Florrie Forde was born Flora Flannagan in Fitzroy on 16 August 1875, to Lott Flannagan and Phoebe (Simmons). In time, she would become one of the great British Music Hall stars of the early twentieth century. A great deal has been written about her – she cannot be described as a forgotten Australian! Yet it perplexes the author that in a neighbourhood that also saw the births of Daphne Trott, Alf Goulding and Saharet, there is, today, no acknowledgment she was ever there.
Part of Flora Flannagan’s birth certificate. She was very clearly born Flora, not “Florence” and without middle names “May Augusta” even if these were adopted later in life. Via Victoria Birth Deaths & Marriages.
She was born at one of the family residences in Gertrude Street Fitzroy – the handsome but modest United Service Club Hotel run by her father at 88 (now 122) Gertrude Street being the most likely – although her birth certificate does not give a definitive address. However, in a very thorough survey of her early life in Australia, researcher Tony Martin Jones has suggested that instead of a noisy pub, her place of birth may have been at her maternal grandparents shop and residence nearby. Barnett and Susannah Simmons ran a crockery store at 181 (now 203) Gertrude Street. However, I think this is less likely – that building is only a few doors from an even larger, noisy pub – the Builder’s Arms. Unfortunately, we are now unlikely to ever know for sure.
A terrace of shop/residences in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy. Taking into account the change to street numbers, the Simmons crockery store was the building on the right, behind the blue car. Author’s Collection
Florrie first appeared on stage in Sydney in early 1892, and quickly became a popular singer and performer in pantomime. By 1894 she was a regular performer in Sydney and Melbourne. In 1897 she made her first appearance in London – apparently playing three music halls in the one night.
Left: Florrie Forde in about 1898, not long after her breakthrough on the stage in London. Source: The Sketch, Sept 21, 1898. At right – A postcard taken sometime later in, life, probably in the 1920s. Author’s Collection.
A talented singer with an exceptional wit, she was supremely confident on stage and held a genuine affection for her audiences – music hall being her favourite. Her name is still connected with many of the music hall songs she made popular, such as the World War One favourites “A Long Long Way To Tipperary”,“Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag” and “Has Anybody here seen Kelly.” She appeared as herself in several British films in the mid 1930s, and in character in “My Old Dutch” in 1934. Her Australian accent remained with her all her life, as the numerous recordings she made demonstrate. As theatre historian Frank Van Straten notes, she achieved all this without any formal musical training – a remarkable achievement.
This C1930 booklet of sheet music lists many of Forde’s popular songs. Author’s Collection
Jeff Brownrigg’s entry at the Australian Dictionary of Biography provides an account of her work and quite tumultuous, perhaps dysfunctional, upbringing. She worked all her life – dying suddenly after entertaining in a Scottish naval hospital in 1940. Obituaries in the UK and Australia were effusive. Florrie was very much the voice of the people, and apparently even Dame Nellie Melba was an admirer.
Explanatory signage for Orlando Fenwick and Samuel Amess, on streetsigns in nearby North Carlton. I’m certain they were honourable men, but where’s the similar sign for Florrie Forde!? Author’s collection.
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.
Right: Marie Studholme c 1900. Postcard in the author’s collection Left: George Edwardes c1900. Source; James Jupp (1923) “The Gaiety stage door; thirty years’ reminiscences of the theatre”. Via the Internet Archive.
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!
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.
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.
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
Note: 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.
“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
More than a century later – this is the remains of Willie Thomas’ make-up box, including false moustaches. Photo courtesy of his grandson Robert Maynard.
“Willie” Thomas was a child performer in Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company, as it toured cities in South East Asia and North America, several times, between 1901 and 1906. He is shown below with his older sister Emma Thomas, while the company was in Vancouver.
William Thomas was born in Collingwood in January 1889 to Ironmonger William Albert Thomas and his wife Emma, nee Stone. There were four older children – two brothers and two sisters in the family. Two other sisters died in infancy.
Much of the history of Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company is lost to us today and confusingly, there was more than one troupe of performers using this or a similar name in the early twentieth century. But we know that this particular troupe ran several extended and highly acclaimed tours to the Philipines, Japan, China and North America between 1901 and 1909 – each lasting a year or more, punctuated by a short break of a few months at home in Melbourne. The performers were talented young Australians, most from suburbs of inner Melbourne. Managed by Charles Pollard and his sister Nellie Chester, this troupe is also of interest historically, because a number of its performers went on to stay on in the US and work in Hollywood – including Alf Goulding, Harry Fraser or “Snub Pollard“, Daphne Pollard and Teddie McNamara. And the talented Willie Thomas from Collingwood worked amongst them.
Pollard’s advertises for new child performers. The Age, 13 Feb, 1907. Ford’s Hall, at 150 Brunswick Street where these auditions were held, was very close to the former home of Daphne Trott (Pollard) in King William Street. Perhaps Willie had seen an advertisement like this when he joined up.
Willie Thomas (with Emma serving the company in a supporting role) went on three separate trips with Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company. Historian Gillian Arrighi points out that several Australian companies employed child actors for prolonged offshore tours at this time. This practice enabled the producers to avoid contravening child labour and education laws in newly federated Australia. And apparently it was lucrative – for families and the organisers. Child performers made pocket-money selling postcards of themselves, parents back in Australia were paid via a trust fund.
Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company in costume, taken in the US about 1905. It appears to show Willie Thomas, second from right at the front, next to Daphne Pollard. Copy of postcard courtesy Robert Maynard
The Thomas’ names are found amongst other Pollard performers on the shipping manifests of the time. More interesting are the accounts that appeared in US and Australian papers as they travelled, that documented some of their experiences. Willie was amongst the Company’s leading performers.
Left: On his first tour of North America, Willie Thomas and three other performers had a near miss with a gas leak, according to The Sioux City Journal (Utah), May 28 1902. Via Newspapers.com
Right: A second tour, another performance. The San Francisco Chronicle, September 6, 1903, announces a new Pollard season and some of the stars – including Willie. Both these articles confirm the constant rotation of shows while on tour. Via Newspapers.com
Robert Maynard still holds the postcards, makeup box and other ephemera that belonged to his grandfather. There are also over 50 postcards that Willie collected including several from Shanghai, Japan, Suva, Canada and the United States. These are unmarked, so he apparently never posted them home, rather – keeping them as mementos of his travels. The remains of his makeup box includes fake moustaches and numerous sticks of grease paint etc.
Willie’s final North American tour with Pollard’s seems to have ended in early 1907, when he was 17 years old. Perhaps it was his age, but the reasons for leaving are not clear today, particularly as he ceased performing altogether. Maybe the marathon Pollard tour of 1905-1907 convinced him performing on stage was not what he wanted to do.
This writer has written elsewhere of the controversy accompanying Pollard’s travels to the Far East and North America. The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, or the “Gerry Society” kept Pollard’s away from the east coast of the US. The society’s opposition to children performing on stage was well-known. The Chicago Tribune of 19 May 1902 touched on this issue in a long article about the company during their only visit to that city; “Although the idea of keeping children on the stage is repugnant to Americans, and although it is forbidden by law in some states, the Pollards claim that their children… suffer no evil effects from the experience.”
Whatever his reason for leaving the stage, a few years on and now calling himself “William,” he had became a butcher. He was also a competent Australian Rules Football player, playing for teams in Boulder Western Australia (where he spent a few years between 1910 and 1913) and Sunshine, Victoria.
Above left: William in the Boulder City (Western Australia) Football Club in 1911, seated front left, Above right: William seated at right with Sunshine Braybrook Football Club in 1914. Photos courtesy Robert Maynard.
Following the outbreak of war and during the surge of enlistments following the Gallipoli landings, William and his two older brothers Albert and Jack (John) joined the Australian Imperial Forces. With other soldiers of the 3rd Division AIF, they sailed on the Medic, arriving at England in July 1916. William went on to serve in France with the 29th and 30th Batteries, 8th Field Artillery Brigade. In the photo enlargement below, William is seated on the left, Albert is on the right – unusually the two brothers served together. In February-March 1918 William’s military record shows he was granted leave in England. There he saw Albert De Courville‘s latest review, Box o’ Tricks, at the London Hippodrome, featuring a very old friend, Daphne Pollard in the line-up, whom he met after the show. The conversation must have been a joyful one about show-biz; it defies belief that William, having been under fire and in action for the last 14 months, would wish to talk about the appalling reality of trench warfare.
Photos courtesy of Robert Maynard
Miraculously, all three Thomas brothers survived the war and returned to Australia in 1919. In the early 1920s William set up a butcher’s shop in Sunshine, a western suburb of Melbourne, in partnership with brother Albert. In 1924 he married Lizzie O’Brien and brought up a large family, at first in the house next to the shop, and later in nearby Adelaide Street. Lizzie, the “life of the party” and a favourite with all the children in the family, called him “Butcher.” Like many returned soldiers, William liked a drink, and earned a reputation for regularly being thrown out of the Sunshine pub. One can’t help wondering if the Sunshine pub became the place he liked to practise the keen sense of humour he had developed on stage with Pollard’s, years before.
William Thomas’s Butcher shop, on Hampshire Rd, Sunshine. William Thomas is proudly holding his daughter Emma, with brother Albert (second from left) and nephew William (at right) and another butcher. Before widespread refrigeration, the horse and gig was a quick and convenient way to sell and deliver meat. Photo Courtesy Robert Maynard.
Unfortunately, the Depression hit William’s family hard. Such businesses were used to extending credit and dependent on a regular cash flow. A kind man (in 1924 he had paid for his nephew to travel to a scout jamboree in England) William’s generosity eventually got the better of his business in the hard times of the 1930s, and it closed down.
By 1941, the family had relocated to Boulder, Western Australia, where William, determined to make a fresh start, became a butcher again. He died there, aged 80, in 1969. Sister Emma had died in Sunshine in 1963.
A few years after Willie Thomas’ final tour, the era of the travelling troupes of Australian children came to an end. In 1910, another Pollard family member, Arthur Hayden Pollard, who had been on some of the North American trips as a mechanist, raised a mostly new troupe to perform in South East Asia and India. It was a disaster and amid the claims of impropriety, cruelty and underpayment, the troupe broke up, with the children forced to find local support to make their own way home. William had no association with the company anymore, but he knew Irene Findlay, one of the performers, well enough to write her postcards. New legislation in 1910 banned Australian children travelling overseas to perform.
William kept his Pollard’s make-up box all his life, which says something about how fondly he viewed this exciting stage of his childhood. If he regretted his five years of travel and performing, and then leaving the stage behind forever, he never said.
Nick Murphy, Updated January 2019
To Robert Maynard, William Thomas’ grandson, for so generously sharing his family history – much more than I could fit in this article.
The Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company Tours of South East Asia and North America under the leadership of Charles Pollard appear to be:
1. Departing Australia via SS Sierra 3 September 1901
Returning to Australia via SS Aorangi 17 October 1902
2. Departing Australia SS Chansha 18 January 1903
Returning to Australia SS Miowera 2 April 1904
3. Departing on a Queensland tour July – Sept 1904, then to “the far east” late September 1904, then SS Empress of India arriving Vancouver BC, March 1 1905
Apparently returning home on the SS Moana in February 1907, an extraordinary tour of over two years.
4. Under the leadership of Arthur Pollard, another trip departed sometime in late 1907, arriving US on the SS Nippon Maru from Yokohama, Japan on Mar 3, 1908.
Arrived home in Australia on RMS Makura on April 17, 1909
A joyful but anonymous chorus line in Gertude Lederer’s collection. It may include Laura Vail (3rd from right) and Gertrude Lederer (4th from right), performers in Frank W Healy’s San Francisco Opera Company, in 1906-7.
(Note: Needless to say, this article concerns mostly US performers)
Several years ago, I purchased a small group of photographs that came from the estate of a Gertrude Lederer in the USA. I was told that Gertrude M. Lederer had been born in Illinois, USA, in 1884. She appears to have been a very young performer in Frank W. Healy’s San Francisco Opera Company from early 1907 and amongst other things she collected a number of photos of fellow performers. Through changing ownership, the collection found its way to an online auction. Having purchased them, it occurred to me that while I love them, the collection needs to be available online for US theatre historians. So here are some of them. Most images have been cropped to fit.
Many of the photos are signed and dedicated to Gertrude.
Top row: Frank W. Healy; Minnie Estella Clayton; Maud Beatty (New Zealand born performer and sister of May Beatty) Middle row: Leona Rogers; The incomparable Daphne Pollard; Frank Bertrand Bottom row: Carl Haydn (as Robin Hood); Laura Vail; Freda Wisher
Top row: Corrine Hewlette; Teddy Webb; Brownie Browning Middle row: unknown (possibly Gertrude Lederer); Gertrude Lederer; Four unknown artists (picture mounted on card with a hook on the reverse – perhaps for a dressing room door?) Bottom row: Stella Grey; Carl Haydn; Laura Vail
Top Row: Joe Miller; Joe Miller (without makeup); Jack Farrell Middle Row: Joseph W. Smith; unknown artist; unknown artist Bottom Row: Artist named Coujuer; A mysterious request – what was going on!?
Left: Artists unknown. Right: Artists unknown – may include Laura Vail (3rd from right) and Gertrude Lederer (4th from right)
The Oregon Daily Journal (Portland, Multnomah, Oregon) · 15 Mar 1908. Via Newspapers.com
An enlargement of a publicity still. Myrna Loy (left) and Mary Macgregor of Queensland (as the maid Ellen), in “Wife Vs Secretary” (1936). Author’s Collection. Source – probably MGM.
Mary Macgregor (often confused with Mary Maguire) was born Francis Mary Macgregor on 16 August 1904, into a Queensland family with considerable social standing; her father Peter Balderston Macgregor was a highly regarded King’s Counsel and later a Judge. At a young age she earned a reputation for her prose – and she won a prize for a patriotic poem in 1916. The first stanza reads:
When Britain’s bugle-call rang out across Australia’s plains.
You left our peaceful wattle land to fight where cruel war reigns.
Brought up in a family that encouraged the arts, she first performed on stage at University, where she was studying literature, and then won a breakthrough role as Jill in Oscar Asche‘s Melbourne production of “The Skin Game”by John Galsworthy, in 1924.
She spent the next ten years on stage in Australia and New Zealand – earning consistently positive reviews and becoming so popular she was never out of work. Amongst her notable stage work were roles for the Leon Gordon company. This company travelled Australia performing several of his plays, including “White Cargo”, where Mary took the role of the sultry mixed race character, Tondelayo.
Of playing Tondeleyo, she remarked; “The part is, to say the least, unconventional, and different from anything I have ever played … the idea of browning myself all over and wearing the scanty attire of the coloured vamp, was hard to get accustomed to. Moreover, my mother, when I mentioned the matter to her, was most disapproving …” In the minds of many Australians, acting was still a questionable profession, and for some, only a few steps removed from prostitution.
Macgregor departed for England on the SS Mongolia in February 1933, and soon after found work on stage in a season of “Cynara”and a part in John Gielgud‘s tour of “Hamlet.” Now approaching thirty, she was an experienced actress – witty, good-looking, good-humoured and extremely confident.
She went on to California in June, 1935 where she joined John Wood, another Australian stage actor she knew well from Australian performances together in “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” and with whom she had already spent time in England. Wood had just starred as Flavius in the RKO film “The Last Days of Pompeii.” Mary’s account of her voyage to the US, the only passenger on board the Norwegian freighter Heranger, as it endured a heavy crossing of the Atlantic, became a story she often recounted. In February 1936, her engagement to Wood was publicly announced.
Macgregor then appeared in a small role in the film “Wife Vs Secretary” – a romantic comedy starring Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and Australian-born May Robson. Macgregor’s part was as the maid, Ellen. She then returned in some haste to Brisbane to see her ailing father. But Wood returned to London, where he was to act in a number of films, including two with Mary Maguire. Macgregor was coy when questioned about the engagement, and it was soon dropped as a topic for newspaper publicity pieces. They did not marry.
Above: John Wood about the time he was in Hollywood. The photo appears to have been used by Herbert de Leon, a London agent, soon after Wood’s return to London. He was extremely handsome and was supposedly made offers of marriage by love-stuck viewers of “The Last Days of Pompeii”. Author’s collection.
Sounding every bit the English maid, Brisbane born Mary Macgregor as Ellen, in MGM’s “Wife Vs Secretary” (1936), her only Hollywood outing. The MGM film is widely available for purchase and held by Turner Classic Movies.
At home in Brisbane, Macgregor was treated as film-making royalty and the story of her six months in Hollywood was endlessly spun out in newspapers. In April, the Brisbane Sunday Mail reassured readers about her time in Hollywood – “The Brisbane actress met many celebrities there.” Macgregor was much more blasé – “Once you know two or three people in Hollywood’s film world, it is no time before you have met nearly all the others.” When the film was released in Australia in July, she was employed to appear at some screenings to introduce the film and discuss “Hollywood and noted stars.”
The Brisbane Courier Mail’s review of the film was typically effusive and very much in a celebratory style; “In the strong glare of the stars in…Wife versus Secretary, which started a season at Cremorne Theatre yesterday, patrons might fail to recognise the talented actress who plays the role of a maid. She is Mary Macgregor, of Brisbane, who has achieved no small name as a stage actress, and whose feet are now planted on the ladder of success at the top of which glitters screen stardom.”
When Macgregor joined radio station 2GB’s BSA Players (Broadcasting Service Association Players, later the Macquarie Players) in 1937, The Australian Women’s Weekly explained that she had decided to stay in Australia – Hollywood would have to wait for this star. And in the same vein, on John Wood’s return in late 1939, he also returned to radio and the stage with great fanfare. When the play, “The Quiet Wedding” opened at the Minerva Theatre in Sydney, he was heralded in the press as “Australia’s great film and stage star, John Wood, fresh from triumphs overseas.” A few more stage roles followed, including a season of Dorothy Sayers’ “Busman’s Honeymoon” which included a rather joyful re-teaming with John Wood. But in November 1940, Wood joined the Australian Army, being captured 14 months later at the end of the Malayan Campaign. The story of his efforts with the Australian Concert party in Changi are well documented.
By 1942 Mary had turned to war work, and she appeared less and less on radio. In February 1944 she married John Chirnside, one of the sons of John Percy Chirnside , and the couple moved to the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. Her acting career came to an end. Mary died barely ten years later in February 1954, aged only 50. Chirnside died the following year, leaving a significant estate. The couple did not have children.
Following repatriation, John Wood left Australia in 1948, joining the great exodus of Australian actors moving to England at the time. He performed on the West End for a few years, but then retired to Spain with his wife, actress Phil Buchanan. He also died young – in 1965.
Unfortunately, the group of performers who knew Mary well have also passed on – Lloyd Lamble, Peter Finch, Alan Cuthbertson, Lou Vernon – only Lamble left an as yet unpublished memoir. It’s a great pity Mary did not leave her own memoirs for us – we know that she was a great raconteur and her contribution to the Australian stage significant.
The Chapel of Academy of Mary Immaculate, Nicholson Street, Fitzroy – Mary Maguire’s old school. Established in 1857, the school continues to operate on the same site and in a rare Melbourne street-scape that is almost unchanged.
One of Mary Maguire’s classmates, who lived in Collingwood with a bed-ridden mother and unemployed step-father, remembered her vividly. Jo Mostyn (nee Gardiner) was one of the Academy of Mary Immaculate girls invited to a birthday party for Peggy (she never called her Mary), a very grand affair, held in 1931 at the Maguire’s Hotel Metropole. Memories of the day; dressing up in her one and only best dress – and the highlight – a Sennitt’s ice cream cake that arrived late on a hot summer’s day, to Mick’s great annoyance, remained with Jo all her life. In contrast, Jo’s own birthday, a few weeks earlier, couldn’t be celebrated at all. Jo was a charity case at the school, and her sick mother and unemployed step-father, broken-down jockey Jimmy Gardiner, were reliant for an income on his door to door sales of hand-made rag-rugs, that they made at home at night. To the end of her life, Jo remembered Peggy Maguire’s friendly nature and endless good humour, her deep black hair and flashing brown eyes. She recalled that Peggy looked like a movie star, even when she was at school. It says much about Peggy that Jo’s impoverished situation made no difference to her being a friend. Jo took a perverse delight in the knowledge that at least she was better at “adding up” than Peggy.
A school enrolment from another era! Peggy Maguire’s (spelled McGuire) enrolment record at the Academy of Mary Immaculate in 1923. Her pet name was good enough apparently, plus father’s name and his hotel in Bourke Street! How different to the 21st Century. Courtesy Academy of Mary Immaculate.
A few years before she died, in about 1972, Mary Maguire did finally make contact with a few lost school friends, including Jo Mostyn. Jo had last seen news of Mary when she married Bobbie Gordon-Canning. She had imagined Mary was still living in great style in some English castle, or a stately home somewhere, but she also worried that the invalid-chair she saw in photos meant Mary had a serious illness. It was a relief to hear from her, through the good graces of one of the nuns, who had somehow made contact. The letter came out of the blue, and Jo read it and reread it, perhaps searching for some understanding of why Mary was now in the US, whether she had children and was she still in films.
The letter, which no longer exists, was apparently only a page or so long. Written in Mary’s distinctive hand, it apparently painted a fairly superficial picture of Mary’s life in California – the sunny weather, the good food and the interesting things happening around her. She mentioned her regular church attendance and one or two friends she often saw. She mentioned Phil with some pride, touching on his success as an Engineer and his recent death; but of her career in films, her Hollywood friends and her time in England, she said nothing. As always, she ended with a promise to return to the Australia she still missed, “soon.” “I would love to ride on the Melbourne tram to the beach again” she wrote.
Jo Mostyn wrote back at Christmas time and again the following Christmas. But there was no further response from Mary. It was as though the letter Mary had written was her final effort to reach out, one last time, to old friends of the past, and a life she had long since lost.
Years later Jo would sigh as she told the author how beautiful Mary was. She would relate at some length how much everyone at the school admired Mary and her sisters. By the time she told me this, Jo was living a happy but modest life in Melbourne’s eastern suburb of Ringwood, with a husband, three grown up children and four grandchildren. Little did she know that Mary had then been dead for ten years, and her later life had not been one of film-star glamour, ease and luxury. Jo’s own childhood had been one of significant hardship and poverty in depression-era Melbourne. But in the end, she lived a life as fulfilling and rewarding as Mary’s, although she was never to know it. Jo’s fantasy that a school friend from grimy Melbourne of the 1930s had succeeded in the film world and was living in luxury and comfort, stayed with her to the end of her days.
Most of Mary Maguire’s Melbourne has been demolished. However, she would recognise this stretch of Elizabeth Street between Bourke and Collins.(left) It would have been visible from windows at the rear of the Hotel Metropole. Her old school in Nicholson Street, Fitzroy, appears almost unchanged from this angle (right). Author’s Collection.
Nick Murphy September 2018
Note: Michael Adams new biography – Australia’s Sweetheart: The amazing story of forgotten Hollywood star Mary Maguire, is due to be published in early 2019 by Hachette Australia.
Profound changes occurred in Mary Maguire’s life in 1939 and these were to colour the remainder of her life.
In May 1939 she began work on “An Englishman’s Home”for Aldwych films. It was based on a well known play by Guy du Maurier. The plot concerned an invasion of Britain (the threatening power is un-named, but clearly meant to be Germany) and starred Austrian-born Paul von Hernried, another refugee to Britain from fascism. It again featured John Wood, in what was to be his last film before returning to Australia.
Above – A little over two years after this photo was taken on the set of “An Englishman’s Home”, Paul Henreid (left) had simplified his name and was in Hollywood, playing Victor Laszlo in “Casablanca”. John Wood (right) however, was to find himself a prisoner of war of the Japanese at about the same time. After his return to Australia in 1939, he joined the Army and was posted to Singapore. He was captured in early 1942. He spent the next three-and-a-half years working tirelessly to maintain morale through theatre performances. Source probably Aldwych films. Author’s collection.
About the time she was filming “An Englishman’s Home”, Mary became engaged to Robert Gordon Canning, a wealthy and decorated British World War One veteran. It was, she later admitted, a whirlwind romance. Known to his close friends as “Bobbie”, he was a former Captain in the 10th Hussars and had earned the Military Cross for bravery in action at Arras in 1916. They were introduced to each other by Miles Mander, during a visit to England. At almost fifty-two, Bobbie was over thirty years Mary’s senior.
What did Mary see in this man who was older than her father? At the time, Mary said, “Bobbie conforms to my idea of the ideal man … when I met Bobbie, nothing else mattered.” There was however, another dimension to Bobbie that would have made him less attractive to some, although it did not discourage the Maguires. Bobbie was an opinionated, active and influential fascist. From 1934 until mid-1938, he was a senior figure in the British Union of Fascists (BUF) and was close to BUF leader, Oswald Mosley, although he split from the movement in 1938.
At the time of the engagement, Bobbie had little to say publicly about what had attracted him to Mary, but he was quoted as saying that she was the first actor he met who “didn’t talk shop.” He apparently also disliked “bridge and golf-playing women.” “I am neither,” Mary pointed out. The impending marriage was celebrated with a portrait of Mary by popular artist Vasco Lazzolo.
Mary was wise enough to publicly disassociate herself from Gordon Canning’s political extremism and virulent anti-Semitism. She told Australian Women’s Weekly journalist Mary St. Claire, “I was given my big chance in Hollywood, where there are many Jews. It would be both ungrateful and unkind of me to ally myself because of marriage with the Fascist Party… I have no fascist sympathies and do not intend to take part in my fiancee’s political life.” This unsophisticated comment reveals a certain lack of worldliness on Mary’s part – how she expected not to be part of his political life is hard to imagine. She maintained the argument that she was not involved in his political activities, or at least, was largely ignorant of them, all her life. Looking back on the marriage in late 1944, she said of fascism “I didn’t understand what it was all about.”
Not surprisingly, Mary Maguire’s signature in 1938-39 still looked unsophisticated. She was only 20 at the time. She maintained a strong affection for Australia all her life, but never went home again. Author’s Collection.
Part of the answer to the riddle of Mary’s attraction to Bobbie lies in a disaster that befell her about the same time. In July 1939, towards the end of filming “An Englishman’s Home”, Mary became ill again. What seemed to start as another cold ended up very seriously. It was Bobbie who suspected something sinister and encouraged Mary to visit a specialist to have a proper assessment. Maxwell Chance, a highly regarded Mayfair doctor, diagnosed her with acute pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) and immediately sent her to an exclusive nursing home to rest and “dry out.” It was a shock, an embarrassment, and it put an end to her acting for the time being, as well as her social life. Of course, the family did not publicly report her condition as TB, but rather as fatigue from “overwork” or “lung trouble” from working in the cold.
The condition explains why she was carried to her wedding in an invalid chair and why she immediately returned to the nursing home after the event. Her treatment for TB included a revolutionary procedure designed to deflate and rest the infected lung, using oxygen introduced by a pneumothorax needle. Mary lay on her side to have the needle inserted between her ribs, a treatment that was repeated every few weeks. Antibiotic treatment for TB was still years away.
Only a few weeks after the wedding, Britain found itself at war again. Unfortunately, nothing had changed Bobbie’s anti-Semitic opinions or his admiration for aspects of the German model of National Socialism. As a former member of the BUF, he was already under close observation and MI5 had developed a significant file on him and all those he associated with. As the tension of “the phony war” progressed, at least one of Bobbie’s old friendships was strained to breaking point. Bobbie and Miles Mander fell out quite spectacularly. In letters written to Mander in Hollywood in February 1940, Bobbie described the war as “a ramp” (a swindle), singling out “Jewish financiers” as the architects of the conflict, in the best fascist tradition. We know this because Mander, in a steaming fury, complained about him to the Home Office.
Mick continues to spin stories. This is part of an article headed “Screen Star’s father joins the BEF again”. Mick had not served in the British or Australian Army in the First World War and he had not been a Welterweight Champion, as he suggests here. From The Daily Express, 23 April 1940. Via ukpressonline
Then, on Saturday 13 July, 1940, Bobbie was arrested and interned under the British government’s Emergency Powers (Defence) Act, Defence Regulation 18B. This law gave the Government power to imprison, without trial, individuals it thought had the potential to be fifth columnists. Understandably, Mary, now at home, was shocked when police arrived at their London flat to arrest Bobbie (although she should have had some warning, as others like Mosley and his friend retired Admiral Barry Domvile had already been arrested). She was later to complain that the Police suspected her of being disloyal; with allegations made that she had “flashed signals to submarines lurking off (her home at) Sandwich.”
Mary was well enough to escort Bobbie to the gates of Brixton prison, announcing that he had long since given up membership of “certain organisations.” A couple of weeks before he was interned, Mary had given Bobbie some good news. She was pregnant and was expecting early the following year. However, she was still continuing with her TB treatments. Her doctors feared the birth would be difficult, even hazardous. On 3 February 1941, in the midst of the London Blitz, Mary gave birth to an eight-pound son. It was a difficult cesarean birth, aggravated by her weakness from the TB treatment and her petite size. Bobbie was briefly released from Brixton to attend to Mary and his new son.
It was Bina who passed on details of baby Michael’s birth, as she had after the wedding. The birth had cost Bobbie £2,000. She told journalists that the baby looked the image of Mick, who had joined the British Army. Bina then gave enthusiastic interviews to the press about the arrangements for the christening. “The baby will wear a christening robe made …from a beautiful old point lace robe which has been worn by his father’s mother, and has been in the Gordon Canning family for a hundred years.”
In various appeals to the British authorities, friends, politicians and doctors argued for Bobbie’s release, without any success. The following letter from Maxwell Chance, Mary’s doctor, is now held in the British National Archive file on Bobbie. It also makes very clear how serious her condition was.
W.H.C Rollo was Bobbie’s lawyer, and also the father of Primula Rollo, the first wife of David Niven. The Committee reading this to review his detention recommended release, but it was not to be. The Home Secretary, again acting on the advice of M15, decided to keep Bobbie in detention. Source British National Archives. File KV 2-877/8
Mary was well enough by the second half of 1941 to return to work, although, as she was later to point out, it was extremely difficult to get film work with a husband in gaol on suspicion of treason. The work was a supporting role in the 70-minute “This was Paris”, made by Mary’s old studio, Warner Bros, at their Teddington studios in south–west London. The plot revolves around three or four key characters who are participants battling the activities of fifth columnists in France in 1940. Several of the players in the film, including Mary, would have been very well known to US audiences. Ben Lyon, a well known US actor, plays Butch, a perpetually drunken reporter for an Australian newspaper called “The Sidney Chronicle.” (Despite the incorrect spelling, it is clearly meant to be a newspaper in Sydney, Australia he works for). Mary plays his girlfriend with a degree of ability and confidence not seen in many of her earlier films.
Mary Maguire’s first line as Blossum Leroy in her final film “This Was Paris.” Her boyfriend, Butch, a reporter for “The Sidney Chronicle” (sic) has come home drunk, with British spy Bill Hamilton in tow. Listen to that accent! Is she meant to be Australian? It’s worth noting that by the time she was in England, her accent was noticeably refined. Audio clip from VHS copy in the author’s collection.
In wartime England, the joy of parenthood and the pleasure of working in film again was not to last for long. Over Christmas 1941 little Michael became ill. In February 1942, he succumbed to pneumonia – an operation failed. The little boy was buried at a church at the Gordon Canning ancestral seat of Hartpury in Gloucestershire, his name listed on a monument next to adults killed in Britain’s war effort. Even Bina was unable to put a positive spin on this awful event and could find little to say. Still in prison after a year and a half, Bobbie could not console her. Mary was absolutely devastated.
With the best medical support the Maguires could find, Mary slowly regained something of her former self, although distractions were difficult to find in the very desperate days of 1942. The war was not going well for the Allies. Mary was later to say that she had very little to do during the war.
Finally, in the middle of 1942 she felt strong enough to take up some acting again – this time in the theatre. Sister Joan was already achieving some success on the stage in London, so it made some sense to follow in her footsteps. Mary’s play was a production of “Bedtime Story”, a “light comedy in 3 acts”, touring through southern England for a month – Bradford, Hull and Tunbridge Wells. Based on the Cinderella story, it was well received by war weary audiences. Although looking thinner and wearing her black hair shorter, Mary was still a glamorous film star and the provincial English press were thrilled when she hit town. But Mary didn’t stay with the play – by the end of the year she had left and the production moved on to Glasgow. She did not return to the stage.
But there was some good news. Sometime, early in 1943, Mary met an up-and-coming US aeronautical engineer, Phillip Legarra. Four years her senior, Phil worked in England for North American Aviation on the highly successful P-51 Mustang fighter project. The Mustang was soon to become the war’s breakthrough fighter aircraft, and in its final form was undoubtedly the finest US offensive fighter of the war. At the time they met, Phil was the company’s English representative. They fell in love.
To force Bobbie’s hand and give him no choice but to agree to a divorce, Mary took the unusual step of moving in with Phil, to a comfortable flat in Kensington. Mary said; “I am not apologising for falling in love with someone my own age. That is natural.”
Below: Phil Legarra: “Notes from England” Skyline Magazine, July-August 1943. North American Aviation (in-house magazine), July-August 1943. Author’s Collection.
Bobbie was amongst the internees released in August 1943. Following a post-imprisonment interview conducted at Hartpury in late August 1943, two MI5 officers wondered if Bobbie was suffering “some form of mild mental derangement.” His eccentric behaviour over the next ten years also suggests this. Bobbie blamed Jewish pressure on the Government for his internment while Barry Domvile blamed “judmas;” in his damaged mind a Jewish-Masonic conspiracy was responsible. Bobbie remained an unrepentant national socialist to his death in 1967.
Bobbie and Mary divorced in 1944 – despite his determination to put his marriage “in order”. Soon after, in a courageous step, Mary decided that honesty was the best policy, and she bared all to journalists, publicly making reference to her bout of TB for the first time. Phil and Mary’s plan was to marry and return to the US, where Mary could settle down and restart her Hollywood career and Phil could return to the aviation industry. Aware that not all her relatives in Australia would approve of a divorce, she tried to pre-empt their reactions. “Apart from the shock this is going to be to my grandparents in Melbourne, and also to many other of my Australian friends, I am unashamed of what I have done … It’s distressing, but that’s the way it is. I’m sure there are lots of people who won’t forgive me, but most women would do the same in similar circumstances.” Uncharacteristically, Mick and Bina could find nothing to say publicly about the matter. They were obviously conflicted between their Catholic faith, the embarrassment of a looming divorce and their loyalty to a daughter whose marriage they had encouraged.
Phil and Mary married in March 1945 and left for California just as soon as they could. As newspapers of the time reported, Mary hoped to get a role in “Forever Amber”, a major “Gone With the Wind” style production based on a popular novel by Kathleen Winsor. But in Hollywood, things had changed. Her great mentor and family friend Miles Mander suffered a heart attack and died suddenly after dinner at one of Hollywood’s Brown Derby restaurants in February 1946, only a few months after she returned. Richard Monter, her former agent, died in 1947. Even Mary’s one-time friend, Marion Davies, had moved on, selling her huge seaside Ocean House at Santa Monica in 1945. Her hopes of returning to acting on the screen came to nothing.
Mary and Phil were also denied the joy of parenthood. The female reproductive system is particularly vulnerable to TB – the damage the disease can do to the fallopian tubes can be irreparable and successful conception extremely difficult. It may be this was the reason there were no children from their marriage. If so, it must have been a bitter blow.
Mary decided that a career as an extra was not for her. She could have followed Jocelyn Howarth’s example and continued to try – she might have taken uncredited roles or worked as an extra as old Melbourne friend Joan Winfield did, but she seems to have made a conscious decision not to. It says a great deal about her that she could walk away and leave it all behind. Mary and Phil must have been reassured though – the US aircraft industry, largely based in Southern California – employed hundreds of thousands of people at the war’s end, and the couple’s security and prosperity must have seemed assured by Phil’s connections and ability as an engineer.
Mick Maguire died suddenly in England in June 1950. A few years later, Bina returned to Australia for a holiday. It was at this time she made her “you simply HAVE to meet the right people and at the right places” statement to explain the girls’ successful marriages. She was also reported to have said “if you want marry money, you have to go where money is.” When she died in 1963, there was another flurry of newspaper accounts. She was, said friends, a woman of “great personal charm and very clear purpose… a motivating force in the whole operation” said another friend.
Mary flew home to the US from Mick’s funeral in London.This airline manifest shows she was still travelling as an Australian in 1950. Mary was often to say she wanted to return to Australia, but never did. Her interest in flying dated to the 1930s. (This image has been modified from the original manifest) From National Archives, via Ancestry.com
The couple settled into a comfortable home in the trendy beachside suburban development at Surfridge, near the airport. The houses in this development faced westwards and had views of the Pacific Ocean, a suburb in the rolling sand dunes popular with former Hollywood stars and the modestly wealthy. Unfortunately the suburb was reclaimed in the 1960s for Los Angeles airport redevelopment. Today, this area is a ghost-suburb; footpaths and streets without houses and palm trees shading what were once verdant gardens and green back yards.
Mary died on 18 May, 1974 – aged only fifty-five. Phil had died in 1971 – alcohol played a part in both their deaths. In her last years Mary lived in a small apartment on Pasadena Avenue in Long Beach. Built in 1922, it still stands and is one of the older apartment blocks in the area. In appearance it could be straight out of Nathaniel West’s classic expose of life of the margins of Hollywood – Day of the Locust.
Two of Mary’s sisters returned to Australia in the 1970s, visiting relatives and being interviewed by state and local papers. Patsy said her strongest Australian memories were of life as a child in the Maguire hotels, and the interesting guests she met. Australian comedian and thirties film star George Wallace stayed in her mind particularly.
Mary’s sisters – Carmel, Lupe and Joan Maguire (and Patsy not shown) all achieved the “glittering marriages” their parents hoped for. Press Association Photo about 1938. Author’s collection
Mary Maguire’s career in the mid-1930s also mirrored that of many other young starlets who sought an acting career in the golden years of Hollywood. She did not leave behind a significant body of film-work; indeed, most of her films are unremarkable second feature or B-films. She developed to become a competent actress, but over six years and a dozen films; she was regularly consigned to the one, almost identical role, the young love interest – the ingénue. This is hardly surprising in the context of the time, in an industry famous for stereotyping actresses. She was barely sixteen years old when she had her first speaking role in a film and twenty-three when she had her last.