Gertrude Alice Dagmar Klasen (1898 – 1952), or as we theatre folks call her, Gertrude Lawrence, had hordes of adoring audiences in both Britain and the USA. She was the first true international superstar, a Cockney who conquered adoring audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.
Lawrence’s appeal went far beyond the sophisticated international showbiz elite. She lived in the USA for most of her career and toured the country so widely that she became a front-page celebrity from coast to coast. George and Ira Gershwin wrote Oh, Kay! (1926) for her, where she was the first artist to sing Someone To Watch Over Me. Noël Coward wrote one of the greatest comedies of the 20th century, Private Lives (1930), especially for her, and together they created the sparkling lead characters. Kurt Weill and Moss Hart wrote Lady In The Dark (1944) for her; Rogers and Hammerstein wrote The King And I (1956) for her. Most showbiz types agree that Joseph L. Mankiewicz wrote the film All About Eve (1950) based on her.
But by the time of her death at just 54 years old, Lawrence had made only a handful of films, now seldom seen, in which the camera failed to capture her bright, shining, special allure. Those of us who never saw her brand of charisma light up a stage are left with only the press clipping, the interviews, and the recordings of her haunting, but precarious singing voice as proof to her greatness.
Lawrence was a lifelong friend and a frequent collaborator with comic genius (and lesbian) Beatrice Lillie. She was Noël Coward’s best friend for 40 years. Coward, who met her when they first worked together on stage when she was 14 years old, described her as:
“Far from pretty, but tremendously alive”.
Without her theatrical make-up, Lawrence was quite plain, probably the reason why her great success was on the stage and never repeated on screen. When the curtain went up, she possessed that unexplainable “it factor” that transformed her into a most glamorous star. Coward:
“Sometimes, in Private Lives, I would look at her across the stage and she would simply take my breath away.”
At their first meeting, Lawrence told the 13-year-old Coward a few “mildly dirty stories” and later took him into a bedroom and showed him the ropes. It is very probable that Lawrence was the gay Coward’s single straight sexual experience. Coward denied this anecdote vehemently, once telling Gore Vidal that he had never had sex with a woman.
Vidal: “Not even with Gertie Lawrence?”
Coward: “Particularly not with Miss Lawrence.”
Lawrence had one short-lived marriage that produced a daughter, but there was a long succession of lovers, male and female, including the married actor/manager Sir Gerald du Maurier. His daughter, novelist Daphne du Maurier, bitterly resented Lawrence’s role in her father’s life because of the distress it caused her mother. Miss du Maurier had her revenge by becoming another of Lawrence’s lovers, then using her and tossing her aside.
Another Lawrence love affair was with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. who wrote:
“She was very temperamental, very jealous, could be exhausting, moody, difficult… but also enchanting and alive and very funny.”
Her most controversial relationship of all was her fling with the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII, later Duke of Windsor. Their affair infuriated his mother, Queen Mary, who disapproved of Lawrence happily ever after.
At the height of her fame in the 1930s, Lawrence was massively in debt. Her lawyer observed that she spent money “like an entire fleet of drunken sailors”. To the astonishment of her friends, she married the wealthy American impresario and theatre owner, Richard Aldrich. Coward disliked Aldrich, but sent a telegram with his customary wit:
“Dear Mrs. A,
Hooray Hooray. At last you are deflowered. On this as every other day I love you.”
Like her other friends, Coward doubted she loved Aldrich, but the marriage gave her financial security. Lawrence continued to have affairs with members of both sexes while a married woman.
One of her last lovers was Yul Brynner, then 35 years old and married. Brynner was virtually unknown when he was cast in The King And I, with the 52-year-old Lawrence’s name above the title and his listed below it and in smaller lettering.
Throughout rehearsals, there were many complaints from songwriters Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein about her singing off-key. She became increasingly temperamental and the director, the gay John Van Druten, was not strong enough to handle her.
As you well know, Brynner exuded real masculine authority and tremendous sexual heat. When Brynner spoke, Lawrence listened. The director would give notes to Lawrence via Brynner. Partly because of his influence, The King And I received rave reviews and became a huge hit. But the complaints about Lawrence’s singing never stopped. Rodgers and Hammerstein wanted her out of the show, even though she had won the Tony Award for her performance.
Lawrence, who was head-over-heels for Brynner, had no intention of quitting the show, but 18 months into the run, during the heat of a New York City summer, she collapsed after a performance. She was diagnosed with that damn cancer. She told her lawyer from her hospital bed:
“I don’t think I’m going to get out of this place. See that Yul gets star billing. He has earned it.”
And she wasn’t just talking about his acting.
When Hammerstein told Brynner he would at last receive the top billing, he began to cry. Hammerstein:
“He told me, and I believed him, that losing Lawrence was a too tremendous a price to pay for advancement. It was the only time I ever saw him cry.”
6,000 fans gathered outside the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, while 1,800 guests attended Lawrence’s funeral. Lawrence was buried in the champagne-colored gown that she had worn for the Shall We Dance? number in the second act of The King And I. She was the first person for whom lights were dimmed on Broadway theatres due to the passing of a member of their community.
There is a rather good, if slightly messy, film based on the life of Lawrence that is filled with first rate musical numbers, Star!, with Julie Andrews as Lawrence. The 1968 film, directed by Robert Wise, mostly gets it right.