Jeanne Rathbone

Elsa Lanchester Hollywood actress and Notable Woman of Lavender Hill

Posted in Elsa Lanchester Hollywood actress and Notable Woman around Lavender Hill by sheelanagigcomedienne on June 9, 2019

Elsa Lanchester 1902-1986 was Biddy Lanchester and Shamus Sullivan’s daughter.  Edith known as Biddy is one of my Notable Women of Lavender Hill and the family lived at 27 Leathwaite Road SW11. When Biddy declared in 1895, whilst living at Este Road Battersea, that she was going to live with Shamus she was kidnapped by her father, two brothers and a psychiatrist. This caused a debacle and the involvement of the Legitimation League. Biddy never saw her father again but Elsa certainly had contact with them and visited her grandmother in Linfield Haywords Heath and her artistic aunt Mary. She seemed to quite like the Lanchester connection and acknowledged Fred the car designer and Harry the architect and planner of New Delhi.

After the furore of their not getting married but living together they set up home in Lewisham initially. Elsa didn’t think they had a happy relationship but stuck together because they weren’t married, implying that if they were married they might have divorced.

The family were living at 48 Farley Road Catford when Elsa was born and she was their second child. When Waldo her brother was born her mother had gone to stay with Eleanor Marx in her home in Sydenham. Waldo went on to become a puppeteer.

els a birthplace 48 catford…/elsa-lanchester-catfords-bride-of-frankenstei…

A south east London website laments that in  “ Elsa Lanchester’s autobiography there is, sadly, little reference to the Lewisham life of one of ‘Hollywood’s most delightful comediennes and the wife of one of its greatest, and most tortured, actors’ (Charles Laughton).

Elsa spent most of her childhood in Battersea at 27 Leathwaite Road where the Lanchester

27 Leathwaite 2019 walk

27 Leathwaite Road 2019 walk.

family finally settled when Elsa was six years old. Biddy and Shamus stayed there till he died in 1945. So, it was the home that Elsa would return to whilst she lived in various places around London and after she had moved to Hollywood with Charles Laughton.

The family moved six times around south London, in addition to Catford there were short-lived homes in Lewisham, Norwood and in Clapham in Cavendish Road and Rudloe Road before settling in 27 Leathwaite Battersea.  Part of the reason for these frequent movements was to try to prevent Elsa being vaccinated as her brother Waldo had reacted badly to his and Edith wanted to prevent government interference in the life of Elsa and also because of wrangles with landlords. Finally, the schools inspectors caught up with Biddy and so Elsa had to attend school.

Family life involved equal parts adventure and eviction. Biddy took on landlords with every loophole in dozens of bylaws, finding it “irresistible to get the better of the upper classes.”

Waldo was attending a small socialist school on Clapham Common Northside.. They were living in Rudloe Road on the other side of the common at the time the LCC inspector visited. Elsa was aged six and Biddy wanted to continue to educate her at home. Despite Biddy waving her MA certificate certificate at the school’s inspector she had to attend school. She only lasted a week at the local primary school, from which she was exempted from morning prayers.

She was accepted as the only girl into Mr Frederick Kettle’s school in 1908. She loved her time there which she describes in her autobiography and they are very amusing. “ A Mr Hamilton taught mathematics in a very practical way ….cupboard full of instruments, telescopes, theodiolytes, and I was soon busy with logarithms and parabolas. First thing in the morning we read newspapers. We more or less chose the day’s work for ourselves and did as we like, as long as we did something. Madge, Kettle’s daughter taught them French.

As a London child she likened herself to a gutter rat and complained of being deprived of meat and God. She embarrassed her mother by asking her what men and women did to have babies which she knew already. Her mother gave ‘ a description in terms that a plumber would use to describe a diffucult job’ … ‘a secret satisfaction like the Mona Lisa seems to be feeling’.

She recalled reading the cuttings about her mothers kidnapping case, admitting that after a few years she’ found it rather glamorous to be a bastard.’ Commenting that Biddy was regarded as courageous by her comrades but Shamus didn’t get much credit. Although Elsa could see that he was firebrand.

Elsa tells leaving the Rudloe road flat. Biddy withheld the rent because the landlady wouldn’t do repairs. Biddy sent a report to the sanitary authorities. After six weeks the bailiffs came took some furniture and with the rent saved they went on holiday to Clacton on Sea for a simply splendid holiday and Shamus went back ahead of them and he secured the Leathwaite Road flat. The usual set up kitchen, front room and two small attic bedrooms but this one backed on to the common. And had a flat roof terrace. Another tenant had a big brass plate which Elsa polished for tuppence. Miss Valler Robes et Modes.

She danced in the Lower Town Hall aged 16 for the inauguration of the Battersea Labour Party Women’ Section at the request of Caroline Ganley who was asked to establish the Women’s Section by Charlotte Despard who gave her funds to do it. Obviously, the Lanchesters were well known in socialist circles in Battersea. Caroline described her as ‘elfin like’  in her memoirs.

Elsa in Turnabout Thetare

Elsa said that wherever they lived they had ‘The Kitchen’.  The Kitchen was a meeting place for socialist comrades. All evening people drifted in and out, talking of meetings and rallies and thumping our table. The comrades usually ended up comparing socialism to Marxism  and communism. And it often got quite rowdy but by that time I had usually gone to bed. That big oblong table was well marked by the life of that kitchen. Besides table thumping there was eating, homework and shoe cleaning.

She mentions that poor Shamus craved meat and fish. It was agreed that he could occasionally have a half a pig’s head boiled with vinegar which was about all they could afford. Sometimes a bloater or two with the children ‘staring in wonderment that he could eat anything with eye’s in it’ and Biddy saying ‘Hope you’re enjoying your corpse’

Elsa recalled the Bovril ads she saw at Piccadilly Circus as she walked through the west end with her violin case to Dr Trotters school of Music Bovril puts beef into you’ and so she began ‘ to spend her penny a week on on Oxo or Bovril cubes’… cuting them into four chewing a quarter at a time.  They were delicious she said.

Bovril ad at Piccadilly

Sometimes she would go on her roller skates to school and she would pass the house pretty red brick house with a well kept square garden where an old gentleman sometimes leaned on the gate whom she knew was John Burns. In all the seven years she walked ,’no dirty old man ever stopped her for a chat’

She remembers distributing atheist leaflets of biblical quotes at the Sunday school at the end of their road.

They played cricket, football and rounders on the common with Mr Kettle joining in but discouraged from competing in sports and no exams.

They often went camping overnight in Surrey or Sussex staying on private land and having their meals at farmhouses and would wander into the fields and woods for picnics and recalled doing this on the 1911 census night going by bus and tram carrying their tarpaulin and blankets.

There were childhood memories of May Day rallies, sherbet fountains and singing The Internationale and the Lewisham written Red Flag by Jim McConnell an Irishman. There were trips to both the ballet, to see Pavlova’s Swan Lake as well as seeing the likes of George Robey, Marie Lloyd at Clapham Grand.

Elsa went to classes with Biddy in weaving, spinning and sandal making with  Raymond Duncan, brother of Isadora. Through him she ended up at Isadora Duncan’s dance school in Paris although there seemed to be little real talent for teaching from Duncan so little was learned other than to ‘become an autumn leaf’. There is a funny interview with her on the Dick Cavett Show talking about her time with Isadora

After returning from Paris as war was impending Elsa was sent to Kings Langley School. This was a ‘progressive’ co-ed establishment and she was to pay her way by teaching dance. Biddy was good at negotiating such arrangements. Elsa didn’t last there very long there.  Elsa began to make a living out of short-lived dancing assignments, including a week as a snake dancer in Edmonton.

After the war ended she worked for a charity teaching dancing called Happy Evenings, during her second summer of this she set up a school in Charlotte Street in central London.  She also used the premises to set up what was effectively an after-hours theatre club – the Cave of Harmony – which began to attract a famous clientele which included the likes of H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh who became a regular visitor. Elsa could be quite blunt and acerbic about her friends and acquaintances, She was quite cutting about Waugh – describing him as ‘not at all attractive looking….pink in patches as though he had a bad cold.’

Here is a BFI free film of the film


She began teaching dance in the Duncan style and gave classes to children and earned some welcome extra income for her household. She started the Children’s Theatre, and later the Cave of Harmony, a nightclub at which modern plays and cabaret turns were performed. She revived old Victorian songs and ballads, many of which she retained for her performances in another revue entitled Riverside Nights. There are recordings on you tube. The songs on this one are introduced by Charles. There are some great ones. Songs for a smoke filled room.

She became sufficiently famous for Columbia to invite her into the recording studio to make 78 rpm discs of four of the numbers she sang in these revues: “Please Sell No More Drink to My Father” and “He Didn’t Oughter” were on one disc (recorded in 1926) and “Don’t Tell My Mother I’m Living in Sin” and “The Ladies Bar” were on the other (recorded 1930). ‘ Never go walking without your hat pin@  shows how things haven’t changed. Little Fred, Fiji Fanny,Catalog Woman, My New York Slip,The Yashmak Song, The Janitor’s Boy    Please do listen.

Elsa songs for smoke filled rooms

There is an article in Women’s history Review titled Elsa Lanchester and Bohemian London in the Early Twentieth Century which explores her world ‘before her marriage to the actor Charles Laughton in 1929 to investigate aspects of bohemian culture in the early twentieth century. It focuses on Lanchester’s artistic nightclub, the Cave of Harmony, on the edges of London’s West End. Bohemianism, modern dance and musical comedy opened up new identities and spaces for female self-exploration.’

Her cabaret and nightclub appearances led to more serious stage work and it was in a play by Arnold Bennett called Mr Prohack (1927) that Lanchester first met another member of the cast, Charles Laughton. They were married two years later. She began playing small  roles in British films, including the role of Anne of Cleves with Laughton in The Private Life of Henry V111 (1933) His success in American films resulted in the couple moving to Hollywood where Elsa played small film roles.

In 1938, Elsa published a book about her relationship with Laughton, Charles Laughton and I.

In March 1983, Elsa released an autobiography, entitled Elsa Lanchester Herself. In the book she alleges that she and Charles never had children because Laughton was homosexual. Her memoris have recently been reissued.

Her role as the title character in Bride of Frankenstein(1935) brought her recognition.…/the-bride-of-frankenstein-looms-large-in-movi…

She played supporting roles through the 1940s and 1950s. She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting actress for Come to the Stable (1949) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957), the last of twelve films in which she appeared with Laughton. Following Laughton’s death in 1962, Lanchester resumed her career with appearances in such Disney films as Mary Poppins (1964), That Darn Cat (1965) and Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968). The horror film Willard (1971) was highly successful, and one of her last roles was in Murder by Death (1976). I love the clip from Murder by Death and the gorgeous  Maggie Smith.

Her list of films spans from 1925 silent movie to 1980.

Here is a clip from a TV interview where she is talking about Charles. She was a funny clever woman as you can see from this clip. .

and this is a clip of her and Charles singing Baby its Cold Outside

Here is Elsa Woman of a thousand faces.

Elsa died in California on December 1986 aged 84, at the The Motion Picture Hospital from pneumonia having suffered from two strokes.

There is still a lot of interest in Elsa for various reasons. Her Bride of Frankenstein has given her status as a cult siren. There are many blogs about her and her place in horror and monster film history. James Whale the director was British and Elsa and him had worked together in England. (One interesting fact for me is the actor English Ernest Thesiger who played Dr Septimus Pretorius in the film it transpires was the best man of Victor Duval of the suffragist family who lived in Lavender Sweep which is opposite Leathwaite Road on the other side of Battersea Rise. The amazing Duval family feature in my Notable Women  walk. Victor married Una Dugdale in January 1912

Here is a giphy of Elsa the Bride

Elsa as Cult Siren Believe it or not, without Elsa Lanchester, there probably would not be any Cult Sirens website. In fact, it’s not exaggeration to claim that her immortal role in Bride of Frankenstein can easily make her the ultimate Siren in history, considering that this unique character may be the ultimate female role in a horror movie. Nothing less!

Elsa and LGBT history defying heteronormativity.       Tom Blunt, a young  producer and host of numerous entertainments in New York City, including a film-inspired variety show called “Meet The Lady” for the 92nd Street Y which was a show about Elsa. He has written for sites such as The Awl and New York Magazine; his crackpot cinematic theories have been cited in The Guardian and IFC News.

One of the reasons I felt compelled to go to all this trouble was the significance of Elsa’s book to LGBTQ history. The closeted life of her husband Charles Laughton also became her own, as she stuck by him for decades and kept his secrets — even despite what we’d categorize today as Laughton’s intense emotional abuse.

I contacted him about my walk Notable Women of Lavender Hill which includes Elsa because he has been instrumental in getting her autobiography reprinted by  Chicago Review Press.   I sent him photos of the motley crew from my walk in front of the house they lived in for many years 27 Leathwaite Road.

In his article he writes about her witty and candid autobiography written long after Charles had died which now resonates with readers and LGBT commentators about their marriage.

Back then, she was the lesser half of a Hollywood power-couple, migrating from England to the US with Laughton in the early ’30s, where he became an Oscar-winning wunderkind. Elsa snapped up character roles, often in her husband’s movies, toiling in his shadow as he became further renowned as a master-thespian, teacher, and even director (“The Night of the Hunter” remains a classic). The quirkiness of their relationship was considered by fans and friends alike as proof that these two offbeat intellectuals were made for each other – but it also served as a smokescreen for the secret they ended up keeping together for over thirty years.

Even today, over thirty years later, women are finding that unless they speak up immediately, their motives in remaining silent will forever cast doubt on their honesty. Keeping silent seemingly revokes their right to complain.

In 1983, long after her husband’s death, Elsa finally broke her silence. Her memoir, Elsa Lanchester Herself, included a detailed, unflinching personal account of their arrangement, from unfortunate way she first learned of Laughton’s homosexuality (when he was busted for soliciting a male prostitute, early in their marriage) to the grief and resentment that gradually accumulated between them, fully permeating even their final moments.

Elsa Tom Blunt was persistent in getting her autobiography re published

Tom Blunt was persistent in getting Elsa’s biography republished.

Tom Blunt was instrumental in finally getting Elsa’s biography reissued by Chicago Review Press

Elsa has also been acknowledged by LGBT activists as been so significant for her involvement with The Turnabout Theatre.

Turnabout Theatre opened in 1941 and quickly proved itself to be an unusual Hollywood hot spot, its audiences remaining loyal until it closed in 1956. The queerest, dearest, and cleverest “satirical revue” of its time (and perhaps of any time), it was founded by songwriter Forman Brown, puppet-maker Harry Burnett, and manager Roddy Brandon. The three gay men were known as The Yale Puppeteers and lived together as a family for most of their seventy-year career. Turnabout Theatre was one end marionette show and the other end live acts, and its name referred to its reversible streetcar seats and how the audience would “turn about” between acts. The theatre’s star attraction was Elsa Lanchester in an eccentric cabaret mode…….This is the love on which the Turnabout Theatre was built, a love as powerful and enduring and unusual for its time as the love shared by Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton. No wonder Forman and Lanchester were so synchronized artistically. It was Charles himself who once told Elsa how she and Forman together made a true “artistic marriage of talents.

Elsa and Charles were friends neighbours of Christopher Isherwood and his partner Don Bachardy on Adelaide Drive in Santa Monica, California. Christopher was one of the readers at Charles Laughton’s funeral.

Elsa in silent films I found this scholarly treatise on Elsa in British silent films from a film conference in Bologna in 2010. However Odd—Elsa Lanchester! While both seem willing to parodize themselves, embracing ugliness, their eccentrism simultaneously provides something of an ironic commentary on the ideal feminine “types” presented by Hollywood and Hollywood’s commodification of particular notions of feminine beauty.

The proposed paper will discuss the role of Elsa Lanchester in British silent cinema, notably in the short films The Scarlet Woman (1924), The Tonic, Bluebottles and Daydreams (1929) and the feature film, The Constant Nymph (1928), starring Mabel Poulton as the classic child/woman of British literature and British 1920s cinema. Lanchester’s gawky angularity seems to have prompted her casting in character parts, rather than as a leading lady in the 1920s and 1930s.

A specific comparison will be made with the “exaggerated,” non-naturalistic style of Aleksandra Khokhlova – notably in Lev Kuleshov’s 1924 The Extraordinary Adventues of Mr West — and the critical appraisal of her work in Eisenstein’s essay, “However Odd! — Khokhlova.” I shall suggest that both artistes, excluded from conventional casting regimes, provide performances which are not simply comedic, but which create a space in which irony (and even satire) — following Linda Hutcheon — is allowed “to happen.”

The paper will build on work on Lanchester already published in “Elsa Lanchester and Chaplinism,” in Crossing the Pond (2002), British Cinema: A Critical History (2005) and on the WSBC website.

I hope that there will be some sort of show about Elsa locally something similar to what Tom Blunt devised with readings, sketches, interviews, her song recordings and clips. I’ll see what we can do! These are photos of my ersatz plaque commemorating Elsa and Biddy taken on a sunny day in April and the view from the back windows of her home onto Clapham Common.

Elsa who was born in 1912 is still so relevant in many different ways today. She feels so contemporary.  She is usually described as coming from a Bohemian family, started to work as a dancer, singer actress in theatre, cabaret, TV and film and has made an impact on cinema, performance and in defying heteronormativity.

Elsa and Biddy are in a queue for Battersea Society commemorative plaques on 27 Leathwaite Road. Of the 16 English Heritage plaques in Battersea there are none to women. I started my Notable Women of Lavender Hill walks in 2018 the centenary of some women getting the vote now there are three plaues commemorative plaques to Caroline Ganley 1879-1966 MP, JP,  councillor and co-operator at 5 Thirsk Road, Charlotte Despard 1844-1939 socialist, suffragette and Sinn Feiner at 177 Lavender Hill and Pamela Hansford Johnson 1912-1981 novelist and critic at 53 Battersea Rise now Farrago restaurant. There are two more in the offing with English Heritage application for Marie Spartali Pre-raphelite artist, The Shrubbery Lavender Gardens and Deaconess Isabella Gilmore on 113 Clapham Common Northside – still a long way to go before we have a gender balance. So, I will continue the tours and the endeavour to have these inspiring women remembered.

I have been asked to suggest names of woman for streets/apartment blocks by Garrett at Wandsworth Council and been told that developers in Nine Elms near the US embassy are considering a Lanchester Way after Biddy and Elsa. It’s a start in commemorating  these two trailblazing women from Battersea. My friend Joan has pointed out that her BFI membership card features Elsa as Bride of Frankenstein.

For a woman born in 1912 she is still so relevant in the history of film and LGBT culture and for the range of friends and acquaintances from artistic, theatrical and political life in London and Hollywood. Battersea should be proud of her.  Having read so much about her I feel, like many biographers, that  I would loved to have met her.  It is because of where I live that I have been ensconced in the lives of women like Elsa who lived very nearby and I feel compelled to write about them and to remember them as pioneers and some I would love to have been their friends!

Elsa should be appreciated, celebrated and definitely deserves to have an English Heritage commemorative plaque on 27 Leathwaite  Road SW11 and please readers do share this with anyone you think will appreciate our Elsa from Battersea.