Anton Walbrook and the Courtney Affair

Birdie Courtney, the mother of AW’s fiancee, in 1915

On Sunday 23 October 1938 an ‘eighteen-year-old girl’ named Maude Courtney announced to the press that she and Walbrook – whom she had known for three months – were engaged to be married. She then withdrew the statement, issuing a denial of their engagement, before announcing it again a few hours later. It was stated that official notice of their intention to marry had been submitted to St Pancras Registry Office, but within 48 hours the engagement was called off again, this time for good. What on earth was going on? And why did Maude’s mother take such a prominent role in the story? As both mother and daughter belonged to Charles B Cochran’s famous company of ‘Young Ladies’, some background may help.

Fannie Barbara Birdie Coplans was born in Canterbury in 1891, the daughter of Russian emigres from Poland named Koplanski. No occupation was given in the 1911 census and she seems to have made her debut under the stage name of Birdie Courtney in Charles B. Cochran’s revue More at the Ambassadors Theatre in June 1915, from which the photograph at the top was taken. She caught the eye of both critics and audiences, and was soon featuring prominently in the press, as well as having her portrait taken by notable society photographers such as E.O. Hoppé

Photograph of ‘Birdie Courtney’ by E.O. Hoppé from The Tatler (16 February 1916), taken while she was performing in More.
Another photograph of Birdie, this time by Bertrand Park, from The Tatler (19 April 1916)

Having been singled out from a large line-up of chorus girls for attention, it was natural that Birdie would be offered a more prominent role, and she moved from the Ambassador to the Comedy Theatre to play a number of colourful parts in Half Past Eight.

Photograph of ‘Birdie Courtney’ by E.O. Hoppé from The Sketch (31 May 1916), showing her in the butterfly costume worn in Half Past Eight.

Evidently the press were interested in Birdie in more ways than one, for on 22 July 1916 she married Mr Randal Charlton, a novelist member of the Daily Mirror‘s editorial staff, at the church of Our Lady and St Edward, Chiswick. His best man was Horatio Bottomley MP and it was quite a society wedding, with MPs and show-business personalities among the guests. Charlton (whose real name was Lister) was the author of novels such as Mave (1906) and The Virgin Widow (1908) and had been a devoted fan of music hall star Marie Lloyd. Their daughter Maude was born eight months later, on 24 March 1917. Two sons followed, Warwick in 1918 and Frederick in 1928. The latter was only three years old when Randal Charlton died in 1931, by which time Birdie had established a reputation as a writer of short stories.

Birdie in 1920, photographed by Malcolm Arbuthnot, from The Bystander (5 May 1920)

At some point Maude followed her mother onto the stage: although newspapers described her as a ‘London dancer’ and ‘one of Charles B. Cochran’s “Young Ladies”’, she seems to have worked under a stage name, doubtless to avoid confusion with the well-known American vaudeville performer Maude Courtney (1884-1959), who was a regular feature in London music halls during this period, often appearing alongside her husband ‘Mr. C’ – Finlay Currie, who later co-starred with AW in 49th Parallel and Saint Joan. It is therefore not easy to trace details of any of her stage appearance, or work out where she might have met AW. He was, however, just about to launch his theatrical career in Britain with Design for Living and had been meeting with actors, producers, theatre managers and performers since his arrival in the UK the previous January. Although Cochran’s association with dancing girls and variety shows might be taken as implying a certain frivolity, he was a brilliant showman and took his work seriously. He had gone to see Max Reinhardt’s Oedipus Rex at the Circus Schumann in Berlin, and – impressed by his imaginative use of the vast space – persuaded Reinhardt to collaborate in a staging of The Miracle in London in 1912, at which the huge Olympia hall was transformed into a medieval cathedral. Cochran had a shrewd eye for picking out stars, and worked with the likes of Evelyn Laye, Jessie Matthews, Diana Manners, Gertrude Lawrence, Noel Coward and Leonard Massine during the interwar period, as well as collaborating with Diaghilev and Oliver Messel while producing the Ballet Russes. Making no distinction between high culture and popular entertainment, Cochran staged everything from Faust to Houdini, wild west rodeos to Eugene O’Neill.

Looking rather un-Victorian, Anna Neagle wearing a striking dress by Doris Zinkeisen in The Little Damozel (Wilcox, 1933) – a film that is now sadly lost

Anna Neagle, with whom AW had co-starred in Victoria the Great (1937) and Sixty Glorious Years (1938), started her theatrical career as one of Cochran’s chorus girls. Known then as Marjorie Robertson, she had worked her way up from being a dancer and understudy for Jessie Matthews to a leading role in Stand Up and Sing (1931). Perhaps AW’s meeting with Cochran’s company came through Neagle?

Reporters seeking a statement from Walbrook about the surprise engagement were to be disappointed, as inquirers who called at his house in Holne Chase were turned away at the door by one of the servants, who told them he was ‘out of town’. Another member of the Courtney family was willing to talk, however, and told reporters that the couple were going into the country until their marriage, later this month, after which a friend was lending them a yacht on which to take a four-week honeymoon. Maude regarded Walbrook as ‘quite the most romantic person in the world and quite the shyest.’

AW in 1938. Promotional postcard around the time of ‘Design for Living’

Walbrook: ‘A Man without a Country’

Two days later, the story had taken a dramatic twist, as a large article appeared in the same newspaper headed ‘Film Star’s Wedding Vetoed. Girl’s Mother Objects. Miss Maude Courtney as ‘subject of Hitler.’ Nationality bar. Mr Anton Walbrook ‘a man without a country.’ The story went on to explain that as of yesterday, (Wednesday 26 October) the wedding was officially ‘off’. Legal advice had been taken and a formal statement issued by Messrs Henry Solomon & Co., solicitors, dated Tuesday, following a meeting between Walbrook and Maude’s family. Although aware of their close relationship, Mrs Charlton had been ignorant of their intent to marry, and made her views clear: ‘In the present state of European turmoil, I dare not think of my daughter becoming an alien, being married to a man without a country, and a subject of Herr Hitler. Maudie is of course terribly disappointed – broken-hearted. They are still friends, and if there is anyway of surmounting the barrier, the wedding will take place as soon as ever the difficulties can be straightened out. Mr Walbrook is a refugee – he had a Jewish grandmother – and Maudie is a Catholic. Her family is descended from the Plantagenets and is mentioned in the Domesday Book. It is one of the oldest families in England. How could she sacrifice this heritage to become an outcast?’ Mrs Charlton made it clear that Walbrook’s nationality was her sole objection to his marriage to her daughter, and told reporters ‘Personally, I think he is a very charming man.’

Much of this whole affair makes little sense, and carries with it more than a hint of a publicity stunt. Many of Birdie Courtney’s statements about Maude’s age and ancestry do not tally with public records: Maude’s birth certificate makes clear that she was already twenty one – not eighteen – at the time of the engagement, rendering the entire legal issue about consent a nonsense. Were the solicitors really unaware of her real age? However, given Walbrook’s longstanding dislike of media attention, the idea of a fake publicity stunt sounds almost as implausible as that of an engagement to a young chorus girl whom he had only just met. Little did he know that within a matter of days he would begin a relationship that – in contrast to the Cochran affair – would last for almost a decade. Maude eventually found a husband in 1948, while her mother remarried in 1941, but neither mother or daughter seem to have made further progress with their theatrical careers. One wonders if they retained an interest in Walbrook: did Maude ever go to see the actor on stage and feel tempted to nudge her neighbour and whisper, ‘We were once engaged to be married?’


Anna Massey, ‘Hollywood Beyond the Screen: Design and Material Culture’ (Oxford: Berg, 2000)

Anna Massey’s book takes a very different approach to that of Mary Ann Doane, although there is some overlap in their concern with how women engaged with the content of movies during the first half of the 20th century. Rather than using psychoanalytic theory as her starting point, Massey focuses on ‘edifices and artefacts…object-based material culture’ in order to explore the impact of American movies on British popular culture and design style. Her scope is far ranging, tracing the relationship between films and design by looking at the architecture of shops, cinemas and factories, interior room design, fashion, cigarette brands, advertisements, beauty products and family photographs. Unlike Doane’s work – which she cites – her writing is firmly rooted in real personal experiences, as is brought to life vividly by the inclusion of photographs of her mother and grandmother, with their own anecdotes about how their lives were affected by Hollywood movies.In her introduction to this book, entitled ‘Reclaiming the Personal and the Popular’, Anna Massey argues for the importance of embracing two strands that are often neglected in academic writing: a deliberate choice, spurred by the realisation that in much academic literature ‘affirmation of my own history and experience seems to be missing.’ (p.4)

 Joan Crawford and Dorothy Sebastian in Our Dancing Daughters (Beaumont, 1928) 

Using evidence drawn from these diverse sources and family anecdotes, Massey demonstrates the extent to which British popular and material culture was influenced at all levels by American style, as mediated through Hollywood, noting also how British intellectuals and establishment figures were determined to resist this Americanization which they associated with loose morals and subversive social mobility. There are four chapters, divided into rough chronological periods. The first of these, The Jazz Age, discusses developments between 1918 and 1929 when Hollywood eclipsed Paris in terms of influence on design, leading consumers in Britain to start looking towards America for the lead in matters of taste and style. A large chunk of this section looks at the films Our Dancing Daughters (Beaumont, 1928) and its sequel Our Modern Maidens (Conway, 1929) which propelled Joan Crawford to leading lady status and showcased Cedric Gibbons stunning art deco sets as well as Adrian’s daring costumes – which are discussed at length by Caroline Young’s book. Great concern was felt, both in America and Britain, about the dangers of young women trying to copy the behaviour exhibited in these films, and Massey quotes from women’s personal accounts of how they adopted the short skirts and flapper hairstyles worn on screen. A more specific expression of British resistance to Hollywood’s encroachment was the Cinematograph Film Act of 1927, although as the author makes clear, most of these attempts to hold back the American tide soon gave way in the face of popular and commercial demand – indicative of the tensions between elitist distaste for American culture and its mass popularity.  In Chapter Two, Bright Style in Dark Days, – the largest section of the book – the author traces how art deco evolved into the more streamlined art moderne style and the impact this had on British culture during the early 1930s, particularly in the form of architectural design in the south of England. Films discussed include Grand Hotel (Goulding, 1932,) Dinner at Eight (Cukor, 1933) and Top Hat (Sandrich, 1935).

Joan Crawford’s home in Our Dancing Daughters

The third chapter on Cold War Cultures covers the period during and just after the Second World War, including the impact of Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ fashion line launched in 1947, and postwar British resistance to American influence in the shape of British design fairs and the moral concern over the influence of rock ‘n’ roll, recalling how the film Rock Around the Clock (Sears, 1956) was banned by councils in Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol and Belfast. She discusses Bette Davis in Now Voyager, the ‘Americanized left-bank glamour of Hepburn’ (p.160), Hollywood actresses’ endorsement of beauty products and the short-lived British magazine Film and Fashion. A concluding section,  Post-modern glamour. A postscript, brings in some of the author’s own personal experiences of relating filmgoing to choices in dress and cultural attitudes, noting how the 1970s saw a revival of 1930s fashion, for instance through Mia Farrow’s stylish outfits in The Great Gatsby (Clayton, 1974).

The book should encourage readers to think more broadly about the cultural significance of classic films and the complex intersections that occur between the movies, avant-garde design, high fashion, popular culture and mass market commodities. The diverse and nuanced interplay between personal, popular, architectural and cinematic topics makes for a stimulating read, but it does create some problems for the author in trying to impose some order on the material and draw the various strands of her analysis together into a strong conclusion.

This will be the final post for the #ClassicFilmReading summer challenge this year, and for anyone who hasn’t done so, I’d recommend you check out the Out of the Past website for other reviews in the challenge as well as a wealth of material on all aspects of classic cinema

Isadora Duncan and Paris Singer

 
Last week saw the anniversary of the death of Paris Eugene Singer (1867-1932), the wealthy heir to the Singer sewing machine empire whose connections to Devon have long intrigued me. Sometime I might do a more detailed blog post about his properties at Redcliffe and Oldway, but today I thought I’d write about his relationship with dancer Isadora Duncan (1877-1927.) No other individual has exerted such influence upon the world of dance, and her life blended extraordinary accomplishment and appalling tragedy.  Her relationship with Paris Singer played a key part in both the both the triumphs and the disappointments.


Her early life contrasted starkly with his. Born Angela Isadora Duncan in San Francisco, the youngest of four children, she was three when their father abandoned the family after a banking scandal. Isadora’s schooling was scant, partly from lack of money, partly from choice. Always a free spirit, her love of dance manifested itself at an early age, but in unusual forms: seeking out deserted beaches or woodlands glades she would dance alone to her own rhythms. The Duncans earned money from music lessons, dance classes and family performances, given by Isadora and her sister Elizabeth with their mother on piano. Between dances their brother Raymond read from Greek classics. As Isadora’s dancing developed, so too did her passion for ancient Greece, influencing her preference for simple robes and barefoot dancing.
Her vision of “the dance” differed from the only two forms then recognised – ballet and music hall – but, needing an entry, she joined Augustine Daly’s theatre company. One tour took her to England where she performed for the first time in October 1897. Unsatisfied, however, she left Daly’s troupe and travelled to Paris.She quickly made her mark in the Parisian salons, including that of the Prince and Princesse de Polignac, frequented by the finest composers and writers. Prince Edmond de Polignac was 30 years older than his wife, Winnaretta Singer, and when he died in August 1901 Isadora had her first brief meeting with the Princesse’s brother Paris Singer.

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The two siblings were among the numerous children of Isaac Merritt Singer (1811-75), founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. An enormously wealthy man, Isaac was nonetheless of humble origins and like Isadora, loved the stage. He spent many years acting with groups of itinerant players, combining this theatre work with his growing interest in sewing machines. He founded his own troupe, “The Merritt Players,” with money received from a machine patent in 1839. Business prospered by his brilliant production and marketing methods. Using his theatrical flair for showmanship and advertising, Singer popularised his machines and made them easier for households to obtain. Sales boomed and Singer factories opened across the world to meet the demand.

This physical drive and charisma also resulted in a complex domestic life. Over three decades, Singer fathered around two dozen children by five different women. Disgraced by a bigamy charge in 1862, he left America for Europe, only to abandon his then-wife for Isobelle Eugenie Boyce Somerville in Paris. They married in June 1865. Isobelle was a well-known society beauty, whose face – it is said – was used by French sculptor Auguste Bartholdi as his model for the  Statue of Liberty.

Named after the city where he was born on 20 November 1867, Paris Eugene Singer was Isaac’s third son and (probably) his 23rd child. When Paris was two, the Singers fled to England to escape the Franco-Prussian War. Isaac purchased Fernham estate in Paignton, near Torquay, where the foundation stone of a new 115-room residence named Oldway was laid in May 1873.  A circular pavilion was also erected, with banqueting hall, stables and pool, amid twenty acres of landscaped gardens. Just as Oldway’s interior neared completion, Isaac Singer died on 23 July 1875. He was buried in Torquay a week later, leaving a fortune of around $13,000,000.


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Although orphaned at the age of seven, Paris Singer inherited much of his father’s character along with a weekly income of $15,000 from interest alone.  Standing at 6’3” with golden curls and beard, he cut a striking figure. After studying medicine, chemistry and engineering at Cambridge, he eloped with his mother’s maid Henriette Marais. Their marriage was annulled, and in 1887 he married Australian beauty Lillie Graham by whom he had five children.

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After coming of age he bought out his brother Washington Singer’s interests in Oldway. Over the next 25 years the mansion underwent a series of lavish decorations and extensions, with the ceiling painting alone taking six years to complete.  The opulent blend of coloured marble, gilt panelling, mirrors and parquet floors remains stunning to this day. Passionately Francophile, Singer modelled his reconstruction on the Palace of Versailles. It was therefore fitting that Singer first met Isadora Duncan in Paris. 

She was by now an international figure, based in Germany and known throughout Europe from her performances and lectures, with a reputation as a passionate and unconventional spirit. She had toured Hungary, Italy and Russia as well as her beloved Greece, where she delved deep into archives and libraries to seek out musical manuscripts. She learnt German and read philosophers such as Nietzsche in their original language.


In December 1904 she met actor and designer Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966) in Berlin. Despite Craig being married, they fell in love and Isadora bore him a daughter named Deirdre in September 1906. When her Grünewald dance school had to close in 1908, she relocated to Paris where she performed triumphantly throughout January and February 1909 at the “Gaité-Lyrique” theatre. 

It was after one of these shows that Paris Singer appeared at Isadora’s dressing room with the words, “I have come to help you. What can I do?” With riches like his, there was a great deal he could do for her. In her autobiography Isadora called him “Lohengrin,” one of the Knights of the Round Table: but she would learn that this gallant benefactor’s support came at a price. In the meantime, with Singer’s marriage on the rocks, they embarked on a passionate affair.  In September 1909, while in Venice, she found she was pregnant.

After cruising the Nile they returned to France for the birth of Patrick Augustus on 1 May 1910. That summer was spent in Devon where a huge ballroom had been built at Oldway. Despite his extravagant gifts, Singer’s failure to share Isadora’s vision was a frequent cause of friction. Like many wealthy men, he was accustomed to having his own way; there were storms and sulks when his impulsive, temperamental lover danced to her own tune. The romance continued however, and in 1912 Singer bought her a property overlooking the Seine – scene of the greatest tragedy of Isadora’s life.

On 19 April 1913 Singer and Duncan met for lunch in Paris. Later, as the chauffeur was driving the two children home with their governess, he stalled and got out to crank the engine. The car restarted on a slope and – before he could get in – moved off, picking up speed before crossing the Boulevard Bourdon and plunging over a grassy bank into the Seine. Despite desperate attempts by bystanders, all three occupants drowned.

Isadora’s grief was beyond words. Probably desperate for another child, she fell pregnant by a young Italian lover, but the infant died in August 1914 while the citizens of Paris prepared for war. Isadora gave her newly-opened school to the Dames de France for use as a military hospital. Singer had Oldway converted for the same purpose, repeating what he had done 14 years earlier with Redcliffe Towers in Paignton, which housed convalescent soldiers after the Boer War. Oldway became the American Women’s War Relief Hospital, personally financed by Singer and well-respected: Queen Mary visited in November 1914 just as Isadora sailed for New York.

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When she returned penniless after travelling around Europe and South America, Singer had no difficulty bailing her out again: his secretary at this time, Allan Ross Macdougall, received $1000 a week. (He was later Isadora’s first biographer.) Singer’s inability to appreciate her art led to their final quarrel in March 1917 after she refused, in public, his gift of Madison Square Garden.

His relationship with Isadora over, Singer divorced his wife in 1918 and married Joan Balsh, senior nurse of the military hospital at Oldway. For tax reasons he took American citizenship and began developing property around Florida – there is still a Paris Singer Island, off Palm Beach. His ambitious plans were shipwrecked in the late 1920s, and with heavy losses and lawsuits, he returned to Europe. Although Singer lost a lot of money, he always had plenty to lose. He might not have lost Isadora had he not been so determined to possess her.

By this time she had been lost to the world altogether, dying, like her children, in another bizarre motoring accident after a life of further twists. She broke with Singer the same week as the Russian Revolution, on the night of which she “danced with a terrible fierce joy.” Ever-sympathetic with revolutionary spirits, she moved to Moscow at the suggestion of a Russian diplomat who saw her dance in London. Her two years in the Soviet Union included a short, disastrous marriage to Russian poet Sergei Esenin. His drunken rages and violent behaviour hampered her European tour in 1923, foreshadowing the end of their marriage and Esenin’s hospitalization (and untimely death) in a Soviet mental asylum.

Early in 1925 Isadora moved to Paris, where she began writing her memoirs, still receiving anonymous financial support from Singer. She died in Nice on 14 September 1927, killed when her scarf caught in the wheels of a moving car. Her ashes were placed in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, following a funeral attended by thousands.

Paris Singer outlived her by less than five years, dying in London on 24 June 1932. He was buried in the family vault at Torquay.