Margaret Vyner – a very modern Australian woman

Above: Margaret Vyner C 1940. Photo enlarged from a very small Gaumont British card, possibly a cigarette card, otherwise unmarked. From the author’s collection.

Margaret Leila Vyner was born in the large northern New South Wales town of Armidale, in 1914, to Robert Vyner and Ruby nee Nicholson. In the 1930s, Margaret Vyner would develop a reputation for stylish fashion and glamour, in addition to appearing in films and on stage. She remained a perennial favourite with the Australian press for many years. As an adult she was above average height, standing about 172 cms (or 5’8″), and had blue eyes and fair hair. She was well-read, witty and beautiful.

Her father, Robert Vyner, was manager on a pastoral station near Armidale, the oldest son of Robert Thomas Vyner (1858-1930), who had built a successful pastoral dynasty after moving to the area in the 1890s. Margaret was the only child of the union and it would seem the small family had moved to inner Sydney by the early 1920s after Robert Vyner ran into financial difficulties. Margaret attended Ascham School, a private girls’ school that pioneered and still follows an innovative teaching approach known as the Dalton Plan. She then attended Miss Jean Cheriton‘s very well known finishing school “Doone” at Edgecliffe. In later years she acknowledged how much she owed Miss Cheriton. By 1930 she was performing in amateur theatricals at Doone, while newspapers presented her as an eligible young woman, doing interesting things about town, as well as modelling clothes and often with something witty to say to journalists.

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Above: Margaret Vyner appeared regularly in Sydney newspapers in the early 1930s  – for example – left; The Sydney Daily Pictorial, 25 October 1930, right; The Sydney Sun 21 Sept, 1930. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

By the end of 1930 she had made a remarkably easy transition into some chorus work for J.C. Williamson’s in Sydney – performing in When Knights were Bold, followed by a part as one of the chorus of “English girls” in a re-run of the popular musical Florodora – and then in Blue Roses, Hold My Hand and Our Miss Gibbs – all being performed up and down the eastern Australian coastShe was “beautiful”, “decorative”, “charming” and “vivacious” reported reviewers. Although not yet 18, she was also doing well enough to be offered advertising work for “Charmousan” powders and creams. By early 1934, on the back of all this local success, she had made the decision to travel to London and she departed at the end of March. Her biographer Kate Dunn states she left the Orsova in Naples and then made her way overland to Paris, where she was picked up as a mannequin very quickly by French fashion designer Jean Patou. Hal Porter suggested she worked her way up from “general dog’s body” for Patou whilst learning French and dressmaking at night. Perhaps both accounts are true. It was the Australian paper Smith’s Weekly that carried many of the reports of her work as a mannequin in 1934-35, Margaret being the author of many of these accounts herself. Did she really pioneer Australian women not wearing a hat to formal events? It seems possible!

 

Above: Two photographs of Margaret Vyner from the Fairfax archive of glass plate negatives held by the National Library of Australia. Full resolution can be seen here  and here  These photos appear to have been taken shortly before her departure for Europe in 1934.

Smiths Weekly 1935

Above: Smith’s Weekly article by Margaret Vyner 25 May, 1935. Presumably, the headline was added by an editor. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Margaret returned to Australia in December 1935, reportedly for a summer holiday. In early 1936 she won a small role in The Flying Doctor, being made by the fledgling Australian film company National Productions, directed by British actor/director Miles Mander and starring US import Charles Farrell. While some of the dialogue is well written, today there is the distinct impression the film was cobbled together in a great rush. Melbourne’s The Argus was amongst those not impressed, their reviewer commenting; “it is unlikely that Charles Farrell’s episodic wanderings in the Australian outback will appeal strongly to non-Australian audiences…”

Margaret Vyner’s short and forgettable role in the film is as an unhappy wife – Betty. Eric Colman, on the other hand, does a very memorable job as her nasty husband.

Flying Dr 1936 screen grab

Above: Screen grab from “The Flying Doctor” (1936) , showing Eric Colman (brother of Hollywood’s Ronald Colman) Charles Farrell and Margaret Vyner. This short cricket sequence is easily found online, as it also features Don Bradman in his only film role, as himself. Source; National Film and Sound Archive. (The entire film is also held by the NFSA)

Whilst in Australia, Miles Mander went out of his way to be an affable visitor, making himself available for interviews and telling the Australian press all the things they liked to hear. These included his observation that Australian men were at least twenty-five percent “better developed” physically than Englishmen. British scriptwriter J.O.C Orton added his own tribute, commenting that there was a strong belief in England that “the most beautiful girls in the world were to be found in Australia… Mary Maguire and Margaret Vyner were splendid examples of Australian girlhood.” 

The Age 3 Oct 1936

Above: The Age 3 October 1936. Although Vyner’s part was minor, her local fame saw her headlined with the two leading players in Australian advertisements for “The Flying Doctor”. Source Newspapers.com

At the end of April 1936, Margaret packed up and headed overseas again, this time travelling on the Matson liner Mariposa for California. She may have been encouraged by Mander to “try her luck” in Hollywood, because he appears to have told Mary Maguire and Jocelyn Howarth the same thing and was about to move there himself. But Margaret Vyner didn’t stay there for long.  She later explained that she had been offered a test at Universal, but said; “I‘d hate to feel I had to spend my life there …  never quite sure of good parts. So I turned (the contract) down and felt even more pleased with myself for being able to resist it.” She arrived in London again in July 1936.

During 1936 she gained some attention for sometimes using Michael as a modelling name. She explained that she had done this because she didn’t want to be known in Paris as Marguerite – or some variation of Margaret. So she chose the name Michel – which became Michael. At about the same time, at least one newspaper suggested she was following the influence of Marlene Dietrich , who had famously dressed as a man in the 1930 film Morocco. In the following photos from Australia’s The Home magazine perhaps Margaret was enjoying making a statement. She almost certainly knew it was technically still illegal for women to wear trousers in France. The law was finally removed in 2013.

Vyner in Home mag 2 Aug 1937

Above: Margaret Vyner in “The Home”, Vol 18, No 8, 1937. The text accompanying claims she was on the way to La Touquet, a French seaside town. Source; National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Margaret always claimed she had seen future husband Hugh Williams perform in Australia in 1927 when he was on the final tour of the Dion Boucicault Company. The couple met in person some time in 1937 and in early 1938 they travelled together to the US with a British cast to perform in the Frederick Lonsdale play Once is EnoughThey were soon in a relationship; Hugh Williams’ first marriage to Gwynne Whitby having come to an end several years before. By this time, Margaret had made an appearance in British films – including Sensation with John LodgeMidnight Menace with Charles Farrell again and Carol Reed‘s Climbing High. Hugh Williams’ many films of the late 1930s included Wuthering Heights, made in Hollywood in late 1938 (with Miles Mander and pretend-Australian Merle Oberon in the cast). Margaret modelled Norman Hartnell‘s fashion collection in North America at the same time it was filmed.

Margaret had a long tradition of providing witty commentary to the press. One famous example occurred in 1939, when after modelling clothes in the US, she told British journalists; “Americans are slaves to fashion. They blindly follow a lead without considering whether their clothes suit them. They are far less individualistic than English women.” But she could also make jokes – at her own expense. And in 1950 she described New York as “Gay, fantastic, but, oh, so expensive.” She had hoped to buy clothes while there, but found they were “expensive beyond belief. What makes it harder, is that the loveliest department stores stay open at night and lure me in while Hugh (Williams) is at the theatre”.

Margaret Vyner as Mary Stevens in “Midnight Menace” 1937. The man on the phone is right, it is dangerous! She soon gets captured by the (heavily accented) middle-european international arms dealers who are intent on starting a war. Author’s collection.

The_Montreal Gazette_Fri__Apr_14__1939_

Above: Margaret Vyner appearing in person at Henry Morgan’s in Montreal. “The Montreal Gazette”, 14 April 1939. Via Newspapers.com

Unfortunately, back in Australia, Margaret’s parents marriage came to a very public end in the late 1930s, and the divorce and subsequent arguments over support payments were dragged out in excruciating detail in almost every Sydney newspaper. Robert Vyner was an oil company salesman by 1938, and apparently he felt hard pressed to support ex-wife Ruby, as well as his new wife Irma. In May 1940, Ruby scraped together enough money for a fare and sailed to England on the Strathnaver, on what was the ship’s final voyage before being converted to a troopship. Like Margaret, she never returned.

Vyner and greyhounds
Above: “The Australian Women’s Weekly”, 18 March 1939. A stunning photo of Margaret Vyner at the height of her popularity. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove. 

Mississippi paper report of wedding dressMargaret and Hugh Williams married on 21 June 1940. Kate Dunn’s quite moving collection of wartime letters between the couple (Always and Always, Wartime Letters of Hugh and Margaret Williams) gives some idea of the depth of their devotion. Dunn’s book also reproduces a well known photo from the wedding. In it, the couple appear to glow in a burst of sunlight, having apparently just stepped out of a darkened chapel. Margaret wrote of the wedding; “It was such a desperate time for England and France but so glorious for Hugh and Margaret.” Hugh (or Tam as he was nick-named) was already in uniform and the British had just evacuated most of their army from Dunkirk. These were very dark days for Britain.

Left:  An artist’s (fairly accurate) impression of Margaret Vyner’s wedding dress, as reported by the US paper “The McComb Daily Journal”, Mississippi, 6 August 1940. Perhaps it got such widespread publicity because it was seen as unusual. Via Newspapers.com

 

Margaret Vyner’s and Hugh Williams’ wartime letters provide an extraordinary insight into the stress of war on a newly married couple, who were deeply in love and had much in common. Hugh Williams somewhat reluctantly joined the British Army in 1939, because he felt it was the right thing to do. For the next five years he and Margaret lived largely separate lives, as did so many wartime couples. It is a testament to Margaret Vyner’s character that she maintained a cordial relationship with Williams’ first wife Gwynne Whitby, and helped care for the two daughters of that marriage, while maintaining her own career and driving cars for the home service. In 1942 she and Hugh welcomed their own son, Hugo and in 1946, another son, Simon. A third child, Pollyanna was born in 1950.

Margaret Vyner 1940

Above: Margaret Vyner entertaining Australian soldiers, newly arrived in London in June 1940. Via State Library of Victoria. 

Kate Dunn, Hugh Williams’ granddaughter and editor of their wartime correspondence, comments on how difficult the postwar period was for the young family. By 1946 Hugh Williams found he had lost his currency, and he struggled to re-establish himself on the stage and screen. Margaret was also making fewer appearances. In 1950, Hugh was declared a bankrupt and to deal with the crisis, the couple decided to turn to writing their own plays. Their partnership was, fortunately, a great success with audiences. Their first play was Plaintiff in a Pretty Hat and eight more followed. Two were made into films – The Grass is Greener (1960) and The Flip Side (1967), while the musical Charlie Girl ran for over 2,000 performances at London’s Adelphi Theatre. Their success as a writing team restored their fortunes.

Journalist Lynne Bell, reporting from London for The Sydney Morning Herald in early December 1969 (and ironically, only a few days before Williams sudden death), observed that despite some criticism of their work, “…the Williams’ ingredients of love and marriage, within a safe middle-class structure, continue to draw the crowds.” Bell noted that during 1967, three of their plays were running in the West End at the same time. Hugh’s obituary in The Guardian stated that their plays “though not fashionable, angry or sordid, gave civilized pleasure and had a great deal of theatrical skill”. 

Dec 30 1959
Above: Hugh Williams and Margaret Vyner in a feature on their life and collaboration for “The Australian Women’s Weekly”, 30 December, 1959. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Margaret Vyner died in October 1993. Beyond their own body of work, Margaret and Hugh’s legacy has also been through a creative dynasty shared with their children and many of their grandchildren. Simon Williams is an actor, as was Polly Williams (1950-2004). Hugo Williams is a poet and writer. Grand children Tam Williams, Amy Williams and Kate Dunn, are actors and great-granddaughter Lily Dizdar is a director and writer.

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Above: Margaret Vyner’s signature c 1939. Author’s collection.

 

Note 1
Before meeting Hugh Williams, the press associated Margaret Vyner romantically with several men. The question of a romance with Charles Farrell was the topic of gossip in 1936 after The Flying Doctor but Margaret categorically denied it and Farrell remained married to Virginia Valli until her death in 1968. There is no evidence to support the claim except that they acted together in another film.

Note 2
It’s regularly claimed that Cole Porter included a reference to Margaret Vyner in the lyrics of the song “You’re the top”, from the musical Anything Goes. However, she is not mentioned in the original lyrics. As the play was written in 1934, when she was still in Australia or Paris, the reference to Vyner could only have been added in one of the many later versions of the song, probably after 1937. Unfortunately, so far, this writer cannot find a later version of the song that includes the reference to Vyner.

 

 

Nick Murphy
September 2019

 

Further Reading

Online footage

Texts

  • Kate Dunn (Ed) (1995) Always and Always; Wartime Letters of High and Margaret Williams. John Murray.
  • Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British film. Methuen/BFI
  • Hal Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby
  • Hugo Williams (2010) Dock Leaves. Faber and Faber
  • Angela Woollacott (2001) To Try her fortune in London. Australian Women, Colonialism and Modernity. Oxford University Press

Digital resources