In this second part of the feature I look at Jessie's successes and flops and the terrible trials Jessie faced in her personal life whilst in New York.
On 30 December 1926 Jessie set sail for New York again.
Jessie was surrounded by the paparazzi who were keen to photograph this new young sensation arm in arm with her handsome husband, Henry Lytton Jnr. Little did Jessie know that she was heading into the bizarre world of Burlesque! Earl Carroll combined the show with his "Vanities" a troupe of almost naked ladies posing for the erotic delight of its audience. Incorporating the legitimate Charlot Show into his famous Vanities was a huge error not only for Earl but everyone involved. " Earl Carroll Vanitiesfeaturing The New Charlot Show " was a mish-mash failing to be one thing or another. Instead of attracting both Society and underbelly, it failed to attract large numbers of either. It was a flop. Jessie's audience wolf whistled and physically pinched her.
The show was taken on tour of America's major cities of which in her autobiography Jessie recounted " We went on tour of the major American cities and I learned all about getting the American bird. They threw pennies at us in Detroit. In Pittsburgh they jeered and stamped and in Philadelphia they opened their newspapers and read while the English actors and actresses performed. I don't blame them, they weren't going to be fobbed off with a fully-clothed Jessie Matthews singing a simple English song when they expected the bosoms and buttocks of the original New York Show ("Earl Carroll's Vanities")".
Whilst the show didn't reach the pinnacle of success Jessie did benefit from the experience as it hardened her to facing an audience good and bad. She couldn't wait to get back to London where Cochran was waiting with a very lucrative contract for a series of shows.
Jessie's third visit to New York followed the major West End successes of Rogers and Hart's "One Dam Thing After Another", Mary Kennedy's "Jordan" and Noel Cowards "This Year of Grace". At this point of time Jessie and Sonnie Hale were both married to others but fell in love with each other. The resulting scandal would be revealed in the courts and destroy a great friendship with Evelyn (Boo) Laye. The scandal erupted during the run of Jessie & Sonnie's wonderful Cole Porter musical "Wake Up and Dream".
Fortunately a Decree Nisi with costs was awarded to Jessie as her husband had also committed adultery, but the scandal came about from Evelyn Laye's action against Sonnie Hale, where he was the sole adulterer. The headlines read"TWO ACTRESSES IN DIVORCE.DECREE FOR JESSIE MATTHEWS. EVELYN LAYE SUES". Against this background the "Wake Up And Dream" company crossed the Atlantic to open on Broadway's Selwyn Theatre. Unfortunately for Jessie, not only was her lover Sonnie back in London, but also in New York, just across the Street, Evelyn Laye was starring in "Bitter Sweet" at the Ziegfeld Theatre. The New York Paper headlines read "TWO WIVES ON BROADWAY.... Two British actresses, Evelyn Laye and Jessie Matthews, whose domestic affairs have clashed in a drama of the divorce courts have now made Broadway, New York, where they are playing to different audiences in rival revues, a stage on which they are unconsciously taking the leading roles in a drama of popularity with all intrigued America as an audience." To cap it all Jessie failed to get along with her co-star Jack Buchanan. However, unknown to Jessie Hollywood talent scouts had heard about her and came to see her show.
Here is a picture of the programme with related description :
This is a rare January 13th, 1930 program (playbill) from the opening weeks of the original Broadway production of the COLE PORTER musical revue "WAKE UP AND DREAM!" at the Selwyn Theatre in New York City. (The production ran for 136 performances.)The show introduced the standard, "What Is This Thing Called Love?". It starred JACK BUCHANAN and featured JESSIE MATTHEWS. The Book was written by JOHN HASTINGS TURNER and the music and lyrics were by COLE PORTER. Choreographed was by TILLY LOSCH, JACK BUCHANAN and MAX RIVERS. The show was directed by FRANK COLLINS and Produced by ARCH SELWYN by arrangement with CHARLES B. COCHRAN .
Jessie in "Wake Up And Dream"
Whilst in New York, Jessie Made friends with Ginger Rogers who was playing on Broadway at the time. It was a friendship that would last many years. This is notable as Jessie was the star Fred Astaire most wanted to appear with after his dancing partner - Fred's sister Adele, retired from the stage in 1932. Ginger Rogers though not Fred's first choice teamed up with him later that year. Had Jessie not been under contract when Fred made approaches on the matter, Ginger may never have become the most famous female dancing partner in film history. Despite enthusiasm for the idea of working with Fred at the time of the offer, Jessie was later to remark that a pairing of her with Fred would not have worked.
During the New York run of "Wake Up And Dream" talent scouts were impressed with Jessie and Paramount asked her to go to their Long Island Studio to do a talkie test for them. There Jessie met Claudette Colbert who helped to reassure her and get Jessie over her nerves. Jessie's tests revealed the dramatic quality suitable for film. MGM, Warners and Paramount asked about her availability. Love struck and pining Jessie wanted to get back to Sonnie. Cochran had promised Jessie a top musical vehicle in London in which to star with Sonnie, and so Jessie turned down all of the film offers as well as a Broadway Show from Flo Ziegfeld in order to be with the man she loved. When the run of "Wake Up and Dream" finished Jessie was on the first boat back to London.
The next visit to New York was in 1941 to Star in a Broadway play "The Lady Comes Across" but the stress she encountered and mishaps during rehearsals would culminate in Jessie being committed to a psychiatric faculty where she was to be treated for mental illnesses. It was one of the darkest times of Jessie's Life. She was exhausted by rehearsals for the show, depressed and lonely, but also worried about the news that Pearl Harbour had been bombed and America was entering the War. Jessie started getting paranoid that she was surrounded by spies. She would try to analyse what happened and admitted that it felt real but much was the making of her mind, and the real and unreal to her were blurred.
A friend, Henry Heil who Jessie first met on the plane had a Psychiatrist Dr Koch take Jessie to dinner and ascertain her state of mental health as she had been behaving strangely at rehearsals. His profession was quickly discovered, but he continued to evaluate Jessie. When Jessie got back to her hotel room Henry had arranged for a nurse to stay with Jessie in her room. The next morning, Jessie had an appointment for lunch with a member of the press about the pending show but Jessie used the occasion to vent about her extreme concern that she was being tracked and hounded by spies who she thought were out to kill her. The seed was firmly planted and coincidences like being taken to a German restaurant for lunch persuaded Jessie it was real. The fantasies grew more elaborate and ever less credible. What happened next the way that Jessie retold it was ludicrously farcical but in her then state of mind quite understandable. Convinced that she was about to be poisoned or shot she grabbed the journalist and hurried into a taxi to an acquaintance at the top of Madison Avenue. He was Moise Kisling, a French painter. Kisling comforted Jessie, got her to put her feet up and let her sleep. Whilst asleep the people with any responsibility to Jessie assembled at Kisling's house including the reporter,Jessie's friends in New York, one of Jessie's theatre managers, and medics. Convinced and distraught that she was in danger from spies one of the medics and her friends humoured her saying that they were taking her somewhere safe where "they" couldn't get at her. She was sedated, fell asleep and awoke in the Psychiatric unit of New York Presbyterian Hospital.
Jessie recalled "I was in a dark room. Someone had dressed me in a rough shift that scrubbed against my skin. I was on a bed and the covers seemed to tie me down. I couldn't move my hands, they felt manacled. Had the Germans caught me? What had they done to me? I heard someone screaming. My throat hurt and my mouth was open and dry. And then I knew that woman who screamed was myself."
Jessie was to remain in the Hospital for 6 months. During that time Jessie said she was restrained, put in a straight jacket, force fed, put in a sealed hot water chamber, and incarcerated in solitary confinement.
New York Presbyterian Hospital
At the time these therapies were considered appropriate to administer to people with mental illnesses. Today patients at the hospital undergo Psychiatric assessment, stabilization, observation, treatment and referral. In her biography Jessie goes to some lengths and detail about her experience in "the asylum". Jessie's account of her experiences were what she felt happened but her condition was such that it was difficult for her to tell what was real. Much of the suffering was the illness itself , how it caused Jessie to think and behave. She did recover but had repeated episodes of mental instability throughout her life. How Jessie said that she got out of the asylum is that the British consul visited her and she told them that her greatest wish was not to die in the asylum. The consul asked her to write to Sonnie Hale to say she wished to come home and they would help her to return to England. In fact Gracie Fields and Gertrude Lawrence gave Jessie the money and place to recuperate before crossing the Atlantic to go home. On her arrival Sonnie did not provide the welcome that Jessie yearned. She thought her family were more thrilled to receieve the new goats for their farm than they were to see her. There was probably much truth in this as during that year Jessie and Sonnie's marriage broke up and the bond with her daughter faltered.Jessie would have serious mental health issues throughout her life but never again was she subjected to the mental anguish experienced whilst in Psychotherapy at the New York Presbyterian Hospital.
After such an ordeal one would not expect Jessie to ever go to New York again. Yet in October 1965 she performed in cabaret on-board the Cunard liner to New York and once there made a personal appearance at "A Tribute to Jessie Matthews" presented by Raymond Rohauer.
Her last visit to America was to Los Angeles in 1980 to do 3 concerts with Michael Feinstein.
With regard "The Lady Comes Across" Jessie said that Mitzy Gaynor took on the part on Broadway that she had played in Boston and the show folded after 3 performances. The last part was true but the person chosen to replace her was Evelyn Wyckoff.
After many big successes on stage Jessie took the plunge to appear in a British talkie "Out of The Blue". But it was not until 1934 that Jessie's films became Internationally popular and 1936 when Jessie became one of the top box office draws in London and in New York with the film "It's Love Again". Successive attempts to get Jessie to Hollywood failed, mainly for contractual reasons, but eventually in September 1941 succeeded for an all star charity film titled "Forever and a day". This was a portmanteau of stories about the occupants of a London house between the years 1804 to the blitz in 1940. Jessie was very happy to be in Hollywood, recieve so much attention and experience the extensive resources of RKO Studios. Jessie made further films in Britian including the 1958 popular children's classic "Tom Thumb" in which the studios inexplicably dubbed Jessie's singing. Jessie carried on making stage musicals, performing in concerts, and appearing on television upto the year of her death in 1981.
"Forever and a day"