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Beatrice Lillie & Jack Haley

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Biography

b. 29 May 1894, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, d. 20 January 1989, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, England. An incomparable artist - a comedienne, actress, and singer - who was known in the 20s and 30s as ‘the funniest woman in the world.’ After leaving school at the age of 15 to form a singing trio with her mother and sister, Lillie moved to England just prior to World War I. From 1914-1922, she starred in a series of West End revues, mostly produced by André Charlot. These included Not Likely! (1914), 5064 Gerrard (1915), Samples (1916), Some (1916), Cheep (1917), Tabs (1918), Bran Pie (1919), Now And Then (1921), Pot Luck (1921), and The Nine O’Clock Revue (1922). She also took the comic lead in the Jerome Kern / Guy Bolton / P.G. Wodehouse musical comedy, Oh, Joy! (1919), which had played at the Princess Theatre in New York under the title of Oh, Boy! In 1920, Lillie married Robert Peel, a descendant of the founder of the Metropolitan Police, and became Lady Peel five years later when his baronet father died. Two years later she made her Broadway debut, with Gertrude Lawrence and Jack Buchanan, in the smash hit André Charlot’s Revue, and almost stopped the show every night with the splendidly chaotic ‘March With Me’ number. After more Charlot revues in London and New York, Lillie appeared in two musical comedies. She duetted with Charles Purcell on Anne Caldwell and Vincent Youmans’ ‘I Know That You Know’ in Oh, Please! (New York 1926), and brought the house down every night with her rendering of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s ‘A Baby’s Best Friend’ (is his mother) in She’s My Baby (New York 1928). Returning to revue, she co-starred with Noël Coward, and sang the enduring ‘World Weary’, in his immensely successful This Year Of Grace! (New York 1928). A brief foray into the West End with Charlot’s Masquerade (1930), was followed by The Third Little Show (New York 1931), in which she introduced American audiences to another Coward classic, ‘Mad Dogs And Englishmen’. During the 30s Lillie was one of the most sought after of celebrities, the darling of the social set, and the toast of two continents. She continued to excite and delight theatregoers on both sides of the Atlantic in productions such as Walk A Little Faster (New York 1932), Please (London 1933), At Home Abroad (New York 1935), The Show Is On (New York 1936), Happy Returns (London 1938), and All Clear (London 1939). It is said that Cole Porter wrote his ‘story of a nightmare weekend’, ‘Thank You So Much, Mrs. Lowsborough-Goodby’, for Lillie, and Coward gave her his delightfully gossipy ‘I’ve Been To A Marvellous Party’ in Set To Music (1939). She made her cabaret debut in 1939 at London’s Café Royal, and then - apart from appearing in Herbert Farjeon’s revue, Big Top (London 1942), and some straight theatre - spent most of World War II entertaining the troops at home and abroad. She was decorated by General de Gaulle with the French Liberation Medal, and throughout the 40s continued to criss-cross the Atlantic, appearing in revues such as Seven Lively Arts (New York 1944), Better Late (London 1946), and Inside USA (New York 1948), as well as working regularly on radio and in cabaret. In 1953 she won a Tony Award for the New York production of An Evening With Beatrice Lillie, which was also presented at the Globe Theatre in London a year later. Among the West End cast then was composer/librettist Leslie Bricusse, who retained his association with her for some years. In fact, he and Anthony Newley wrote their smash hit musical, Stop The World - I Want To Get Off, early in 1961, while Bricusse was working with Lillie in New York. Before that, she was the best thing in a generally disappointing Golden Jubilee edition of the Ziegfeld Follies (1957), a superbly eccentric aunt in Auntie Mame in London (1958), as well as being her anarchic self in Late Evening With Beatrice Lillie at the 1960 Edinburgh Festival. She made her final Broadway appearance, as Madame Arcati, in High Spirits, the 1964 musical based on Noël Coward’s play Blithe Spirit. Although her career spanned the period from silent features to The Sound Of Music, Lillie made only a few films - she needed a live audience to inspire her. Probably her most telling screen appearance was as an hilarious oriental white slave trader in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). Shortly after suffering a stroke in 1975 that left her partly paralysed, she returned to England and spent the remainder of her life in poor health at her home in Henley. After her death, Sir John Gielgud paid a touching tribute, and said that he regarded her as ‘The Mistress of the Absurd’, recalling her in performance at the Winter Garden Theatre, in New York, ‘standing dramatically against a pillar dressed in a flowing gown which she lifted suddenly to reveal her feet shod in roller skates on which she gravely skidded across the stage’. With her trademark Eton crop topped with a smart cap, and bearing a long cigarette holder, she was a true original - the enemy of pomposity, and a murderer of the sentimental - much to the delight of her audience. Fortunately, many of her satirical and surrealistic comic numbers and skits, such as ‘There Are Fairies At The Bottom Of My Garden’, ‘Double Damask’, ‘Weary Of It All’, ‘Wind Round My Heart’, and ‘This Is My First Affair’ (‘so please be kind’ - which during the course of her version, became ‘please be quick’), are preserved on record.

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