Mary Ellis was born in New York in 1900.
In 1918 she made her debut opposite Caruso at the Metropolitan Opera House where she remained for four years. She was the original Rose Marie in the musical by Hammerstein (1924). She starred in a number of theatrical roles on Broadway and in 1926 appeared in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment with the English actor Basil Sydney, who became her third husband. In 1929 they travelled to England and she made her London stage debut in 1930. She remained in London and starred in The Dancing Years and Glamorous Night which Ivor Novello wrote especially for her.
After the war she resumed her stage career and made many appearances at Drury Lane, the Old Vic, Stratford-upon-Avon and the Lyceum, Edinburgh. Her autobiography, Those Dancing Years, was published in 1982. A further autobiography Moments of Truth followed in 1986.
She died in London on 30th January 2003 aged 105. My interview took place in early 1993.
I have the impression from your autobiography that your mother was a kind but rather remote, even unhelpful presence in your life. Yet presumably it was her interest in music which sowed the seeds of your own career.
She was a very talented musician who had given everything up to marry my father, and when she saw I had talent she put all her unfinished ambition into me. Usually Americans are overflowing with affection and warmth, whether it’s honest or not, but she wasn’t demonstrative at all. I can’t remember any cosiness or anything maternal, and I had no real childhood. I am more of a child now than I was then in the sense that I have reactions now which I should have had when I was ten or eleven.
You say you learned the rudiments of morality, optimism and compassion from your nurse, and yet she was despatched from your life when you were only six, leaving you desolate. Can you still recall that feeling of being abandoned, what you call your ‘great dark grief’?
Yes. It is moderated in my mature life but I have a theory that everybody has a typical experience; no matter how people try to change their reactions and what happens to them, somehow it becomes a recurring leitmotif. I have had a continual feeling of abandonment in my personal life, and even though I am ninety-three I still fear it. Maybe I expect too much of people, but I know it’s going to end badly.
Did this feeling of being abandoned have repercussions in later life, do you think?
I was brought up in the Edwardian way of thinking; everything had to be terribly contained, there was none of this permissive feeling at the time, and if you thought you were in love with somebody you had to marry, even though mature thinking would have dictated otherwise. Consequently I had a very unsuccessful and unhappy first marriage. I don’t blame fate of life because it has been wonderful to me in other respects. There’s just something in me that has always invited emotional distress or disaster.
Were you close to your father?
I absolutely worshipped him, and to displease him was the most awful thing in the world to me. It was he who helped out in all my unhappiness, and he who nursed me when I was ill. He also taught me my first music and I remember sitting on his knee and he’d sing all the Viennese waltzes with the result that I always moved in three-quarters time. He died in 1937 and I missed him dreadfully.
Your mother was quite indulgent towards you in the sense that ‘she condoned too much without understanding enough’, as you put it. Do you think you would have benefited from stricter guidelines?
Indeed, yes, but my parents were so Edwardian that it was taken for granted that girls didn’t do certain things. There’s a sense of safety in obeying authority, whether it’s parents or teachers, and that sense is absent nowadays in young people who would consider our way of life to have been very austere, but in fact it built a wonderful foundation.
You wrote in your book: ‘Never once, even in the emotional crises of my life when I needed her help, did she explain anything to me.’ Did you ever manage to come to terms with this feeling of disappointment in your mother?
As I grew up it became more amusement than disappointment. I was an afterthought in my parents’ lives – I came ten years after my sister. My mother was a most amazing woman, very talented, suppressed, flirtatious and beautiful – full of contradiction. I imagine she must have been very passionate, because my father never looked at another woman all his life. In the eighteenth century she might have been a marvellous courtesan.
You fell in love at a very tender age, but the boy you loved was killed in the Battle of the Somme. Did that early shock, that linking of love and death, make its mark on the rest of your life, do you think?
Emphatically, yes. First love is the greatest experience one can have, and it wasn’t a silly, baby love, because we had been more or less brought up together. But when I look back on my life, I was very lucky, because if, poor boy, he hadn’t been killed, I think I would have ended up in Manchester, without a career, the mother of a great many children.
Looking back on your youth, you say that in terms of maturity, you were really the same as today’s young people, only more self-conscious and less sex-conscious. Do you think that being less sex-conscious made it an easier or more difficult time for you?
Oh heavens, sex didn’t enter into it. I confess that I suffered from innocence, and I can say absolutely truthfully that I still do. Although I know everything with my brain, I cannot see how people behave as they do. Innocence is a quality, not a physical thing, so that someone can have been through the mill, indeed several mills, and still retain a quality of innocence that has nothing to do with what’s happened. I don’t envy today’s youth at all; they have mistaken sex for love. I have never in my life slept with a man I didn’t love.
You have managed to retain your innocence?
Yes, though that has been unfortunate in some ways. I would have behaved quite differently if I had had a sophisticated approach to life. I would certainly have been more sensible. I’m a hopeless romantic, and romantics have the worst time of it because they persist in translating the happenings of life into miracles and fairytales.
You describe singing with Caruso in L’Elisir d’Amore as the pinnacle for you. Did it also seem so at the time, or did it become imbued with such significance only later?
I hardly ever realized anything important was happening to me at the time. The most astonishing things musically and professionally took place, yet I never knew. My dream of living a life over again would be to know the value of things as they take place. In my late years I have been more able to appreciate moments of happiness when they happen, but when you’re young the peaks pass you by.
Before you were twenty-five you had already sung with Caruso and Chaliapin, and you describe the thrill of Chaliapin ‘dying’ in your arms in Boris Godunov. Did you become aware of Caruso’s legendary status only afterwards?
No, that was something I knew then. I remember almost fainting during the first rehearsal. It was a physical thing, really. I was small and slender, and I had to kneel on the floor and hold this great heavy hulk, and when he started to sing and it was like embracing a church bell – the vibrations and sound filled all one’s cavities and senses. But all this was so long ago and such a small part of my life that I’ve practically forgotten it; I don’t live with it at all, and can only remember the effect of it.
You don’t live in the past?
No. I remember the past like a marvellous book I’ve read. Life is the most important thing, it’s the only thing we have, so we have to make something of every minute, even if it’s tragic.
You write mockingly of Caruso’s last performance and his subsequent death. You describe the shock you felt when the manager at the Met said, ‘Persona e indispensabile’, which made you realize ‘how every moment of living in an instant becomes the past’. Has that been a recurrent shock throughout your life, or is it something you have come to accept as one of life’s truths?
I shall never accept it, but it happens all the time. Every word that you and I utter now is consigned to memory in a second.
Your first marriage was unhappy and shortlived, ending in divorce after a year. In those days divorce must have been a comparatively rare phenomenon…was that a very difficult time?
No, it wasn’t at all. My father just took me by the nape of the neck and we boarded a train for California. I stood before a judge for three minutes while my father told the story, and I was divorced.
Was there any stigma attached to divorcees in those days?
Oh no, there never has been in America. Money is the only thing that counts over there.
Your second marriage to Edwin Knopf seems to have been motivated by a mixture of guilt and pity, and you say you have always felt sorry and ashamed of the way you behaved. What were your feelings after that marriage broke up?
Guilt. Guilt, for my letting it happen, not for what I did. I can’t explain it any better than that. I had refused to marry him in the first place, whereupon he went to Europe to get over it in the way young men did in those days. He had a terrible accident in which his left arm was blasted off by some kind of a snow bomb, and his parents came to me and begged me to help by giving him some hope when he got back. Like a fool I sent him a very emotional and encouraging cable. He came home full of joy, and I had to marry him. I helped him a lot and taught him to use his right hand for everything, but he knew I didn’t love him in the complete sense. The next bit sounds like a terrible Barbra Cartland novel: I knew that my best friend from school had always been in love with him, and so, taking strength from that, I let things happen that broke the marriage. She married him, and they lived happily ever after.
In 1925 after starring in Rose Marie, you gave up singing to concentrate on acting, which was an unpopular decision with the public. The fact that you had to sign an agreement with Hammerstein meant that you never sang in the US again. Would you still have signed if you had known that would be the consequence?
No, although I was absolutely passionate about the theatre and had no regrets. But to this day I miss the physical exhilaration of singing. I don’t miss the operettas or the opera, rather the actual experience of singing, the thinking of a note, hearing it come out, sending it into the auditorium and knowing they’ve got it.
What about the thrill of the audience standing to applaud you?
I suppose I never thought I had done anything as well as I should, so the acknowledgement was always shaded for me by a lack of belief in myself.
At one point in the book you say: ‘All through my life I’ve missed opportunities because of human relationships, and I’ve tried very hard not to regret anything.’ Have you succeeded in being philosophical about missed opportunities?
Yes. If I hadn’t I’d be a dire mess.
Your marriage to Basil Sidney was one which he dominated completely, although you loved him deeply. Was his betrayal perhaps the most difficult thing you have had to bear in your life?
It was the most surprising thing certainly, I’m not sure I can say it was the most difficult. I lost my voice for ten days through nervous shock; I just didn’t believe it. Of course, I was a fool. I should have known, but I didn’t.
I was struck by your words, ‘I have never been able to unlove someone I have loved.’ Has that been an added cross to bear in life?
No, it’s been something delightful. In any case, how can you unlove someone you’ve loved? It would imply a total lack of self-respect. If you’ve loved someone intensely, there must be something in that person you found worth loving. If that person does something terribly disappointing and hurtful, well that’s that. I’m extremely philosophical in these matters; I never would try to keep anyone who didn’t want to be with me. I’m much too vain for that.
In 1935 you went off to Hollywood for a couple of years to star in three films. One imagines it must have been a very glamorous place at a very romantic time, but it struck you as being rather sad. Why was that?
Because it was so artificial. People had no lives of their own outside the pictures. I imagine it’s changed now because so many people I admire managed to go back and enjoy it, and even made second homes there, but at that time there was only work, there was no real living.
You met many famous people during that time, and struck up a warm friendship with Fritz Lang who had fled from Germany. Did that develop into a special friendship?
Well, isn’t every friendship special?
I mean, were you romantically involved?
No. We went on Sunday motor trips together, and I’m pleased to feel that I helped him over a terribly hard time. He was an amazing and wonderful man, inspiring and very clever. It was so awful to see him crushed. I was also friendly with Charles Boyer, a charming man. He gave a marvellous party for me when I first went over there. Mrs Patrick Campbell was an honoured guest and she sat at the head of his staircase in a chair, greeting the guests before he did. Marlene Dietrich arrived, looking absolutely wonderful in black tulle, with diamonds tinkling, and she made a deep curtsey in front of her, whereupon Mrs Patrick Campbell said, ‘Oh you are so pretty. Are you in pictures too, dear?’ I thought Marlene would fall down the stairs backwards.
Did you know Marlene well?
Yes, she had the dressing room opposite mine. She used to knock at my door while I was being made up, and would come in without any make-up, freckles on her nose, pale eyelashes and a towel around her head, looking much prettier than when she was all made up. And she’d say, ‘Sing me a little German folk song’, so I’d sing some little thing I sang on my father’s knee, and she’d go away quite happy.
After America you returned to England to work with Ivor Novello, with whom you were very close until his death. Were you ever in love with him?
No. He was very romantic man, but I don’t think he thought about marriage or anything like that. His musicals meant nothing to me intellectually or emotionally, but I know if I hadn’t done them I wouldn’t have had the thrill of singing at Drury Lane which looks bigger from the stage than the Metropolitan Opera House. To feel that you are filling the auditorium even with a whisper or a soft note, that is an amazing experience.
You write in your autobiography: ‘The working relationship with Ivor developed into a very good kind of loving. To my mother it was incomprehensible that it did not entail a romantic ending.’ Was it also a sadness for you?
No. He was a delightful and intelligent man, a wonderful musician and an enchanting companion, but he was totally of the theatre and had no life apart from that. He was a wonderful friend, and for all the years afterwards until he died, he came to everything I did and offered me sound advice. He had his own entourage, the faithful, but I was very unsophisticated, and believe it or not, until I came to London when I was thirty-one years old, I didn’t know about any of those intricacies of life at all, although I soon learned to live with them.
Apropos your close friend, Tim Brook, you write: ‘The men I’ve known who had loving natures, but who could not love women completely, I have found comforting friends. My unhappy experiences with the total male made such relationships a relief.’ Were you ever made happy in a complete sense with any man?
Oh yes, but of course, I wouldn’t be a complete woman if I hadn’t. But people are people to me; I don’t question their religion, their politics or their emotional habits. If they are fine people, intelligent or artistic, or they give something to their friends and the world, it’s all right by me. I have no set prejudices at all. In classical times it didn’t matter so much; I don’t see why it should matter now.
After your third marriage ended in divorce, there seemed to follow a period of despair during which love seemed to be beyond your reach. How did you manage to come to terms with this feeling?
I don’t know exactly. I think I worked very hard. Although I’ve been disappointed, I’m not the kind of person to allow desperation to enter into my consciousness. I know when I’ve done wrong, and I’m very sorry for it, but I try my best either to fix it or to live with it. One has to be a realist without losing one’s dreams, if that’s possible.
During this time when love seemed beyond your reach, you even sought comfort in Catholicism, but that was not to prove to be the answer. Do you consider yourself to be religious now?
I certainly believe in God, something greater than self, and I’ve said my prayers since I was a child. There is something which in our wildest moments either pulls us back or pushes us forward. We think we are free to do as we like, but I’m sure that the whole cosmos of being is arranged by something far greater than anything we know.
But do you believe in heaven or hell?
Not pictorially, not as a place where the angels fly, or the devils have horns, but I feel very seriously that this can’t be the end. All you have to do is to look at nature: a tree dies every autumn, but it flowers again the next year.
Do you find that you have that serenity which is supposed to come with old age?
Yes, but I hate to call it serenity. The compensation for growing old is that there seems now to be a reason for everything. And it’s completely untrue that the senses become dimmed as you grow older; as your physicality slips away, your senses get sharper and more intense.
Just before the war, you met your next husband, Jock Roberts, in Edinburgh, the day after you had news of your father’s death. Do you think the two events were in any way connected…did you fall in love partly because it was an emotionally vulnerable time for you?
I didn’t fall in love with him when I first met him. But it was the strangest thing, just as though a male element had been sent into my life at precisely the time I had lost the one I respected most. It was also unexpected because by then I had become philosophical about life and imagined it was going to be just my own work and friends from then on.
Your husband had fallen in love with you on the stage, and was determined to keep you behind the footlights. Did this not strike you as an uncertain basis for marriage?
I made the great mistake that I made all my life in personal relationships, and I blame myself for it. I tried to become what the person who cared for me wanted me to be instead of being myself and letting him see all my faults. For example, I had never climbed mountains, I had never skied, but I gave up the theatre for several years to be a companion to Jock doing these things, and it almost killed me. I hated it, every minute of it, but I was determined to be that companion. Of course that wasn’t what he had fallen in love with, but I wasn’t sensible enough even to see that.
Your husband’s view of lovemaking was the rather Victorian one that ‘nice’ women should not enjoy it – an attitude you persuaded him to overcome. Do you think that was an unusual achievement for the 1930s.
The whole thing was very unusual for the 1930s. It never occurred to me that a grown-up male could be that way. But of course all British men had been told from childhood that they mustn’t show their emotions, and in Victorian days, young gentlemen were sent away to Paris for three weeks to learn all about it when they came out of university, but they weren’t allowed to practise it in Britain, and certainly not with the lovely creatures they married. Well, you see, having been born a free soul, this was absolutely amazing to me.
During the war you chose not to remain in the theatre but ‘to fight the war the hardest way I could find’, as you put it. What kind of feelings impelled you to do this?
There were many people in the theatre who bravely entertained the troops, but that to me wasn’t doing enough. Men were having to leave the things they loved, and so I felt that like them I had to do something opposite from what I enjoyed – something far away from the theatre, the make-believe and the glamour; that way I could really feel part of the war. I wouldn’t have given up that experience for anything. I worked in emergency hospitals, I looked after children who had been bombed in Glasgow, and later I learned to do occupational therapy which taught me something for life. I experienced an entirely different kind of consciousness and it’s lived with me ever since. I can never think of people just as what they seem to be; I always look for their wounds, because everybody has wounds inside them that haven’t quite healed, or that ache occasionally.
The war years placed a great strain on your relationship, and your husband seemed to have been changed by war. Do you think that was inevitable?
It was quite inevitable that it should have happened to him. He was so enclosed in that Scottish world of habits and beliefs that he didn’t know about the other world. He hadn’t realized that other people had to live a different way. However, it didn’t change my love for him at all. I got very interested in what was happening to him and thought he’d come out of it, and if he hadn’t been killed, I expect he would have come out of it.
His politics changed during the war period…
Yes, because he had contact with something he’d never seen or heard before, and lived with me who changed his mind about all sorts of things. I don’t blame him in a way. Before the war he had never seen the black side of life, or never chosen to see it. Everything he had done and stood for before the war had vanished when he came back. He had become very interested in the Communist movement, though I never knew whether he signed any papers or not. He gave up a lucrative position in his father’s business, and came to London and took a job for six pounds a week at Camberwell Art School. He broke his father’s heart. He didn’t succeed in breaking mine because I tried to look at it romantically, and until he was killed I kept leaping ahead in years, believing he would change back. But even if he hadn’t, I suppose I would have accepted it. I loved him enough. Still do.
Everything seemed to have a heightened significance during the war. You write in your memoirs: ‘The war was salting life through with partings and reunions, but when I was able to be with my husband nothing else mattered.’ Had you by then found the love you had been searching for?
I thought so, I thought so. But since all that has happened, I know it wasn’t. I wasn’t truthfully myself.
Your time with Jock was cut tragically short when he was killed in a climbing accident, something you describe as a new low in your life. It must have seemed as if the world had collapsed…
Yes, but doesn’t it to everyone? I just made myself work harder, and the theatre became everything to me till the 1970s.
Did you ever manage to love again in the way you loved Jock?
Nobody ever loves again in the same way. Every love is new.
But did you come to love someone else?
Not as I loved Jock, no. I have loved lots of people, and I feel I know now what love should mean, but I’m too old. Heavens, at ninety somebody doesn’t come into your life, and even if someone did one would be too old…The point about growing old is that one sees everything one should do, one would know exactly how to behave, but one is too old to put it to the practice.
That’s the tragedy you mean?
There’s no tragedy. It’s very amusing.
You never had any children. Have you felt that as a loss?
I had one very bad miscarriage and then I couldn’t have children. I carried a child to seven months, so I had the experience of that wonderful foretaste. I also had two stepdaughters, Jock’s children, and that was very satisfactory.
After all these years in England, do you feel thoroughly English yourself, or is there part of you which longs to be in the land of your birth?
I have never longed for the land of my birth. I visited Britain from the time I was four years old and all my relations and friends seemed to be here, so I always felt thoroughly at home here. I also know France very well, and I must say I miss the atmosphere of France and the way they care for their older people. What appals me about this country more than anything else is the way old people are treated. In France they would think it absolutely disgraceful if Grandmère didn’t live at home with her son or her daughter, and the same applies in almost every other European country.
You have had a fascinating life which spans the whole of the century to date. You watched Sarah Bernhardt perform, you saw Pavlova dance, you sang with Caruso – you are linked with so many magical figures from the past. Does the present now seem very tame to you by comparison?
No. All those people you mentioned are in the distant past, whereas I tend to think of myself from 1932 onwards, when my life was the theatre, the Old Vic and the season at Stratford – all that seems more important and much closer to me. I don’t want to be put into a box labelled The Past, I don’t like that at all. I know I may pop off at any minute, but for the moment I’m still here.
If you were to live your life over again would you do it differently?
I wouldn’t live my life differently, but I’d behave differently. I would be braver, kinder, because sometimes we think we have done the kind thing, and we haven’t. I missed out on life on account of carelessness, on account of being afraid of being unloved, and those things I would change.
Do you fear death?
I’m as full of curiosity about death as I am about life, so I cannot be uncheerful. It’s going to be something new, another adventure.