicise her book, the first person ever to engage in such a promotion.
World War II
Lawrence's second husband Richard Aldrich became a lieutenant in the United States Navy during World War II, during which time Lawrence had a standing invitation to perform for British troops from the head of the UK's Entertainments National Service Association. Her chief obstacle was getting from her home in Massachusetts to Britain. Aldrich was overseas at the time. In her 1945 memoir A Star Danced, she recalled, "After weeks of more or less patient waiting, repeated timid, pleading, urgent and finally importunate requests to the authorities who rule such matters in Washington and London, and a rapid-fire barrage of telegrams, cables and telephone calls, it had happened. At last I had permission to do what I had been wanting desperately to do for four years—go to England and do my bit on a tour for E.N.S.A."
Lawrence's attorney booked the actress on a British Airways charter flight from Washington, D.C. to an airfield near London that lasted 36 hours, including two refuelling stops. When Lawrence boarded the plane, she discovered that she, Ernest Hemingway and Beatrice Lillie were among the few passengers without diplomatic passports. Lawrence and Lillie were the only female passengers. Hours after landing near London, she performed with E.N.S.A. for British and American troops who, it turned out, had been deployed for the imminent D-Day landings in Normandy. Aldrich was in one of the squadrons of the U.S. Navy.
Aldrich wrote in his 1954 biography of his recently deceased wife:
She went over with the first E.N.S.A. unit to go into France, making the crossing in an LST (Landing Ship, Tank). Others in the party included Ivor Novello, Margaret Rutherford, Diana Wynyard and Bobbie Andrews. In her autobiography, A Star Danced, she has given a graphic account of their landing on a Normandy beach and of the progress of her unit through the wrecked towns, where there was still no water or electricity. Shows were given in shell-torn cinemas and hastily lighted casinos.
The physical discomforts – the sleeping in attics, the total lack of sanitation, the scanty and poor food – Gertrude could and did take as fortunes of war. What bothered her more was the breakdown in communications with me. Always dependent upon getting frequent letters from those she loved, she chafed and worried because no mail reached her.
As Allied forces scored more victories in the South Pacific later that year, Lawrence endured long plane rides and dangerous conditions to perform for troops there. The Aldrich book includes a photograph of Lawrence and two unidentified performers standing next to a military plane in Angaur that had just transported them there from Ulithi.
Professional and personal connection to Daphne du Maurier
In 1948, Lawrence returned to Britain to star in September Tide, a play written specifically for her by Daphne du Maurier. Her role was that of a middle-aged Cornish woman whose son-in-law, a bohemian artist, falls in love with her. The playwright had intended her to open the play on Broadway, but Lawrence's husband thought it was too British for the American market. The London press paid scant attention to her return, and Lawrence was distressed to discover that in a country struggling to recover from the effects of World War II, the public no longer was as interested in the private lives of stage stars as it once had been. Prior to opening in the West End, the play toured Blackpool, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester, where the frequently sparse audiences consisted primarily of elderly people who remembered Lawrence from her heyday. While on the road, she underwent erratic mood swings and frequently clashed with her fellow cast members, including actors Michael Gough and Bryan Forbes, and the crew. The play opened in London in mid-December 1948. Writing in Punch, Eric Keown called her return "an occasion for rejoicing" but dismissed the play as "an artificial piece of conventional sentiment which leaves the actress's talents unused." She remained with the play until July 1949, then returned to the United States, where she performed her role for one week at her husband's theatre in Dennis.
According to an authorised 1993 biography of the author and playwright by Margaret Forster, Lawrence and du Maurier became close friends during the London production of September Tide. The nature of their relationship remained unclear following the 1989 death of du Maurier. Forster quotes du Maurier as saying the following about Lawrence circa 1949, "To be blatantly vulgar, anyone with a spice of imagination would prefer a divan with Gertrude to a double-bed with her."
Lawrence biographer Sheridan Morley interviewed du Maurier for his 1981 book Gertrude Lawrence. Du Maurier was quoted as saying she called Lawrence by the nickname "Cinders," short for Cinderella. Either while negotiating to appear in September Tide or rehearsing it, Lawrence stayed in "a flat in London somewhere," according to what du Maurier told Morley decades later. Boiling water in her tea kettle for a visitor was stressful for Lawrence. Du Maurier also told the biographer that she had forgotten all the dialogue she had written for September Tide and that shortly before her interview with Morley she had "been searching my shelves for a copy of the play. ... I cannot remember how Cinders looked, what she wore, far less what she said." Du Maurier's contribution to the Morley biography of Lawrence consists of little more than that. Nothing about a personal connection between Gertrude Lawrence and Daphne du Maurier was published during Lawrence's lifetime. Two years after Lawrence's death, her widower Richard Aldrich had this to say in a best-selling book:
All her ingenuous traits, which could be annoying as well as endearing, would be swept away by her courage, her clear perception of truth, and the divine compassion which could flood her heart and lift her to the heights of nobility.
I am sure that she was frequently bewildered by the rapidity and mutability of her own impulses. Possessed, as she was, of an intuitive rather than an analytical intelligence, I doubt that she really understood herself clearly, any more than did most of those who thought they knew her intimately. An exception in this regard was Daphne du Maurier.
During those months in England when September Tide was in production, Gertrude and Daphne formed a warm friendship, which continued unbroken after Gertrude's return to America. Daphne later returned the visit by being Gertrude's guest in New York. Daphne's subsequent best-selling novel Mary Anne was originally planned as a possible starring vehicle for Gertrude.
It was chiefly from comments made later by Daphne that I was able to reconstruct the full picture of Gertrude's inner conflict during her stay in London. Daphne spoke of Gertrude's moodiness, her variability, her sense of vague self-dissatisfaction. To other English friends, Gertrude talked wistfully of wanting to remain in England, "where I belong."
The King and I
In 1950, Lawrence's business manager and attorney Fanny Holtzmann was looking for a new property for her client when the 1944 Margaret Landon book Anna and the King of Siam was sent to her by the William Morris agent who represented Landon. He thought a stage adaptation of the book would be an ideal vehicle for the actress. Holtzmann agreed, but proposed a musical version would be better. Lawrence wanted Cole Porter to write the score, but when he proved to be unenthused by the suggestion, Holtzmann sent the book to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Rodgers initially demurred because he felt Lawrence's vocal range was limited and she had a tendency to sing flat. But he realised the story had strong potential, and the two men agreed to write what ultimately became The King and I.
It opened on Broadway in March 1951, and Lawrence won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance. Her triumph was short-lived; her health deteriorated rapidly, forcing her to miss numerous performances until she finally was hospitalised. While bedridden in NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, on Friday afternoon, September 5, 1952, less than 24 hours before her death, she instructed Holtzmann to arrange for co-star Yul Brynner's name to be added to the marquee of the St. James Theatre, which included only Lawrence's name at the time.
Over the course of twenty-one years, Lawrence appeared in only nine films. She made her screen debut in 1929 in The Battle of Paris, which featured two songs by Cole Porter. Paramount Pictures offered her the film shortly after the Broadway production of Treasure Girl unexpectedly closed and, with no prospects of stage work in the immediate future, she accepted the offer. The film, co-starring Arthur Treacher and Charles Ruggles, was shot in Paramount's Astoria Studio complex in Astoria, Queens. Lawrence was cast as Georgie, an artist living in pre-World War I Paris, who becomes a cabaret singer and falls in love with an American soldier. Publicity for the film emphasised Lawrence's songs and costumes rather than the story, which was so weak that director Robert Florey had threatened to resign midway through filming. Described by one critic as a "floperetta," it was not a success.
In 1932, she appeared in three features: an adaptation of the Frederick Lonsdale play Aren't We All? directed by Harry Lachman; Lord Camber's Ladies, produced by Alfred Hitchcock, directed by Benn W. Levy, and co-starring Gerald du Maurier; and No Funny Business with Laurence Olivier. In 1935, she appeared in Mimi, based on La Vie de Bohème. The following year she was cast opposite Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester in Rembrandt and co-starred with Rex Harrison in Men are Not Gods, both produced by Alexander Korda. In 1943, she filmed a short musical number for Stage Door Canteen, a wartime film featuring dozens of stars entertaining Allied soldiers on leave.
Lawrence's best-known American film role was that of Amanda Wingfield, the overbearing mother in The Glass Menagerie (1950), which both Bette Davis and Tallulah Bankhead had sought. The role required her to wear padding and affect a Southern American accent and friends and critics questioned her decision to accept it. Tennessee Williams, who had written the play, thought casting Lawrence was "a dismal error" and, after the film's release, called it the worst adaptation of his work he had seen thus far. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called her Amanda "a farcically exaggerated shrew with the zeal of a burlesque comedienne" and "a perfect imitation of a nervous Mama in domestic comedy". Writing about her performance in Saturday Review, Richard Griffith was generous in his praise, saying "Not since Garbo has there been anything like the naked eloquence of her face, with its amazing play of thought and emotion."
Television and radio
In 1938, Lawrence took a night off from Susan and God to perform the play for NBC's emerging television audience, which then consisted mostly of customers at bars, hotels, pedestrians in other public places in New York City and NBC employees. Probably less than 100 – 200 receivers could pick up the telecast. Photos of the 1938 live broadcast are featured in a major article in Life (magazine) published a week later, as it was one of the first full-length plays done on live television. In 1943, Lawrence hosted a weekly series of American radio shows, some of them featuring discussions with guests and others adaptations of Hollywood hit films. In 1947, she returned to NBC for a production of the 1913 Shaw play The Great Catherine. In order to promote The King and I, she appeared on various television programmes, including the Ed Sullivan-hosted Toast of the Town, with Rodgers and Hammerstein joining her to perform selections from the show. Additionally, she appeared on several BBC Radio interview and variety shows before and after World War II.
Throughout her adult life, except during World War II, Lawrence spent far more than she earned. Philip Astley had persuaded her to place £1,000 in a trust fund for her daughter, but aside from that she had no savings of her own. During her engagement to Bert Taylor he managed her finances and encouraged her to invest in the productions in which she starred, but although she earned a considerable amount of money from Private Lives, she still was deeply in debt, at one point owing fashion entrepreneur Hattie Carnegie more than $10,000. She opened accounts with dozens of shop owners but assumed she had unlimited credit and paid little attention to the invoices they sent. Finally two London laundry owners, whose bills totalled just under £50, filed a writ demanding she declare bankruptcy if she was unable to settle her accounts, and Lawrence's financial affairs came under the scrutiny of the Official Receiver. On February 26, 1935, the Daily Mirror reported her assets were valued at £1,879 but her liabilities were nearly £35,000, with an additional £10,000 owed to the Inland Revenue on her earnings in the United States.
It was later discovered Lawrence had never paid American taxes either. Her flat, cars, clothing, and jewellery were seized by the court, and Lawrence, her maid and her dog were forced to move into a flat owned by her agent at the time. On November 8, 1935, accused of "gross extravagance," she was ordered to pay £50 per week to pay off her debts. (Holtzmann worked out an agreement whereby $150 would be deducted from her salary each week she worked in the States until her American tax debt was settled). Refusing to lower her standard of living, she decided to take film work during the day, appear on stage at night, and perform in late-night cabarets in order to support her spending habits and, much to the distress of her agent, she purchased a country house and farm in Buckinghamshire, then left it vacant while she remained in the US for a lengthy stay. When her agent questioned the wisdom of such a move, she reportedly asked him to investigate the cost of a swimming pool installation on the property.
"Early in September 1951", wrote Lawrence's widower, "she calmly announced that she had accepted an appointment to the Faculty of Columbia University, in the School of Dramatic Arts, of which Dr. Milton Smith was Director. Her particular post was to conduct Class 107 in the Study of Roles and Scenes. The class met on Thursday afternoons in the Brander Matthews Theatre on Morningside Heights."
"I shall be teaching an advanced, not an elementary course," Aldrich quoted her as saying in 1951. "Dr. Smith and I have screened all the students. They've had preliminary work in voice, speech and pantomime. Many of them are already working professionally in radio and television. But, more than that, if I can find one person of real talent and encourage and train him, I'll feel that I've done something worthwhile." The New York Times reported on September 28, 1951 that Lawrence "suffered an attack of stage fright yesterday and refused to let reporters observe her in her new role of teacher at Columbia University."
She taught the class again in the spring 1952 semester at Columbia, this time allowing a The New York Times reporter and photographer to attend and take pictures.
Death and funeral
On August 16, 1952, Lawrence fainted backstage immediately after finishing a Saturday matinee of The King and I. After "a few days at home," wrote Aldrich, she was admitted to New York-Presbyterian Hospital for tests. Doctors said she was suffering from hepatitis, and she was admitted to a room on the 16th floor. Her former son-in-law, Dr. Bill Cahan, suspected liver cancer might be a more accurate diagnosis, and early on the morning of September 6, doctors performed a biopsy of her liver. Lawrence slipped into a coma, and her husband phoned Cahan, who rushed to the hospital. Lawrence, who had not seen Cahan in years, briefly opened her eyes, seemed puzzled by his presence, and then died. A subsequent autopsy confirmed that she did have cancer. Doctors performing the autopsy did not agree on whether the cancer had originated in the liver, but they did determine that she had cancer, not hepatitis.
According to the New York Times, 5,000 people crowded the intersection of East 55th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, while 1,800 others, including Yul Brynner, Connecticut Governor John Davis Lodge, Marlene Dietrich, Phil Silvers, Luise Rainer, Moss Hart and his wife Kitty Carlisle filled Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church for Lawrence's funeral. In his eulogy, Oscar Hammerstein II quoted from an essay on death written by poet and novelist Rabindranath Tagore. Lawrence was buried in the champagne-coloured gown worn for the "Shall We Dance?" number in the second act of The King and I, and she was interred in the Aldrich family plot in Lakeview Cemetery in Upton, Massachusetts.
In early 1953, Lawrence's name was included on a list of Columbia University professors who had died the previous year and were honoured with a memorial service and flags on the campus lowered to half-mast.
Richard Aldrich's biography of his late wife became a best-seller in late 1954 and 1955 and was purchased by Marilyn Monroe during a period when she stayed exclusively in New York and Connecticut, not California.
Lawrence's biographer Sheridan Morley wrote in 1981 that throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, "...most traces of Gertrude Lawrence ... disappeared; she died before television had begun to immortalise its artists on (video)tape, before radio shows were regularly recorded, and though she made half a dozen films, her appearances in them are mostly undistinguished and give no clear impression of a radiance which could hold theatre audiences spellbound."
In 1968, Julie Andrews portrayed Lawrence in the musical biographical film Star!, loosely based on the period of her life from her days as an unknown aspiring performer until her wedding to Richard Aldrich. Richard Crenna appeared as Aldrich. The real Aldrich, who in the 1960s no longer worked in the entertainment business, was a consultant on the film. Noël Coward was portrayed by Daniel Massey. Released at a time when the popularity of musical films was on the wane, it was a commercial failure; however, it was critically well received, and nominated for seven Academy Awards.
The Glass Menagerie, Lawrence's only film that was a box-office success and in which she worked with an American studio and an entirely American cast (the director was an Englishman whose entire career was in American cinema), was rarely shown on American television until 1992. During that year, American Movie Classics revived it with an introduction and postscript from the channel's host Bob Dorian. He revealed information about Lawrence to viewers, many of whom were not familiar with her.
Janet McTeer portrayed Lawrence opposite Geraldine Somerville as Daphne du Maurier and Malcolm Sinclair as Noël Coward in Daphne, a 2007 television movie broadcast by the BBC.
Three years after Lawrence's death, her daughter Pamela gave birth to Benn Clatworthy, the first of Lawrence's three grandchildren. He is now a tenor saxophonist based in Los Angeles. Lawrence's other two grandchildren, Sarah Hunt and Tom Clatworthy, are both residents of the United Kingdom.