Dame Gracie Fields, DBE (born Grace Stansfield, 9 January 1898 - 27 September 1979), was an English-born, later Italian-based actress, singer and comedienne and star of both cinema and music hall. Fields was the first Television Miss Marple in the 1956 version of A Murder Is Announced.
Life and work
Grace Stansfield was born 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.
She met 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 would come to serve as her manager and the two married in 1923 at Clapham Register Office. Their first revue in 1915 was called Yes I Think So and the two continued to tour Britain together until 1924 in the revue Mr Tower of London, with other reviews including By Request, It's A Bargain and The Show's The Thing.
Archie Pitt was the brother of Bert Aza, founder of the Aza agency, who were responsible for many talents 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 when Mr Tower of London came to the West End. Her career rapidly accelerated from this point with straight dramatic performances and the beginning of a recording career.
One of her most successful productions was at the Alhambra Theatre, London, in 1925. The show, booked by Sir Oswald Stoll, was a major success and toured for ten years, throughout the UK. She later said "One day I was in Plymouth's Palace Theatre and the next playing Blackpool!". She made the first of ten appearances in Royal Variety Performances in 1928, following a premiere stint at the London Palladium, gaining a devoted following with a mixture of self-deprecating jokes, comic songs and monologues, as well as cheerful "depression-era" songs all presented in a "no-airs-and-graces" Northern, working class style. She recorded her first record for HMV Because I Love You and My Blue Heaven in 1928.
At one point, Fields was playing three shows a night in London's West End. She appeared in the Pitt production she was working on, with Gerald Du Maurier in the straight play SOS at the St James's Theatre, with also a cabaret spot at the Cafe de Paris following this.
Fields had a great rapport with her audience, which helped her become one of Britain's highest paid performers, playing to sold out theatres across the country.
Her 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 the process of 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 were to be filmed in Britain and not Hollywood, and this was the case.
Ironically, the final few lines of the song "Sally" were written by her husband's mistress, Annie Lipman, and Fields sang this song at nearly every performance she made from 1931 onwards – claiming in later life that she wanted to "Drown blasted Sally with Walter with the aspidistra on top!"
The late 1930s saw her popularity peak 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.
She donated her house, The Towers, 53 The Bishops Avenue, London, N2 0BJ (which she had not much cared for and which she had shared with her husband Archie Pitt and his mistress) to a maternity hospital 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'.
World War II
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 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, she was forced to leave Britain for North America during the war, at the instruction 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. She did, occasionally, return to Britain, to show she was not, indeed, a traitor, performing in factories and army camps around the country. After their initial argument, Parliament offered her an official apology.
She is mentioned several times in Spike Milligan's war memoirs during the years 1943 to 1945 with both respect and appreciation for her personability and her wartime efforts, as well as affectionate criticism of her comedy and performance style.
Although she continued to spend much of her time entertaining troops and otherwise supporting the war effort outside Britain, this, inevitably, 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. Late 1945 saw her tour the South Pacific Islands.
Post World War II
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 opened 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 in 1950 of a heart attack while travelling on the Orient Express. Two years later 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 S. 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 played 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 'Aris Goes to Paris, which was remade years later with Angela Lansbury as Mrs Harris, a charwoman in search of a fur coat. (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.
She was the subject of This Is Your Life in 1960 when she was surprised by Eamonn Andrews at the BBC Television Theatre.
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 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 1975, her album, The Golden Years, reached No.48 in the UK Albums Chart.
In 1978, she opened the Gracie Fields Theatre, located 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 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 the non-Catholic cemetery on Capri; the Protestant Cemetery. in a white marble tomb. Her coffin was carried by staff from her restaurant. Her husband Boris died in 1984.
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.
On 3 October 2009 the final train to run on the Oldham Loop before it closed to be converted to a tramway, a Class 156, was named in her honour.
Fields was granted the Freedom of Rochdale. The local theater in Rochdale, the Gracie Fields Theatre, was opened by her in 1978.
The Rochdale Boroughwide Cultural Trust holds the 'Gracie Fields Archive'.
In 2009, Jane Horrocks took the lead in the BBC TV production Gracie!, a drama portraying the life of Fields just before and during World War II and her relationship with Monty Banks (played by Tom Hollander).
Jewish jazz pianist Irving Fields was born Isadore Schwartz, taking the name Fields from his sister Peppy, who had borrowed the name in tribute to Gracie Fields.