September 23, 1900 – Hutch Hutchinson
I am fan of the hit PBS/ITV television series Downton Abbey and I am looking forward to seeing the new film adaptation, a continuation of the series, on Tuesday. I don’t want any spoilers, but I did look at the cast list which shows that Lily James, who played Lady Rose, is not reprising her role for the film, which also means no Jack Ross, one of my favorite characters.
Jack Ross was the first black character on Downton Abbey. Ross is a jazz cabaret singer at the Lotus Jazz Club in London, but probably very few viewers knew that the role was based on Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson, a real life, immensely talented African-American gentleman who made it rich as a cabaret singer and pianist, while insinuating himself into high society in Paris and London. He traveled in chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce, owned a grand home in London and wore exquisitely custom-tailored clothing.
Ross is played by yummy Gary Carr, an English stage, film and television actor, dancer and musician. He can currently be seen in The Deuce, the HBO series about the porn industry in New York City in the 1970s.
The real Hutchinson was a philanderer, seducer, gigolo and a pathological liar. He frequently reinvented himself and overstated his credentials. He was also handsome, talented, devastatingly charming and notoriously well endowed. He was also bisexual, with a voracious sexual appetite. His male conquests included gay songwriters Cole Porter and Ivor Novello; plus, assignations with Tallulah Bankhead and Merle Oberon, nobles, royals and the merely rich.
His “thing” with Countess Edwina Mountbatten, the wife of bisexual Lord Louis Mounbatten proved to be his undoing. Lord Mountbatten had liaisons on the side too, and he wasn’t that particular about the gender. Behind his back his whispered nickname was “Lord Mountbottom.”
Hutchinson was born of mixed-race heritage on the island of Grenada, making him a British citizen. He attended the best schools and was a celebrated piano prodigy. In his mid-teens his father sent him to study medicine in Nashville, at one of the few schools that allowed black students. He didn’t last long in school and landed in Harlem, where he became a successful stride pianist. Fats Waller and Duke Ellington were in his circle, and the Vanderbilts and Astors hired him to play piano for their private parties.
Five years later, Hutchinson moved to Paris, where he started his climb to the world of high society. Then it was off to London, where his career reached its zenith in the late 1920s and 1930s. Known mostly as a pianist prior to London, he began singing while accompanying himself on the piano. He proved to be a truly great cabaret singer, in a style like Bobby Short‘s in Manhattan a generation later. Hutchinson became a favorite cabaret singer of the then Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, and later still, Duke of Windsor. Hutchinson was a regular on BBC radio.
It was said that waiters stopped dead as if petrified when he sang. He had a liquid, magic voice. He could inject more sex into one bar of music than most people knew in a lifetime.
He made his West End debut in One Damn Thing After Another, an expensively mounted revue with costumes by Coco Chanel. But he also came up against a prejudice: black men were not allowed onstage with white women. The reviews were ecstatic, but Variety, the showbiz newspaper, made no mention of his name. He may have been brilliant, but he was black. And there were the rules.
On opening night of One Damn Thing, the Prince of Wales brought along his cousin Lord Mountbatten, who sat in the royal box with his wife Edwina. They were transfixed by what they saw. Lady Mountbatten was especially enraptured.
The granddaughter of King Edward VII‘s millionaire banker Sir Ernest Cassel, Lady Mountbatten epitomized the spirit of the era of the Bright Young Things. She enjoyed living the day backwards, starting the morning with brandy and a five-course dinner and ending up at midnight with her porridge. She was very rich and very headstrong, and she craved the gorgeous jazz singer on the stage.
A few nights later, Hutchinson performed a late-night set at the chic Chez Victor, where he sang directly to Lady Mountbatten. She took off her chiffon scarf and put it round his neck and kissed him while he was playing. Such behavior between a titled woman and a black male was unheard of. But she didn’t care if people talked. Her passion for him increased, and four years later, Lady Mountbatten and the black entertainer were still making special music together.
Hutchinson was celebrated as the greatest entertainer of the age; but Walter Winchell, America’s favorite gossip columnist, drew attention to this unlikely pair, while British newspapers looked the other way. Winchell:
”Edwina Mountbatten, married to Queen Victoria‘s grandson, they say she is fond of dark-skinned men. They’re particularly well endowed, you know.”
Actor John Mills, later wrote:
”He used to play tennis and was great fun. I remember we men all showered together. What a man!”
For the Brits, his attraction lay in his uninhibited approach to sex. Hutch boasted to fellow musicians that his dick was the biggest in the world. Lady Mountbatten paid homage to the prized possession by commissioning from Cartier to make a jeweled sheath for it. She also gave him a gold cigarette case with an inscription, a ring bearing her coat of arms, and a gold identity bracelet bearing another inscription. In return, Hutchinson gave her hunks and hunks of burning love.
Hutchinson had a wife and child at home, yet most visitors assumed that she was a servant. An African-Anglo-Chinese woman, she was excluded from Hutchinson’s professional and social life. He fathered seven more children by six different white women. Plus, there were all the women who chose to have abortions.
Bizarrely, Hutchinson took Lady Mountbatten with him when he performed for inmates of Dartmoor Prison. Onlookers were shocked as the chauffeured limousine made its way through the prison gates while in the back Hutchinson and Lord Mountbatten’s wife were holding hands.
The fun came to an end on Sunday morning when a newspaper unexpectedly launched an attack. Without naming her, the article announced:
”It concerns one of the leading hostesses in the country – a woman highly connected and immensely rich. Her association with a colored man… the couple were caught in compromising circumstances.”
The item implied that she was having an affair with the celebrated American Paul Robeson, the only other black male singer in London.
A resulting libel suit caused a sensation. Lady Mountbatten stated she had never met Robeson, which was true and confirmed by the singer. With the King’s influence, the newspaper backed down. Massive damages were paid to charity and the Mountbattens were very publicly invited to lunch at Buckingham Palace the next day.
Hutchinson remained popular in London, but he suddenly felt the chilly establishment disapproval. Despite his continuing success, Hutchinson was never asked to perform at a Royal Command Performance. The BBC dropped him from radio shows and some theatres no longer booked him.
During WW II, he entertained the troops tirelessly, but was never recognized for his morale-boosting work.
Hutchinson spent his fortune as fast as he made it, spending his money on houses, automobiles, the best clothes and gambling. He was pampered and gifted by dozens of rich men and women, but with the changes in musical style and tastes after World War II, Hutchinson had to live on money from occasional jobs in smaller venues, and he often had to borrow money to pay his bills. He let himself go physically and drank too much, and soon enough his trademark slim, hot body and good looks were gone.
The former lovers were to meet just once more, however. After work one night, Hutchinson went to the Dorchester Hotel for a last drink. As he walked in, the newly ennobled Earl and Countess Mountbatten were leaving, and the Countess cooed: ”Oh look, there’s Hutch!” Her Husband growled: ”Hutch? I thought he was dead”. He may as well have been.
Hutch died in London, taken by pneumonia in 1969. Only 42 mourners attended his funeral service. Ironically, Lord Mountbatten paid for the burial costs.
His incomparable rendition of The Way You Look Tonight, music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Dorothy Fields:
Cole Porter wrote Just A Gigolo for, and about, Hutchinson, who delivered the first ever performance of the song in 1929:
I should like you all to know
I’m a famous gigolo
And of lavender, my nature’s got just a dash in it
As I’m slightly undersexed
You will always find me next
To some dowager who’s wealthy rather than passionate
Go to one of those night club places
And you’ll find me stretching my braces
Pushing ladies with lifted faces ’round the floor
But I must confess to you
There are moments when I’m blue
And I ask myself whatever I do it for
I’m a flower that blooms in the winter
Sinking deeper and deeper in snow
I’m a baby who has
No mother but jazz
I’m a gigolo
Ev’ry morning, when labor is over
To my sweet-scented lodgings I go
Take the glass from the shelf
And look at myself
I’m a gigolo
I get stocks and bonds
From faded blondes
Ev’ry twenty-fifth of December
Still I’m just a pet
That men forget
And only tailors remember
Yet when I see the way all the ladies
Treat their husbands who put up the dough
You cannot think me odd
If then I thank God
I’m a gigolo