Gracie Fields, the raucous, song-belting British music hall and film entertainer who reached the peak of her popularity in World War II, died unexpectedly Thursday at her home on Capri. She was 81.
Her agent in London said she recently had been hospitalized for six weeks with bronchial pneumonia but had been released and seemed to be "doing fine" when she collapsed at her home, the Reuter news agency reported.
Her last public appearance had been in London in February, when she was named a dame of the Order of the British Empire in the queen's honor list.
While she was known as "Our Gracie" to millions of Britons, she also had performaned frequently in this country and on the continent. An international star, she at one time had maintained a home in Beverly Hills, Calif., as well as in London. During the last half of her life she had lived in a villa on Capri.
Dame Gracie was an "ordinary mill girl" who went on to become the highest paid entertainer in the world in the 1930s.
She was born Grace Stansfield in the drab industrial town of Rochdale in Lancashire, England. While she had to work off and on in the mills as a girl, she made her singing debut at an early age on the stage of a movie theater. She later described that debut:
"Me mother was crying in the front row and me father was drunk behind the piano stool."
Undismayed, she continued to make use of her Lancashire dialect in song, grabbing at every opportunity to entertain. Eventually, she augmented it with the clipped tones of high society.
With that voice and her rendition, which a critic once described as "a cross between a yodeling song and a Bach cantata," she was able to switch from high to low comedy or to sentimental numbers without a break. Her audiences often responded with both laughter and tears.
After appearing successfully in music halls with the new name of Gracie Fields, she achieved her first London success in a revue called "Mr. Tower of London" during World War I when she helped to entertain troops.
Her first film success was "Sally in Our Alley." From that she adopted her theme song, which she used for 47 years: "Sally, Sally, pride of our alley, you're more than the whole world to me."
Another famous song she used to wow her audiences involved England's favorite windowsill and back-porch plant -- "The Biggest Aspidistra in the World" usually brought audiences everywhere to their feet.
There were other films in England and in Hollywood, among them "Sing as We Go," "We're Going to Be Rich," "Keep Smiling" and "Stage Door Canteen," as well as numerous recordings, stage appearances, and television.
In 1940, Dame Gracie and her second husband, Monty Banks, a film producer and director, were accused in Britain of deserting that country and brining large sums of money with them to the United States.
They denied it and later received an official apology. Dame Gracie went on to travel extensively, entertaining British troops and raising funds for British War Relief and the Navy League of Canada.
In 1965, in what was described as her farewell concert, Dame Gracie appeared before a tumultuous audience of thousands in Lewisohn Stadium in New York.
She made another appearance a year ago in her hometown of Rochdale, where the new Grace Fields Theater was dedicated with a concert in her honor. She happily broke then into her "Sally" song.
Dame Gracie had been married three times. Her first marriage to comedian Archie Pitt ended in divorce in 1940. She married Monty Banks that year. He died 10 years later.
In 1952, she was wed to Boris Alberovich, who had been a radio repairman on Capri for 20 years. At one time they operated a restaurant on the island. He survives.
Dame Gracie, who had made numerous command performances before British royalty during her long career, held numerous other honors, including that of commander of the Order of the British Empire.