Betty McDowall (1924 – 1993) -London was “Tough as Hell”

Above: Betty McDowall, aged 21, on the cover of the Australian Broacasting Commission’s ABC Weekly, on December 8, 1945. Note her surname is misspelled McDowell here. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The 5 second version
Betty McDowall had an extraordinarily active career on stage and radio – commencing in Australia in 1942. She moved to England in 1951, developing a performance persona that film historian Brian McFarlane has described as “quietly appealing.” Although appearing in some leading roles in film, she had more success in supporting roles of domestic life on British TV, becoming a familiar face on numerous programs into the early 1970s. Between 1977 and 1985 she had a regular role on the BBC radio series The Archers. Married three times, she died in England in 1993. Her surname was regularly misspelled McDowell.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Betty McDowall never became an enthusiastic self-promoter and little can be found to inform us of her Sydney childhood or her reflections on her own career over time. But in 1965, in one of her rare public comments, Betty McDowall gave the opinion that an actor’s life in London was “tough as hell.” This comment appeared in a Canberra Times article by Tom Lake, making a refreshing change from the usual celebratory reporting about the doings of Australians acting overseas. For once, a reporter wrote frankly about just how hard it was to break in and to maintain a career. Lake’s survey of Australian actors included Alan White, Lloyd Lamble, Dorothy Alison, Shirley Cameron and others. Dorothy Alison, who had just temporarily retired, claimed that on arrival she had been armed with “all sorts of introductions, none of which did any good.” Lake also highlighted an added problem for women – there was much less work available for them than for men; perhaps only 1 in 10 jobs were for actresses.

Betty was born Elizabeth Margarita McDowall in Sydney on 14 August, 1924, to John Lloyd McDowall, a clerk connected with the racing industry and Florence nee Warren. Her father John had been born in Chongqing, China in 1894, to John (senior), an expatriate postal commissioner for the Qing Dynasty and his Chinese wife, unnamed in official documents. But Betty’s father seems to have lived in Australia from his youth, marrying Florence in Sydney in June 1917. Betty was the third of the couple’s three daughters. (See Note 1)

Sadly, John and Florence divorced in the early 1930s. By this time John’s profession was listed as a hairdresser, although he was doing well enough in the height of the Depression. In 1932 he had inherited a brother’s estate and was able to support Betty as a boarder at Mount St Bernard’s Convent School in Pymble (a northern suburb of Sydney). She left the school aged only 15, having developed an early love for the theatre and almost certainly having received training from one of Sydney’s many private drama tutors. In time, she also turned her hand to fashion design like her older sister Ursula, and she wrote scripts for radio. A 1948 account of Betty’s early life also suggested she was an “outdoors girl,” who sailed her own VJ dinghy (a fast, light skiff developed in the early 1930s) on Sydney harbour, and who liked cycling, poetry and philosophy. Maybe, but this latter description sounds suspiciously like familiar newspaper padding, designed to conform to popular notions of the “typical Australian girl.”

Above: Betty McDowall was a regular in the pages of ABC Weekly, between 1945 and 1951 reflecting how busy the young actor was on radio. Left, on the cover on June 12, 1948, with her name again misspelled. Right, posing to advertise the radio comedy George and Margaret June 11, 1949. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Betty McDowall’s earliest performance experiences were in radio serials for the Australian Broadcasting Commission (still known to Australians today as the ABC), and on the Macquarie radio Network. One of her first was in Dr Mac, a comedy-drama based around the doings of a small town doctor. Her first appearance on stage professionally was possibly in mid-1943 at Sydney’s Minerva Theatre, in the play Janie, directed by Alec Coppel. Melbourne born Coppel already had experience as a writer in England and had come back home in 1940. He later went on to a Hollywood career – writing numerous screenplays, including Vertigo (1958). Unfortunately, we do not know how the 19 year old Betty came to Coppel’s attention, but he cast her as one of the friends of Janie, an American high school girl (played by Gwenda Wilson) who holds a disastrous party for US servicemen while her parents are away. Reviews of the comedy were generally positive – the idea of girls having a tearaway party in their parents’ absence was quite novel for war-weary Australians. In February 1944, after several more plays, Betty appeared in a leading role in Patrick Hamilton’s thriller Rope, again directed by Coppel for the Minerva Theatre.

Above: Betty featured in Truth newspaper, March 12, 1944, in a feature on women and war work. The byline reported that she baked for her husband between performances. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

On May 1, 1942, at the age of only 17, Betty married James Joseph White, a musician. She was so young she needed her mother’s permission to marry. Unfortunately, the couple’s relationship did not last beyond the end of the war. Within a few years White had become inattentive, announcing that he “didn’t want to be tied down”, and he increasingly stayed out late. In divorce court in 1946 Judge Edwards expressed his confusion about the excuse that White had stayed out late at “jam sessions”, a term the judge had never heard. Well and truly channeling archaic attitudes of nineteenth century Australia he announced “I don’t understand…what such activities would have to do with jam”. Truth newspaper joined in with frivolous reporting of the unhappy event, under the heading “Marriage was all Jammed up”.

At the same time all this was unfolding, Betty thought she had a chance of performing on Broadway in the play Flying Fox, written by visiting US serviceman Warren Cheney. Cheney’s intentions were honourable – he wanted to present a contemporary vision of Australia for US audiences, using real Australian actors, including Betty and Ron Randell. But nothing came of the scheme or the play. However, Betty did find more work in local theatre and in an endless stream of radio comedy and drama. And in early 1947, she had another breakthrough – she was cast in her first film role. Always another Dawn was a feature film made by Sydney’s McCreadie brothers, who already had some experience with making short films. It was a war drama, partly filmed on board the Australian destroyer Bataan. In addition to Betty, it starred capable actors in Guy Dolman, Queenie Ashton and Charles Tingwell. Unfortunately, despite the ability of the cast, the film did not fare well. The lighting was criticised as poor, the dialogue dull, and the plot, which included the death in combat of the key protagonist (Tingwell) was heavy handed. Betty never gave an opinion of the film herself, but interviewed in 2002, Tingwell recalled her as one Sydney’s fine young actresses.

Above: Betty performed alongside Michael Pate in the 3UZ radio serial Forrester’s Wharf shortly before leaving for England. Pate had departed for the US in November 1950. The Age, Thu 22 Mar 1951, P1, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Despite the film’s lack of success, there continued to be a stream of stage opportunities that reflected recognition of her ability. In mid 1948, The Sydney Morning Herald noted her good humoured and vivid portrayal of Lydia in Pride and Prejudice at the Minerva. When British actor Robert Morley brought his play Edward, My Son to Australia in October 1949, Betty won the role of the girl Edward marries, requiring her to be on stage just twice – but long enough to attract the positive attention of reviewers. Meanwhile radio performances continued to be her “bread and butter”. 1951 saw her perform on radio with two up and coming Australians – Michael Pate in Forrester’s Wharf and Rod Taylor in My Friend Irma.

The late 1940s and early 1950s saw many young actors leave to try their luck internationally – there was simply not enough work in Australia. Betty’s contemporaries Gwenda Wilson and Dorothy Alison had both departed for London in 1949 and their letters home sometimes appeared in newspapers – it is fair to assume those who were friends also wrote encouragingly to each other. Betty left for England in 1951 – a brave move despite her record of success at home – as she had no connections there. Her first theatre work in London was not as an actor, but as an Assistant Stage Manager for the Tennent Productions play – Indian Summer in late 1951. She played her first role on the London stage in Tennent’s The Same Sky in early 1952.

Coinciding with Betty’s arrival in Britain were dramatic shifts in cinema attendance and the growth of a new phenomenon – the rapid rise of British Television, with a dramatic increase in numbers of household sets spurred on by events such as the 1953 Coronation, and after 1955, the addition of ITV as an alternative to the BBC. As a consequence, there was greater demand for programming, and new work for actors. All the same, her first television outing in April 1953 was hardly very profound fare – it was a videoed promotional version of the play Half Seas Over, a comedy about a female US Channel swimmer that was soon to open at the Q Theatre. (Betty played the swimmer’s sister).

It may have been hellishly hard work as she was later to claim, but her career took off quickly and diverse performances across stage, TV and cinema became her trademark. By December 1956 it was reported that Betty had already appeared in 68 TV roles, and the Lancashire Evening Post’s TV reviewer could describe her as one of his “favourite Television actresses”. For Tatler magazine, at about the same time, the young Australian was a “television personality” worthy of including in a photospread. Her TV performances were in a mix of filmed plays – usually current at theatres, guest parts in serials and one off stories of the “armchair theatre” type, then so popular.

At left above, Betty McDowall’s growing popularity is reflected in the TV pages of The Stage, 12 July 1956, P12. Copyright held by Stage Media. Via British Library Newspaper Archive.

Betty’s first feature film role was in Ealing films The Shiralee, made in late 1956 and set in outback Australia. Featuring numerous Australians then working in England – Peter Finch, Charles Tingwell, Frank Leighton, Reg Lye, Ed Devereaux, Bill Kerr and others, it was filmed partly at the MGM studios in London, as well as on location in New South Wales. Betty had just one scene – as a kindly English-sounding nurse, taking a telegram for Macauley (Finch) the swagman (or itinerant worker). This single appearance in an indoor scene was almost certainly filmed in London. (See Note 2)

Above: Screen grab from Ealing Films The Shiralee. Betty as a kindly nurse in her one scene, with Peter Finch. The film is widely available for purchase – this copy from Network’s Ealing Studios Rarities Collection.

Soon after she took her first leading role in another film – Timelock, playing the mother of a child who accidentally gets locked in an airtight bank vault, protected by a timelock. It is a clever plot for a B film, but largely famous now for the appearance of a very young Sean Connery as one of the workmen assigned to cut into the vault. Betty’s performance playing a now familiar role – the slightly exotic, good looking, but sensible mother, was reviewed positively.

Above: Screen grabs from Timelock (1957). Left – Betty as the child’s increasingly strained mother. At right, Sean Connery as one of the workmen. The 70 minute film is set in Toronto, Canada, although filmed in England.

After a few more supporting roles in films, including Jack the Ripper, in 1960 she took another leading role in the British B film Dead Lucky, coincidentally opposite another young Australian, Vincent Ball, both of them playing London reporters investigating a gambling ring. Interviewed by film historian Brian McFarlane in the late 1990s, Ball recalled that while the 1950s was a good time to be working in British film – “if you’d done a stint in rep and had a decent agent, you could get work” – he only ever felt really secure when he had an ATV contract for an ongoing television series. He seemed to suggest insecurity came with an acting career. Betty appeared again with Vincent Ball in Echo of Diana in 1963, another 60 minute B film.

Surviving and easily accessible for today’s enthusiasts are some of Betty’s performances in 50s and 60s TV series, now on DVD, that give us some insight into her work. For example, in 1964 she appeared in an episode of The Saint called “The Loving Brothers”. Set in “Outback Australia” but clearly filmed on a cheap set and in a stark English quarry, it again featured many of the familiar Australian faces then working in London – like Ray Barrett, Reg Lye, Dick Bentley and Ed Devereaux, who ham things up ridiculously, well and truly conforming to the established postwar stereotype of Australians. In this episode she played a thoroughly unlikeable social-climbing wife of one of the very unpleasant brothers. Sydney-born Annette Andre played the episode’s passive romantic interest opposite Roger Moore.

While television and film is always a lasting legacy, it tends to colour our understanding of an actor’s career. This may also be the case with Betty McDowall, as it is in fact stage work that seems to have sustained her reputation in the 1960s. For example, she earned praise for her performance in Tennessee Williams’ Period of Adjustment at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1962, The Stage noting that she provided one of the funniest closing lines in the West End. Reviewers of Rule of Three, which ran at The Duchess Theatre in late 1962, also praised her performance, although some found the three short Agatha Christie plays dated and predictable. She managed all of these at the same time she had a recurring role in the TV series Outbreak of Murder. In 1968 she returned to Tennessee Williams again, performing in Sweet Bird of Youth.

Above: Betty, now aged in her late 30s, appeared in Rule of Three, at the Duchess Theatre in December 1962. Photo from a program in the author’s collection.

Above: Betty touring with a popular London comedy in 1973, with up and coming Australian actor Judith Arthy. The Wells Journal 27 July 1973. Copyright is held by Reach PLC. Via British Library Newspaper Archive.

Betty McDowall did not fade away. She continued on stage and in supporting roles on screen, although there was clearly less work. In 1977, following the sudden death of her old friend from Sydney, Gwenda Wilson, she took over the role of Aunt Laura, in The Archers. She played the role in this immensely popular BBC radio series until the character’s demise in 1985. In a way, it seems fitting that 40 years after her first appearances on radio, this was also how she finished her career.

She was married twice in England – to electronics engineer Leslie Cody from 1953 – 1962 and then to Michael Leader in 1967. Leader, who worked for the BBC, was also a well known genealogist.

Betty McDowall died in December 1993. There were no children from any of her marriages and her Australian sisters had predeceased her. Sadly, this writer has found no obituaries or notices concerning her passing.

Above: Betty on a fan card c 1960-65. Author’s collection.

Note 1
Betty’s father John McDowall‘s (1894-1973) birth in China is alluded to in his 1933 – 35 divorce papers, and on her sister Ursula McDowall‘s birth certificate from 1918. John senior’s (1864-1923) position as a Postal Commissioner in Nanning, and his sudden death there in October 1923, is mentioned in The North- China Herald and Supreme Court and Consular Gazette, 24 Nov 1923, p520.

John senior’s various awards for service from the Emperor were also publicly recorded in China and Britain. Betty’s aunt Juanita’s (“Nita”) great success as a student at Shanghai’s Thomas Hanbury School also gained some acknowledgement in The North – China Herald, see Feb 2, 1905, p240.

Note 2
The astute viewer of The Shiralee, wishing to confirm actors’ names, will notice that the closing credits are a mess. In the usual way, the leading actors’ names match the characters’ names – which are bold, larger and in Capital letters. Then suddenly, there is a switch and some supporting actors‘ names are in Caps while others are not – and presented as though Mark Daly was played by Betty McDowall , or Guy Doleman was played by Lou Vernon. Clearly this was put together by someone who hadn’t seen the film and didn’t know the actors. It’s unusual to see such sloppy work in a Michael Balcon film.

Above: Screen grab of closing titles from the author’s copy of The Shiralee. Available from Network’s Ealing Studios Rarities Collection

Nick Murphy
February 2021


References

  • New South Wales Births, Death and Marriages
    • Marriage Cert 15906/1942
    • Birth Cert 18251/1918
  • New South Wales State Archives
    • NRS-13495-14-298-859/1934, Divorce papers Florence Ursula McDowall – John Lloyd McDowall 05-10-1933 to 24-07-1935
  • Text
    • Brian McFarlane (Ed) (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film. BFI-Methuen
    • Brian McFarlane (1997) An Autobiography of British Cinema. Methuen
    • Stephen Vagg. Australasian Drama Studies, 56, April 2010. Alec Coppel Australian playwright and survivor. P 219-232
    • J P Wearing ( 2014) The London Stage 1950-1959. A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel.  Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
      [Note – this source erroneously lists Betty McDowall twice – once as Betty McDowell]
    • Vanessa Whitburn (1997) The Archers : the official inside story : the changing face of radio’s longest running drama. Virgin, London.
  • Other Websites
    • OzMovies.comAlways another Dawn – Review and resources.
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Dec 1934, P6
    • Daily Telegraph (Syd), 6 Oct 1940, P23
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 May 1943, P7
    • The Sun (Syd) 9 May 1943, P4
    • Truth (Syd) 12 Mar 1944, P25
    • Truth (Syd) 17 June 1945, P27
    • ABC Weekly, 8 Dec 1945,
    • Truth (Syd) 21 April 1946, P24
    • The Sun (Syd) 14 Feb 1947, P5
    • The Sydney Morning Herald 24 Nov 1947, P5
    • The News (Adel) 18 Dec 1947, P3
    • West Australian (Perth) 19 Dec 1947, P22
    • The Sydney Morning Herald 18 May 1948, P3
    • The ABC Weekly, 12 June 1948
    • Australian Women’s Weekly, 9 Oct 1948, P19
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 May 1948, P3
    • Daily Telegraph (Syd) 8 Mar 1949, P4
    • ABC Weekly 11 June 1949
    • ABC Weekly 12 March 1949
    • Sunday Herald (Syd) 23 Oct 1949, P6
    • The Courier Mail (Bris) 31 May 1950, P8
    • The ABC Weekly, 12 Aug, 1950,
    • The Sunday Mail (Bris) 23 May 1954, P26
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Jan 1961, P17
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 May 1963, P14
    • Canberra Times, 24 April 1965, P9

  • British Library Newspaper Project
    • The Stage 7 May 1953, P9
    • The Stage, 12 July 1956, P12
    • Lancashire Evening Post – Wed 1 August 1956, P5
    • The Tatler Wed 22 August 1956, P24
    • Daily Herald – Thurs 6 December 1956, P3
    • The Stage, 31 Jan 1957, P12
    • The Tatler, 27 June 1962.
    • The Stage, 12 July 1962, P16
    • The Daily Mirror, 6 Nov 1962, P9
    • The Observer, 14 Jul 1968, Sun · P 26
    • The Stage, 21 Nov, 1968, P9

Saharet (1878-1964) The Dancer from Richmond

Above: Saharet in about 1898. Postcard in the Author’s Collection.

The 5 second version
Born Paulina Clarissa Molony in Richmond ( a suburb of Melbourne ) Australia on 23 March 1878, died Battle Creek, Michigan, USA, 24 July 1964. Of Chinese-Australian background, she had some early training in Australia that has not yet been identified. She appeared as an exotic and audacious dancer on stage in California in May 1891 and quickly gained great fame and notoriety. Thereafter she performed in New York and other US cities, also in France, Germany, Russia and Britain. She married three times, then retired to Battle Creek in 1947 to be near her daughter.
She made at least 9 and possibly more films in Germany and France before WWI.

1878 in Melbourne, Australia

The celebrated dancer Saharet was born Paulina Clarissa Molony, on 23 March 1878, to Benjamin Robert Molony, an illiterate Irish tailor and Elizabeth (nee Foon), a 19-year-old of part Chinese ancestry from Ballarat. She was delivered at home in Rowena Parade, in the heart of the working class Melbourne suburb of Richmond. A sister, Martha Lily, was born in 1879 and another, Julia Millicent, in 1881. (see Note 1 below)

saharet008

Above: Saharet doubled on a postcard c 1898. There were numerous postcards made of her during her lifetime, many still circulate amongst enthusiasts. Author’s collection.

Paulina Clarissa (or Clarice as she sometimes preferred) made her way from the humblest of backgrounds in Richmond, to fame and fortune in Europe and the US in the early twentieth century. As Saharet, she was painted by leading European artists of the day and appeared on countless postcards; a clever and audacious dancer, and a vibrant young woman. Yet much of her life remains an enduring mystery and the few contemporary accounts of her life tend only to amplify errors made by others, such as the oft- repeated but incorrect claim she died in Melbourne in 1942. But when she lived at her home in the Michigan town of Battle Creek in the early 1960s, she left behind the key to her story. She had told friends her parents’ names; Benjamin “Malony” (note the variation of surname Molony) and Eveline “nee De Vere” which was at least, partly true (her mother spent her lifetime changing her name). Her 1964 obituary in the Battle Creek Enquirer, the local newspaper, noted the day of her Australian birth, but sadly, nothing was said of her illustrious career as one the world’s leading dancers before the Great War, when she was the toast of Europe’s theater society.


Rowena Parade 2018 edited

Rowena Parade in 2018, looking West towards central Melbourne. The shop on the left was, coincidentally, built in the same year as Saharet’s birth – 1878. Author’s collection.
Boarding House Nicholson St Fitzroy  McCormack Place
Left: In November 1881, Saharet’s mother gave birth to another daughter – Julia Mallicino (Millicent), at 168 Nicholson St, Fitzroy – almost certainly a boarding house. Author’s Collection.
Right: On the birth certificate of Julia Mallicino (see Note 4 below), Saharet’s mother listed her residence at what was then a relatively new building at 4 McCormac Place Melbourne, a neighbourhood now entirely demolished, off Little Lonsdale St. The author believes it was one of these terraces, probably built by Thomas McCormack, in the right middle distance. This photo was taken in about 1950, before the demolition, by a Public Works photographer. Click on the image to go to the State Library of Victoria record. [Note- confusingly, the street was more generally known as McGrath Place in the C19th. And there is an unrelated McGrath Lane still in Melbourne] Note – this photo is in copyright.

As an adult, Saharet was an attractive looking woman with a powerful stage presence. Standing about medium height -168 cms tall (five foot five inches), with grey eyes and a mass of dark brown hair, she was a highly skilled and flexible dancer.

“What Saharet can’t do with her legs is not worth the average mortal’s worth while trying to learn” wrote one journalist. Another journalist described her as “really an expert gymnast and contortionist. What she does is to give a wild whirling dance, in the course of which she introduces somersault splits, fabulous high kicking, cart wheels and other difficult feats … It is a marvellous exhibition of gymnastic skill, but, at the same time, the dancer is mirthful and beautiful, and the dance a delight to the eye.”

Unfortunately, a critical part of Clarice’s early story in Australia currently remains unknown. Who taught her to dance and particularly, what were the circumstances surrounding the obvious change in fortune that occurred between her birth in Melbourne in 1878 and her appearance as a dancer in the United States in 1891. We do not know how she paid her way from Melbourne to California or exactly when this occurred. Her parents had been so poor they could not afford a memorial for her sister Martha Lily when she died in early 1881, after suffering “convulsions”, probably the result of typhoid fever, then so prevalent in Melbourne.

A later British account claimed she studied under US actress Minnie Palmer, who was in Melbourne in 1886-1887. Still another account claimed she worked for three years for well-known theatrical entrepreneur Harry Rickards. The most plausible accounts suggested she appeared on stage in Melbourne, performing in the corps de ballet at the Theater Royal, under the direction of English choreographer Marie Reddall (who worked in Australia with her husband, Actor – Director E. W. Royce between 1886 and 1892). There could be truth in all these claims.

This writer believes much of the mystery surrounding Saharet relates to her Ballarat Chinese ancestry, something she and her mother wanted to disassociate themselves from as quickly as they could. In the late nineteenth century, the British colonies in Australia created laws that were driven by deeply held views about concepts of race. Most would find such archaic views offensive and irrelevant today, but discriminatory laws were amongst the first passed by Australia’s national parliament after federation in 1901. (See Note 4 below for more on her mother and her Ballarat Chinese-Australian connection)


                                          San Franciso Examiner March 1894        Los Angeles Times April 1894Garnett Journal Nov 13 1896
Left: Saharet appears in print in The San Francisco Examiner, California, March 4, 1894
Centre: Saharet, also known as Clarice Campbell, described as a “wonderfully lithe and graceful” high kicker in the Los Angeles Times, California, April 5, 1894.
Right: This November 13 1896 report in the Garnett Journal (Kansas) appears to be amongst the most accurate accounts of her early life.  Via Newspapers.com  Thanks to Martin Goebel

1891 in San Francisco

Researcher Martin Goebel has found that as Clarice Campbell, she joined the “Liliputians (not the Pollard’s Australian Lilliputians), a company performing at San Francisco’s Baldwin Theater in May 1891,  indicating her likely arrival in the US earlier that year, almost certainly with her mother (see Note 4 below).

Over time, newspaper reports of dubious reliability appeared, recounting her early efforts to establish herself. She was only 13 and perhaps she really did appear as a dime museum fortune teller and then a mermaid, as the Detroit Free Press was to recount. However, it is well documented that by early 1894 she was using the stage name Saharet and in April she had joined M.B. Leavitt’s “Spider and Fly” vaudeville company – touring US cities. Through 1895 she was most closely associated with another popular touring vaudeville show – “The Night Owls”.


saharet016   saharet ike and daughter


Left: Saharet’s “fabulous high kicking” can be seen here in this postcard by Reutlinger of Paris. From the Author’s collection. Right: Saharet and Ike Rose, with daughter Carrie. From an unidentified German paper.c 1902. Rather than squandering her fortune as Rose was to claim, Saharet appears to have spent it caring for her daughter and her niece. Author’s collection.

1896 – Marriage in New York

In May 1896 18-year-old Saharet married New York entrepreneur Isaac Rosenstamm (later known as Ike Rose), while she was also three months pregnant to him. Over time, it was Rose who managed her career and passed around stories about her identity – that she was born in Melbourne – or perhaps it was Ballarat, the daughter of a well-known pastoralist (rancher). This constant narration about her all appears to be part of a concerted effort to advance her career and later, to create interest in Rose’s other professional activities, even after the couple separated. Rose appears to have written much of the commentary that was attributed to her and this, combined with the freewheeling use of different surnames by Saharet’s mother, only added to the confusion. Rose himself was creative with his own history, acknowledging his birth in Hanover, Germany in 1865 in his first US passport application, but in later documents not only anglicising his name, but also claiming to have been born in New York.

Not surprisingly, not everyone believed that the beautiful young dancer who could throw her leg over her head, do the splits, and wink cheekily to her audiences was an Australian, just because she said she was. At least some Australian journalists were suspicious, particularly as there appeared to be no family or friends back home to claim her. When renowned German singer Otto Reutter happily posed with one arm around her and the other around a bottle of Champagne in 1908, the sense of “foreignness” about her was only reinforced. Saharet had little to say herself, yet the story persisted everywhere that she was Australian – and when a British journalist writing for the London Daily Mail newspaper managed to meet her in 1898, he was left with no doubt she was an Australian, born in Melbourne.

Others, including Anglo-German Count Harry Graf Kessler, who met her in about 1900, believed this too. Surviving samples of her handwriting display the confident hand of a well-educated, native English-speaker.


Saharet signature

Above: Saharet’s well formed signature. Author’s collection.
Below: Saharet appears doubled on this postcard – a not uncommon device of the time. c1905. Author’s collection.

Saharet 3


Her stage turn, often part of a varied program, appears to have lasted for less than 15 minutes, and yet she seemed to speak to audiences of a coming era of freedom and joyfulness. Like Isadora Duncan, Saharet’s style can be seen as a fore-runner in the development of the modern dance movement. This was characterised by the rejection of traditional forms of classical ballet and the embracing of new concepts in dance – to express human emotions and realism.

The Austrian writer Hermynia Zur Mühlen saw Saharet perform whilst still a child. In her 1929 autobiography, she recalled “I have never again seen such natural grace and charm, the expression simultaneously, of a little wild animal and a beautifully refined woman.” German writer Eugen Wolf also seems to have been entranced. In 1899 he wrote “… I saw her dancing four times, on all four evenings I was in Berlin…A curious creature, the only one of its kind, this gazelle, this Kangaroo, this Australian Saharet with the big round eyes …”

The German artist Emil Nolde also recalled watching her dance, like some “primeval being.” Rose fed the story that she had been given a fortune in diamonds by European admirers, and was earning another fortune by performing. It was probably true. He also encouraged her to sit for numerous accomplished and emerging French and German artists, including Maurice Biais in about 1902, by Franz Von Stuck in 1906 and by Leo Rauth in 1911. Saharet’s relationship with Rose had drifted by 1907 and the couple separated, although Rose remained her manager for another five years and his influence on her career continued to be significant.


Photos of Saharet

Above: Saharet as she appears in the Jean Reutlinger (1891-1914) Album of various portraits. Source – Bibliothèque Nationale de France – National Library of France, Gallica -Digital collection.  via Wikimedia Commons

In fact, Saharet’s great notoriety was gained in Europe, not the US. She first appeared in theaters in the UK in 1897 and in France and Germany after 1898 where she was to become phenomenally popular. Rose also arranged for the couple to travel to Russia at least several times in the early twentieth century, where she developed a significant following. After much European travel and numerous trips to and from Europe and the US and England, she finally left Germany in late 1914, possibly as late as the outbreak of war in August. This seems to have marked the end of her European presence. Her adventures in German silent film, a career direction cut short by the war, were typical of the forays well-known stage performers made into film in the first few decades of the twentieth century. At the time no one could guess the power narrative film would come to have a few decades later. Saharet made at least nine films in Germany between 1907 and 1913. (See Note 2 Below). On their release in Australia, she was generally acknowledged as an Australian.

saharet011

Above: Postcard highlighting Saharet’s spectacular hair. Undated, Author’s collection.

One very early film of Saharet has miraculously survived – a hand tinted rarity made in France by pioneering director Alice Guy-Blaché in 1905. In it, Saharet dances the Bolero for just a few minutes. The film would have been shown as part of a mixed vaudeville review show, one that consisted of live acts interspersed with short films.

Watch it here

When Rose visited Australia in early 1913, promoting his other acts, Saharet’s birthplace had become Ballarat. In an oft-repeated interview about her life, Rose claimed that she had left Australia as a youngster, after some work in theater in Melbourne. He had discovered her performing in New York in “The Night Owls”, earning a mere £7 per week. Through his influence he quickly got her £30 per week and from September 1897, an engagement in New York with Edward Rice’sFrench Maid,” which played at the Herald Square Theater.

Rose told reporters that Saharet received £750 for acting in her first German film, “In a Golden Cage,” and £1,000 for her second. But Rose had apparently advised against appearing on the screen as he felt the new medium did not suit her as a dancer. Rose claimed that her 1913 salary “was now £300 to £400 a week.” By this time he had also arranged for her to receive a percentage of the takings for her live performances.

Saharet token July 1900

Saharet on a “shell-case” theatre token for the Alhambra Theatre c 1900, next to a British farthing coin. The Music Hall and Theatre Review, Friday 6 July 1900, confirms Saharet was performing at the Alhambra Theatre, London. Author’s collection.

1913 – Further Marriages

By the time Rose was saying this in Australia, the couple were professionally and personally separated. Citing desertion and his infidelity, Saharet began proceedings against Rose in October 1912, and the divorce was finalised in 1913. Soon after, she married German-born US millionaire Fritz von Frantzius. Von Frantzius had long been an ardent admirer of hers, but their marriage was a disaster, as she abandoned him after only a few days for a new partner on stage and off – Jose Florido. She performed with Florido in the US and Britain for several years and clearly intended to marry him, but never did. Variety magazine’s 1914 review of their new act was positive and outlined exactly what her program looked like;

“Saharet has lost none of her charm, nor indeed her stage looks…Her dancing partner, Senor J. Florido, is a lithe, slender, virile Spanish youth… Saharet alone does her first number, programed as a minuette. It consists of pirouettes and posing of the old- style ballet school. It is a trifle disappointing… Florido follows with a solo dance, The Sabaje, which is strident and of toreador inception. It consists of some twists and a series of rapid stamping and taps, all on the heels. Third is a Spanish castanet dance by both, with Carmen and Toreador entrance, well done but on old style lines. Nothing sensational until the fourth and final number, Tango Argentine. Saharet and Florido’s is the genuine South American, sensuous thing… It is a violent, living, palpitant affair that earns for them the applause it richly deserves.”

But by 1916, reviews of her New York performances in “Sesame of Love” were less enthusiastic. Perhaps, in the midst of war, the public appetite for performance was already changing.

In 1917 Saharet married again, to a third German-born New Yorker and her latest theatrical agent – Maxim P (Phideus) Lowe. Soon after, she retired from the stage for good.


Her Daughter – Carrie M Rose

Ike and Saharet’s only child, Caroline Madelon Rose  was born in New York in November 1896. Known to all as Carrie, she accompanied her parents throughout their first European tours. In time, young Carrie experienced a life as tumultuous as her mother’s. In 1906, she was placed in a convent school in Belgium and later, another convent in Essex, England. Carrie then had a go at following her mother onto the stage and performed in England under the unbelievably mundane stage name of  Dorothy Siddons. She closely resembled her mother in appearance and her choice of dancing and acting as a career seems understandable, although she only met with mixed success.

In the early 1920s, Carrie rebooted her acting career, this time as Madeline (also Madelon) La Varre. With this exotic name she appeared with greater success, in fleshy roles on Broadway and in two films. In 1927, Carrie changed course again, leaving the stage and entering a Carmelite Convent in the USA. She finally found her calling in 1944, when she joined the US Naval Reserve, becoming one of the first women to achieve the rank of Lieutenant Commander during World War Two. An amazing transformation.

In 1947, Carrie was appointed to a senior position managing the occupational therapy clinic at Fort Custer Veteran’s Hospital at Battle Creek, Michigan, a position she held until 1950. Saharet moved to Battle Creek to be near her daughter, and for a time lived with her at Brown’s Trailer (caravan) Park.


A Saharet Family Album

Maxim P Lowe c1921 carrie rosenstamm Archibald McKenzie passport 1919 Clarice Edith Roberts
From left: Third husband Maxim P. Lowe c.1920, Daughter Caroline “Carrie” Rose c.1920, Half brother Archibald McKenzie c.1920, Saharet’s niece Clarice Roberts. c 1920.
All passport photos shown above are via Ancestry, from the US National Archives

Death in 1964

Saharet, now calling herself Clarice Saharet Lowe, was 85 years old in 1964. When alert neighbours near 41 Ivanhoe Street, Battle Creek, realised they hadn’t seen her for some time, the local Police were called to break into her house. They found her body in the bath. It was 24th of July and she died alone and probably by her own hand, because sadly, daughter Carrie had also taken her own life after a catastrophic car accident, 14 years before. Her half-brother Archibald McKenzie was by then her closest living relative.

 

41 irving - ivanhoe st Battle Creek

Above; Saharet’s modest home at 41 Ivanhoe Street, Battle Creek (now demolished). Photo courtesy of Willard Library, Battle Creek, Michigan, USA.

What sense can we make of this Australian girl who really could dance so spectacularly she developed an international reputation in just a few years? Somewhere, hopefully, someone still has the photos and scrap books that she must have kept, detailing her extraordinary life, one that must have been rich in experiences.


Note 1- Her birth certificate

Birth Cert 1.jpgAbove: Part of Paulina Clarissa Molony’s Australian birth certificate, dated 23 March, 1878.  Via Births, Deaths & Marriages, Victoria

Transcription 
Columns

2 – 23 March 1878. Rowena Parade. Town of Richmond, County of Bourke
3 – Paulina Clarissa. Not present
4 – Female
5 – Benjamin Molony. Tailor. 25. Limerick Ireland [Father’s name, age, place of birth]
6 – March 17, 1877, Melbourne Victoria [Date of marriage]
7 – Elizabeth Molony formerly Foon, 19. Ballarat Victoria. [Mother’s name, maiden name, age, place of birth]


Note 2- Saharet’s known films


Professor Julie Allen of Brigham Young University has kindly shared the following information on Saharet’s films, released in 1912-13. Intriguingly, most of these were released in Australia soon after they opened in Germany and often before they opened in the US or Britain.

Im goldenen Käfig / (In) A Golden Cage, a three-reel Oskar Messter drama that opened at West’s Palace in Melbourne on November 23, 1912 (this might be the same film as Die Tänzerin)
Unter der Maske / Behind the Mask (aka The Black Mask) at West’s in Melbourne on December 26, 1912, just seven weeks after its German premiere and a month before it opened in London as a Gaumont exclusive
Hexenfeuer / Gipsy Hate, which opened at the Tivoli Picture Theater in Bendigo, Victoria on January 27, 1913
Fürs Vaterland / For Their Country (aka On the Altar of Patriotism), premiered at Spencer’s Theater Royal in Perth, WA on February 26, 1913, more than a year before the same film would open in the US
Mimosa-san / Madame Butterfly was first screened briefly at Armadale Theater in Melbourne on February 27, 1913 before appearing in suburban and provincial theaters in Tamworth, NSW and St. Kilda, Victoria on March 1.

The German Film Portal additionally lists these films

    • Bolero c 1907
    • Auf Dem Maskenball 1910
    • La Malaguena 1910
    • La Serenada 1910
    • Terpsichore. Die Macht des Tanzes 1921.

Note 3 – Not Saharet!

A heavily tattooed French dancer called herself “Saharet” in the 1920s. She is unrelated to the subject of this account.


Note 4 – Saharet and her Ballarat-born Mother

Saharet’s mother was born Elizabeth Ah Foon in Ballarat in 1858. She lived a tumultuous life and is probably worth an entire biography of her own. The evidence is strong that she travelled to the US with Saharet, and remained a forceful presence in her daughter’s life until about 1920.

Elizabeth, later to call herself Eveline, was the oldest of a large family born in Ballarat to 19 year-old Tasmanian born Caroline Ramsay and her first husband, 24 year-old gold miner William Moy Ah Foon from Canton, China. She appears in the Ballarat Benevolent Asylum’s register as “pregnant and destitute” in September 1873 and reappears in the historical record in an authorised (but underage) marriage in 1874 (to 30 year old James Ah Fook) followed by the birth of another child (Amelia) in 1875. Thus, she had already given birth to two children before she had Paulina Clarissa – their fates are unknown.

Caroline Ramsay Emma Foon

Above: Photos of two women Elizabeth/Eveline knew well, and probably also Saharet. Left: Her mother Caroline Ramsay (Saharet’s grandmother), who died in Ballarat in 1919. Right: Emma Dinah Foon (later Lepp), Elizabeth/Eveline’s sister, born 1866, with one of her children (and thus Saharet’s aunt and cousin)
Cropped photos courtesy Mark Lepp, both taken c 1885 – 1890.

Throughout her life, Elizabeth / Eveline went to great efforts to remain anonymous, consistently obscuring her identity by repeated changes of surname – Molony, Martella, Campbell, McKenzie, De Vere and claims that she was “born at sea”, or of Scottish or French-Canadian ancestry. It was remarkably easy to do this because until the First World War, people could travel internationally without formal documents.

Julia Mellicino Moloney

Above: Part of the birth certificate of Saharet’s younger sister Julia Mallicino Moloney, born November 11, 1881. Eveline here gives her name as Elizabeth Eveline Ah Pack and no father is listed. In later life Julia took to calling herself Millicent. She died as a result of tuberculosis in New York in January 1906. Saharet took over the care of Millicent’s daughter Clarice Roberts after she died. Via Births, Deaths & Marriages, Victoria

Eveline’s motivation for the endless and confusing changes of identity can only be guessed now, but it’s most likely this was a means to control her own destiny and maintain her independence. Perhaps it also explains why she preferred the great cultural melting pot of Brooklyn New York, as her home. It is highly likely that Saharet’s part-Chinese ethnicity, combined with the fact her parents Eveline and Benjamin Molony were probably not married, explains Saharet’s reluctance to discuss her origins very honestly. In the deeply race conscious societies Saharet was having such success in, to be of mixed race background could have meant the end of her career.

Eveline Mckenzie travel to the US in 1919a

evelyn 3

Above: An edited manifest for the SS Rotterdam, arriving in New York in 1919, reflecting the changes in travel requirements after the First World War. Eveline McKenzie’s age and birthplace – “Ballard” Australia are revealed, as she must have travelled on a British passport.  Note that her trip was paid for by her daughter, Saharet, “Mrs C.S. Lowe” of New York (right hand section enlarged)  Via Ancestry, from the US National Archives

In 1899 Saharet gave by far the most comprehensive account of her life to Eugen Wolf, a journalist for the Berlin magazine Die Zukunft. It contained elements of truth, but was still liberally embellished – for example, her mother’s numerous partners were all “husbands”, and while she acknowledged she had several siblings who had died – the details were fanciful. Saharet’s real family story remained as elusive for the public as ever. 

Saharet’s motherUS patented Child's carriage is almost certainly the same Eveline/Evelyn Campbell, “the Australian Sporting Lady,” who appeared in a rowing competition with a US woman in San Francisco in April 1893. In a lengthy interview with The San Francisco Call on March 28, 1893, this Eveline revealed her daughter was on the stage, and by her comments clearly had experience of living in Melbourne. But lacking the rowing experience she claimed, she lost the competition and missed the $250 prize.  Intriguingly however, it seems she received $14,000 for a patented “child’s carriage” at about the same time.

(see Stanley P.331. Also see US patent No. 495,301 Patented Apr. 11, 1893. The author wonders if the patent payout  figure is accurate. That is the equivalent of about $400,000 today)

Even in death Elizabeth/Eveline managed to maintain fiction. When she died in Brooklyn, New York on 11 March 1936, Caroline Ramsay was acknowledged as her mother on the death certificate. However, her father was listed as “Walter Besant”, here she had chosen the name of a well known C19th novelist and historian. Her real father, William Moy Ah Foon, was never acknowledged on any documents (nor her step-father – traditional Chinese doctor, Lo Kwoi Sang.)

Elizabeth/Eveline did not maintain any connection with her extended family in Ballarat and neither did Saharet. According to Mark Lepp, a descendant of Caroline Ramsay, the family knew she had gone to America, but nothing more. Caroline waited patiently for news of her oldest daughter and grand-daughter, which never came. But it’s interesting that in far away New York, Saharet chose her grand-mother’s name – Caroline – for her only child.

                  Saharet in civvies 336-3 (jer)       Ramsay Sang Ballarat

Above Left: Saharet, on a postcard from about 1910, courtesy Jean Ritsema. Right: Caroline Sang (Ramsay) and her second husband’s headstone at Ballarat New Cemetery. She died in 1919 without knowing what had happened to her daughter and grand-daughter Saharet. Author’s Collection.
 

 

Nick Murphy, Updated June 2020


Special thanks to

  • Professor Julie Allen – Brigham Young University, Utah USA
  • Mark Lepp – Australia
  • Martin Goebel – USA
  • Jim Eldridge – Battle Creek, Michigan USA
  • Michael McCullough – Willard Library, Battle Creek, Michigan USA
  • An especially to Jean Ritsema – Jackson, Michigan, USA

References

Texts

  • Julie K Allen (2017) Divas down Under: the circulation of Asta Nielsen’s and Francesca Bertini’s films in Australian cinemas in the 1910s, Studies in Australasian Cinema, 11:2, 59-76. 
  • Wilhelm Benignus (1913) Woman’s Soul. Sonnets, Odes and Songs, p.70. Max Schmetterling, New York.(In a footnote in this book Saharet’s father is claimed to be a John Campbell.)
  • Edward Ross Dickinson (2017) Dancing in the Blood: Modern Dance and European Culture on the Eve of the First World War. Cambridge University Press.
  • Averil King (2013) Emil Nolde: Artist of the Elements. I.B.Taurus
  • Quincy Sharpe Mills (1930) Editorials, Sketches and Stories. GP Putman’s Sons
  • Hermynia Zur Mühlen (1929) The End and the Beginning: The Book of My Life.
  • Autumn Stanley (1995) Mothers and Daughters of Invention: Notes for a Revised History of Technology. P. 331, Rutgers University Press.

Unpublished manuscript

  • Barbara L Hill (1973) The Quiet Campaign. A History of the Veteran’s Hospital, Battle Creek. Second Edition. Courtesy Jean Ritsema.

Original documents sourced from

Websites

Newspapers via Biblioteka Elbląska Digital libraries federation, Poland

Newspapers.com
(NB: There are numerous US newspapers covering Saharet’s career. Not all are listed here)

  • The San Francisco Call 28 Mar 1893, Page 8
  • The Detroit Free Press, 26 April 1893, P2
  • The San Francisco Examiner 4 March 1894
  • Oakland Tribune, 6 Mar 1894 P5
  • The Los Angeles Times, April 5, 1894
  • The Garnett Journal (Kansas) November 13 1896
  • The Era (London)18 Aug 1900, P17
  • Battle Creek Enquirer July 24, 1964 
  • Battle Creek Enquirer March 12, 1947
  • Variety Feb 1, 1914

The National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • The Argus, 19 Nov 1898. A report of a Daily Mail interview with Saharet.
  • The Daily Herald, Feb 3, 1913.
  • The Catholic Press, July 14, 1927.
  • Sunday Times, Feb 14, 1909
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Jan 1938, P15
  • Numerous Australian papers covered Ike Rose’s 1913 visit. See for example, The Mail, 1 Feb, 1913

British Newspaper Archive

  • Music Hall and Theatre Review, Friday 06 July 1900, P10
 
 

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