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Title: Britain's Best
Author: Pringle, Henry Fowles (1897-1958)
Date of first publication: 1931
Edition used as base for this ebook: New York: The New Yorker, 19 September 1931 [Profiles]
Date first posted: 17 November 2010
Date last updated: 17 November 2010
Project Gutenberg Canada ebook #658

Britain's Best

by Henry F. Pringle

19 September 1931

When she was thirteen years old and classified by a Canadian lyceum bureau as a "serio-comic singer" with a refined repertoire, Beatrice Lillie underwent baptism as a professional actress. This was by the traditional ordeal of being left stranded in a small town because the villainous manager of the troupe with which she travelled had absconded with the funds.

The incident was less than tragic, however. The elocutionist, the humorist, and the pianist who, with the serio-comic Miss Lillie, made up the troupe were not forced to walk the ties back to Toronto, nor were their trunks held by the hotel. A telephone call to Harry Rich, Miss Lillie's first teacher, was greeted with a delighted "Well, you're actors now" and a telegraphic remittance of one hundred dollars. Instead of coming home at once, the four full-fledged actors spent the weekend sightseeing.

*      *      *      *      *

Today, as Lady Peel, wife of Sir Robert Peel and an actress whose talents are fairly certain to bring success to any revue, she remembers a dozen such incidents of her barnstorming childhood. There is nothing to indicate that elevation to the British baronetage has any reality whatever to her. "I was Lady Peel," she will say lightly after she has returned from a dull evening at some formal party, and makes it apparent that she will avoid the rôle whenever possible. But the stage has reality and so had her childhood. In Canada, where she was born, just as in the United States, the period from 1905 to 1910 was one of conscious elegance. A pleasing voice was an asset to a serious vocalist, which the youthful Beatrice was in due time to have become, but eloquently graphic gestures were essential. Refinement which would protect "the sensibilities of the most delicate," to recall a phrase of the era, was required as a matter of course, and so was an extremely sticky sentimentality. Out of this grew the Beatrice Lillie of that first, well-remembered "Charlot's Revue." Therein lies the genesis of her rendering of "There Are Little Fairies in the Bottom of My Garden," a song exhumed last winter at the suggestion of the regal Ethel Barrymore.

When she sings this song and when she resurrects, the sentimental favorites of 1910 for the amusement of her friends, Miss Lillie is really gilding with her individualistic brush the serio-comic singer who once toured eastern Canada. This might be viewed as pathetic but for the fact that, at thirteen, Beatrice also thought these songs absurd. Her outlook then was not different from now; only more suppressed.

On one occasion her mother, who was a soprano and who often sang on the same program, was concluding a tender number when Beatrice sneaked up behind the black velvet drop and whacked her with a broom. The song ended on a very high note indeed. Almost invariably, investigation would show that an actress was persuaded to go on the stage through the influence of some determined mother. In Miss Lillie's case, however, the result has not been exactly in accord with maternal anticipations. It is very much better.

*      *      *      *      *

Any star who has made huge financial successes of two or three Broadway shows in six years and who is equally popular in London is a major celebrity. Add to this the dazzling fact—dazzling to the world of the theatre—that she is an absentee British Lady who actually does know the Prince of Wales, and her cash value to a musical-comedy producer is clear. Success, though, has brought none of the normal hardness and she is not shrewd at all. Her weekly salary in the "Third Little Show" is probably three thousand dollars a week. Last winter she was starred at the Palace and is said to have been the highest-paid artist in vaudeville; she rejected an offer of ten thousand dollars for an additional week and sailed for London. She gets twenty-five hundred or three thousand dollars a week for entertaining in night clubs.

Beatrice Lillie remains perfectly helpless in business relationships, in her contacts with other people, in her social life. A merely good-natured young woman would get into trouble through inability to say no when the agent of some producer appeared with a contract. Beatrice finds it equally difficult to say yes, and so says nothing at all; even an agreement which she wants to sign will lie around in a confusion of papers for days or weeks. She is an easy victim for appeals for financial assistance, although she frequently suspects that the petitioners are professional mendicants. Almost every night for weeks, for example, the same beggar appeared out of the traffic congestion at the Manhattan terminus of the Queensboro Bridge. Miss Lillie, en route to the theatre, would insist that her escort give him a half-dollar. "It makes me feel better," she explained. She says this is not superstition, a common characteristic of stage people. She boasted for years that she was not touched by this trait and probably thought she wasn't. Not long ago she realized, however, that she had made her way from her dressing-room to the stage by exactly the same route every time she appeared. She had followed this route on the opening night and had been afraid to vary it for fear it would spoil her luck.

*      *      *      *      *

An apartment in town in East End Avenue, a house at Sands Point on Long Island, and lavish expenditures for clothes eat into Miss Lillie's large earnings. She has no faint notion where her money goes. Sadie Welsh, an English girl who alternates as maid at the theatre and business representative, writes the cheques which Beatrice signs. "I really ought to examine the vouchers at the end of the month," she admitted vaguely when some orderly-minded adviser protested paternally that this was a lax arrangement, that no one would know the difference if Sadie or the bank made a mistake.

The similar confusion which attends her social life is primarily due to a horror of being left alone. She is likely to be unhappy and nervous when she is alone, and to obviate this possibility she surrounds herself with innumerable people, largely from the theatre. Her dressing-room is filled with them; before, after, and during the show. The house at Sands Point is a gathering place for the stage celebrities of Port Washington and Great Neck and for a great many others who are not celebrities at all. On Sunday afternoon and evening as many as fifty may drop in for a buffet supper, at which, if she can, Miss Lillie eats her favorite dish—boiled beef. Afterward new songs or skits, which sometimes appear in a Broadway show at a later date, are enthusiastically offered by their creators. At the moment, Miss Lillie is experimenting with a ventriloquist act, in which she is the doll, that is as funny as anything she has done. Lazy to a degree—she likes to arrange stage numbers so that she can sit down whenever possible—she also has the restlessness of a sparrow. She is never quite happy unless some party has been arranged for after the theatre. She likes few women, but she will discuss her private affairs with a congenial man the second or third time she has seen him. She dislikes nearly all games excessively. Rarely reading anything except the tabloids and badly informed on nearly all subjects, she particularly detested the question-and-answer parlor games so popular two winters ago. She never writes letters. She hates to have her photograph taken, protesting that her nose is too big and that she is not really pretty.

All this is part of an inherent disinclination to do things, complicated by a need, which is almost desperate, to have things going on around her. She swims rather badly, and is afraid of the water. She has acquired none of the British delight in hard riding or tramping over moors. She has, however, one gift: she is an excellent shot. This was developed by going, after the theatre, to Sixth Avenue shooting galleries, where she is known and admired by all the proprietors. And yet, with all her helplessness, Beatrice has resisted the importunings of Earl Carroll to add her distinction to one of his "Vanities." He has asked her repeatedly; she has always been intelligent enough to turn him down.

*      *      *      *      *

Three or four years ago, visiting Toronto, Lady Peel was taken on a tour of her native city by the local committee of welcome. Would she pose for a photograph in front of her birthplace, they asked. The implication was that some historical society would one day place a tablet on this shrine. Lady Peel murmured that she would be pleased to do so, and as the motor passed a particularly impressive mansion she pointed to it. The car was halted. She draped herself against a stone pillar at the driveway, with only the faintest Bea Lillie expression on her face to give warning, and the result was solemnly published in the Toronto newspapers. The palace was, of course, not her birthplace; she had never seen it before. She was born in a less affluent part of the city in 1898. Her mother was of English-Spanish origin and her father an Irishman who had been an army officer in India and who held some vague civil post connected with the provincial jail. There was another daughter, Muriel, and the mother was determined that both girls should have professional careers. In the face of this determination everything else gave way, although Beatrice was briefly educated at St. Agnes' College, a nearby female seminary.

Beatrice, although she had a moderate interest in music, was a born mimic. The incidents now remembered all relate to her talents along that line. She recalls that any neighborhood funeral inspired her to borrow her mother's long skirts and black gloves and that she would join the mourners in staring solemnly at the deceased, with whom she had rarely enjoyed acquaintance. She liked to give imitations of such local characters as the fruit-and-vegetable man, an Italian. Early tendencies to clothe these characters with humor were, however, forbidden. She took singing lessons from Harry Rich of Toronto, whose specialty was instruction in what were known locally as the Rich Gestures. These were movements of the hands to signify various emotions or to make vivid some situation. The right hand outstretched signified tender passion. The left hand extended, with the right poised above it, caused every member of the audience to see a bunch of grapes. There were appropriate gestures to denote birds flying, farewell, dawn, sorrow, and joy. For a brief time, Beatrice received training in a Presbyterian church choir, but there was something about her face which made small boys in the congregation giggle and she had to be dismissed.

*      *      *      *      *

Then came the concert engagements, often with her mother and sister. One circular describing "The Lillie Trio" has survived and reveals that they could be engaged "as a whole, double, or single." Beatrice was a "character costume vocalist and impersonator" who had, according to press notices, "a powerful voice." Another critic had pointed to her "winsome, captivating presence...appropriate costumes [which] make this lassie a very valuable acquisition on any concert program." Her numbers included "Who Are You Getting At, Eh?" (English), "My Pretty Kickapoo" (Japanese), "The Strawberry Girl" (Yodelling Number), and "Nicoleenie" (Italian).

Mrs. Lillie proposed that her girls should make progress in the world, and she succeeded. Muriel became a pianist of distinction. She composed the music for the "Nine o'Clock Revue," which was her sister's first great triumph in London. She was married to Arthur Weigall, the Egyptologist and novelist. In 1920, already an ornament of the British stage, Beatrice was married to Sir Robert Peel, fifth baronet and grandson of the British statesman. There is a vast estate, Drayton Manor, in the industrial section of Staffordshire. Like nearly all British estates in these unhappy days of depression, Drayton Manor remains closed most of the time. A son, Robert, is in school in England when he is not visiting his mother in the United States and will be the sixth baronet.

*      *      *      *      *

Mrs. Lillie's efforts to launch Beatrice in a stage career, as distinct from lyceum performances, began when the daughter was not quite sixteen and was still a serio-comic singer. Muriel had been studying abroad with her mother. Bea was summoned to London to make the rounds of managers, and to experience the usual discouragements. When they listened at all to such numbers as "Pretty Kickapoo" they said they would let her know and never did. The truth is that her voice was not distinguished, that her style was heavy, that her appearance, with her hair in tight buns over her ears, showed no promise. In desperation one day, believing that no chance existed in any event, she decided to abandon formality and burlesque one of her own songs. It was a maudlin thing, about a girl leaving home. It ended with a comic collapse on top of the suitcase which she carried. Beatrice was promptly engaged as a comédienne, for her auditor was the famous André Charlot. For some years she was a moderate success. Her triumph in the "Nine o'Clock Revue" led to the engagement for the hazardous experiment of sending an English musical revue to the United States. It was in January, 1924, that Americans heard that unequalled number for the first time: Beatrice Lillie in "March with Me." More than anything since Gilbert and Sullivan, it convinced us that the British could laugh at themselves.

Beatrice Lillie still wore her hair long when she came to the United States and then adopted the close, boyish cut which goes so well with her rather large mouth and her turn-up nose. On the stage she seems rather tall, partly because she is so slender, but she is only five feet two or three. Offstage, bound for the theatre, a sports suit and a beret make her seem almost fragile. It is easier to describe her appearance than to analyze her humor. This is more than mere clowning, She cannot play the typical musical-comedy part; her audience would expect her to make fun of it. Hollywood, where she made one or two pictures, was completely baffled by her. The gagmen were barren of suitable situations or lines. Her métier is the revue. She explains it herself by saying that a sketch pleases her "if I am Bea Lillie in it." She must do her own clowning, against a background of seriousness. Amusement, synthetic or real, on the part of anyone else on the stage ruins the effect. In general she invents her own business. The hardest problem of all is finding writers. Noel Coward has been successful, but in the majority of cases she takes their raw material and beats it into shape.

*      *      *      *      *

The Lillie mood is not as broad as burlesque and somewhat broader than satire. It is not, I think, overstatement to say that in the hands of any other artist, no matter bow clever, an essential ingredient would be missing. There was, for instance, the recent occasion when Earl Carroll called at the hospital where Miss Lillie was recuperating from an operation. Dorothy Knapp, the publicized "Vanities" star, had recently announced an intention to enter a convent. With the assistance of the nurse and hurried calls upon a costumer, Beatrice prepared for the producer's visit. When he came in, on tiptoe as befitted a sick chamber, he saw the figure of a nun prone on the bed, her hands folded decorously on her breast. It does not sound very funny, but it was. Carroll was definitely annoyed. He had planned a stunt of his own to entertain the patient and had brought elaborate properties with him. Two weeks later no one could remember it. They were attempting to describe a Bea Lillie quirk of the eyebrows underneath a nun's headdress.

Transcriber's note:

The edition used as base for this book contained the following error, which has been corrected:

The palace, was, of course, not her birthplace
=> The palace was, of course, not her birthplace

[End of Britain's Best, by Henry F. Pringle]