9 January 1898
|Died||27 September 1979 (aged 81)|
La Canzone Del Mare, Capri, Italy
(m. 1923; div. 1939)
(m. 1940; his death 1950)
Boris Alperovici (d. 1983)
(m. 1952; her death 1979)
Dame Gracie Fields, (born Grace Stansfield; 9 January 1898 – 27 September 1979) was an English actress, singer and comedienne and star of both cinema and music hall. She spent the later part of her life on the isle of Capri, Italy. Fields was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for Services to Entertainment in 1938, and in 1979, seven months before her death, she was invested as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.
Fields was born Grace Stansfield, over a fish and chip shop owned by her grandmother, Sarah Bamford, in Molesworth Street, Rochdale, Lancashire. She made her first stage appearance as a child in 1905, joining children's repertory theatre groups such as Haley's Garden of Girls and the Nine Dainty Dots. Her two sisters, Edith and Betty, and brother, Tommy, all went on to appear on stage, but Gracie was the most successful. Her professional debut in variety took place at the Rochdale Hippodrome theatre in 1910 and she soon gave up her job in the local cotton mill, where she was a half-timer, spending half a week in the mill and the other half at school.
Fields met the comedian and impresario Archie Pitt and they began working together. Pitt gave Fields champagne on her 18th birthday, and wrote in an autograph book to her that he would make her a star. Pitt began to manage her career and they began a relationship; they married in 1923 at Clapham Register Office. Their first revue was called Yes I Think So in 1915 and the two continued to tour Britain together until 1924. That year they appeared in the revue Mr Tower of London, with other shows By Request, It's A Bargain and The Show's The Thing, during the following years.
Pitt was the brother of Bert Aza, founder of the Aza agency, which was responsible for many entertainers of the day including the actor and comedian Stanley Holloway, who was introduced to Aza by Fields. Fields and Holloway first worked together on her film Sing As We Go in 1934 and the two remained close friends for the rest of their lives.
Fields came to major public notice in Mr Tower of London, which appeared in London's West End. Her career accelerated from this point with legitimate dramatic performances and the beginning of a recording career.
Fields' most famous song, which became her theme, "Sally", was worked into the title of her first film, Sally in Our Alley (1931), which was a major box office hit. She went on to make several films initially in Britain and later in the United States (for which she was paid a record fee of £200,000 for four films). Regardless, she never enjoyed performing without a live audience, and found the process of film-making boring. She tried to opt out of filming, before director Monty Banks persuaded her otherwise, landing her the lucrative Hollywood deal. Fields demanded that the four films be filmed in Britain and not Hollywood, and this was the case.
The final few lines of the song "Sally", which Fields sang at every performance from 1931 onwards, were written by her husband's mistress, Annie Lipman. Fields claimed in later life that she wanted to "Drown blasted Sally with Walter with the aspidistra on top!", a reference to two other of her well-known songs, "Walter, Walter", and "It's the Biggest Aspidistra in the World".
In the 1930s her popularity peaked and she was given many honours: the Officer of the Venerable Order of St. John (for charity work), the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) (for services to entertainment) in 1938 and the Freedom of the Borough of Rochdale in 1937.
She donated her house in The Bishops Avenue, north London (which she had not much cared for and which she had shared with her husband Archie Pitt and his mistress) to an orphanage after the marriage broke down. In 1939, she became seriously ill with cervical cancer. The public sent over 250,000 goodwill messages and she retired to her villa on Capri. After she recovered, she recorded a very special 78rpm record simply called Gracie's Thanks, in which she thanks the public for the many cards and letters she received while in hospital. During World War II, she paid for all servicemen/women to travel free on public transport within the boundaries of Rochdale.
Fields also helped Rochdale F.C. in the 1930s when they were struggling to pay fees and buy sports equipment.
In 1933 she set up the Gracie Fields Children's Home and Orphanage at Peacehaven, Sussex, for children of those in the theatre profession who could not look after their children. She kept this until 1967, when the home was no longer needed. This was near her own home in Peacehaven, and Fields often visited, with the children all calling her 'Aunty Grace'.
In 1939, Fields suffered a breakdown and went to Capri to recuperate. World War II was declared while she was recovering in Capri, and Fields - still very ill after her cancer surgery - threw herself into her work and signed up for the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) headed by her old film producer, Basil Dean. Fields travelled to France to entertain the troops in the midst of air-raids, performing on the backs of open lorries and in war-torn areas. She was the first artist to play behind enemy lines in Berlin.
Following her divorce from Archie Pitt, she married Italian-born film director Monty Banks in March 1940. However, because Banks remained an Italian citizen and would have been interned in the United Kingdom after Italy declared war in 1940, she went with him to North America, possibly at the suggestion of Winston Churchill who told her to "Make American Dollars, not British Pounds", which she did, in aid of the Navy League and the Spitfire Fund. She and Banks moved to their home in Santa Monica, California. Fields occasionally returned to Britain, performing in factories and army camps around the country. After their initial argument, Parliament offered her an official apology.
Although she continued to spend much of her time entertaining troops and otherwise supporting the war effort outside Britain, this led to a fall-off in her popularity at home. She performed many times for Allied troops, travelling as far as New Guinea, where she received an enthusiastic response from Australian personnel. In late 1945 she toured the South Pacific Islands.
After the war, Fields continued her career less actively. She began performing in Britain again in 1948 headlining the London Palladium over Eartha Kitt who was also on the bill. The BBC gave her her own radio show in 1947 dubbed Our Gracie's Working Party in which 12 towns were visited by Fields, and a live show of music and entertainment was broadcast weekly with Fields compering and performing, and local talents also on the bill. This tour commenced in Rochdale. Like so many BBC shows at the time, this show transferred to Radio Luxembourg in 1950, sponsored by Wisk soap powder. Billy Ternent and his Orchestra accompanied her.
In 1951, Fields took part in the cabaret which closed the Festival of Britain celebrations. She proved popular once more, though never regaining the status she enjoyed in the 1930s. She continued recording, but made no more films, moving more towards light classical music as popular tastes changed, often adopting a religious theme. She continued into the new medium of LP records, and recorded new takes of her old favourite songs, as well as new and recent tracks to 'liven things up a bit'.
Monty Banks died on 8 January 1950 of a heart attack while travelling on the Orient Express. On 18 February 1952 in Capri, Fields married Boris Alperovici, a Romanian radio repairman. She claimed that he was the love of her life, and that she couldn't wait to propose to him. She proposed on Christmas Day in front of friends and family. They married at the Church of St. Stefano on Capri in a quiet ceremony before honeymooning in Rome.
She lived on her beloved Isle of Capri for the remainder of her life, at her home La Canzone Del Mare, a swimming and restaurant complex which Fields' home overlooked. It was favoured by many Hollywood stars during the 1950s, with regular guests including Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Greta Garbo and Noël Coward.
She began to work less, but still toured the UK under the management of Harold Fielding, manager of top artists of the day such as Tommy Steele and Max Bygraves. Her UK tours proved popular, and in the mid-1960s she performed farewell tours in Australia, Canada and America - the last performance was recorded and released years later.
In 1956, Fields was the first actress to portray the title character in Miss Marple in a US TV production of Agatha Christie's A Murder is Announced. The production featured Jessica Tandy and Roger Moore, and predates the Margaret Rutherford films by some five years. She also starred in television productions of A Tale of Two Cities, The Old Lady Shows Her Medals - for which she won a TV Award - and Mrs 'Arris Goes to Paris, which was remade years later with Angela Lansbury as Mrs Harris, a charwoman in search of a fur coat (or a Christian Dior gown in Lansbury's case.)
In 1957, her single "Around the World" peaked at No.8 in the UK Singles Chart, with her recording of "Little Donkey" reaching No.20 in November 1959. The sheet music for the song was the UK's best-seller for seven weeks.
Fields regularly performed in TV appearances, being the first entertainer to perform on Val Parnell's Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Fields had two Christmas TV specials in 1960 and 1961, singing her old favourites and new songs in front of a studio audience. 1971 saw A Gift For Gracie, another TV special presented by Fields and Bruce Forsyth. This followed on from her popularity on Stars on Sunday, a religious programme on Britain's ITV, in which well-known performers sang hymns or read extracts from the Bible. Fields was the most requested artist on the show.
In 1968, Fields headlined a two-week Christmas stint at the West Riding of Yorkshire's prestigious Batley Variety Club. "I was born over a fish and chip shop - I never thought I'd be singing in one!" claimed Fields during the performance recorded by the BBC.
In 1978, she opened the Gracie Fields Theatre, next to Oulder Hill Community School in her native Rochdale, performing a concert there recorded by the BBC to open the show. Fields appeared in ten Royal Variety Performances from 1928 onwards, her last being in 1978 at the age of 80 when she appeared as a surprise guest in the finale, in which she appeared and sang her theme song, "Sally".
Her final TV appearance came in January 1979 when she appeared in a special octogenarian edition of The Merv Griffin Show in America, in which she sang the song she popularised in America, "The Biggest Aspidistra in the World". Fields was notified by her confidante John Taylor while she was in America that she had the Queen's invitation to become a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, to which she replied: "Yes I'll accept, yes I can kneel - but I might need help getting back up, and yes I'll attend - as long as they don't call Boris 'Buttons'."
Fields' health declined in July 1979, when she contracted pneumonia after performing an open-air concert on the Royal Yacht which was docked in Capri's harbour. After a spell in hospital, she seemed to be recovering, but died on 27 September 1979. The press reported she died holding her husband's hand, but in reality he was at their Anacapri home at the time, while Gracie was home with the housekeeper, Irena. She is buried in Capri's Protestant Cemetery, in a white marble tomb. Her coffin was carried by staff from her restaurant. Her husband Boris died on 3 July 1983.
Fields was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1938. In February 1979, she was invested as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire seven months before her death at her home on Capri, aged 81.
|1931||Sally in Our Alley||Sally Winch|
|1932||Looking on the Bright Side||Gracie|
|1933||This Week of Grace||Grace Milroy|
|1934||Love, Life and Laughter||Nellie Gwynn|
|Sing As We Go||Gracie Platt|
|1935||Look Up and Laugh||Gracie Pearson|
|1936||Queen of Hearts||Grace Perkins|
|1937||The Show Goes On||Sally Scowcroft|
|1938||We're Going to Be Rich||Kit Dobson|
|Young and Beautiful (short)||Herself|
|Keep Smiling||Gracie Gray|
|1939||Shipyard Sally||Sally Fitzgerald|
|1943||Stage Door Canteen||Alice Chalice|
|1945||Molly and Me||Molly Barry|
|Paris Underground||Emmeline Quayle|
For a number of years, British film exhibitors voted her among the top ten stars in Britain at the box office via an annual poll in the Motion Picture Herald.
Bricktop has been back in America several weeks while Adelaide Hall has been singing for the soldiers. Miss Hall, whose popularity with the British Tommy's ranks with that of Gracie Fields, may remain in England as Miss Fields has recently suffered a breakdown.
Gracie Fields married a Romanian radio repairman [Boris Alperovici] in a quiet ceremony in Italy on this day [February 18] in 1952.
The earliest actress to portray Miss Marple was the UK's Gracie Fields in the NBC (USA) Goodyear TV Playhouse: A Murder is Announced in 1956.