Norma Whalley is shown here at the height of her fame as an actress in the US and England. Big hair and extravagant headwear seems to have been the trademark of a “Gaiety Girl”. But we are no closer to knowing who she really was today than audiences were in 1900. Postcard in the author’s collection.
Norma (or occasionally Normah) Whalley first appeared on the stage in New York in a minor role in the play In Town, in September 1897, a member of the Gaiety Theatre Company, brought over from the UK by George Edwardes. Edwardes had already had great success with other musicals – in particular A Gaiety Girl in 1893-4. Under-studying for Marie Studholme, Norma appeared in a leading role soon after arriving, when Studholme became unable to perform due to “lameness.” The term “Gaiety Girl” was to become a popular phrase to describe some of the young, glamorous British female performers, most often members of Edwardes’ company at some time. Like Norma, the Gaiety Girls could sing and dance, and were adept at “light comedy.” All presented as well-mannered and well dressed, purportedly representing modern womanhood, and they apparently dazzled audiences wherever they went. Edwardes seems to have chosen his female cast members deliberately to have that effect. His pioneering efforts to establish musical comedy were successful and helped establish the genre we know today.
Of her past, Whalley was always vague. In 1899 she was to claim that she had toured South Africa soon after the Jameson Raid (January 1896) and met President Kruger. He was a “squatty, ugly old man…devoid of manners.” Unfortunately, its impossible to track anything of her life before 1897.
Left: George Edwardes c1900. Source; James Jupp (1923) “The Gaiety stage door; thirty years’ reminiscences of the theatre”. Via the Internet Archive. Centre: Marie Studholme c 1900. Postcard in the author’s collection. Right: Melbourne born Maud Hobson who also travelled with the Gaiety troupe to New York in 1897. From “The Sketch”, July 21 1899.
Born in the mid to late 1870s, Norma Whalley was supposedly the daughter of the “late Henry Octavius Whalley, a well-known physician of Sydney.” Other accounts state it was Melbourne. But equally likely, it was neither. Despite this claim being repeated ad nauseam in biographies of her (all of which cross-reference to each other or the same few newspaper sources), there is simply no evidence of a person called Henry Octavius Whalley living in Melbourne or Sydney in the mid to late nineteenth century. Not only did Australian newspapers of the time not mention him, but census records and shipping records make no mention of him either. And most importantly, no one of this name appears in any of the usually reliable Sands directories for Sydney and Melbourne produced between 1860 and 1900. And there are just nine recorded births of a child called Norma in Sydney between 1870 and 1880 – and just four females born with the surname Whalley – but none called Norma Whalley. And there is, similarly, no matching child in the Melbourne birth records. The usually comprehensive history of Australian actors by Hal Porter (produced in 1965 – when many of his subjects were still alive) provides no information.
Norma Whalley in about 1900. Postcard in the author’s collection
Norma Whalley’s identity seems to have been deliberately obscured. There is nothing to verify that she was Australian at all, except her word. Perhaps like Saharet she wished to obscure a humble birth, or maybe an impetuous marriage gone wrong or an embarrassing parent. What better way to stay in command of one’s destiny than create an interesting but deceased father on the other side of the world! Perhaps the confusion also relates to our understanding of nationality today as opposed to then. In the late nineteenth century, a person born in the colony of New South Wales was just as likely to think of themselves as British – Australia not becoming self-governing until 1901.
After her successful season in New York, in January 1898 she returned to London on the S.S. St Louis with Studholme and some of the other Gaiety company members. Later contracted to George Lederer, she was back in New York again by March 1899, performing in The Man in the Moon, “a spectacular fantasy in three acts.” It ran successfully for some months at the New York Theatre, although not everyone was enthused with its four-hour running time or her performance (see Brooklyn Life, 10 June 1899 for example). Her involvement in this production came to a sudden end when she was dismissed for breaking character and chatting to a friend or admirer in the audience, during a performance in late September. But within a month, she had teamed up with Walter Jones, a popular “tramp “comedian, touring cities in the US. The partnership was both personal and professional, but it too came to a sudden end in July 1900 when Jones suddenly left to marry a wealthy widow. Nevertheless, her popularity was at its height by mid 1900 and for the first time she mentioned her Australian birth to inquisitive US journalists.
Norma with Walter Jones, Los Angeles Times, 1 April, 1900. Her matrimonial affairs attracted considerable press attention. At right Norma in The San Francisco Examiner, 8 July 1900. Via Newspapers.com
Dunne and Ryley’s troupe traveled all over the US, headlined by Mathews and Bulger. Norma Whalley and Walter Jones are listed in the cast in this advertisement from Montana’s Butte Daily Post, 15 May 1900. Via newspapers.com.
Soon after, it was announced that she was engaged to another performer – James “Sherry” Mathews, one half of the comedy team Mathews and Bulger. They married in New York on 29 March 1901. Here, on the marriage licence, she recorded her birthplace as Sydney, Australia, and her age as 22. Her mother was listed as Mary J Rayson, her father “Harry”. Intriguingly, she was also recorded on the marriage certificate as divorced – hinting at another, earlier marriage.
Unfortunately the relationship with Sherry Mathews also failed. He was already ill in 1901 and suffered a stroke in mid 1902, and was severely incapacitated, being admitted to Sterne’s Sanatorium in Indianapolis, one of the most exclusive that could be found. Norma was at first praised for caring for him, but then came in for savage press criticism, particularly after she sued for a divorce in 1904, officially on the grounds that Mathews had deceived her about his state of health. The Broadway Weekly of 26 May 1904 even suggested that she was responsible for breaking up the Mathews and Bulger team and that when Mathews became ill, she was one of the first to desert him.
Norma had indeed left the US to perform in England in September 1902, in productions that included George Edwarde’s new musical The School Girl (where she was in company with other familiar Gaiety girls – Edna May, Marie Studholme, Violet Cameron, Marianne Caldwell and Billie Burke). Following the granting of her divorce, she married London lawyer (Edward) Percival Clarke, the son of barrister Sir Edward George Clarke. Percival Clarke followed his father into the law and was knighted in 1931.
Norma Whalley in “The School Girl,” with G.P Huntley as Sir Ormesby St. Leger. The musical ran at London’s Prince of Wales Theatre from May 1903. Postcard in the Author’s Collection.
With the publicity surrounding her 1904 marriage, the Australian dimension to her story was finally picked up by the Australian press. Unfortunately, these accounts were not well researched or accurate – it was now that the story of the “late Henry Octavius Whalley, the well-known physician of Sydney” was introduced and gained currency. It was also claimed that she had once been a popular comedienne in Sydney. Perhaps she was, but it’s hard to believe there are no existing records to confirm this.
Following her marriage to Clarke, she did not retire from the stage, as Australian newspapers predicted, but she did become more selective with roles. For example, she appeared as Mrs. Fergusson, the wicked husband-stealer, in W. Somerset Maugham‘s new comedy “Penelope” in 1909 and in J.B. Fagan’s play Bella Donna, in 1916. In 1915 British society magazine Tatler reported she was going into nursing to support the war effort, accompanied by a serious picture of Norma in a nurse’s uniform. This may explain why she disappeared for the later part of World War One. The British Journal of Nursing also reported her training as a nurse at Guy’s Hospital.
Above: Norma Whalley and Graham Browne in ‘Penelope.’ “Now what does all this mean?”she demands. Postcard signed by Whalley in the author’s collection. Dover Street Studios.
Between 1920 and 1926 she appeared in regular supporting roles in at least 16 British silent films. Women and Diamonds, made in 1924 with Victor McLaglen and Madge Stuart, appears to be the last of these. She later appeared in a few small character parts in the first years of sound film. We can only guess, but it seems that film work was an after-thought to a successful stage career, not something she aspired to do for the rest of her life. By the time she traveled to Cairo to appear in the 1934 Michael Balcon comedy-adventure The Camels are Coming, she was almost 60, and had been performing for almost 40 years. Her persona was well and truly British, as her role in this film demonstrates. Listen to her voice in this scene, which takes place outside the famous Shepheard’s Hotel. Norma, as a stereotypical British tourist, is escorting her daughter (Peggy Simpson) around the sights of Cairo when she runs into a bogus guide.
If she ever was Australian born, one would not guess so from this voice.
One of Norma Whalley’s final roles in the Gaumount British adventure-comedy, “The Camels Are Coming “(1934). Source: VHS copy in the author’s collection.
Sir Percival Clarke died suddenly in 1936. Norma, now Lady Clarke, remarried in 1940, this time to John Beauchamp Salter. When she died at her home in Grosvenor Square in London, in October 1954, she left a significant estate. There were no children from any of her marriages. A few reports in later life and British obituaries on her death noted her Australian birth. However these were more concerned to comment that Lady Clarke had “married well,” like some other Gaiety Girls. There were no Australian obituaries.
As Lady Percival Clarke, Norma visited Australia in late 1938. Although she made some comments on the Australian sense of dress, attitude to tipping and the hair raising speed of Melbourne taxis, she made no reference to being Australian born.
Other Gaiety Girls who “did well” for themselves in marriage.
Left: Zena Dare, who after marriage became Lady Maurice Brett.
Centre – New York born Edna May who married millionaire Oscar Lewisohn.
Right Denise Orme who became the Duchess of Leinster. Postcards in the author’s collection.
A British Pathe newsreel from 1946 includes footage of some of the Gaiety Girls later in life, including Norma. See it here
Updated October 2019
The story that Norma Whalley had an early marriage to actor Charles Verner (really Charles E.V. Finlay 1848-1926) appears in a few accounts in Californian papers after her 1904 marriage to Percival Clarke. Verner himself appears to have claimed so. Despite the significant age difference it is possible. However, so far, there is no supporting evidence of this and it may just be a muddled-up account based around Verner’s real 1878 marriage in Melbourne to actress Mary Hendrickson, which ended in a very messy US divorce in 1888.
The mystery of Norma’s origins remained well into the 20th century. Norma’s mother Mary died at her cottage in Church Rd, Whitstable in June 1932. The Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald reported her death, and the fact she was the widow of the “late Henry Octavius Whalley” of Melbourne Australia.
“Thinks Krugers Manners Bad.” Chicago Tribune, 30 Dec 1899, Sat, Page 2
“Hoyt’s A Rag Baby” Advertisment. Butte Daily Post, 15 May 1900
“Walter Jones and Norma Whalley at the Orpheum.” Los Angeles Times, 1 April, 1900.
“Miss Norma Whalley has no tears to shed.” The San Francisco Examiner, 8 July 1900
Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
- “London Personal Notes” The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA) Tue 20 Sep 1904 Page 7
- “Our Well-Dressed Women “Amazes” English Visitor” The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld.) Tue 22 Nov 1938 Page 1
- Researcher and performer Trav S.D has documented the Mathews and Bulger story.
Texts, including those via Internet Archive
- The British Journal of Nursing, January 1915
- Hal Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby
- “The Editor’s Chat.” The Broadway Weekly 26 May 1904
- James Jupp (1923) The Gaiety stage door; thirty years’ reminiscences of the theatre. With an introduction by Mabel Russell Philipson. London, Jonathan Cape. Digitized copy – University of Toronto
- Lewis Clinton Strang (1907) Famous stars of light opera. L.C. Page & company, Boston. Digitized copy – Google. From the collections of University of California
- San Francisco Dramatic Review 1899 Volume 1-2
Digitized copy – California State Library Califa/LSTA Grant
- The Wasp 1900, Volume 43 Digitized copy – California State Library Califa/LSTA Grant