Carol Coombe (1908-1966), who “bluffed her way to stardom”

Above: Gwen (now calling herself Carol) Coombe soon after arrival in London, photo credited to Hughes of London. Universal Filmlexikon, Berlin, 1932. Via Lantern, The Digital Media Project. Carol herself made the comment used as the byline above. (See also below)

carol-daily-mirror-11-oct-1935-1
The Five Second Version
Born Gwendoline Coombe in Perth, Western Australia in 1908, she arrived in London in 1930 to pursue an acting career, inspired perhaps, by her mother’s previous career in Australia, her Sydney school and her father’s business interests in theatre. For someone with little previous acting experience she had a remarkably successful start on stage in 1931, and took a speaking part in the film The Ghost Train (1931). She had a brief and unsuccessful outing in Hollywood in 1934, after which she returned to England. She retired on marrying lawyer Ronald Armstrong-Jones in 1936, but returned to the stage about ten years later. She died as a result of a car accident in Italy in 1966. (See Note 1 below for links to her reminiscences of being Antony Armstrong-Jones’ step-mother) 
Photo – Daily Mirror, 11 October 1935. Via the British Library’s Newspaper Archive

Writing for The Era in April 1934, London based journalist Leslie Rees listed Carol Coombe as one of the “Antipo-Deities”, meaning Australian girls who had “captured the British stage and screen.” The group also included others who have been featured on this website – including Nancy O’Neil, Judy Kelly and Lucille Lisle. But Carol Coombe was particularly notable – because as Rees commented, she was someone “without any stage or film training of any sort,” yet she arrived, succeeded and enjoyed an impressive burst of activity and publicity.

Growing up in Australia

Born in Perth, Western Australia, in 1908, Gwendeline Akhurst Coombe was the third of three daughters of Sir Thomas Coombe and Alice nee Senior. Her older sisters were Vera (born 1900) and Lorna (born 1902, who usually went by the name Judy). A brother, Hastings, was born in 1912.

Alice Senior had been a performer in Australia in the 1890s, retiring from the stage when she married Thomas Coombe at Christ Church in North Sydney in 1900. Thomas Coombe was an importer of sporting goods until he became involved in film distribution, then progressing to building and operating cinemas. He was Manager for the Union Theatre chain by 1913, and then President of the Theatrical Managers’ Association. He was knighted in June 1924, “in recognition of public service,” his ADB entry suggesting this might also be by virtue of his political donations. By the 1920s, Sir Thomas was a wealthy man, who had a reputation as a generous philanthropist, a keen sportsman and was the owner of several properties in Perth’s desirable Mount Street. For a time, his daughters attended Miss Parnell’s school in Claremount, Perth. From the early 1920s Lady Coombe and the children went to live in Sydney, at Darling Point. Unfortunately, by 1932, this 3200 kilometre separation had become the grounds for their divorce, Sir Thomas arguing that Lady Coombe refused to live with him in the west.

Gwen attended Sydney’s Ascham school from 1920-1926, where records show she became an outstanding athlete, talented tennis player and competent dancer. By the late 1920s, society pages of newspapers often photographed the women of the Coombe family and Gwen, as “one of Sydney’s leading debutantes,” was even advertising the benefits of “Kit Kat Powder for the complexion”, in the pages of The Australian Women’s Mirror.

Above: Photos of the three Coombe girls taken by society photographer Bernice Agar. Left – Vera, and centre – Judy, from The Home, 1 June 1928. Right – Gwen, from The Home, 2 July 1928. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Trying her luck in London

In June 1930 Gwen departed Sydney on the SS Moldavia, determined to try her luck on the British stage or screen. In later years she said her “creeping ambition” to be an actress started at school, but she also acknowledged the influence of her mother in the choice. And like some of her Australian contemporaries, she had the confidence and resources to try this. The newspaper accounts of her life to 1930 (and there are many) emphasize her life of social and charity events, glamour and immaculate fashion. Despite being the height of the Depression, her father had agreed to support her for a year while she established herself as an actor.

Gwen’s move to England might also be understood in a broader context. Angela Woollacott’s To Try Her Fortune in London (2001) analyses the phenomenon of Australian women travelling to London between the 1870s and 1940s, and finds that the journey “home” was a way for them “to compete for success, fame and…financial rewards” in a much larger arena – the capitol of the Empire – and achieve independence away from Australia’s “stridently masculinist culture”. (Woollacott p3-7).

Gwen was not alone in deciding to leave Australia for an acting career nor was she completely new to London, she had travelled there with her mother several years before, and her sister Vera was already settled there. Friends who pursued an acting career at about the same time included Pearl Appleton (as Phyllis Edgar – in the US) and her sister Bonita in Australia.

Gwen, now calling herself Carol, was armed with a handful of helpful introductions provided by her father. She soon signed up with Connies Ltd, a new “go ahead casting agency” run by Miss Constance Spark in Regent St. She quickly found work as an uncredited extra, although most of her early films do not survive today. They were reported to include comedies like P.C.Josser (1931) and Michael Powell’s murder mystery The Rasp (1931). She was also an extra in the Gracie Fields film Sally in Our Alley (1931) – which does survive, although it is difficult to identify her. However, it was a filmed version of Arnold Ridley’s play The Ghost Train, that saw her in her first featured and speaking part. Part of the film was found and restored by the BFI in the early 1990s, and although some of soundtrack is lost, the last twenty minutes has survived.

Above: Screengrabs of Carol in The Ghost Train (1931) with Allan Jeayes and Cicely Courtneidge. It can be viewed on Youtube here. For reference, the 1941 version is available here.

However, without a doubt, Carol’s major breakthrough came in January 1933 when, as an understudy, she took over Jessica Tandy’s leading part in Children in Uniform at the Duchess Theatre. Adapted from a play written by Christa Winsloe, it was a dramatic story of a schoolgirl’s love for her school mistress. Theatre Historian J P Wearing notes that the play was well reviewed and popular, The Times giving it “a rave review.” Carol appeared in several more British “quota quickies” before another piece of dramatic news was announced – she had a contract and was going to Hollywood.

Above: Straight from the Heart is one of three Hollywood films Carol appeared in. But her roles were inconsequential. Picturegoer Weekly 9 January, 1935, P7, covered Lady Coombe meeting her daughter in the US. Via Lantern Digital Media Project.

An outing in Hollywood & success in London

Of course, the reports of a generous 7 year contract were misleading. The reality was that studio contracts were not generous, and at least one British correspondent correctly identified such a move for any young actors as “a huge gamble… To go to Hollywood as a prospective star is to ask for the indignities which have been shown to Sydney Howard, Jane Baxter, Carol Coombe, and Antoinette Cellier, to name a few.” (The Era 24 Oct, 1934). In December 1934 she returned to England. She politely said the contract was “unsuitable”, but the reality was, she had been given just a few days work in the four months she was there (The Era, 19 Dec 1934). The IMDB lists her with roles in three Hollywood films – two of which were uncredited – and none of which are easily accessed today. Her widely reported decision to leave Hollywood was not unusual. Sixteen months later, Australian actors Janet Johnson and Margaret Vyner both (seperately) declined studio contracts, and travelled on to England rather than pursue Hollywood careers. Vyner said  “I‘d hate to feel I had to spend my life there …  never quite sure of good parts. So I turned (the contract) down and felt even more pleased with myself for being able to resist it.” 

Above: Carol in the leading role in Lady Precious Stream. The Daily Mirror, 9 Nov 1935, P17, Via British Library Newspaper Archive. Also in the cast was fellow Australian Lucille Lisle.

Ironically, Carol’s greatest success followed soon after her return to London. She was cast in a leading role in the play Lady Precious Stream, which ran for much of 1935 at London’s Little Theatre. The play’s Chinese author, Hsiung Shi-I (Xiong Shiyi) wrote the play in English while living in London, but based it on a traditional Chinese opera. Hsiung co-directed the play with actor Nancy Price, and the 1935 cast consistedly entirely of Europeans dressed-up and made-up to look vaguely Chinese. But the play was popular with audiences and reviews of Carol’s performance were consistently positive.

Marriage to Ronnie Armstrong-Jones

In 1934 Carol met Ronald “Ronnie” Armstrong-Jones, a London lawyer who was divorcing his first wife. In June 1936 the couple married, and Carol became a step-mother to his two children, Antony (later Lord Snowdon) and Susan. Also, in spite of her great success with Lady Precious Stream, she retired from the stage – she later said this was at Ronnie’s request. Lord Snowdon’s biographer Anne de Courcy suggests that in marked contrast to Ronnie’s cool, impeccably styled first wife – Carol was “breezy” and “vivacious”. Ronnie delighted in Carol’s pretty Australian girlfriends and impromptu parties.

Above: Ronnie and Carol. Undated photo that appeared in Carol’s story on Antony Armstong-Jones, produced in the The Australian Women’s Weekly, 5 Apr 1961 P19. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

For those interested in Carol’s memories of being step-mother to Antony Armstrong-Jones, (who took the title Lord Snowdon after he married Princess Margaret in 1960), links to her account are given in Note 1 below. Carol claimed that they became close as he grew up, more like friends, and that she sometimes called him “Tone” (derived from a still common Australian habit of abbreviating everyone’s first name to form a nick-name). Antony was only 6 years old when they met, and in his late twenties when Ronnie and Carol decided to divorce in the late 1950s, so it was an important parent-child association as Antony grew up between two households. Anne de Courcy suggests the relationship was complex, partly because Ronnie’s relationship with his first wife remained acrimonious. De Courcy has also written that in time, Tony sometimes found Carol “brash and even vulgar’.

Later life and career 1945-66

After almost ten years away, Carol returned to the stage at the end of World War II and was now represented by agent Rita Cave. Although her screen appearances seem to have largely come to an end, her work on the stage over the next fifteen years must have been professionally rewarding. 1945 saw her touring with Claire Luce in It Happened in New York and in early 1946 she appeared in a successful run of the comedy – thriller, Mr Bowling buys a Newspaper, which toured and then played at London’s Embassy.

Her roles over the post war period were increasingly with repertory theatre companies, in supporting roles and in a wide range of familiar pieces – School For Scandal (1947) and Henry V as well as contemporary theatre – The Snow was Black (1953), new comedies such as Widows are Wonderful (1958). There were a mixture of successes and flops but generally good reviews of her performances. The Eastbourne Gazette reported that Carol was “delightful and vivacious” in the lead role in the comedy To Christobel! (7 April 1954) while The Stage complimented her on “a smooth performance of feminine guile, without a touch of conscience” in Angelina Pantaloon (24 June 1954).

Unfortunately Carol’s marriage to Ronnie came to an end in April 1959, but she remained close to her step-children and attended Antony Armstrong-Jones’ marriage to Princess Margaret in May 1960. Her reminscences of being a step-mother to Antony, by then Lord Snowdon, was syndicated worldwide soon after, entitled He Called me Carol (See Note 1 below). And in July 1959 Carol married Italian lawyer Guiseppe Lopez.

A six month run in The Big Killing at the (Princes) Shaftesbury Theatre from late 1961 was a highlight of her later career. The Stage described it as “a good specimen of the traditional British murder play” – while The Tatler reported it was “gin, tonic and murder”. Here she appeared opposite Leslie Phillips, playing a thoroughly unpleasant wife, who is killed off at the end of the first act. It was entertaining enough for Queen Elizabeth to bring Earl Mountbatten to a performance in March 1962.

Above: Carol about the time she attended the marriage of Princess Margaret and Antony Armstong-Jones on 6 May 1960. The Australian Women’s Weekly, 29 March 1961 P4. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In the early 1960s there were reports of plans for Carol to go into production of advertising films, which seems not to have come to fruition, and there is also some evidence that the couple struggled with the question of where to live – Rome or London. Carol complained that Guiseppe found it difficult to work in England, and allowed herself to be quoted (with what might be characteristic Australian frankness) saying “the best jobs in England go to the English… People over here are so narrow minded, they think that an Italian is either a janitor or a waiter” (Daily Mirror, 12 July 1960).

Sadly, Carol and Guiseppe’s lives came to a tragic and sudden end only a few years after their marriage. They were involved in a catastrophic head-on car accident in Italy on 4 October 1966 and Carol, Guiseppe, and a London friend died. The shocking news was carried in the British, US, Canadian and Australian press.

Carol Coombe described herself as an actor who “bluffed her way to stardom.” It’s a witty comment, but it seems unlikely that she got as far as she did without some meaningful study of elocution or the dramatic arts. Yet she was quite unique in many ways – straddling dramatically different contexts in life with ease and maintaining a strong sense of self throughout. Perhaps it was true.


Note 1

Carol Coombe’s reminscences of Lord Snowdon, “He Called me Carol” was syndicated worldwide by Beaverbrook Newspapers soon after Antony Armstrong-Jones’ marriage to Princess Margaret in May 1960. In Australia, the Australian Women’s Weekly carried the account in four instalments, which can be read here at the National Library of Australia’s Trove:


Note 2

In Australia, Carol’s sister Judy had married pastoralist Jim White in 1926 and raised a family at Belltrees, a very large property in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales. The magnificent 50 + room federation-era homestead still stands and is still in the hands of the family. In time, Carol’s other siblings, Vera and Hastings, also returned to Australia.


Nick Murphy
October 2021


References

  • Special Thanks
    • To Ms Marguerite Gillezeau, Archivist at Ascham School, for her assistance on Gwen Coombe’s schooling.
  • Films
    • The Ghost Train (1931) Fragment. Uploaded by Youtube user/Channel Spondonman
  • Australian Women’s Register, The University of Melbourne & The National Foundation for Australian Women (NFAW)
  • Text
    • Helen Cathcart (1968) Lord Snowdon. W H Allen
    • Anne de Courcy (2012) Snowdon, The Biography. Orion
    • Gale Research (1978) Who was Who in the Theatre, 1912-1976. Gale
    • Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film. Methuen, BFI
    • J P Wearing (1990) The London stage, 1930-1939 : a calendar of plays and players Scarecrow Press.
    • Angela Woollacott (2001) To Try her fortune in London. Australian Women, Colonialism and Modernity. Oxford University Press
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • The Sun (Syd) 28 Jan, 1923
    • The Home, 1 Dec 1924, P22
    • The Home, 1 Sept 1926
    • The Western Mail (Perth) 23 Feb, 1928
    • The Home, 1 June 1928, P39
    • The Home, 2 July 1928, P27
    • The Australian Woman’s Mirror, 24 Dec, 1929, P29
    • The Daily Telegraph (NSW) 20 May, 1929, P21
    • Daily News (Perth), 23 June 1930, P 3
    • The Home, 1 Aug, 1930
    • The Home, 2 Jan 1931
    • Everyone’s, 14 Dec 1932
    • The Home, 1 Feb 1933
    • The Home,1 Dec 1933, P41
    • The Australian Woman’s Mirror, 27 Feb 1934, P11
    • West Australian, 26 March 1935, P3
    • Table Talk, 19 April 1934, P11
    • The Sun (Syd), 12 Dec 1935, P44
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, 24 Mar 1936, P13
    • The Sun (Syd), 9 Nov, 1938, P13
    • The Canberra Times, 6 Oct 1966, P 25
  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • The Stage, 23 Nov 1933, P12
    • Reynold’s Newspaper, 2 Sept 1934, P18
    • The Era, 4 April, 1934, P3
    • The Bystander, 31 July, 1934, P7
    • The Era, 19 Dec, 1934, P1
    • The Era, 20 Feb 1935 P12
    • The Bystander, 27 March 1935.
    • Daily Mirror, 11 Oct 1935
    • Daily Mirror, 9 Nov 1935, P17
    • News Chronicle, 9 Nov, 1935, P5
    • The Stage, 31 Jan 1946, P4
    • The Stage, 2 April, 1953, P9
    • Eastbourne Gazette, 7 April, 1954, P16
    • Daily Mirror, 12 July, 1960, P2
  • Newspapers.com
    • Evening Standard (UK), 4 Oct, 1966, P1, P32
    • The Age (Melb, Aust), 6 Oct 1966, P5
  • Lantern, Digital Media Project
    • Universal Filmlexikon, Berlin, 1932, P472
    • Picturegoer Weekly, 9 January, 1935, P7

This site has been selected for archiving and preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive

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