Memories Of Jessie
Growing up in the Thirties & Forties, I had heard Jessie’s records played on the Radio & had read about her in Magazines, but the only films I had seen were “The Good Companions” (which sent me into the library to get the novel & this resulted in my reading as much of J B Priestly as possible), and “Climbing High”, which I found hilarious but disappointing, in that she did not sing nor dance. Once I started seriously going to British films in the War years, she had stopped making them!
In the last months of the War (early 1945), I went to London as a student, & one day after school I went into Picadilly Circus station to take the Tube back to my ‘digs’. There on the platform was Jessie slim and elegant. Then the train came in & we both got on. It was crowded, and we had to stand. I wanted to speak, but felt that in these conditions it would be an intrusion and she might not like having attention drawn to her. Nobody else seemed to recognise her which astonished me!
Back in my own hometown of Belfast around 1946, it was announced that Jessie would come over to open a new cinema which Raymond Strom had elevated from a ‘flea-pit’. I recall Jessie in a bottle green dress embroidered with silver, being literally carried across the road thronged with fans calling her name to the luxury Ritz cinema, where there was to be a reception in the café there. As I had done a dress design for her I fought my way through the crowd and handed it to her. She grabbed it and smiled.
In 1947 Jessie had made a comeback in the revue “Maid To Measure”, and I so regretted missing this, but by 1949 I was living in London and it was announced that she would take over from Zoe Gail in the successful revue “Sauce Tartare” at the Cambridge Theatre. As was my want in those days, I attended her opening night, and she both sang and danced delightfully her partner being Terrence Theobold. In the chorus of this show were future luminaries comedian Bob Monkhouse, Opera star Adele Leigh and lovely Audrey Hepburn. Of course, I waited at the stage door, turning down the offer of a lift home from the show’s other star Rene Houston, so I could congratulate Jessie.
In her forties work in musicals was hard to find. However, Jessie did several plays and one I saw was “Sweethearts and Wives” a comedy with a naval base setting at Wyndhams Theatre, which brought out her comic style.
I recall journeying out to Harrow to see her in a touring production of Coward’s “Private Lives”, in which her adopted daughter Catherine played the other woman!
In the mid- fifties, Jessie and ex-husband Sonnie Hale were reunited for one of those marvellous Charity Midnight matinees at the Palladium “The Night of 100 Stars”. They appeared in a sequence where stars recreated great moments from their past careers. Sonnie & Jessie (she wearing a wig just like her bobbled hair of the time) were seated at a window sill to sing “ A room With A View” just as they had performed it in Cowards 1928 revue “This year of Grace”. It caused a sensation with many press reports the following day, all of which resulted in them co-staring in the play “ A Nest of Robins” which started a Tour, but sadly did not reach London.
Soon after Jessie was the star of an occasional TV series ‘The Spice Of Life”, which told the story of a great star through guests , music, newsreels etc. I was fortunate to get a ticket for its broadcast from the Shepherds Bush Empire (then a BBC studio). Jessie both sand and danced some of her famous numbers. I did a quick sketch of Jessie and she signed it at the Stage Door, a souvenir I cherish.
In the sixties, I was on holiday in Torquay and found that Jessie was appearing for the Summer at the Local Theatre in a broad farce “What A Racket!” starring Arthur Askey, a sad comedown for a once great star. But Arthur was kind, and after the curtain calls, he allowed Jessie to entertain the audience with a few of her songs. I went back stage announcing myself as a member of “The Gallery First Nighters Club” as I know she was familiar with some of the older members. The stage door keeper showed me to her room & she was seated at the make-up table. We chatted about things I had seen her do, and she was very pleasant. Then I mentioned “Private Lives” and her daughter, whereupon her manner changed abruptly, and she said “I think you had better go”. Startled, I proceeded to leave, but regretting her manner, she followed and pointed out sketches of the cast she had done. I said “I’m a bit of an artist too, and these are very good”. She smiled and we were able to part amicably. What I had not known was that she and her daughter were then estranged!
Occasionally, over the years, she would turn up at a showing of one of her old musical films (which by then I was seeing whenever I could) at one of the classic cinemas. She usually sang unaccompanied at least one song from her repertoire. More prestigiously, she was present at the launch of a Victor Saville season of films at the National Film Theatre, and they both spoke from the stage and received a huge reception from the packed house. Sadly when they got around to honouring Jessie herself she was not able to appear.
There were a few other plays in London, such as “A Share In The Sun” which I saw at the Cambridge Theatre, but mostly she guested with out of town companies. Her involvement with the popular Radio series “Mrs Dale’ Diary” brought her back into the limelight, and it was good to see her name in the papers again. I was able to listen to some episodes on my little radio at work and she suited the part admirably.
I deeply regret I missed seeing her “This Is Your Life” on TV, but I did hear her “Desert Island Discs” programme on the radio. The eight records she would wish to have with her if left on a desert island were: “I’ll capture Your Heart” by Irvin Berlin, sung by Crosby and Astaire, “Ritual Fire Dance” (Fallo on the piano), “My Very Good Friend The Milkman” sung by Fats Waller, “Indian Summer” by Glen Miller Orchestra, “Sing Me Something Sentimental” sung by Johnny Brandon, “Demands et Response” by Coleridge Taylor, “Maybe It’s Because I’m A Londoner” sung by the Radio Revellers and “Ave Maria” sung by Gigli. Her luxury item was a large bottle of perfume.
In 1977 the Gallery First Nighters club gave their annual dinner in her honour to mark both her 70th Birthday and her OBE. I was so happy for her on this occasion, and she revelled in it, being amongst many theatre goers who had followed her career from it’s beginning. Her attractive Italian style dress she made herself! At the Top table were: Anna Neagle, Herbert Wilcox, Nigel Patrick, Betty Marsden, Phyllis Calvert, Peter Cotes and Joan Miller, George Moon and taking part in the cabaret, Millicent Martin and John Inman. Instead of making a speech, Jessie sang her thanks with several of her famous numbers plus a few current ones… a memorable evening indeed.
The last time I saw Jessie in Person, was at the first night of the musical “ The Biograph Girl” about Lillian Gish and the silent film period. Miss Gish was in the audience, as was Jessie. I had read in the papers that she had been on a long looked forward to cruise so I asked her “did you enjoy the cruise?” and she replied “No I did NOT it was all Bingo and Disco!!! Not long after, she died, and I read that a regular visitor to the hospital was her one time understudy, Dame Anna Neagle, who remained a faithful friend throughout Jessie’s triumphant yet turbulent Life.
In 1981while visiting Anna Lee in her Beverley Hills home, she showed me photos of a party she had given for Jessie (they had appeared together in “First A Girl” 45 years before!) This was while Jessie was doing a show in Santa Monica arranged by Bob Masterson, her number one American fan. Another guest at the party whom Jessie had known for some fifty years was Hermione Baddeley.
I play Jessie’s records often, for she has a unique voice, and was happily associated with so many wonderful songs. I also never miss a chance to see her films because underneath the refined voice and manner always lurked the little “cockney sparrow” she once was. All her Thirties films I appreciate but I think my favourite is probably “It’s Love Again”, because she does some of her best dancing in it.
A few years ago, the Hollywood dancer Ann Miller gave a talk at our National Film Theatre and during “question time” I asked her “ Is it true that you were an admirer of Jessie Matthews?” and she replied “I most certainly was. I even wrote her a fan letter and had a lovely reply”.
A few years ago, I felt privileged to be present at the unveiling of a plaque on the side of the house in Soho where Jessie grew up. Many celebrities as well as ordinary fans were there including Valarie Hobson, Jean Kent, Chilli Bouchier, Bryan Forbes, Lizabeth Webb etc. Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber spoke of her and he has since donated all the marvellous memorabilia of her career which now graces the stalls bar of the Adelphi Theatre where Jessie had one of her greatest successes in “Evergreen” and that is what she is - an evergreen star….