My sister Elinor was a very different type of child. She was a prim little person, beautiful to look at, with her almond-shaped eyes, her delicate colouring and regular features. At the school we went to she was always at the top of the class, while I was rather a dunce. It was the funniest little school in the world, kept by a Miss Remmy and two other dear, quaint little old ladies.
From them I learnt to sew and embroider beautifully, to recite from Cowper and Longfellow, to play short pieces on the piano this was considered a rare accom- plishment , and somehow acquired a smattering of arithmetic and history. Also I had my first love affair with a little freckled boy, a year or two older than myself, who used to do my sums for me, and bring me enormous apples to munch in class whenever I got the opportunity, which was often, as the dear old ladies were all shortsighted.
It was after I had been attending school for a year or so that I discovered the joy of making clothes, which has lasted all through these years with the same unabated interest. I tried my first creative inspirations on my dolls and dressed them in frocks and under- clothes made from every bit of material I could lay my hands on. I could be bribed to do any particularly loathed task with the promise of a piece of silk or velvet, and I used to spend hours patiently thinking out colour schemes for one or other of my dolls.
Of course all the little girls in the neighbourhood came to know that I was the owner of the best-dressed dolls, and I was keenly sought after to replenish the wardrobes of theirs. I used to love the work, although I generally took payment for it always in kind. But if they had nothing to give me I put the same amount of energy into the work, for I loved cutting out and sewing the minute garments, just as, many years after, I was to love creating some glorious ball-dress and setting a new fashion. One hat I designed for a golden- haired, blue-eyed doll of my own pleased me especially.
It was of pale yellow straw, and with the instinct of blending colours that was to make me world-famous later, I trimmed it with ribbons of gentian blue and cerise. It really looked lovely and I was very proud of it. Other memories of Canada were not so pleasant. There was a definite obstacle to happiness in the severity of my grandmother, for I was always incurring her displeasure by my tomboy ways. Elinor, who was a quiet, lady-like little girl, was very rarely punished, but I hated the old lady, and some demon of mischief would force me to annoy her far more often than I need have done.
Then I would be sent to my bed- room in disgrace until grandfather would intercede for me. I was his favourite, and although he too was in considerable awe of grandmama I always felt that I had in him an ally. Another devoted adherent of mine was Allen Walden, the old negro servant, who had been an escaped slave. I never tired of hearing the thrilling story of how his mother fled to Canada, with the bloodhounds on her trail.
My recollections of grandmama are chiefly asso- ciated with dreadful Sundays which used to seem an interminable waste of time to a child. No books, no music except hymns, all toys put away, conversations restricted to religious subjects 1 How I hated it, and how often I was in disgrace for open rebellion! I can still remember long psalms and catechisms, which I was forced to learn in dreary penance. It was partly, I think, on account of my grand- mother's temper that Mother decided to marry again, so that her children could have a happier home.
She has since told me that she never loved the elderly, Scottish gentleman, David Kennedy, who became her second husband, as she loved my father, but he was one of the kindest men on earth, and as he promised to look after Elinor and me, and send us to a good school, she felt it was right to give us the best possible chance in life.
Mother looked very sad, I remember, on her wedding-day, but I was jubilant at the thought of the voyage back to Scotland and the fact of leaving grandmother.
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We sailed on the Circassian, Mr. I was practically the only passenger who was not seasick, and soon made friends with everyone on board. I used to go into the saloon and play a piece on the piano, which I had learnt at school. The passengers were much impressed with it and I built up quite a reputation for myself as a pianist. I never knew the meaning of shyness, either then or at any other time in my life, and so I found it easy to make friends.
Even at that age I must have been intensely sensitive to colour, for I felt the depression of those drab streets and hated to think that my home was to be in such an ugly country. Then Elinor and I were put to bed in a huge four-poster, between sheets smelling of camphor, and when we woke it was late afternoon. Before we had been in England many days we were taken up to Scotland to stay with our stepfather's relations. We went first to his brother's house, Bal- greggan, on the Mull of Galloway, and I have often laughed since at the thought of the consternation our arrival must have caused at the beautiful old ancestral home.
We were all dreadfully tired and bedraggled and very dirty after hours in the train, and it was obvious even to my childish perceptions that the stem Scottish family did not approve of the acquisition of the pretty young widow and her noisy offspring. Mother was terribly anxious that we should be on our best behaviour, and, of course, as children invariably do, we let her down and did everything to create an unfavourable impression. When bedtime came we were sent off to our room.
The room itself was not reassuring. It was enormous, with ghostly shadows and heavy tapestry hangings, revealing glimpses of panelled walls. At one corner was a little oak door, which opened on to another steep flight of steps lead- ing to the tower. The bed, which was set back in an alcove, was so big that it could have easily accommodated six children like ourselves, and we were too frightened to draw its thick velvet curtains and shut ourselves in.
For what seemed an interminable time we lay there in the dark scarcely daring to breathe, then suddenly I rent the silence with a succession of piercing screams. Terror had descended on me and even awe of my new stepfather could not keep me quiet. Of course there was a great commotion, and Mother and the relations came rushing upstairs to see what was the matter. In the end we were allowed a nightlight, and the door was left open.
I was never really happy there, for both Elinor and I were very lonely, and die other children who came to stay there used to make fun of our colonial clothes and odd expressions, which we had picked up from the men on the ranch. The three smart English nurses, who were in charge of the juvenile members of the household, despised us and were always complaining of our tomboy habits, and punishing us for some crime or other.
They all seemed very much alike to me. Always the same old castles, the same dour, elderly butlers, the same huge and gloomy bedrooms. The aunts and cousins seemed very much the same too, thin, grizzled men, and rather weatherbeaten women, with soft, Scottish voices and kind smiles lighting up stem faces.
Then to London, where both Elinor and I were dreadfully disappointed to find that the streets were not paved with gold as we had imagined. On the ranch in Canada we had often talked of how rich we would be when we came to England, and the excellent, but very ordinary, hotel we stayed at in Great Portland Street fell far short of the romantic dwelling we had pictured. It was prophetic, although at the time nothing seemed less likely. Our stay in London was a short one, for the elderly stepfather developed bronchitis, and was ordered to a warmer climate, and the whole family moved to Jersey.
When we arrived the harbour was decorated with flags and garlands of flowers were hanging from all the windows. We were told it was to celebrate the wedding of the Dean's daughter, Lily le Breton, the most beautiful girl in Jersey, who had been married that morning to Mr. We were both very curious about this lovely creature, stories of whose romantic career as a court beauty used to be circulated all over the Island.
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We were always hearing of what she had worn at the opera, of how she had set a new fashion in hats, and of how often the Prince of Wales had danced with her at the Devonshire House ball. It required some ingenuity on our part, as although we were very friendly with the Governor's family and his daughter, Ada, was our special playmate, we were too young to attend any of the formal parties at which Mrs. Langtry would be a guest. In the end we evolved the plan of hiding in the rooms in which she would take off her cloak at one of the receptions.
We stole out of our beds and dressing in the dark for fear of arousing suspicion if a light were noticed in our room, made our way to Government House. Ada let us in, and we crept upstairs like conspirators and hid under the dressing-table, draping the folds of white muslin, with which it was trimmed, so that they completely screened us, leaving- only a tiny peephole.
We had some time to wait, for Lily Langtry always made her entry last of all the guests at a party, and one by one the women came upstairs to remove cloaks and shawls. It was the first time we had seen most of them in evening dress, and we had a great deal of fun comparing their dresses. Just as we were beginning to feel intolerably cramped from our uncomfortable position crouched on the floor, a buzz of conversation and a light and very musical laugh on the stairs announced the arrival of Lily Langtry, and a moment later she came into the room.
She came and sat down at the dressing-table while she arranged her dress and pinned a beautiful diamond brooch on one shoulder. We were so close to her that we dared not move one inch, for fear of touching her dress and giving away the secret of our presence, but even through the folds of the muslin curtain we could see her perfect beauty. There was an extraordinary radiance about Lily Langtry that I have never seen in any other woman, and there was something so vital and magnetic in her personality that a room seemed empty when she left it.
The years passed happily in Jersey, and slowly I emerged from a tomboy into a very feminine and, I think, rather an attractive young lady. I must have been attractive because in my first season I was engaged three times. None of the engagements lasted longer than a few weeks, for I was the most fickle thing on earth and used to have violent love affairs with the young officers who were stationed there, and then suddenly find that I liked someone else better and jilt them in the most heartless way.
By the time I was seventeen I had left a trail of broken hearts, though it is a comfort to realize now that most of them were speedily mended. I was not as beautiful as my sister Elinor, for I never had her classical regularity of feature, but I made many men think me the most beautiful thing in the world, and that is all that a woman need to do. I had the family red hair, which was very rare then, and a little laughing face. Nobody had even heard of the word in English until I brought it in later, although it has been sadly over- worked since.
But I had that dress sense, which was a priceless asset to me then, and has been all my life. I found out exactly what suited me, and I decided to adopt an original style of dress, taking my inspiration from the pictures of the old masters. It could easily be worn to-day, which shows how little clothes change in their essentials from one generation to another.
He was a young captain, not one of the usual group of officers who used to be in and out of our house every day, but a new-comer to Jersey, and I met him for the first time at a dance where I wore this black frock. He scrawled his name in big, bold letters for many dances on my programme, and indifferent to the feelings of my other partners I ruthlessly sat out time after time with him. That was the beginning of a romance which lasted for many months and gave me the most exquisite pleasure. There is nothing in the world quite so beautiful as first love, with its seriousness and its shyness.
We used to go skating together, or take long walks, and see all the homely everyday scenes with new eyes. It had to end, as first love so often does, in dis- appointment. Perhaps I let him know too plainly how much he meant to me, a fatal mistake in a love affair, since man should always be the hunter, perhaps I was too unsophisticated to hold him, or perhaps he was, like myself, fickle by nature.
But whatever the reason he drifted away from me. I was terribly hurt, and utterly incapable of coping with the situation. I still loved him and wanted him back desperately, although I would not even admit it to myself. I used to suffer agonies of grief in silence, for I was very proud and would hide up my wounds at all costs.
I decided that there was only one thing to be done. I must let him see that I did not care. So to this end I married the next man who asked me, and he happened to be James Stuart Wallace. I met him when I was staying with some friends at a beau- tiful old country house, and he fell in love with me and proposed within a week.
I cannot pretend that anything but pique would have made me listen to him, for we were hopelessly unsuited to one another in every way, and he was more than twenty years. Still any- thing was better than eating out my heart for the man who had gone from me, and Jim was good-looking and successful enough to please any woman. The night before my wedding I cried myself to sleep over the old love, and made up my mind to be a really good wife to the new.
I set myself to make the best of my marriage, but I was handicapped from the very start. I was only eighteen, remember, and a Victorian eighteen, not a self-reliant, modern girl. We went to live at Cranford, near Hounslow, in a house that had belonged to old Morton Berkeley, which we rented from his nephew, Lord FitzHarding.
I was very fond of that kindly, genial man, and he used to come and entertain us for hours with his stories. He belonged to a type which is fast dying out, even if it is not already extinct. He went every- where, knew everyone and had the inner story of every scandal in London. He had a great sense of humour and a great knowledge of humanity. I was very lonely in those days. I could have had, had I wished, a dozen lovers to console me, but although I liked the companionship of men, as I have liked it all my life, I would not listen to them.
We led a sort of Micawber existence, for the most part varied with bursts of affluence. When James had the money he would be generous to a fault, and because he was proud of me I always had money for beautiful clothes, although I insisted on making them myself. One day I realized that I was going to have a child. I cannot say that I was anything but dismayed at the discovery. I was so young that I resented the physical discomfort intensely.
Novelists always write of the wonder of the first months of approaching mother- hood, but my own experience was the very reverse. In my scheme of life motherhood had no place. I was not in love with my husband, and I dreaded the thought of having a child. Also I was terribly worried at the prospect of the added expense, especially as our finances were then at the lowest ebb. I decided that my child should be both beautiful and musical. I smile to-day, remembering all the precautions I took and how seriously I gave my mind to them.
To make up for my temporary loss of beauty I dressed myself in the loveliest clothes I could create. I toiled round picture galleries and museums con- centrating on pictures and sculpture, and I used to play the piano for hours each day. Even that was not enough, for I wanted to take no chances on having a little music lover.
I had at that time among my intimate friends the famous violinist Tivadar Nachez. Nearly every evening he used to come to the little house and play exquisitely to me while I sat entranced with the beauty of his music. Those hours were among the happiest I spent at Cranford, and I always feel a debt of gratitude to the great artist, who gave up so much of his time to me. Unfortunately it did not have the desired effect, for the little daughter who was born to me hated music during her early childhood, and used to scream and tremble violently if anyone played the violin in her presence.
So much for the prenatal theory. She was, however, a beautiful baby, and although I had not wanted to be a mother I grew to love her dearly.
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She was a great compensation for my marriage. I called her Esme. There were the friendships I made and the memory of them is very sweet to me, for as one grows older one finds it ever harder to make real friends. It is, I think, only in youth that we give that spontaneous, selfless affection that goes to make a perfect understanding between two people. I came to value my friends when they stood by me in a very bad time, and I can never be grateful enough for their loyalty and kindness.
When my little daughter was about five years old the wretchedness of my married life was suddenly ended. My husband left me and went away with a girl who was dancing in pantomime. There was nothing to do but divorce him and I started pro- ceedings. I was left literally penniless, without any prospect of getting alimony, but my mother promised to pay the costs of the case, and took Esme and me to live with her in her little house in Davies Street.
Many of my friends tried their hardest to persuade me to withdraw the case, but my mind was made up, and I never regretted the decision. The case was all over in less than a quarter of an hour. So I was left, still in my early twenties, to enjoy the first fruits of freedom. I grew to love the independence of the little house in Davies Street and my room, now blessedly my own, and as the weeks passed I began to find new interests.
One of these was my friendship with Ellen Terry. I shall never forget my meeting with this brilliant and lovely woman. From my childhood I had been intensely fond of the theatre, and my mother used to fear that it would lead me to go upon the stage, of which she had the conventional horror of her generation. But although I had several offers to appear in different productions, and in later years became closely con- nected with the theatre, I never felt it my metier.
I used to go to the Lyceum to see Ellen Terry in every new play in which she appeared, and admired her intensely, and for years I had the wish to get to know her personally, but she was elusive in those days and went out very little, so our paths never crossed. Then, during the run of Faust I was invited to a Colonial reception, which was given on the stage of the Lyceum, and introduced to her. Like everyone else I fell under the spell of her extraordinary charm, and when she asked me to call on her at her house in Longridge Road I was delighted.
I was always warm and impulsive in my likes and dislikes, and I had a longing for a real friendship with this wonderful artist from the moment she spoke to me. So a few days later I went to call on her and was shown into a room which seemed full of sunlight and flowers, where I found her sitting in the midst of a group of girls who were sewing. I never knew any woman who possessed in such a degree the art of inspiring affection in her own sex.
She was not a young woman then, but she was the friend and confidante of dozens of girls, who adored her and loved to serve her in all sorts of little ways. They would do her shopping for her, arrange the flowers, dress her to go to the theatre, mend her clothes, and write her letters for her. Soon I became one of the group and was admitted to her house at all hours. The charm of those quiet afternoons we spent lingers still with me. It was never that we did any- thing very special ; I cannot even remember what we talked about, but Ellen Terry had the gift of creating sunshine and happiness around her.
Sometimes she used to read over one of her new plays to us, some- times we just gossiped and sewed pieces of stuff, which she used to fish out of her large and very untidy workbag. I never knew an untidier woman than she was.
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She was absolutely indifferent to dress, and thought very little of her personal appearance. Her hair was often tumbling down, and she would push it impatiently back from her face when she was interested in something. It would have been impossible to picture her in fashionable clothes, they would not have suited her personality. Over her theatre clothes she was intensely particular, and would spend hours choosing her costumes, and studying her make-up, I met many of the most interesting people of the theatre at her house.
Henry Irving used to drift in and out at all hours, looking very eccentric sometimes. She understood him perfectly and always knew how to manage him. Once or twice I saw him in a towering rage, working himself up to fever heat over something that had happened at the theatre, but she could calm him in a moment. It always struck me that their association was one of closest friendship rather than of love. She told me the same herself. As a matter of fact he never sees further than my head. He does not even know I have a body.
There was something irresistibly droll in his personality off the stage. Somehow, quite unconsciously, he made it so funny that he had us in" fits of laughter, although we did our best to smother our mirth out of decorum. In the end he began to laugh himself, till the tears ran down his cheeks. We had come back to her house after the theatre, and she was having a late supper. I can see her now sitting before the fire in her crimson velvet dressing- gown, with the tray of fruit and sandwiches in front of her. I said something about how much her friend- ship meant to me.
I am not the right woman for a good litde girl like you to know. I am what is called a woman with a past. I was really tremen- dously innocent, just a gay, little thing, without a serious thought in my head. I was fond of him, with a sort of daughterly affection, and I used to sit patiently for him for hours on end, sometimes in a dreadfully uncomfortable position with a heavy helmet on my head. You see I was a very kind little girl, and that kindness was my undoing.
He had been friendly with the family for years and both my husband and I were on terms of the most informal intimacy with him. We used to run in and out of his house whenever we wanted. I often visited him alone and nobody thought anything of it. Then one evening I went to see him and found him very ill in bed, with terrible sickness and pain.
I was so distressed for him that I never even thought of the conventions or the construction that might be placed on my actions. They accused me of infidelity and seemed utterly horrified at what I had done in all innocence. I tried to explain that what they had imagined to be a night of love was spent in helping a sick man to and from the bath- room and heating poultices for him, but they would not believe me.
They cast me out as a fallen woman, and my husband refused even to see me again. In despair I turned to my supposed partner in adultery and begged him to help me to clear myself, but he either could not, or perhaps did not want to succeed with them. At any rate he was my only refuge and I went back to his house. It was some years before I grew to love him, but in the end I gave my heart to him. She had a wonderful sense of humour and could always laugh at her own mistakes.
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She was full of courage too, and a letter, which I took out the other day from the collection of her letters I have kept, reminds me of her indomitable spirit. I'm glad you have been so happy. I have marked off Friday, 17th, for my box for you, because on the 18th there is only a matinee.
Only by resting in bed all day and every day can I act at night. She was like Sarah Bernhardt, whom I came to know years later, wedded to her art. If ever in my life I was proud of the conquest of a man's heart it was of this one, which was always reputed to be invincible, although nearly every woman in London was half in love with him. Morell told me before he left England that he fully realized the perils of his position, and it is an actual fact that more than one attempt was made on his life while he was in the Palace. All his food had to be guarded from poison, for political feeling ran so high when it was known that he meant at all costs to save the Emperor Frederick that Wilhelm's supporters would willingly have removed the obstacles to their intrigue.
On his return to England he was knighted, but it was an empty honour. The Empress Frederick showed an almost incredible ingratitude to the man who had helped her to attain her ambition, and stories were circulated which marred his career, and ultimately broke his heart. His death was a terrible grief to me. It was through Sir Morell Mackenzie that I first met some of the most notable figures of the artistic world of that time. His Thursday evening parties were famous for their gatherings of celebrities. At one of them I met Oscar Wilde. I thought him the oddest creature I had ever seen, with his long, golden hair, his black velvet knee-breeches and the sunflower in his buttonhole.
Gilbert had just made him the hero of his Patience , and everyone was quoting the "Greenery yallery, Grosvenor Gallery. Wilde was an even stranger figure than her husband, and dressed with a total disregard of taste. She was about to become a mother, and was evidently very proud of the fact, for instead of trying to conceal it as Victorian decorum demanded with voluminous draperies, she wore the tightest di? The effect was startling to say the least. She was a very charming woman, witty and amusing to talk to, and always made a great fuss of me.
When my husband went out of my life I was left practically penniless and with my little daughter to support. My mother came to my help at once and took us both to live with her, but I had to think of some means of making money, for she was not very well off, and there was Esme's education and future to think of.
I realized that I must take up some sort of work, and racked my brains to decide what I could do well enough to be paid for it. I could play the piano quite well, but I was not optimistic as to a career on the concert platform. I did not care for the idea of going on the stage, and at that time very few women had even thought of going into business, and in any case I had had no training to fit me for secretarial work or anything of that sort. In the meantime the need for money was pressing, and I used to lie awake in my bedroom at the top of the house thinking about it night after night.
Then one morning, when I was making a little dress for Esme, I had a flash of inspiration. Whatever I could or could not do I could make clothes. I would be a dressmaker. I was so excited at the plan that I could scarcely eat any lunch. My mother was not wildly enthusiastic about it. It would need capital, she told me, and there would be a lot of competition to fear. I would find my clients from our personal friends. Arthur Brand was my first. She came in to see us a few days after I had evolved my plan, and said that she had had an invitation to stay with Mrs.
Panmuir Gordon, whose house-parties were famous. She wanted a new tea-gown to take with her, but was afraid there would not be time to fit it. I began it right away, taking my inspiration from a tea-gown I had seen Letty Lind wear on the stage. It was all accordion pleated, and I did every stitch of it myself, nearly blinding myself working at night to get it finished in time. Brand was charmed with it, and promised to tell everyone where she had got it. I still have the photograph of that first dress I made.
I had a feeling that it was a good mascot to have it on the wall. The dress certainly brought me luck whether the photograph did or not, for within a few days after making it for Mrs. Brand every woman who had been a member of that house-party had given me orders for tea-gowns, and I was hardly able to cope with them. I think that many designers of the younger school are far too inclined to turn out their models en masse, regardless of the special needs of the women who will wear them, and so they lack personality and interest.
I always saw the woman, not the frock as detached from her, and so women loved my clothes, because women are above all other things personal in every thought and action. I explained this to the women who flocked to the little house in Davies Street, and they absorbed the theory at once. I could not afford an assistant and not only designed the dresses myself, but cut them out and sewed them, working far into the night.
When they were finished I used to wrap them up and deliver them myself.
An American millionaire once told me that all great business successes sprang from a small beginning. Certainly nobody could have begun in a smaller way than I did, without capital, without help of any sort, and with no advertisement except the gossip of the women whose dresses I made, and who spread the pathetic story of the young wife who had been deserted and was trying to earn a living for herself and her little gM.
One of them was an expert fitter, who relieved me of the most tiresome part of the work and left me free to create new models. At that time nobody had ever heard or even thought of having mannequins, and it was not until many years later that I made dressmaking-history by staging the first mannequin parade. My first clients chose their dresses from sketches which I drew for them, and these were never copied for any other woman.
I had my first big success when I was asked to design the dresses for the amateur performance of Diplomacy , which Lord Rosslyn got up for some charity. He was a very talented actor and took the principal part himself, my sister Elinor played Dora, and Mrs. William James took the part of the adven- turess. However, they brought me success.
That was the very first play I ever dressed. I see it now as the stepping-stone which was to lead to designing all the costumes for some of the greatest successes that the London stage has ever seen, as well as for Ziegf eld's wonderful shows in New York. I forget now what they were like, but I know that the child bridesmaids had touches of yellow on their dresses, which caused a lot of comment.
Elinor made a very lovely bride, and I had designed her a medieval head-dress which suited her to perfection. I thought that, as she walked down the steps of St. George's, Hanover Square, with Clayton Glyn her husband, she looked like the living incarnation of a fairy-tale princess. Other wedding orders followed my sister's. She was a strange girl, very brilliant, but subject to fits of intense depres- sion, and nervous and highly-strung to the last degree. She was, I think, a tragic example of the danger of having too much money, for she told me many times that she was insufferably bored with life.
She had everything to make her happy, but was less happy than almost any other woman I have ever known. Later I got to recognise the same state of mind in many of the American heiresses I met.
Discretions and Indiscretions
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