Though singer Gracie Fields spent her final years living in Capri she's mainly associated with her hometown of Rochdale. I went to have a wander around to locate places linked to her. There's not much left to see. A strange conversation with a prostitute ensued (see below.)
Gracie was born in the back bedroom of a fish and chip shop owned by her grandparents. Within seven years she made her first appearance on stage and aged 12 got paid professionally in a variety act that took place at the Rochdale Hippodrome theatre. She spent half her time at school and half at a cotton mill but soon gave up both to perform. Once when she was touring she caught another performing couple in a passionate clinch. Terrified of what may happen to her she ran upstairs and bolted herself in a room. It affected her so profoundly she contracted St Vituse Dance (Sydenhams Chorea - a nervous disposition where limbs shake uncontrollably). She was sent to St Anne’s near Blackpool to convalesce.
Success sprung early from meeting comedian and impresario Archie Pitt. He started managing her career and set her on the trajectory leading to being a star. Gracie was 25 when they got married in Clapham and started touring the country. She was a busy lass, playing three shows a night in London's West End. Aged 33 she appeared in her first film Sally in Our Alley which was a major box office hit. The 1930's brought a decade of adulation, fame and money. She went on to make several films in Britain and America. Though paid a record fee of £200,000 for four films she thought making films was boring compared with performing live.
The thirties were a whirlwind and for a while she was the world’s highest paid film-star (per minute) to Mae West’s annoyance. Money flooded in and she lived on The Bishops Avenue in London (millionaire’s row.) Privately she was unhappy as her husband moved his mistress into the house and Gracie lived in other rooms. Later the house brought back so many bad memories that she gave it away free to be used as an orphanage. She never had children and the nearest thing she had to it came when she was 35. She set up the Gracie Fields Children's Home and Orphanage at Peacehaven in Sussex (near her home.) She claimed the money she pumped into this orphanage was the greatest investment of her life.
Though associated with Rochdale she spent the latter part of her life in Capri and is buried there. She bought a home there aged 35 after a life-changing moment. When she first visited Capri with friends the horse and cart driver said he’d show her Marina Piccola and she was so moved by its beauty she felt she'd come home. Her marriage broke down and aged 40 she married Italian-born film director Monty Banks. As Monty would have been interned in a prison of war camp had they lived in Britain they moved to Santa Monica in California. Gracie kept returning to the UK to performing in factories and army camps around the country. Aged 41 as she Second World War raged she became seriously ill with cervical cancer (the public sent her 250,000 cards.) She was told not to sing for two years but this plucky lass visited the troops in France to entertain them, often singing while stood on the back of trucks not far from the trenches.
Adulation reversed sharply. It looked like Italy was going to enter the war and she was advised to return to America. She was vilified for this and the press nailed her brutally as a traitor. She was told if she performed on stage in the UK again cabbages would be thrown at her. Winston Churchill told the Press this must stop. The government made an official apology to her and this dogged lass returned (she could have easily given up.) After World War Two she continued her career though less actively. A day before her 52nd birthday she was traveling on the Orient Express when her husband suddenly died of a heart attack.
The love of her life came rather late, she proposing to him on a Christmas day in front of family and friends. Aged 54 she married her last husband Boris Alperovici, a Romanian odd-job man who came to fix her radio. By her mid-fifties she continued recording but didn’t make any more films. In her mid-sixties she was touring the Australia, Canada and America with farewell tours but she never forgot Rochdale. She returned home every year to perform and gave up her performance rights for a week. During World War II she had paid for all servicemen/women to travel free on public transport within the boundaries of Rochdale.)
Aged 80 she opened the Gracie Fields Theatre in Rochdale and performed her tenth Royal Variety Performances. Aged 81 she was awarded a Damehood. When asked if she would accept it and go to Buckingham Palace she said, "Yes I'll accept, yes I can kneel – but I might need help getting back up.” Seven months later though she was dead. She performed an open-air concert on the Royal Yacht docked in Capri's harbour, contracted pneumonia and never recovered. For two months her health worsened and she died at home.
I drove around districts I'd never visited before. It was a disappointing day though as there was little to see. The fish and chip shop where she'd been born had long been demolished and it's now a garage. There're a couple of plaques though. The only building remaining is the shop where Gracie stayed when she was performing in Rochdale. I went down to the statue of her outside Rochdale Town Hall. Is it a myth or true that Adolf Hitler admired this building and when he'd overthrown Britain he wanted it broken down and rebuilt in Berlin?
There was an odd encounter. While strolling around the streets I saw a woman appear from a side street in a skirt too high for the low temperatures. After ten minutes I returned to the car which was parked outside a fast-food outlet and poured coffee from the flask. There was a knock on the passenger window. It was the woman I'd seen before. This was a rough area so I only put the window a few inches.
“Hello, can I talk to you a minute?" she asked.
"...er...what about?" I asked.
“I’ll tell if I can get in. Can I get in?”
“No, sorry I’m going now.”
“Where are you going?”
"Not round here. I don't live around here."
“I could get in if you need company. Can I get in?" she said.
“Er...no I’d better go now.” I could see her skin was ruddy under the foundation. Oh no, a prostitute.
“Can I get in?”
“No sorry but I’m going now,” I said, pressing a button that locks the doors.
“I haven’t had any breakfast today. Have you any spare change please?”
I keep a plastic bag of loose change in the door. I fished out £2 and passed it through the gap above the window. This only encouraged her.
“I’m really hungry. Have you got some more please? Just a bit more.”
“I need it myself,” I said.
“Can I get in?” she pleaded obviously wanting to make some money for drugs.
“No, I’ve got to go.”
“I saw a five pound note in your bag. Could I have that?” She was right. The money bag was see-through.
“I need it myself.”
“If I can get in I can help you. Can I get in?” Blimey, these prostitutes have nerves of steel.
“No I’m okay thanks. I'll stick with internet porn.”
“What?....oh....but it's not real."
“What? I was joking.”
“Could I get in now?” These prostitutes are so proactive these days.
“I could be a monk. I’m not interested in all that stuff. Everything’s rusted up.”
“Where do you live?”
I lied and pretended my wife was due back "any moment."
She didn't once tried the door handle thankfully but she tried her negotiating skills.
“Are you on your own for the rest of the day?"
"No, not really" I almost said. I was beginning to wonder if she had a pimp scoping us out from a distance and may turn up and was getting scared. She said she was very hungry and hadn't eaten today.
I gave her another £1 and said to go and buy a muffin. Suddenly she produced a £10 note and asked if she could exchange it for a £20 note.
“You said you had no money for food,” I said starting the engine.
“I need to get money for my daughter. I really need to get £50. Can I get in and tell you about it all?”
“I haven’t got £50. Haven't you got a job?" Even dopey me had guessed she was doing her job.
This idea floated passed her face which was about thirty years old and no unattractive.
“Can I give you this £10 for your £2o note? I've bills to pay."
“No, I’ve given you something.”
“Can I get in and I won’t be just taking the money?”
The owner of a fast-food shop appeared from the front door. He was swarthy with a Freddie Mercury moustache and had been watching her warily from his counter. He put his hand on her elbow and she turned around as though she knew him. I almost scuffed the side car on a concrete bin in haste to escape.
At the site where Gracie was born – note the blue plaque on the redbrick wall (to right of silver car)…
Now and then…
At the site of the Schofields off-licence. The Schofields were friends of the family and Gracie lodged here when in Rochdale for performances
Heading down to the town hall to the statue. On the right is Gracie addressing a crowd from the town hall…
The last photo of Gracie taken two days before she died…
Her home in Hampstead...
Her home in Capri...
In more recent times...