Starlight Rendezvous: Calling Dickie Valentine

Though overlooked today, during the 1950s, so great was Dickie Valentine’s popularity that a 1957 meeting of his fan club was so oversubscribed that the Royal Albert Hall was chosen as the venue. Such devotion could he inspire from his admirers, one 1956 report highlighted the case of Suzanne Crowley – a young girl who referred to herself as a ‘raving mad Dickie Valentine fan,’ and was so obsessed with her idol, that she carried a record player around with her so she could listen to his music at all times, and also wore one of his records as a hat.

Born Richard Maxwell in Marylebone on 4th November 1929, his first film role came at the tender age of 3, in the comedy Jack’s the Boy, starring Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge. Finding steady work as a child actor, he developed a routine in which he impersonated many popular singers of the day such as Mario Lanza and Frankie Laine – something he would continue to do for the rest of his career. Possessing an impressive voice of his own however, he was a regular on the London nightclub circuit, and on 14th February 1949, signed as a vocalist for Ted Heath’s band, Ted Heath and His Music; in honour of the date his big break arrived, he adopted the stage name Dickie Valentine. Continue reading

Silver Blaze: The Illustrious Jeremy Brett

‘It’s very rare I’ve been able to get into the twentieth century. When I turn from 1899 to 1900 I jump for joy. I did in Rebecca, I got into the 30s then. I have done some modern stuff but I’m so thrilled I over-act like crazy. I’ve got pockets! I’m so used to wearing tights all the time that when I put my hands in my pockets I nearly fall over. I’m so unused to playing a modern guy.’ Born Peter William Jeremy Huggins in the Warwickshire village of Berkswell on 3rd November 1933, Jeremy Brett as he would be known professionally (he changed his name upon his father’s request, choosing ‘Brett’ from a label in one of his suits) spent the majority of his career performing in period pieces, a path he naturally found himself following, owing to his quintessentially English good looks and upper-class demeanour.

The youngest of four brothers, Brett was the son of Lieutenant Colonel Henry William Huggins and his wife, Elizabeth Edith Cadbury (a member of the famous family of chocolate-makers). After an idyllic childhood, in which he developed a lifelong love of horse-riding and archery, Brett was sent to Eton, where he was a self-confessed ‘academic disaster’ and struggled with a speech impediment which affected how he pronounced the letters ‘R’ and ‘S.’ A surgical procedure, which he underwent in his late teens, coupled with daily vocal exercises, gave Brett the resplendent voice for which he would become renowned.

Interested in acting from an early age, after leaving Eton, Brett studied at the Central School of Speech and Drama, making his stage debut at the Library Theatre in Manchester in 1954. Brett remembered how his father had initially been disparaging about his chosen career, as he had believed that ‘any respectable middle-class boy shouldn’t do a thing like that. He thought it was all drinking champagne out of slippers.’ Continue reading

La Plus Belle Femme De France: The Charm Of Agnès Souret

Born in Biarritz on 21st January 1902, with her wavy chestnut hair and large dark eyes, Jeanne Germaine Berthe Agnès Souret, known as Agnès, had a charm that encapsulated prevailing European standards of beauty during the early twentieth century. After her birth, there was some confusion about her father’s identity, and her mother Marguerite was unemployed and unmarried, something that would later be covered up by press reports that she had in fact been a ballet dancer. In early childhood, Agnès and her mother moved to the village of Espelette in the Aquitaine region.

At the age of 17, Agnès, who had reached a height of 1.68 m, won a beauty contest and was crowned Miss Midi-Pyrénées; and as result, her photograph was entered into the first ever Miss France competition, launched by the newspaper Le Journal in an attempt to discover ‘the most beautiful woman in France’ along with a letter written by Agnès, which read ‘I am only 17 years old, tell me if I have to cross France to take a chance.’ Over 2,000 young women were put forward as contestants and the rigorous and widespread voting system saw more than 200,000 votes cast, with Agnès receiving around 115,000. In the New York Times, she was hailed as ‘the fairest in France,’ and the journalist Maurice De Waleffe wrote that Agnès realised ‘the ideal’ of ‘French charm.’ Continue reading

The Crystal Stair: Lorraine Hansberry’s Gifts

In spite of her privileged background, Lorraine Hansberry’s all too brief life was devoted to fighting prejudice and the injustices suffered by many on account of their gender, sexuality, or the colour of their skin. Born in Chicago on 19th May 1930, Hansberry came from a prominent African American family; her father Carl Augustus Hansberry, was a prosperous real-estate broker and her uncle, William Leo Hansberry, a highly respected academic at Howard University. In 1938, the Hansberrys moved to an area of Chicago where there was a restrictive covenant on African American property owners, and in 1940, Carl Augustus Hansberry went before the U.S. Supreme Court to contest the discrimination in a case known as Hansberry v. Lee. The family were also subjected to shocking and bigoted attacks from some of their neighbours, with bricks being frequently thrown through their windows.

Her father’s experience was to have a lasting impact upon Hansberry and following his death in 1946, she became more politically-minded and socially aware, involving herself with campus concerns after starting a course in art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she joined the Young Progressives of America as well as the Labor Youth League. Spending the summer of 1949 in Mexico, studying at the University of Guadalajara, Hanberry decided to quit her formal education and dropped out of university in 1950, leaving for New York with dreams of becoming a writer.

In New York, Hansberry enrolled at The New School for Social Research and worked as the associate editor for Freedom, a radical newspaper founded by the singer and civil rights activist, Paul Robeson, who had been a friend of her father’s.  Whilst participating in a protest against racial inequality, Hansberry met Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish songwriter, and the two were married in 1953. Only a few years after her marriage, Hansberry began to question her sexuality and in 1957, wrote several letters which were published in The Ladder, a national magazine with a predominantly lesbian readership. However, Hansberry remained cautious about revealing her identity and signed the letters using only her initials. Continue reading