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