Bisexual actress Gertrude Lawrence was born on this day in
1898 and is remembered for having ascended her impoverished,
Cockey-accented roots to become a legend in both Broadway and London’s West End.
Although famously claimed by the Brits, Gertrude’s true surname of Klasen was given to her by her Danish birth father. She later adopted the name Lawrence from her father’s stage name of Arthur Lawrence (x).
Gertrude Alice Dagmar Klasen was born on July 4, 1898 in
Newington, London. Her parents’ show business careers kept the family in
poverty, which was exacerbated when her father’s alcoholism caused them to
separate. Gertrude’s mother eventually remarried and it was on an outing with
her stepfather when Gertrude got her first taste of the spotlight; while
attending a concert in Bognor, young Gertrude was invited on stage to sing a
song and was given a prize for her participation. The experience planted in Gertrude
a love of performing that would stick with her for the rest of her life. In
1908, Gertrude joined the chorus of a Christmas pantomime at the Brixton
Theater and began taking dance lessons with Italia Conti. At the age of 16, she
left home and joined the Bohemian world of the theater in earnest when she
moved into the Theatrical Girls’ Club in Soho.
She worked and toured steadily with various theater troupes,
but it was her multiple relationships with powerful men such as Captain Philip
Astley, who was a member of the Household Cavalry, and the wall street banker
Bert Taylor that really cemented Gertrude’s position in British high society.
In 1923, she performed the lead role in the musical London Calling! and became an overnight sensation in her own right.
Throughout the years, Gertrude would also perform in other iconic musicals such
as Oh, Kay!, Treasure Girl, Private Lives,
and of course, The King & I for which she won a Tony Award in 1951.
Gertrude performs a scene from The King & I with her co-star and lover
Yul Brynner, 1951 (x).
In her day, Gertrude was known as one of theater’s most
voracious “man eaters.” She was married twice – first to a director named Francis
Gordon-Howley in 1917, with whom she had her only child, and then later to a
theater owner named Richard Aldrich. However, one of Gertrude’s lesser-known
affairs was with the famous playwright and novelist Daphne du Maurier. The two
first met in 1948 when Gertrude played the lead in one of Daphne’s plays titled
September Tide, and both Gertrude’s
second husband and official biographer agree that the two had an instant and
unmatched connection. Daphne’s nicknames for Gertrude included “dear Gert” –
which she used in their letters to each other – and “Cinder” in reference to
the rags-to-riches story of Cinderella. The relationship was maintained through
frequent letters and infrequent visits from 1948 to Gertrude’s death;
reportedly, it was Daphne’s location in London that caused Gertrude to always
return home from her excursion trips to New York, and in her later years, Daphne
joked with friends about Gertrude’s sexual prowess.
Daphne (left) and Gertrude (right) are photographed on a public outing together. Although to the public the two were simply good friends, their romantic relationship was later shown in the 2007 film Daphne (x).
As she grew older, Gertrude began a career in film and television.
Her most famous roles included Amanda in the movie adaptation of The Glass Menagerie and a televised
production of the play The Great
Catherine. She eventually took a teaching position at Columbia University
where she taught courses such as “The Study of Roles and Scenes.” On 16 August
1952, she fainted backstage during a production of The King & I and it was discovered that she had liver cancer.
Gertrude passed away on September 6, 1952 at the age of 54. Over 6,000 people
crowed the streets of New York City for her funeral and today she is remembered as one of the greatest theater legends to ever live.