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Gertrude Lawrence

Picture of Gertrude Lawrence in programme for Cole Porter's musical Nymph Errant (excerpt), Manchester Opera House, 1933

Picture of Gertrude Lawrence in programme for Cole Porter's musical Nymph Errant (excerpt), Manchester Opera House, 1933

‘I am not what you'd call wonderfully talented, but I am light on my feet and I do make the best of things’. Thus Gertrude Lawrence (1898–1952) described herself. Lawrence had that indefinable gift – star quality. Her early years were a struggle, but once she hit the big time in Charlot’s revue, in the 1920s, Lawrence was a star until her death in 1952. Everyone spoke of her greatness – from theatrical giants like John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Noël Coward, who wrote some of his best plays for her, to her devoted audiences.

She could play anything from the elegant, emotionally shallow Amanda in 'Private Lives' to the third-rate variety performer in 'The Red Peppers' and Doris, the wife from hell, picking fish bones from her teeth in 'Fumed Oak'. Coward, who wrote these roles for her, said that she should be sent home after the first rehearsal and not allowed back until the opening night, so perfect was her instinct for a role.

Lawrence triumphed in straight plays and musicals. She was a graceful and elegant dancer. She had a fascinating voice which she used with great allure and wit. That she easily went out of tune never bothered Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill or Richard Rodgers, who wrote some of their best songs for her.

She married American Richard Aldridge and moved to Broadway where she played Eliza Dolittle in Shaw’s 'Pygmalion'. Her greatest success came when Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote Anna in The 'King and I' for her. Those fortunate enough to see her never forgot the scene where Lawrence, in the huge, billowing Irene Sharaff crinoline, taught the polka to Yul Brynner to the strains of ‘Shall We Dance’.

But she knew she was dying. One night in 1952, she wrote in lipstick on her dressing-room mirror ‘Good Luck to the next Mrs Anna’. When she died, the lights on theatres in London’s West End and New York’s Broadway were dimmed in tribute.

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