Cecil’s girls

Cecil Beaton knew all the leading ladies of theatre though sometimes it was hard to tell if his descriptions of them were intended to be complimentary.


Isobel Elsom was a pale flaxen blonde with the mythical features of a unicorn. She was a dreamy young lady with junket-white complexion, strongly forward thrust chin, but inexpressive limbs.


Gertie Millar, who started her working life as a Lancashire mill girl, was a great favourite. Critics and audiences alike were bewitched by her Pekinese piquancy. But when she became too plump for the stage, she settled for the family emeralds and a cosy marriage to the Earl of Dudley.


The American Jewess, Ethel Levey, had a ram-like profile, her nose was a perfect crescent, hair like a raven’s wing, violent black eyes and a lascivious mouth. She was a bird thin creature with a coal-heaver’s voice and animalistic high kicks which made her audience feel they were in the slipstream of an aeroplane belonging to her second husband, the pioneer aviator, Claude Grahame White.


Then there was the French beauty Gaby Deslys. Plump, pullet-like Gaby had a pear-shaped nose, cherry lips and bosoms like early melons. The King of Portugal gave her yards of pearls, Jean Cocteau wrote a poem about her and James M Barrie, that pipe-smoking elf from Thrums was also an unexpected victim of her beauty.


Gabrielle Ray was a high kicking dancer with a squeaky voice. She invented her own stage makeup where she made of her face a pointilliste painting with little dots of all colours to give highlights and shadows to her different features. Her greatest innovation was to arrange that her photographer should stretch an invisible thread of cotton in front of his sitter so that she could rest the tip of her small parrot’s beak nose on it, thus pioneering, in her own manner, the days of plastic surgery.


*Miss Ray married in 1912. Every Johnny of international fame, from Alfred Vanderbilt to King Manuel of Portugal, worshipped at this beauty’s feet. It was whispered that dukes and earls wanted to marry her, but she picked young Eric Loder, who had a fortune of $10,000.000.

The wedding day arrived, and every ornament of stage and peerage was waiting at the church. There, too, was the bridegroom. But the bride did not come, and the ceremony was deferred. People thought it was an exhibition of the beauty’s capricious ways. Closer investigation showed it was rather an exhibition of business sense. Loder had failed to sign the stipulated marriage settlement, securing her the income she needed. He pleaded that excessive prenuptial hospitality had caused him to overlook the formality. He signed up and the wedding took place three days later.

After barely a year of married life they quarrelled, and Gabrielle sought a divorce. It was said that the inconstant millionaire found perfect beauty a perfect bore, and sought consolation with one who was less beautiful but more amusing.


*Reproduced courtesy of Don Gillan (Copyright), http://www.stagebeauty.net

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31 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. You see “bosoms like early melons”! The man had a food fetish for sure!

  2. “inconstant millionaire” Sounds like me. Now I am waiting for the constant part. Perhaps tonight when I play 1-3-8-13-26-49! ($26 Mil)

  3. As a fan of Miss Ray, well according to my wife verging on being a stalker I have taken a dislike to Loader and believe that he only wanted to be seen with the most well-known and beautiful women of the day; however as a nurse who worked in learning disabilities with mental health issues I wonder whether her behaviour drove him away or whether his betrayal helped push her over the edge. Sadly her remaining 40 years were spent in a psychiatric hospital, where she died in 1973 at the age of 90; a tragic end to one of the most photographed beauties of the Edwardian era.


    • A sad ending indeed.

  4. I’m going to go with an insult for Ethel Levey. And early melons might be my all-time favorite description for breasts. I wonder what this gentleman would have come up with for YOU, my dear? Personally, I’ve been rendered speechless by some of your photos.

  5. I wonder if Cecil was ever beaten?

  6. Nobody has ever made me feel that I was in the slipstream of an aeroplane. Have I missed something?

    • It doesn’t really sound that comfortable though does it?

  7. “Meow”, Cecil, you catty little tart…

  8. Yegods he knew how to damn with faint praise as well as just damn, the catty little bounder!

  9. I myself have inexpressive limbs. I’ve never found it terribly limiting. I have known many people with coal-heaver’s voices, though. Thankfully most of them had other talents, such as knowing when to keep quiet.

  10. “He found perfect beauty a perfect bore, and sought consolation with one who was less beautiful but more amusing.” My feelings entirely, perfect beauty appears bland after a while. So-called imperfection is actually more interesting.

    “She was a bird thin creature with a coal-heaver’s voice.” What a wonderful picture that conjures up.

  11. One day, a man shall compare me to a unicorn. And my life will be complete.

  12. I wish he could write a sonnet about my mother-in-law.

  13. LOL…what descriptions!

  14. As a teenage princess I read Beaton’s diaries. Fascinating and very readable.

    He adored Garbo and asked her to marry him several times, but he strangely never mentions the men he loved.

    (Apparently now there are unedited diaries available – maybe they would be more frank).

    • Something for my Kindle perhaps… 😉

  15. Isobel was gorgeous. I tried to convince my pregnant friend to name her coming boy Cecil, but it didn’t work for her. She should check out your blog for good names.

    • I’ve got a post coming up about names!

  16. Wow, I wish I could talk to women like that

  17. I wonder if Cecil liked to beat off.

  18. I can’t decide whether I’d prefer a unicorn or a ram’s profile. Both, I believe, would make me look rather horny.

  19. That sounds about right.
    Trading beauty for personality.
    Though i bet the girl made a decent return on the marriage. lol

  20. I don’t know much about these women at all, but I must say: in current times, they’d all get nose jobs, which is bullshit.

    Also, I would definitely rather have a ram’s profile than the features of a unicorn.

  21. I must admit, I had to look up pointilliste because I had no clue what the hell it could be. Turns out it’s a painting made out of smaller pieces of other things. No, not the same as stippling, which is a technique I have used for shading and image transition (and just because it looks cool).

    Thanks for the vocab lesson Nurse Myra! (Now all I have to do is remember it the next time I need to describe a picture made out of a bunch of small pieces of things).

    Great descriptions in this post by the way. I especially liked, “Plump, pullet-like Gaby had a pear-shaped nose, cherry lips and bosoms like early melons.”

  22. That was a fun read – I want to see pointilliste make-up!

  23. I must learn how to write about women like this. Loved the descriptions.

  24. My girls are all lovely, sigh.

    The King

  25. Wa he describing a zoological garden or something he wanted to eat?

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