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Gertrude Lawrence
Born Gertrud Alexandra Dagmar Klasen
4 July 1898(1898-07-04)
London, England, United Kingdom
Died 6 September 1952 (aged 54)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Occupation Actress
Years active 1916—1951
Spouse(s) Francis Gordon-Howley (1917-1927)
Richard Aldrich (1940-1952)

Gertrude Lawrence (4 July 1898 – 6 September 1952) was an English actress and musical comedy performer known for her stage appearances in the West End and on Broadway.


Early life

Lawrence was born Gertrud Alexandra Dagmar Klasen, of English and Danish extraction, in the Newington area of London Borough of Southwark. Her father was a basso profundo who performed under the name Arthur Lawrence. His heavy drinking led her mother Alice to leave him soon after Gertrud's birth. [1]

In 1904, her stepfather took the family to Bognor for the August bank holiday. While there, they attended a concert where audience members were invited to entertain. At her mother's urging, Gertrud sang a song and was rewarded with a gold sovereign for her effort. It was her first public performance. [2]

In 1908, in order to augment the family's meager income, Alice accepted a job in the chorus of the Christmas pantomime at the Brixton Theatre. A child who could sing and dance was needed to round out the troupe, and Alice volunteered her daughter. While working in the production Alice heard of Italia Conti, who taught dance, elocution, and the rudiments of acting. Gertrud auditioned for Conti, who thought the child was talented enough to warrant free lessons.

Her training led to appearances in Max Reinhardt's The Miracle in London and Fifinella, directed by Basil Dean, for the Liverpool Repertory Theatre. At some point during this period, the child decided to add an "e" to her first name and adopt her father's professional surname as her own. Dean then cast her in his next production, Gerhart Hauptmann's Hannele, where she first met Noël Coward. Their meeting was the start of a close and sometimes tempestuous friendship and the most important professional relationship in both their lives. [3]

Early stage career

Following Hannele, Lawrence reconnected with her father, who was living with a chorus girl. They agreed to let her tour with them in two successive revues, after which Arthur announced he had signed a year-long contract with a variety show in South Africa, leaving the two young women to fend for themselves. Lawrence, now aged sixteen, opted to live at the Theatrical Girls' Club in Soho rather than return to her mother and stepfather. She worked steadily with various touring companies until 1916, when she was hired by famed impresario André Charlot to understudy Beatrice Lillie and appear in the chorus of his latest West End production. [4] When it closed, she assumed Lillie's role on tour, then returned to London once again to understudy the star in another Charlot production, where she met dance director Francis Gordon-Howley. Although he was twenty years her senior, the two wed and soon after had a daughter Pamela, Lawrence's only child. The marriage was not a success, and Lawrence took Pamela with her to her mother's home in Clapham. The couple remained separated but did not divorce until ten years later. [5]

In 1918, Lawrence feigned illness and was given a fortnight to recuperate by Charlot, who saw her at an opening night party during her alleged recovery period and immediately fired her. When the reason for her dismissal became common knowledge among other West End producers, she was unable to find work, and in early 1919 she accepted a job singing in the show at Murray's, a popular London nightclub, where she remained for the better part of the next two years. While performing there she met Capt. Philip Astley, a member of the Household Cavalry. He became her friend, escort, and ultimately lover, and taught her how to dress and behave in high society. When Lawrence became involved with Wall Street banker Bert Taylor in 1927, Astley proposed marriage, an offer Lawrence refused because she knew Astley would expect her to leave the stage and settle in rural England. [6] The two remained close until he married actress Madeleine Carroll in 1931. [7] When Lawrence divorced Gordon-Howley, she and Taylor became engaged and remained so for two years, with each free to enjoy a social life separate from the other. [8]

Lawrence in costume for "Parisian Pierrot"

At the end of 1920, Lawrence left Murray's and began to ease her way back into legitimate theatre while touring in a music hall act as the partner of popular singer Walter Williams. In October 1921, Charlot asked her to replace an ailing Beatrice Lillie as star of his latest production, A to Z, opposite Jack Buchanan. In it the two introduced the song "Limehouse Blues," which went on to become one of Lawrence's signature tunes. [9]

In 1923, Noël Coward developed his first musical revue, London Calling!, specifically for Lawrence. Charlot agreed to produce it, but brought in more experienced writers and composers to work on the book and score. One of Coward's surviving songs was "Parisian Pierrot," another tune that was to be identified closely with Lawrence throughout her career. The show's success led its producer to create André Charlot's London Revue of 1924, which he brought to Broadway with Lawrence, Lillie, Buchanan, and Constance Carpenter. It was so successful it moved to a larger theater to accommodate the demand for tickets and extended its run. After it closed, the show toured the US and Canada, although Lawrence was forced to leave the cast when she contracted double pneumonia and pleurisy and was forced to spend fourteen weeks in a Toronto hospital recuperating. [10]

Charlot's Revue of 1926, starring Lawrence, Lillie, and Buchanan, opened on Broadway in late 1925. In his review, Alexander Woolcott singled out Lawrence, calling her "the personification of style and sophistication" and "the ideal star." [11] Like its predecessor, it toured following the Broadway run. It proved to be Lawrence's last project with Charlot. In November 1926, she became the first British performer to star in an American musical on Broadway when she opened in Oh, Kay!, with music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, and a book by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse. Following a run of 256 performances, the musical opened in the West End, where it ran for 213 performances. [12]

In 1928, Lawrence returned to Broadway opposite Clifton Webb in Treasure Girl, [13] a Gershwin work she was confident would be a huge hit. Anticipating a long run, she arrived in New York with her daughter Pamela, a personal maid, and two cars, and settled into an apartment on Park Avenue. Her instincts about the musical were wrong; audiences had difficulty accepting her as an avaricious woman who double-crosses her lover, and it ran for only 68 performances. [14] She starred opposite Leslie Howard in Candle Light, an Austrian play adapted by Wodehouse, in 1929, [15] and in 1931 she and Noël Coward triumphed in his play Private Lives, first in the UK and then on Broadway.

Later stage career

In 1936, Lawrence and Coward starred in Tonight at 8:30, a cycle of ten one-act plays he had written specifically for the two of them. In 1937, she appeared in the Rachel Crothers drama Susan and God, [16] and in 1939 starred in Skylark, a comedy by Samson Raphaelson. [17] Lawrence felt the play needed work prior to opening on Broadway, and a run at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts was arranged. The theater was run by Richard Aldrich, and he and the actress became involved in a romantic relationship. The two wed on her birthday in 1940 and remained married until her death in 1952. [18]

Lawrence returned to the musical stage in Lady in the Dark in 1941. It originally had been planned as a play with recurrent musical themes for Katharine Cornell by Moss Hart, Kurt Weill, and Ira Gershwin, but by the time the first act was completed it was clear it was very much a musical Cornell agreed was beyond her capability as a performer. Soon after Hart met Lawrence at a rehearsal for a revue designed to raise funds for British War Relief, and he offered her the role of Liza Elliott, a magazine editor undergoing psychoanalysis to better understand why both her professional and personal lives are filled with indecision. The show was very ambitious and stretched the star's talents for singing, dancing, and acting. Her performance prompted Richard Watts of the New York Herald Tribune to call her "the greatest feminine performer in the American theatre," and Brooks Atkinson described her as "a goddess" in his review in the New York Times. She remained with the show throughout its Broadway run and its subsequent national tour over the next three years. [19]

In 1945, Lawrence starred as Eliza Doolittle opposite Raymond Massey as Henry Higgins in a revival of Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, who initially resisted the idea of Lawrence playing the role. Following the Broadway run, she toured the US and Canada in the play until May 1947. [20]

In 1948, Lawrence returned to England to star in September Tide, a play written specifically for her by Daphne du Maurier. Her role was that of a middle-aged Cornish woman whose son-in-law, a bohemian artist, falls in love with her. The playwright had intended her to open the play on Broadway, but Lawrence's husband thought it was too British for the American market. The London press paid scant attention to her return, and Lawrence was distressed to discover that in a country struggling to recover from the effects of World War II, the public no longer was as interested in the private lives of stage stars as it once had been. [21] Prior to opening in the West End, the play toured Blackpool, Leeds, Liverpool, and Manchester, where the frequently sparse audiences consisted primarily of elderly people who remembered Lawrence from her heyday. While on the road, she underwent erratic mood swings and frequently clashed with her fellow cast members, including Michael Gough and Bryan Forbes, and the crew. [22] The play opened in London in mid-December. Writing in Punch, Eric Keown called her return "an occasion for rejoicing" but dismissed the play as "an artificial piece of conventional sentiment which leaves the actress's talents unused." She remained with the play until July 1949, then returned to the States, where she performed her role for one week at her husband's theater on Cape Cod. [23] According to an authorized 1993 biography of the author and playwright by Margaret Forster, Lawrence began a clandestine affair with du Maurier during the London production of September Tide, as evidenced by love letters between the two published in Forster's book. [24] Lawrence and du Maurier were both bisexual; Lawrence also had an affair with du Maurier's father.[25]

In 1950, Lawrence's business manager and attorney Fanny Holtzmann was looking for a new property for her client when the 1944 Margaret Landon book Anna and the King of Siam was sent to her by the William Morris agent who represented Landon. He thought a stage adaptation of the book would be an ideal vehicle for the actress. Holtzmann agreed, but proposed a musical version would be better. Lawrence wanted Cole Porter to write the score, but when he proved to be unenthused by the suggestion, Holtzmann sent the book to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Rodgers initially demurred because he felt Lawrence's vocal range was limited and she had a tendency to sing flat. But he realized the story had strong potential, and the two men agreed to write what ultimately became The King and I. It opened on Broadway in March 1951, and Lawrence won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance. Her triumph was short-lived; her health deteriorated rapidly, forcing her to miss numerous performances until she finally was hospitalized. Shortly before her death, she suggested co-star Yul Brynner's name be added to the marquee of the St. James Theatre, which included only Lawrence's name at the time. [26]

Film career

Over the course of twenty-one years, Lawrence appeared in only nine films. She made her screen debut in 1929 in The Battle of Paris, which featured two songs by Cole Porter. Paramount Pictures offered her the film shortly after the Broadway production of Treasure Girl unexpectedly closed and, with no prospects of stage work in the immediate future, she accepted the offer. The film, co-starring Arthur Treacher and Charles Ruggles, was shot in Paramount's small studio complex on Long Island. Lawrence was cast as Georgie, an artist living in pre-World War I Paris, who becomes a cabaret singer and falls in love with an American soldier. Publicity for the film emphasized Lawrence's songs and costumes rather than the story, which was so weak director Robert Florey had threatened to resign midway through filming. Described by one critic as a "floperetta," it was not a success. [27]

In 1932 she appeared in three features: an adaptation of the Frederick Lonsdale play Aren't We All? directed by Harry Lachman; Lord Camber's Ladies, produced by Alfred Hitchcock and co-starring Gerald du Maurier; and No Funny Business with Laurence Olivier. In 1935 she appeared in Mimi, based on La Vie de Bohème. The following year she was cast opposite Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester in Rembrandt and co-starred with Rex Harrison in Men are Not Gods, both produced by Alexander Korda. In 1943 she filmed a short musical number for Stage Door Canteen, a wartime film featuring dozens of stars entertaining Allied soldiers on leave.

Probably Lawrence's best known film role was that of Amanda Wingfield, the overbearingly devoted mother in The Glass Menagerie (1950), which both Bette Davis and Tallulah Bankhead had sought. The role, which required her to wear padding and affect a Southern accent, was the most complex and challenging one of her career to date, and friends and critics questioned her decision to accept it. Tennessee Williams, who had written the original play, thought casting Lawrence was "a dismal error" and, after the film's release, called it the worst adaptation of his work he had seen thus far. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called her Amanda "a farcially exaggerated shrew with the zeal of a burlesque comedienne" and "a perfect imitation of a nervous Mama in domestic comedy." Writing about her performance in Saturday Review, Richard Griffith was generous in his praise, saying "Not since Garbo has there been anything like the naked eloquence of her face, with its amazing play of thought and emotion." [28]

Television and radio

In 1938, Lawrence took a night off from Susan and God to perform scenes from the play for NBC's emerging television audience. In 1943, she hosted a weekly series of radio shows, some of them featuring discussions with guests and others adaptations of Hollywood hit films. In 1947 she returned to NBC for a production of the 1913 Shaw play The Great Catherine. In order to promote The King and I, she appeared on various television programs, including The Ed Sullivan Show, with Rodgers and Hammerstein joining her to perform selections from the show. Additionally, she appeared on several BBC Radio interview and variety shows before and after World War II. [29]

World War II

Lawrence's husband Richard Aldrich became a lieutenant in the United States Navy during World War II, during which time Lawrence had a standing invitation to perform for British troops from the head of the UK's Entertainments National Service Association. Her chief obstacle was getting to England. In her 1945 memoir A Star Danced, she recalled, "After weeks of more or less patient waiting, repeated timid, pleading, urgent, and finally importunate requests to the authorities who rule such matters in Washington and London, and a rapid-fire barrage of telegrams, cables, and telephone calls, it had happened. At last I had permission to do what I had been wanting desperately to do for four years — go to England and do my bit on a tour for E.N.S.A." [30]

Lawrence's attorney booked the actress on a British Airways flight from Washington, DC to London that lasted 36 hours, including two refueling stops. When Lawrence boarded the plane, she discovered that she, Ernest Hemingway, and Beatrice Lillie were among the few passengers without diplomatic passports. [31] Hours after landing near London, she performed with E.N.S.A. for British and American troops who, it turned out, had been deployed for the imminent D-Day invasion at Normandy. Lawrence's husband Richard Aldrich was among them. As Allied forces scored more victories in the South Pacific later that year, Lawrence endured long plane rides and dangerous conditions to perform for troops there. [32]

Financial difficulties

Throughout her adult life, Lawrence spent far more than she earned. Philip Astley had persuaded her to place £1000 in a trust fund for her daughter, [33] but aside from that she had no savings of her own. During her engagement to Bert Taylor he managed her finances and encouraged her to invest in the productions in which she starred, but although she earned a considerable amount of money from Private Lives, she still was deeply in debt, at one point owing fashion entrepreneur Hattie Carnegie more than $10,000. [34] She opened accounts with dozens of shop owners but assumed she had unlimited credit and paid little attention to the invoices they sent. Finally two London laundry owners, whose bills totalled just under £50, filed a writ demanding she declare bankruptcy if she was unable to settle her accounts, and Lawrence's financial affairs came under the scrutiny of the Official Receiver. On February 26, 1935, the Daily Mirror reported her assets were valued at £1,879 but her liabilities were nearly £35,000, with an additional £10,000 owed to the Inland Revenue on her earnings in the United States. It later was discovered Lawrence had never paid American taxes either. Her apartment, cars, clothing, and jewelry were seized by the court, and Lawrence, her maid, and her dog were forced to move into a flat owned by her agent at the time. [35] On November 8, 1935, accused of "gross extravagance," she was ordered to pay £50 per week to pay off her debts. (Fannie Holtzmann worked out an agreement whereby $150 would be deducted from her salary each week she worked in the States until her American tax debt was settled.) Determined not to lower her standard of living, Lawrence decided to work in films during the day, appear on stage at night, and perform in late-night cabarets in order to support her spending habits and, much to the distress of her agent, she purchased a country house and farm in Buckinghamshire, then left it vacant while she remained in the US for a lengthy stay. When her agent questioned the wisdom of such a move, she asked him to investigate the cost of a swimming pool installation on the property. Her illogical approach to finances would continue for the remainder of her life. [36]


In 1945, Lawrence published the autobiography A Star Danced. Her longtime friend Noël Coward later suggested it was a romanticized and less than wholly factual account of her life. [37] Although Lawrence claimed the work was solely hers, many suspected Fanny Holtzmann had written much of it. The author embarked on a cross-country tour of the US to publicize her book, the first person ever to engage in such a promotion. [38]

Death and funeral

In August 1952, after fainting following a Saturday matinee of The King and I, Lawrence was admitted to New York Hospital, where doctors said she was suffering from hepatitis. Her former son-in-law, Dr. Bill Cahan, suspected liver cancer might be a more accurate diagnosis, and early on the morning of September 6 doctors performed a biopsy of her liver. Lawrence slipped into a coma, and her husband called Cahan, who rushed to the hospital. Lawrence, who had not seen Cahan in years, briefly opened her eyes, seemed puzzled by his presence, and then died. A subsequent autopsy revealed Cahan's suggestion of cancer had been correct. [39]

According to the New York Times, 5,000 people crowded the intersection of 55th Street and Fifth Avenue in midtown-Manhattan while 1,800 others, including Yul Brynner, Connecticut Governor John Davis Lodge, Marlene Dietrich, Luise Rainer, Moss Hart, and his wife Kitty Carlisle, filled Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church for Lawrence's funeral. In his eulogy, Oscar Hammerstein II quoted from an essay on death written by poet and novelist Rabindranath Tagore. [40] Lawrence was buried in the champagne-colored gown worn for the "Shall We Dance?" number in the second act of The King and I, and she was interred in the Aldrich family plot in Lakeview Cemetery in Upton, Massachusetts.


In early 1953, Lawrence's name was included on a list of Columbia University professors who had died the previous year and were honored with a memorial service and flags on the campus lowered to half-staff. [41]

In 1968, Julie Andrews portrayed Lawrence in the musical biographical film Star!, loosely based on her life. Richard Crenna appeared as Richard Aldrich, who worked as a consultant on the film, and Noël Coward was portrayed by Daniel Massey. Released at a time when the popularity of musical films was on the wane, it was a commercial failure, however it was critically well received, and nominated for seven Academy Awards.

Janet McTeer portrayed Lawrence opposite Geraldine Somerville as Daphne Du Maurier and Malcolm Sinclair as Noël Coward in Daphne, a 2007 television movie broadcast by the BBC.

Selected theatre credits

  • Some (West End, 1916)
  • Cheep! (West End, 1917)
  • A to Z (West End, 1921)
  • London Calling! (West End, 1923)
  • Andre Charlot's Revue of 1924 (Broadway, 1924)
  • Charlot Revue (West End, 1925)
  • Charlot's Revue of 1926 (Broadway and US tour, 1925-26)
  • Oh, Kay! (Broadway, 1926; West End, 1927)
  • Treasure Girl (Broadway, 1928)
  • Candle Light (Broadway, 1929)
  • The International Review (Broadway, 1930)
  • Private Lives (West End, 1930; Broadway, 1931)
  • Nymph Errant (West End, 1933)
  • Tonight at 8:30 (UK tour, 1935; West End and Broadway, 1936; US tour, 1947; Broadway revival, 1948)
  • Susan and God (Broadway, 1937; US tour, 1938)
  • Skylark (US tour and Broadway, 1939)
  • Lady in the Dark (Broadway, 1941)
  • Errand for Bernice (US tour, 1944)
  • Blithe Spirit (Hawaii, 1945)
  • Pygmalion (Broadway, 1945; US tour, 1946)
  • September Tide (UK tour and West End, 1948-49; Cape Cod, 1949)
  • The King and I (Broadway, 1951)


  • The Battle of Paris (1929)
  • Aren't We All? (1932)
  • Lord Camber's Ladies (1932)
  • No Funny Business (1932)
  • Mimi (1935)
  • Rembrandt (1936)
  • Men Are Not Gods (1936)
  • Stage Door Canteen (1943)
  • The Glass Menagerie (1950)


  1. ^ Morley, Sheridan, Gertrude Lawrence. New York, New York: McGraw-Hill 1981. ISBN 0-07-043149-3 pp. 5-6
  2. ^ Morley, p.8
  3. ^ Morley, pp. 9-12
  4. ^ Morley, pp. 16-21
  5. ^ Morley, pp. 24-29, 61
  6. ^ Morley, pp. 63-64
  7. ^ Morley, pp. 32-34
  8. ^ Morley, pp. 68-69
  9. ^ Morley, pp. 35-37
  10. ^ Morley, pp. 44-54
  11. ^ Morley, pp. 57-58
  12. ^ Morley, pp. 61-69
  13. ^ Treasure Girl at the Internet Broadway Database
  14. ^ Morley, pp. 70-71
  15. ^ Candle Light at the Internet Broadway Database
  16. ^ Susan and God at the Internet Broadway Database
  17. ^ Skylark at the Internet Broadway Database
  18. ^ Morley, pp. 134-37
  19. ^ Morley, pp. 142-51
  20. ^ Morley, pp. 164-68
  21. ^ Morley, pp. 171-72
  22. ^ Morley, pp. 174-76
  23. ^ Morley, pp. 177-81
  24. ^ Forster, Margaret, Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller. London: Chatto & Windus 1993 ISBN 0701136995
  25. ^ Literary greats: Rebecca - love, paranoia, obsession
  26. ^ Morley, pp. 185-98
  27. ^ Morley, pp. 71-72
  28. ^ Morley, p. 181-82
  29. ^ Morley, p. 210
  30. ^ Lawrence, Gertrude, A Star Danced. Garden City, New York: Garden City Publishing Company 1945, p. 12
  31. ^ Kert, Bernice, The Hemingway Women. New York, New York: W. W. Norton & Company 1983, p. 392
  32. ^ Aldrich, Richard, Gertrude Lawrence As Mrs. A. New York: Greystone Press 1954.
  33. ^ Morley, p. 65
  34. ^ Morley, p. 86
  35. ^ Morley, pp. 109-10
  36. ^ Morley, pp. 118-22
  37. ^ Morley, p. 6
  38. ^ Morley, p. 162
  39. ^ Morley, pp. 197-98
  40. ^ New York Times, September 10, 1952, p. 29.
  41. ^ New York Times, January 19, 1953, p. 27

External links

Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Ethel Merman
for Call Me Madam
Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical
for The King and I
Succeeded by
Rosalind Russell
for Wonderful Town


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