Many years ago I read “Margaret Rutherford: A Blithe Spirit” (1983) written by “adopted” daughter Dawn Langley Simmons. This was an extraordinary tale that stayed with me in an unsettling way. Dawn had started off life as Gordon, although he had, if I remember the account rightly, both sets of genitalia. In teenage years Simmons was rushed to hospital in agony with internal bleeding which turned out to be menstruation. An operation was needed and Gordon was then Dawn and went on to marry and claimed to have had a baby. Much of this has apparently now been refuted and Simmons called a fantasist and one of a number of people who exploited the naivety of Rutherford and her husband. Merriman cites the 2004 publication “Peninsula Of Lies” by Edward Ball as the one that shatters the myths and I must seek that book out because this was one of the aspects which still confused me after reading this biography.
Margaret Rutherford (1892-1972) was one of the greatest British character actors of all time. I read Merriman’s previous book on Hattie Jacques and that had been a very good read. This is a man who knows and values his larger than life British character actresses. This is a book that has been sat on my shelves for some time and I’ve been itching to get round to it. (The Library Book Bingo I have been participating in gave me the chance).
I think since Rutherford’s death it has been pretty much forgotten just how popular a performer she was and for a long period of time. Perhaps now she is best remembered as the 1960’s Miss Marple in a series of films which appear quite regularly on television and which Agatha Christie was reputed to hate (fabulous theme music) but she had been a star for at least twenty years before that. Her breakthrough came as the medium Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s play (and subsequent 1945 film) “Blithe Spirit”. In 1963 she won Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in the Burton/Taylor vehicle “The VIP’s” and in 1967 was made a Dame.
Merriman begins by exploring a family secret which had great repercussions for Rutherford’s outlook on life and her mental health. He rattles through Margaret’s development as an actor and we get to sympathise that her looks and appearance ruled out glamorous leading lady roles and throughout the book will on a lady who it seemed rarely said an unkind word to anyone and who was highly respected in the entertainment industry. Margaret came as part of a double act. She was married to actor Stringer Davis from 1945 to her death and she had it stipulated in contracts that he be given a part in her productions. (“Spotting Stringer” is a good game to play in many of her movies. In the Miss Marple films he was given perhaps his most meaty role of his career with the specially written-in Mr Stringer part). He was absolutely devoted to her and relished the role of “Mr Rutherford”. Merriman speculates a little as to whether the Davis/Rutherford match was all that it seemed but generally he’s a sympathetic biographer who mentions but tends to steer clear of stirring up any scandal.
Husband and wife in “Murder Ahoy”
This is a good read and also a touching one. Rutherford regularly checked herself in for electric shock treatments, suffered mental health issues throughout her life, was probably manic depressive (bipolar in today’s jargon) and was taken for a ride by some people who managed to get close to her and Stringer. Add to this her inability to deal with financial matters and you’ll know that this comic genius had much sadness to endure.
Margaret Rutherford: Dreadnought With Good Manners was published by Aurum in 2009