The strange story of Maie Saqui

Maie Saqui as she appeared at the height of her fame on the London stage as a “Gaiety Girl,” c 1900. Postcard in the Author’s collection.
Below – the stereotypical Edwardes chorus girl from the play A Gaiety Girl. Public domain image by Dudley Hardy, Paris, 1896 via Wikipedia Commons.

Gaietygirl1896May Vivian Saqui was born in Fitzroy, Melbourne Australia on December 19, 1879. For a short period of time she was one of London’s celebrated “Gaiety Girls”, performing in musical comedy at George Edwardes Gaiety Theatre. Her father John Isaac Saqui (also known as John I or Jack) was a bookmaker and property speculator, later to try his hand at cigar manufacturing. Her mother Esther nee Barnett (or Stella) was the daughter of the owner of a large central Melbourne grocery store. She and John I married in 1877. At the time of May’s birth, the family home was listed as living on the corner of Nicholson and Moor Streets, Fitzroy. Five years later, they lived next door. The two fine “boom era” buildings still stand, and today they speak of the opulence and confidence of the young colony. The family were wealthy enough to be advertising for servants at the time of May’s birth.

120 and 122 Nicholson St

The very grand building at left, now No 122 Nicholson street, was built in 1862 by architect John Denny. The white building next door is “Heatherleigh”, a more traditional terrace. The Sands and McDougall directories reveal that in 1880 the Saqui family lived at 122, while by 1885 they lived at No 120. These constant moves probably reflect John I’s activities as a property speculator. Photo- Author’s Collection.

Austin Saqui at BeechworthMay’s English-born grandfather, Abraham (Austin) Saqui (1834-1889) had arrived with some of the extended family in the colony of Victoria in the mid 1850s – like so many, they were attracted by the fabulous stories of easy fortunes to be made on the goldfields. A talented musician, Austin departed for Beechworth, in the centre of the Ovens Valley goldfields almost immediately. In time, he became a Melbourne hotelier, a “flamboyant bookmaker” and dabbled in owning horses. Austin’s great breakthrough came in 1869, when his horse “Warrior” won the Melbourne Cup, at odds of 20-1, winning him almost £20,000 – a fortune at the time.

Left: Newly arrived Austin Saqui making money performing at the El Dorado Hotel in June 1857. From “The Ovens and Murray Advertiser.” June 6, 1857. Source National Library of Australia’s Trove.

John I Saqui (1855-1916) thus followed his father’s footsteps as a bookmaker, and after May’s birth, fathered several more children – Barnett “Baron” Napoleon (1881-1967), Gladys Mignonett (1884-c1919) and Hazel Eileen (1887-1975). Another daughter, Phyllis, died in infancy. By the time Hazel was born at Zabulon Terrace in Drummond Street in 1887, John I was describing himself as a cigar-maker, although he was also still a bookmaker and the constant move of addresses also suggests he was still speculating on properties.

Zabulon Terrace

The spectaular Zabulon Terrace in Drummond Street, Carlton where the Saquis lived when Hazel was born in 1887. The family lived at No 22, the unaltered building on the left. But by 1890, they lived over the road at an almost identical terrace at No 27. Photo – author’s Collection.

From the late 1880s, May and sister Gladys appeared in concerts under the tutelage of a relative, well known Melbourne dance teacher Miss Julia Green. May earned a name for herself as a talented dancer before she was ten – even in 1888, Melbourne Punch noted “this little lady really deserved the encore she received” with her performance in Dance Du Nuit. The family valued music and dance, and May was also to become a talented violinist. By May 1892, at the age of only 13, she had apparently done with school and moved onstage for good, joining the cast of the Australia tour of the London Gaiety Company, in Faust up to Date, (choosing to spell her name “Maie” from this time on). This brought her into the company of numerous talented English performers – Maud Hobson and Grace Wixon amongst others. From 1893 she appeared in pantomimes including Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and then Djin-Djin. Perhaps the highlight was performing  in the first Melbourne run of Trilby in 1896, a play based on a new novel by George du Maurier. May’s high-kicking dance in Act 2 was particularly memorable. The anti-Semitic theme of the play (the evil manipulator of the heroine is Svengali, a archetypical Jewish villain of the Fagin, Oliver Twist type) was apparently something May could live with or was used to. 


Click to enlarge.
Left: Maie appears in the first Melbourne outing of Faust Up to Date in 1892, with some of George Edwardes’ visiting London troupe, including Maud Hobson and Grace Wixon. “Lorgnette”, Tuesday 3 May 1892. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
Centre: Maie performing at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre, at the age of 16. “The Australasian”, 30 March, 1895. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
Right: John Saqui advertising his services. (He was a little hopeful in selling his father’s “gout cure.” In 1889 Austin had taken a fatal overdose of laudanum to manage the pain of his gout) “The Sportsman,” Tuesday 9 Jan 1894. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The pantomime Djin-Djin, The Japanese Bogie Man, A Fairy Tale from Old Japan, opened in Melbourne on December 26, 1895. These screen grabs are from the full program held by the State Library of Victoria – which can be viewed online. Maie Saqui is listed in the program, together with numerous other well known actors of the time, including Carrie Moore. Written by Bert Royle and J.C.Williamson, with music by Leon Caron and with strong Australian themes, the show was hugely popular and according to Ian Dicker, the audience refused to leave on the final night of the Melbourne season.

Unfortunately, at the same time her career was taking off, Australia and particularly the otherwise booming city of Melbourne had slumped into a severe depression. A number of Australian banks closed between 1890 and 1893, numerous businesses shut down and scores of land speculators were ruined. Unemployment surged while the only public works to continue was the building of Melbourne’s much needed sewerage system. It has been suggested that John I Saqui lost all his money at this time, and indeed, given his business interests, it would have been unusual if he did not take a hit of some sort. But there was another even more serious reason why his business closed.

Truth on saqui attackSome time in 1890, John I was assaulted as he arrived home to Drummond Street. (The illustration at right is from the “Truth” newspaper account some thirty years later) He was found unconscious at his front door – he had been struck on the head. It was thought this was part of an organised campaign to rob wealthy bookmakers. Although he recovered and returned to work, his mental health failed over the next six years. In August 1896 Stella took the heart-wrenching decision to have John I admitted to the Yarra Bend Asylum. He had become seriously delusional. Stella blamed his state on the old injury to his head, and a note from a doctor she consulted (still in the asylum records) seems to concur. We can imagine the anguish the tight-knit family must have felt and one wonders just how bad John had become before Stella was forced to have him hospitalised.

In May 1897, at the end of the run of Trilby, it was announced that Maie was heading to England. She travelled as a “23 year old” on the RMS Orizba.  By giving that age, there were fewer questions to answer than if acknowledging she had yet to turn 18. Good fortune and good connections were with her. Within weeks of her arrival in London she was performing, and soon had a contract with George Edwardes of the Gaiety Theatre. It was claimed Grace Wixon helped mentor her. In July 1898 Stella and her three other children set sail for England on the RMS Ormuz, while John I’s mother Julia took up residence for a time at 27 Drummond Street. (This also suggests the family had weathered the 1890s crash.)


Left: The Messenger Boy cast, half way through its 1900 run, from “The Standard,” June 14, 1900. Via Newspapers.com.
Right: Maie – about the time she arrived in London and began work for Edwardes. From “The Black & White Illustrated Budget”,1899.Via the Internet Archive.

She proved to be spectacularly successful in Edwardes’ musicals. She notably performed in The Geisha (1897), The Messenger Boy (1900) with Maud Hobson, The Toreador (1901) and Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury (1902). Melbourne newspapers enthusiastically reported on her London performances, she was after all, a local girl. For example, on October 13 1899, “Table Talk” reported that “Miss Saqui’s… dainty dancing so delighted the patrons of ‘A Gaiety Girl’ at the Gaiety Theatre…  Some two years ago… she submitted her credentials to that excellent judge, Mr. George Edwardes, who being more than satisfied with them, secured her services for three years, and she at once stepped, or bounded, into public favour….”

Both Maie’s sisters Gladys and Hazel performed on stage for Edwardes, appearing in musicals at the Gaiety between 1902 and 1910. Gladys in particular gained publicity, partly because she was thought to closely resemble Maie.

Left: 13 year old Gladys Saqui performing on a local tour in Victoria, with Elsie Golding (Alf Goulding’s half sister). “The Bendigo Independent,” Oct 5, 1897. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.
Right: 18 year old Gladys Saqui – a new performer at the Gaiety Theatre, introduced to the public by “The Sketch,” December 3, 1902. Author’s collection. Copyright held by Illustrated London News Group.

In 1904 Maie married Arthur Hope Travers, a Captain in the Grenadier Guards who had seen service in the Boer War. She chose to retire from the stage. A daughter was born of the union in 1905. Sadly Maie’s health began to fade soon after. She was reported to be very ill in early 1907, and she died in March 1907, aged only 27. Travers eventually remarried and served with distinction again in the First World War. Maie’s English stage career had lasted just six years. Gladys too, had a short career on stage – less than ten years.


When their mother Stella died in England in 1946, she left an estate of £9345 to her surviving daughter, Hazel. Hazel had married British actor Nelson Keys in 1908, after her own brief experience on stage. Hazel and Nelson raised a family of five boys, most of whom entered the British film industry with great success. Hazel died in 1975.

John I Saqui died in the Yarra Bend Asylum in October 1916. He had been there for twenty years.


Notes:

  1. Her name?
    May or Mary? Her 1879 birth certificate is quite clear. She was born May and she appears as May in the birth certificates of her siblings. She chose “Maie” as a stage name.
    Similarly, Barnett was the family name of Esther (Stella) Saqui, not Barrett. Esther’s father, owner of a well known Russell Street grocery was named Barnett Barnett. He can be found in numerous mid C19th Melbourne newspaper accounts. When Barnett died in 1887, he left the bulk of his estate, including a significant property portfolio, to daughter Esther (Stella).
  2. Sarah Saqui, The Psyche
    Sarah Saqui, a sister of Maie’s grandfather, was the courtesan who entertained Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh on the first royal visit to Australia in 1867. Writer Steve Harris specifically names Saqui as the Duke’s main Australian consort – she was also known as “the Psyche”. Contemporary papers like “The Truth” also stated this. She is reputed to have described the Duke as “the meanest man she had ever met.” The Duke’s detective John Christie alluded to the Duke’s many amorous pursuits in Melbourne’s red light district in his notes, although he did not identify Saqui by name.Sarah Saqui was apparently also a bartender and a well known singer. She married three times and may have lived out her days in the United States. We have no way of knowing whether Maie had met or even knew about her notorious relative.

 

Nick Murphy
May 2019


Further Reading

  • John Paddy Carstairs (1941) Bunch, a Biography of Nelson Keys. Hurst and Blackett
    In his biography of his father (nicknamed “Bunch”), Carstairs states that his mother’s name was Hazel Eileen nee Fuller and that she was of Irish stock.
  • Ian Dicker (1974) J.C.W. A Short Biography of James Cassius Williamson.  The Elizabeth Tudor Press
  • Black & White Illustrated Budget Magazine (1899). London, Black and White Pub. Co. Digitized by Smithsonian Libraries.
  • Steve Harris (2018) The Prince and the Assassin: Australia’s First Royal Tour and Portent of World Terror. Melbourne Books.
  • John Lahey (1993) Damn you, John Christie! State Library of Victoria.
  • J. P. Wearing (2013) The London Stage 1890-1899: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Scarecrow Press.
  • J. P. Wearing (2013) The London Stage 1900-1909: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Scarecrow Press.
  • Victorian Heritage Register 122 NICHOLSON STREET FITZROY, Yarra City WORLD HERITAGE ENVIRONS AREA
  • Footlights Notes 1994+ wordpress – Gladys Saqui
  • Winners of the Melbourne Cup at Races.com.au
  • Public Record Office Victoria. Mental Health Records

National Library of Australia- Trove
In addition to the newspapers hotlinked in the text, the following may be of interest:

  • “The Kyneton Observer”  THE COMPULSORY CLAUSE THE EDUCATION ACT.  26 Jun 1883. Comment: John Saqui finds himself in trouble for not sending Maie to school.
  • “The Age”  Sat 20 Jul 1895
    Comment: Stella Saqui thanks members of the public for their interest in John’s health.
  • “The Truth” The Voice behind Saqui, 10 May 1925
    Comment: A moderately accurate account of the assault on John Saqui, that appeared ten years after his death.

 

 

Norma Whalley – the Mysterious Australian “Gaiety Girl”

Norma Whalley is shown here at the height of her fame as an actress in the US and England. Big hair and extravagant headwear seems to have been the trademark of a “Gaiety Girl”. But we are no closer to knowing who she really was today than audiences were in 1900. Postcard in the author’s collection.

Norma (or occasionally Normah) Whalley first appeared on the stage in New York in a minor role in the play In Town, in September 1897, a member of the Gaiety Theatre Company, brought over from the UK by George Edwardes. Edwardes had already had great success with other musicals – in particular A Gaiety Girl in 1893-4. Under-studying for Marie Studholme, Norma appeared in a leading role soon after arriving, when Studholme became unable to perform due to “lameness.” The term “Gaiety Girl” was to become a popular phrase to describe some of the young, glamorous British female performers, most often members of Edwardes’ company at some time. Like Norma, the Gaiety Girls could sing and dance, and were adept at “light comedy.” All presented as well-mannered and well dressed, purportedly representing modern womanhood, and they apparently dazzled audiences wherever they went. Edwardes seems to have chosen his female cast members deliberately to have that effect. His pioneering efforts to establish musical comedy were successful and helped establish the genre we know today.

Of her past, Whalley was always vague. In 1899 she was to claim that she had toured South Africa soon after the Jameson Raid (January 1896) and met President Kruger. He was a “squatty, ugly old man…devoid of manners.” Unfortunately, its impossible to track anything of her life before 1897.

 

 

Left: George Edwardes c1900. Source; James Jupp (1923) “The Gaiety stage door; thirty years’ reminiscences of the theatre”. Via the Internet Archive. Centre: Marie Studholme c 1900. Postcard in the author’s collection. Right: Melbourne born Maud Hobson who also travelled with the Gaiety troupe to New York in 1897. From “The Sketch”, July 21 1899.

Born in the mid to late 1870s, Norma Whalley was supposedly the daughter of the “late Henry Octavius Whalley, a well-known physician of Sydney.” Other accounts state it was Melbourne.  But equally likely, it was neither. Despite this claim being repeated ad nauseam in biographies of her (all of which cross-reference to each other or the same few newspaper sources), there is simply no evidence of a person called Henry Octavius Whalley living in Melbourne or Sydney in the mid to late nineteenth century. Not only did Australian newspapers of the time not mention him, but census records and shipping records make no mention of him either. And most importantly, no one of this name appears in any of the usually reliable Sands directories for Sydney and Melbourne  produced between 1860 and 1900. And there are just nine recorded births of a child called Norma in Sydney between 1870 and 1880 –  and just four females born with the surname Whalley – but none called Norma Whalley. And there is, similarly, no matching child in the Melbourne birth records. The usually comprehensive history of Australian actors by Hal Porter (produced in 1965 – when many of his subjects were still alive) provides no information.

Norma Whalley in about 1900. Postcard in the author’s collection

Norma Whalley’s identity seems to have been deliberately obscured. There is nothing to verify that she was Australian at all, except her word. Perhaps like Saharet she wished to obscure a humble birth, or maybe an impetuous marriage gone wrong or an embarrassing parent. What better way to stay in command of one’s destiny than create an interesting but deceased father on the other side of the world! Perhaps the confusion also relates to our understanding of nationality today as opposed to then. In the late nineteenth century, a person born in the colony of New South Wales was just as likely to think of themselves as British – Australia not becoming self-governing until 1901.

After her successful season in New York, in January 1898 she returned to London on the S.S. St Louis with Studholme and some of the other Gaiety company members. Later contracted to George Lederer, she was back in New York again by March 1899, performing in The Man in the Moon, “a spectacular fantasy in three acts.” It ran successfully for some months at the New York Theatre, although not everyone was enthused with its four-hour running time or her performance (see Brooklyn Life, 10 June 1899 for example). Her involvement in this production came to a sudden end when she was dismissed for breaking character and chatting to a friend or admirer in the audience, during a performance in late September. But within a month, she had teamed up with Walter Jones, a popular “tramp “comedian, touring cities in the US. The partnership was both personal and professional, but it too came to a sudden end in July 1900 when Jones suddenly left to marry a wealthy widow. Nevertheless, her popularity was at its height by mid 1900 and for the first time she mentioned her Australian birth to inquisitive US journalists.


Norma with Walter Jones, Los Angeles Times, 1 April, 1900.  Her matrimonial affairs attracted considerable press attention. At right Norma in The San Francisco Examiner, 8 July 1900. Via Newspapers.com

Hoyts 1900

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 School Girl
Norma Whalley in “The School Girl,” with G.P Huntley as Sir Ormesby St. Leger. The musical ran at  London’s Prince of Wales Theatre from May 1903. Postcard in the Author’s Collection.

With the publicity surrounding her 1904 marriage, the Australian dimension to her story was finally picked up by the Australian press. Unfortunately, these accounts were not well researched or accurate – it was now that the story of the “late Henry Octavius Whalley, the well-known physician of Sydney” was introduced and gained currency. It was also claimed that she had once been a popular comedienne in Sydney. Perhaps she was, but it’s hard to believe there are no existing records to confirm this.

Following her marriage to Clarke, she did not retire from the stage, as Australian newspapers predicted, but she did become more selective with roles. For example, she appeared as Mrs. Fergusson, the wicked husband-stealer, in W. Somerset Maugham‘s new comedy “Penelope” in 1909 and in J.B. Fagan’s play Bella Donna, in 1916. In 1915 British society magazine Tatler reported she was going into nursing to support the war effort, accompanied by a serious picture of Norma in a nurse’s uniform. This may explain why she disappeared for the later part of World War One. The British Journal of Nursing also reported her training as a nurse at Guy’s Hospital.

Above: Norma Whalley and Graham Browne in ‘Penelope.’ “Now what does all this mean?”she demands. Postcard signed by Whalley in the author’s collection. Dover Street Studios. 

Between 1920 and 1926 she appeared in regular supporting roles in at least 16 British silent films. Women and Diamonds, made in 1924 with Victor McLaglen and Madge Stuart, appears to be the last of these. She later appeared in a few small character parts in the first years of sound film. We can only guess, but it seems that film work was an after-thought to a successful stage career, not something she aspired to do for the rest of her life. By the time she traveled to Cairo to appear in the 1934 Michael Balcon comedy-adventure The Camels are Coming, she was almost 60, and had been performing for almost 40 years. Her persona was well and truly British, as her role in this film demonstrates. Listen to her voice in this scene, which takes place outside the famous Shepheard’s Hotel. Norma, as a stereotypical British tourist, is escorting her daughter (Peggy Simpson) around the sights of Cairo when she runs into a bogus guide.

If she ever was Australian born, one would not guess so from this voice.

One of Norma Whalley’s final roles in the Gaumount British adventure-comedy, “The Camels Are Coming “(1934). Source: VHS copy in the author’s collection.

Sir Percival Clarke died suddenly in 1936. Norma, now Lady Clarke, remarried in 1940, this time to John Beauchamp Salter. When she died at her home in Grosvenor Square in London, in October 1954, she left a significant estate. There were no children from any of her marriages. A few reports in later life and British obituaries on her death noted her Australian birth. However these were more concerned to comment that Lady Clarke had “married well,” like some other Gaiety Girls. There were no Australian obituaries.

As Lady Percival Clarke, Norma visited Australia in late 1938. Although she made some comments on the Australian sense of dress, attitude to tipping and the hair raising speed of Melbourne taxis, she made no reference to being Australian born.

        
Other Gaiety Girls who “did well” for themselves in marriage.
Left: Zena Dare, who after marriage became Lady Maurice Brett.
Centre – New York born 
Edna May who married millionaire Oscar Lewisohn.
Right Denise Orme who became the Duchess of Leinster. Postcards in the author’s collection.

A British Pathe newsreel from 1946 includes footage of some of the Gaiety Girls later in life, including Norma. See it here

Nick Murphy
Updated October 2019

Notes:
The story that Norma Whalley had an early marriage to actor Charles Verner (really Charles E.V. Finlay 1848-1926) appears in a few accounts in Californian papers after her 1904 marriage to Percival Clarke. Verner himself appears to have claimed so. Despite the significant age difference it is possible. However, so far, there is no supporting evidence of this and it may just be a muddled-up account based around Verner’s real 1878 marriage in Melbourne to actress Mary Hendrickson, which ended in a very messy US divorce in 1888.

The mystery of Norma’s origins remained well into the 20th century. Norma’s mother Mary died at her cottage in Church Rd, Whitstable in June 1932. The Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald reported her death, and the fact she was the widow of the “late Henry Octavius Whalley” of Melbourne Australia.

Further Reading

Via Newspapers.com

  • “Thinks Krugers Manners Bad.” Chicago Tribune, 30 Dec 1899, Sat, Page 2

  • “Hoyt’s A Rag Baby” Advertisment. Butte Daily Post, 15 May 1900

  •  “Walter Jones and Norma Whalley at the Orpheum.” Los Angeles Times, 1 April, 1900. 

  • “Miss Norma Whalley has no tears to shed.” The San Francisco Examiner, 8 July 1900

Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • “London Personal Notes”  The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA)  Tue 20 Sep 1904  Page 7 
  • “Our Well-Dressed Women “Amazes” English Visitor” The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld.) Tue 22 Nov 1938 Page 1 

Other Media

Texts, including those via Internet Archive

  • The British Journal of Nursing, January 1915
  • Hal Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby
  • “The Editor’s Chat.” The Broadway Weekly 26 May 1904
  • James Jupp (1923) The Gaiety stage door; thirty years’ reminiscences of the theatre. With an introduction by Mabel Russell Philipson.  London, Jonathan Cape. Digitized copy –  University of Toronto
  • Lewis Clinton Strang (1907) Famous stars of light opera. L.C. Page & company, Boston. Digitized copy – Google. From the collections of University of California
  • San Francisco Dramatic Review 1899 Volume 1-2
    Digitized copy – California State Library Califa/LSTA Grant
  • The Wasp 1900, Volume 43 Digitized copy – California State Library Califa/LSTA Grant