Back in the late 1980s/early 90s I lived in Crouch End in North London where close by a recording studio used by Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics was a café called Josie’s. The first time I went in there it was like being in some parallel universe. Around the café were photos of big stars from two or three decades before with a glamorous blonde woman, not unlike Diana Dors, often photographed in sparkly gowns and leotards. This lady was obviously the same lady who was now making our coffee. From the magnitude of the people she was photographed with and the lengthy span when these photos would have been taken this was someone who I clearly should have known, but I didn’t.
Finding out some information nowadays would involve ten seconds on Google but things were different then. I felt I couldn’t just ask her. I eventually discovered that this was Joan Rhodes, a long lasting star of variety and the early years of tv, famed as a strongwoman and for tearing up telephone directories and now the subject of Triona Holden’s book published by The History Press, which seems a fitting publishing house for this unique talent who was very much of her time but whose attitudes and qualities will still very much resonate today.
Joan Rhodes (1921-2010) went down a storm on variety bills, bending nails and steel bars with her bare hands, lifting weights and members of the audience, tearing up phone books, being a one-woman tug of war team and once, famously, tripping and dropping comedian Bob Hope. Looking very much a showgirl and not overly muscular she was billed as “The Strongest Woman In The World” and “The Mighty Mannequin.” She toured the world, performed for royalty, appeared on the “Ed Sullivan Show” in the USA and latterly ran a café in Crouch End where I encountered her.
The author befriended Joan in 2003. By then retired and living in the garden flat she occupied for decades in Belsize Park she didn’t let that many people into her close circle but was a fiercely loyal long-time friend to luminaries such as Quentin Crisp, artist Dame Laura Knight, Marlene Dietrich and Larry Grayson. She had an extraordinary tale to tell, was ripped off through attempting to self-publish an autobiography and so it was left to her old friend to tell this story eleven years after Joan’s death at the age of 89.
It’s a fascinating glimpse into the recent past, where things seem familiar and yet so far removed from today. Joan did love to tell stories and had amassed large amounts of memorabilia and written accounts of events in her life and yet the author still discovered things she had chosen to hide. Born into poverty, abandoned by her mother as a toddler, Joan credited the rage this caused within her to be the motivation for her feats of strength. A street performer who worked her way up the variety ladder into becoming a highly recognised performer much feted by the popular press who loved to print stories about her.
All this made me feel that I wished I had spoken more to her when I visited the café. The author does a very good job of putting Joan Rhodes into context for a modern audience, even for those who might not now know what a telephone directory was! The book was inspired partly by the interest of the young production crew of BBC TV’s “The Repair Shop” where the author had one of Joan’s stage outfits she had inherited restored. This felt both a nostalgic and empowering tale of a very special woman, who lived life on her terms, who used a unique physical talent extraordinarily and who also possessed great warmth, determination and resilience.
“An Iron Girl In A Velvet Glove – The Life Of Joan Rhodes” by Triona Holden was published in 2021 by The History Press.