IF VENUS ROSE from the waves, Gladys Cooper rose on a sea of colored picture postcards and chocolate-box lids. Born the same year as the Kodak and "discovered" by a photographer when she was six, Gladys was, from her childhood, on display in shop windows across Britain and even as far as Italy; over 400 photographs of her were published between 1906 and 1920. With her golden tresses down to her waist, large blue eyes, oval face, delicate pink-and-white complexion like an English rose, Gladys Cooper was the whole spirit of healthy virginal girlhood, so cherished by the Edwardians.
Sheridan Morley, son of the actor Robert Morley and Gladys' daughter Joan, brings loving care and assiduous research to the task of telling his grandmother's story. Drama critic and arts editor of Punch , as well as author of numerous theatrical biographies, Morley has produced a book which enchants with every human quality, while a second reading only reveals fresh delights. Gladys Cooper was an exceptional woman and a great actress.
However, she had not aspired to be an acress but had simply gravitated to the theater as a celestial body takes up its appointed position in the skies. Beginning in the chorus of the Gaiety -- where she learned the basics of her profession and the discipline of the stage -- she moved on when Seymour Hicks, an actor and playwright, decided to launch her career as an actress by sending her on tour in his play Bluebell in Fairland. She opened at Oxford during Christmas, 1905, and at once the critics were writing of her stunning loveliness.
Then Charles Hawtrey, England's best light comedian, the mentor of many young players, took her in hand and put her in a string of light comedies at the Playhouse. Whilst Hawtrey provided the entertainment, Gladys attracted hordes of ladies from all over the country who came to town just to see "Gladys Cooper in the flesh." The tea-tables of the countryside were kept in lively chatter for months over all the lovely gowns she had managed to wear in the course of three acts.
During the devastating war years, the London theaters were swamped with musical revues, ragtime, huge spectacles like Chu Chin Chow , cheap dramas, patriotic songs and music-hall comedians, but at the Playhouse, Gladys ran on (and so did the torrent of postcards). In 1916 she became a partner in the management.
When the war finally ended, England picked herself up and looked around at a world where almost all the young males had gone, and the civilities of life had almost been forgotten. Gladys emerged from the wreckage much as the spirit of Helen had floated from the ruins of Troy down through the ages, serene and undismayed, to stir the hearts of schoolboys, Beauty Invulnerable.
Following the war, the women of Britain rediscovered the paraphernalia of vanity. To the shock of their families, they plastered their faces with coarse make-up, darkened their eyes, whitened their noses and smeared scarlet onto their lips, until some looked like walking Picassos. Gladys Cooper lent her name to a line of cosmetics, advising the need for understated artifice, and the firm, advertised in the Playhouse programs, prospered.
With all this going for her, no one expected Gladys Cooper to become or even try to become a great actress. But she next came under the influence of Gerald du Maurier who, they say, was drawn to her because of her extraordinary, natural way of acting, a mode he himself expoused. He talked her into making a great experiment: to play high drama in a new way. Rumors ran round that Gladys was rehearsing, with Gerald, a very important play; she was going to pay in Pinero's Second Mrs. Tanqueray, a part which Mrs. Patrick Campbell had made legend. It was a role for a superstar, and when Gladys and Du Maurier began rehearsals secretly, people gasped and shook their heads. She can't possible! She must be crazy! It will be the most awful flop!
Her great friend and companion at that time was Ivor Novello, the composer and suddenly risen film star. I remember him fighting off all inquirers at the Ivy Restaurant with his famous smile, revealing nothing. "But, Ivor, even Noel Coward says . . . " Ivor shut them up. "I won't hear a word against Noel . . . or for him! Gladys can do anything she puts her mind to."
On the first night there was a suppressed excitement in the dressing rooms of Shaftesbury Avenue. The theater was crowded, many could recall Mrs. Pat's performance, all were cognoscenti. That night, as the curtains fell all across the West End, actors rushed to their dressing rooms to remove their make-up and await the verdict in excitement and fear . . . then, like a bush telegraph across the African night, the word came . . . Gladyss has a smash hit!
Next day J. T. Grein, the critic, wrote "Gladys Cooper deserves unbounded praise, and there is no exaggeration in saying that in the English theatre she has attained her place among the leaders."
For some years there continued for Gladys success after success: The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, Diplamacy and, in 1927, Somerset Maugham's famous drama The Letter. of Gladys, who starred in a number of his plays, Maugham later wrote, "It's interesting how Gladys Cooper has succeeded in turning herself from an indifferent actress into an extremely accomplished one." The letter was a great box-office hit and there were tours, but, strangely enough, when it finally finished, Gladys was unable to find anything to take its place.
Then a run of appalling bad luck began, complicated by the break-up of her second marriage. In 1933 she lost the Playhouse. Soon she was in debt, forced to sell her home. Although over 40, she decided to change her life. She moved to New York where she met and fell in love with the Broadway Shakespearean actor, Philip Merivale. The relationship was not immediately smooth: He had three children and his second wife was dying; Gladys had three also and was not yet divorced. Months of personal distress were followed by the outbreak of World War II, adding to the confusion. But eventually they were married, and in 1939 Alfred Hitchcock fetched Gladys out to Hollywood to play Laurence Olivier's sister in Rebecca.
She quickly appreciated California: "All her life Gladys had lived in cold and rainy climates and now, abruptly, for the first time in her 50 years, she was introduced to the sun." But her presence in Hollywood created scarcely a ripple; apart from the rather startled English colony, nobody knew her or cared. Many actresses might have felt humiliation after a lifetime of adulation but she only wanted Philip, who was still back on Broadway. (Merivale did join Gladys in California, found some acting work with the studios, but died within four years of settling there.)
Now began a long, vivid, gossipy correspondence with her daughter Joan in London. "People do seem to live awfully well out here," she wrote, "and it's all so different from London and New York: Nobody seems to take their acting very seriously and they all seem to be long-term contracts and half the time they don't even know which film they're doing."
Almost every star and supporting player in Hollywood makes an appearance or two in Gladys' letters -- Myrna Loy, Clark Gable (his "ears stock out like a bat and haven't hurt his career at all"), Ronald Colman, Bette Davis, Alan Ladd ("a funny little man . . . who wears very high heels to make him look taller"), Robert Montgomery, Basil Rathbone, Larry and Vivien, Ginger Rogers ("very nice, quite small though she looks so big on the screen") and many, many more.
There was even Garbo, of whom Gladys approved because she helped with the dishes when she came for tea. Once the two of them, along with Ivor Novello, paid a visit to David Niven: "'Who's that in the car, Gladys!'" Niven asked. "'Only Garbo,'" she replied.
Gladys won three nominations for the Oscar, the last being for Rex Harrison's mother in My Fair Lady; the first had been for Now Voyager and then for The Song of Bernadette. She made Hollywood her home for 20 years before returning to London in 1951 to play Felicity, Countess of Marshwood in Noel Coward's Relative Values. At her first entrance she received a standing ovation, which brought tears to her eyes and unbalanced her for just a moment; then she gave the performance of her life. The play ran for 777 performances, and England embraced her like a long-lost darling.
Gladys Cooper died in 1971, nearly 83, at her riverside house in Henley-on-Thames. When the news reached London, they dimmed the lights outside all the theaters in Shaftesbury Avenue. It was an honor accorded only four times in this century.