Shaw’s fair lady
In the latest in his series on eminent Camden Victorians, Neil Titley turns his attention to actress and wit, Mrs Patrick Campbell
29 May, 2020 — By Neil Titley
Mrs Patrick Campbell as painted by William Bruce Ellis Ranken
IN its former role as a theatre, the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead was fortunate to play host to the remarkable star Mrs Patrick Campbell (1865-1940). When she performed there in a revival of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in 1922, the critic James Agate wrote: “The size and flame of her acting consumed that humble temple utterly. She must have made herself felt that night from Finchley to Camden Town.”
It is debateable whether in her day “Mrs Pat” was better known for her acting, her wit, or her lovers. Although Bernard Shaw claimed that she was not a professional actress but an inspired amateur, Mrs Pat – using her “wind in the chimney” voice and employing her own dictum that acting needed “a heart of fire and a head of ice” – triumphed throughout the 1890s and beyond. Unfortunately as her career ballooned, so did her self-esteem. WB Yeats complained that she had “an ego like a raging toothache”.
Best remembered for her quote concerning gay scandals: “I don’t care what people do as long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses”, she was also capable of purring a riposte when Rudyard Kipling told her that women had no sense of humour. “I replied that God had decreed it that way so that we might love men instead of laughing at them.”
During rehearsals for another play, a long-suffering author shouted up at her: “Really, Mrs Campbell, you seem to have lost your memory!”
Glaring back, she rasped: “Indeed! Looking at the jokes in your script, you don’t seem to have lost yours”.
She met her match one night when she was assigned to accompany an inoffensive-looking little man into dinner. Mischievously, she gazed down with her most languorous “come-to-bed” stare and gurgled: “Tell me, which would you prefer? To love passionately or to be loved passionately?”
The little man fingered his tie, cleared his throat, and then replied: “Well, I guess I’d rather be a canary”.
To which, Mrs Pat admitted, there was no answer.
Already pregnant at the age of 19 with the first of their two children, she eloped to marry her lover Patrick Campbell in 1884. Attempting to build the family fortunes, Patrick left for South Africa and in his absence Mrs Pat decided on a theatrical career. By the time her husband returned, he was bewildered to find that his young wife was now a major London celebrity. Mrs Pat also found the situation awkward:
“Patrick and I were lunching at a smart restaurant when Oscar Wilde passed. I introduced them. ‘Your husband, Mrs. Campbell? How dreadfully suburban’.”
After Patrick had returned to Africa only to be killed in the Boer War, the field was left free for his wife to acquire a string of well-publicised lovers.
Mrs Pat: “Rumours kept spreading that I went to nude parties. I love a good disgrace. I don’t object to nudity. Only to fig leaves. They attract my attention.”
One man who became besotted was her co-star Gerald du Maurier. She was a frequent visitor to his Hampstead home, dining at Jack Straw’s Castle and strolling on the Heath.
Bernard Shaw was another unlikely conquest. In spite of his earlier description: “Mrs. Pat resembles a rather attractive bullfinch”, when he actually met her he was entranced. Baffled by this late-flowering experience of sexual desire, he admitted: “I haven’t been quite the same man since.” Despite his subsequent rejection Shaw bore no grudges and cast Mrs Pat as the original Eliza Doolittle in his play Pygmalion.
In 1912 Mrs Pat married for a second time, after seducing George Cornwallis-West away from his wife Lady Jennie Churchill, (and thus depriving Winston Churchill of his step-father). Mrs Pat remarked that she appreciated “the deep, deep peace of the double bed after the hurly-burly of the chaise longue”. While the bed may have been peaceful, the marriage wasn’t, and George abandoned her in 1920.
Not everyone fell for her charms though. An actor called Philip Merrivale reported that one night he was waiting for his cue in the theatre wings. A stagehand beside him gazed out at Mrs Pat on stage and whispered: “That there Patrick Campbell, he was a lucky man”.
Merrivale nodded: “Yes, she’s still a handsome woman”.
The stagehand shook his head: “No, no, I don’t mean that. What I mean is, he got himself killed in the Boer War.”
In the 1930s Mrs Pat arrived in Hollywood intent on a new career in films. She was asked to fill out a studio publicity form, detailing name, height, colour of eyes and hair, etc. In answer to the question “Experience?” she wrote “King Edward VII.”
Her Hollywood screen test proved her downfall. Aged almost 70, she played the 14-year-old Juliet in Shakespeare’s balcony scene. On seeing the test, she ruefully agreed that: “I looked more like Mussolini’s mother.”
Mrs Pat retired to Pau in the French Pyrenees where she died of pneumonia in 1940.
- Adapted from Neil Titley’s book The Oscar Wilde World of Gossip. For details go to www.wildetheatre.co.uk