The Jessie Matthews Homepage
Jessie Matthews in New York
The Making Of A Star
New York played host to 4 of Jessie's engagements "Charlot's Revue of 1924" (in the chorus), "Charlot's Revue / Earl Carroll's Vanities of 1927" "Wake Up and Dream" and a personal appearance in 1964 for "A Tribute to Jessie Matthews". She had the most happy and the most unhappy memories of her personal life there. The City remembers the joy that Jessie brought to theatre and cinema audiences of the 1920s and 1930s paying posthumous tributes with shows such as "Looking Around Corners For You".
In this first part of the feature I look at the journey Jessie took to becoming an international star of the stage.
December 1923. Jessie boarded a luxury liner bound for New York named the Aquitania as one of the chorus girls supporting Gertrude Lawrence, Jack Buchanan and Beatrice Lilley in “Charlot's Revue of 1924”.
Jessie's sister Rosie had made dresses and outfits for Jessie's trip but Jessie possessed none of the wears expected of a cast of an international show. Jessie was therefore helped out by the other Chorus Girls with loans of stockings, dresses, handbags etc that fitted the Company's image.
The Aquitania arrived in New York on Christmas Eve 1923 whereupon Jessie first saw the immense towers of the New York skyline. During passage, Jessie had made exceptional friends with a wealthy gaucho, Jorge Ferrara, who took Jessie to dinner at the Ritz- Carlton. As Jessie possessed nothing suitable to wear, Jorge bought Jessie some very expensive and tasteful clothes that transferred her from an urchin to an immaculate young lady of Manhattan society.
Following an almost disastrous try-out of “Charlot's Revue” in Atlantic City, Charlot and all the Company worked on adapting the humour and its delivery for American tastes. “Charlot's Revue of 1924” opened in the Times Square Theatre to rave reviews on 9th January 1924. The principals of the revue became talk of the town and what was originally booked for six weeks ran for 9 months.
The accepted story of how Jessie stepped out of the chorus to become Gertrude Lawrence 's understudy is akin to a scene out of a Hollywood Musical. However, what is true is that Jessie herself assumed the responsibility as soon as she had the opportunity. Her stage manager had not found anyone able to mimic Miss Lawrence so was not in a position to argue with Jessie on the point. Her chorus girl fellows were livid with her audacity.
In her new role Jessie was given a solo number – Noel Coward's “Parisian Pierrot” which Miss Lawrence didn't like singing. However seeing the audience reaction Jessie was receiving Miss Lawrence changed her mind and took the song back on several occasions. At the end of the run in September, the Revue went on tour throughout North America. During the first leg of the tour, Gertrude Lawrence became seriously ill with double pneumonia . On 13th February 1925 at the Princess Theatre, Toronto, Jessie was asked to go on as the leading lady. Jessie's ovations were phenomenal. Local press reviews were glowing and Charlot entrusted the remaining 7 weeks of the tour to Jessie. This trust did not proceed without hickup as for one night Jessie herself was demoted and replaced by Joyce Barbour but reinstated immediately following protest from George White (of White's Scandals fame).
In Jessie's autobiography she recalls the night that she became a leading lady:
“ They [the audience] drew me through each number on a great wave of enthusiasm. I could do no wrong. Roars of welcome when I came on and thunderous applause when I exited.”
“In Philidelphia I had the overwhelming joy of seeing Jessie Matthews across the bill boards and the sublime satisfaction of having my own dressing room far away from the caustic comments of the ladies of the chorus.”
And of New York Jessie recalled the few days of freedom with Jorge after the show finished its tour.
“Jorge and I went on the town. We went to Harlem and danced to wonderful rhythms. To Coney Island and bumped over canvas mountains and whizzed through terrifying tunnels. We went down to the river and watched the ferry boats and glimpsed the great liners festooned with fairy lights. For the rest of my life these few days would always seem the ultimate of happiness".