If realism or naturalism on the stage is to be desired, we ought to look for it in detailed interpretations of the various characters. A woman who does not understand what a lady would do under certain social laws of etiquette would naturally be at a disadvantage in trying to play a cultured and refined role. Great actresses and great artists may reach tremendous climaxes, but in the details of society life I do not think a woman lacking in refinement can ever convince an audience of the realness of the part she is playing.
Ellis Jeffreys, The Evening World, 1906
Last month we left Herbert Sleath – already a successful actor-manager by the age of thirty – newly-married and with the world at his feet. Several months after his low-key Mayfair wedding in February 1904 at which The bride was picturesquely dressed in grey chiffon, with a graceful pleated skirt, the bodice made with wide tucks and draped with Brussels lace, and wore a ‘picture’ hat of grey velvet, with grey Brussels net veil, the floating end of which reached to her shoulder, Herbert and his new wife, the actress Ellis Jeffreys, set sail for the lights of Broadway. Their spring honeymoon in Paris had been brief. In an interview later that year, Ellis explained that they had both been so busy with their respective acting careers that it was impossible to have more than a couple of days away from the demands of the stage.
A contemporary newspaper article describes just how popular and successful Ellis Jeffreys was at that time: Miss Ellis Jeffreys is an actress who has come to the very front rank with a considerable rush in the past few years, and has now achieved that pitch of popularity where one hears a certain type of theatrical character spoken of as “an Ellis Jeffrey’s part.” Miss Jeffreys made her start in comic opera in parts which did not require any vast amount of intellectual endeavour, and gradually worked her way into comedy parts – at first small, then larger and larger, till she has become just about the best light comedienne on the Stage to-day. Like all good comedians she has the gift of pathos, and when it has been required has very clearly demonstrated its possession. A few months ago Miss Jeffreys, who was Mrs. Curzon in private life, became Mrs. Sleath-Skelton, and her husband, who is also on the Stage, and acts as Mr. Herbert Sleath, is a member of a well-known Brighton family. It may be that in the future we shall see Miss Jeffreys in more ambitious work than she has yet attempted, and that being so, it is impossible to say how far in her Art she will go. In the particular line she has made her own, she has already progressed very considerably.
As mentioned in the article above and in last month’s post (see Herbert Sleath Struts his Hour), Ellis Jeffreys had previously been married to the Hon. Frederick Graham Curzon (the younger son of the 3rd Earl Howe), a King’s Messenger and member of the diplomatic service. Their rather scandalous divorce several months before on the grounds of adultery and cruelty was reported in the newspapers of the time, making for the type of titillating reading that we are all too familiar with in the tabloids of today. However, it was only when I discovered that I could actually apply for a hard copy of the divorce papers from the National Archives (since published on-line) that I realised just how complex the case had actually been: as payment was by the page, I knew that there had been a large number of papers involved. And when the bulky folder arrived on my doorstep several weeks later, I could barely bring myself to open it. Feeling like someone about to witness a terrible event, I grabbed the wad of documents, still wrapped in their brown paper packaging, and rushed to the local café to find a quiet corner in which to peruse them without distraction.
For over an hour I sat at the Formica table with my cappuccino going cold. Not only was I perhaps the only living person to have read the divorce proceedings in their entirety – an official stamp said that the documents were closed until 2007 – but laid bare in front of me were all the failings of the Curzons’ tempestuous eight years together. This was obviously a difficult union which had nevertheless resulted in the births of Chambré (the actor George Curzon) and little Evelyn. Sadly (and rather thrillingly), the decree nisi listed all the occasions of their marital discord in detail, and the incongruous image of Ellis shouting for help from passers-by at the open window of the Curzons’ smart Mayfair townhouse is one that is difficult to forget. In fact, some months later I was able to visit the scene of the ‘crime’ – and although the road has been renamed Sussex Place, and the house is now the Hyde Park Radner Hotel, it was not hard to imagine Ellis gesticulating from one of the wrought iron balconies which overlooked the street.
Formerly 7 (and 8) Devonport St – now the Hyde Park Radner Hotel
It is perhaps worth quoting a contemporary newspaper article in full for the details of the case, which the court reporter summarised as such:
Miss Ellis Jeffreys, the well-known English actress, was recently granted a divorce by Sir Francis Jeune, after a very painful story of married unhappiness had been told. Her real name is Minnie Gertrude Ellis Curzon, and her husband is the Hon Frederick Graham Curzon, a son of the late Earl Howe.
The case was undefended. Counsel stated that the petitioner made every effort consistent with her professional position and peace of mind to prevent the matter going thus far. The marriage took place in 1894, first at a registry office, and afterwards at St. James’s Piccadilly. They lived first in Jermyn Street, and afterwards in Devonport Street, Hyde Park, and there were a boy and girl born of the marriage.
Mr Curzon began to behave badly, said counsel, soon after the marriage, but things went fairly well until August, 1899. Then he found a letter written by Mrs Curzon, which he thought began “My dear Man”. He was very violent about this, but apologised when he found it was “My dear May”. In January, 1902, his conduct became unbearable. He used very bad language, and made suggestions to her of an offensive kind.
Mrs Curzon found evidences of infidelity, and a solicitor was consulted. A temporary separation was agreed upon. On Feb. 13, 1902, the respondent wrote: “I will mend my ways. I am not going to give way to my temper. I will not be a brute to you again. I want to make you my friend in everything. I love you, but my jealousy has made me cruel. I have been a devil to you, but no more of it.” For the children’s sake Mrs Curzon took a cottage at Maidenhead, her husband living in Devonport Street.
“In September,” said Mrs Curzon, who presented a tall, graceful figure in the witness-box, “I came back to town and told him he would have to vacate the house. He flew into a violent rage, followed me upstairs, hit me, and knocked me down.
“I called my maid, and got away down-stairs. He followed me to the dining-room, put his back to the door, and refused to let me out. I was due at the theatre, so I opened the window and called to a cabman. Then he let me go, and somehow or other I just got through my part at the theatre that night.”
Other evidence was given, and Mrs Curzon was granted a decree nisi, with costs, and the custody of the children.
Public viewing a divorce trial, Royal Courts of Justice, London, 1900
Had Ellis not had money and connections, it might not have been so easy for her to divorce her bad-tempered aristocrat. As it was, the whole process lasted over a year and even after she had married again, Ellis still had to ask the judge’s permission to take Evelyn to America when she and Herbert returned to New York with the theatre in 1906 and 1907 (which is presumably why the divorce documents were closed until 2007, bringing them in line with the 100 year privacy ruling).
Ellis obviously had an astute lawyer who most likely urged her to prepare to give an exact account of her husband’s adultery, which in those days had more legal weight than the domestic violence aspect. Had Ellis already put someone ‘on the case’ to supply her with the firm evidence she needed to push ahead? Shortly after her application* to instigate divorce proceedings on the grounds of adultery and cruelty (denied by Curzon), she supplied a supplementary petition which stated that: On the 18th day of November 1902 at no. 8 Egmont House Shaftesbury Avenue in the County of London the said Honorable Frederick Graham Curzon committed adultery with Mrs Bearing.
*In the initial petition it was pointed out that: Your petitioner is at present unable to give any further or better particulars of the acts of adultery herein alleged but she relies upon a verbal confession of adultery made to her by the said Honorable Frederick Graham Curzon and also upon a similar confession made by the said Honorable Frederick Graham Curzon from Elizabeth Anne Jeffreys.
I have not yet been able to ascertain who the elusive Mrs Bearing was, but as Ellis filed this petition while staying at 140 Sloane Street she had obviously already left the family home in Devonport Place. (That your petitioner in consequence of the violence and threats of the said Honorable Frederick Graham Curzon is afraid to return to the said house no. 7 Devonport Street and has refused to further cohabit with him and your petitioner’s health has greatly suffered by reason of his aforesaid conduct.) Without wishing to belittle Ellis’s awful predicament, it did strike me as rather ironic that all these shenanigans were taking place at some of the most upmarket addresses in London – or perhaps that is not so unexpected, given the louche and tangled lives that many of the aristocracy appeared to lead at that time.
It also did not escape my attention that the court reporter mentioned Ellis taking the children with her to live in Maidenhead in 1902. The divorce proceedings note that this was in fact at Brazilian Cottage – the house next door to Herbert Sleath’s residence (Latimore House) in the North Town area of Maidenhead. The Tatler magazine in June of that year describes the summer scene there so: Quite a number of well-known theatrical people have been about the vicinity of Boulter’s Lock Maidenhead, lately, either on the river or in motor cars, a great many motor cars being on the river front in the evening. Mrs Brown-Potter* has been entertaining several friends at her charming place at Bray Lodge. Miss Ellis Jeffreys and Mr. Herbert Sleath are among the other members of the theatrical profession at Maidenhead this summer.
*Mrs Brown-Potter was a popular American actress and socialite who had recently come through her own acrimonious divorce.
While I don’t doubt the fact that Curzon treated Ellis cruelly throughout their marriage – there are certainly reliable witnesses to the event – it does look as if Herbert and Ellis might have been romantically involved as early as the summer of 1902 (if not before), previous to a petition for divorce being initiated in late September of that same year. And the rather opportune way Ellis was able to soon discover her husband with the adulterous Mrs Bearing (this was the only name she was able to supply the court, despite stating that there were many more cases over the years with unknown women) makes me think that she might have been concerned about the tables being turned on herself at some point in the proceedings.
This must have been a stressful time for Ellis (particularly if she had fallen in love with Herbert during that summer in Maidenhead). In September 1902, when Ellis filed for divorce (seemingly prompted by the incident at the open window in which Curzon threatened to kill her), Herbert had already left for New York with his cousin Weedon Grossmith: they were due to appear in the first production to be staged at the newly-opened Princess Theatre on Broadway. Ellis also had her own acting commitments in London at the time as she was starring (ironically) in the play The Marriage of Kitty at the Duke of York’s.
Tatler photographs of The Marriage of Kitty (Ellis is below)
Perhaps Herbert’s frustration at being apart from Ellis at this important time manifested itself in his behaviour at Madison Square Garden when he tried to enter three of his jumpers at the horse show due to be held there in the indoor arena. In ‘Notes of the Stage’ from the New York Times it was reported that: Herbert Sleath, who is playing at the Princess Theatre with Weedon Grossmith in “The Night of the Party”, was turned down Saturday by the Entry Committee for the Horse Show to be held at Madison Square Garden. Mr. Sleath is the owner of many horses. Gazelle, supposed to have been the finest jumping horse in England, was recently presented by him to the Viceroy of India.* One of his horses, Trimmings, is now in New York, and wishing to enter three he cabled to London for Spun Silk and His Highness, two jumpers. Saturday he received word that the horses had been shipped on the American Transport Line. After the matinée at the The Princess Theatre he went to the Madison Square Garden to make the entry, but was told that he was half an hour late and that his entries could not be received. Mr. Sleath was much displeased at the position of the committee.
*The Viceroy of India was George Curzon, cousin to Ellis’s soon-to-be ex-husband!
New Princess Theatre 1902 (Grossmith’s play is on the billboard)
But if we return to Ellis’s divorce, there was one important point made by her lawyer that the court reporter had not mentioned – possibly this was not something to which he was privy, or allowed to make public. And this is perhaps the most important fact in our own story of Ellis and Herbert.
Following the statement regarding Curzon’s long-term adultery (That upon divers occasions since the date of the said marriage the said Frederick Graham Curzon has committed adultery with various women whose names are to your petitioner unknown), this bombshell was dropped: That as a result of such adultery the said Honorable Frederick Graham Curzon contracted a venereal disease known as syphillis.
A soon as I read those words I had to bundle up the papers and leave the café (and another half-drunk cappuccino). All I wanted was to get out into the cool spring air and walk. Somewhere. Anywhere. I certainly wasn’t ready to return home. As I stumbled towards the path running alongside the lake, ignoring the greetings of the lunchtime dog-walkers, my mind was making rapid connections. Did he? Did she? Did they? For as someone time-travelling from the future, what I knew – and what no-one in 1902 could have known or even predicted – was that less that twenty years later my ancestor, Herbert Sleath-Skelton, would be dead from tertiary syphilis.
Anyone who knows anything about this awful disease may be aware of the story which awaits us. But before I plunge into this terrible tale, I would like to return to the halcyon days of Herbert and Ellis’s first few years of married life. The decade from their marriage up until the outbreak of war seems to have been a charmed one, only interrupted by Herbert’s occasional clashes with his professional rivals and the odd bad review. After their frequent visits to New York they eventually settled – if their peripatetic lifestyle could ever afford such a description – in Dormy Cottage, near Woking. A 1908 pictorial essay in The Sketch entitled The Lady and the Cowboy – Broncho Busting at Woking shows the couple ‘rusticating at Dormy Cottage’ during what appears to be the happiest time in their marriage.
But was it?
Herbert as Jim Carston at Dormy Cottage, Woking, 1908
I still cannot ascertain when things started going awry for the couple, but as pointed out in an earlier post this year (see Writing Down the Past), an Edwardian Rotary postcard of Herbert I purchased from an ebay seller unexpectedly included an unintelligible scribble on the reverse that only my mother (with her secretarial experience) was able to decipher.* This was due to the fact that it was written in old-fashioned Pitman shorthand – as if the writer had wanted to keep the contents away from prying eyes. It is a rather strange message which appears to be arranging a rendezvous with a Miss Foster for 2pm the following day (February 28th, 1908). Oddly, the postcard is signed by what looks like ‘Bertie I mean Sleathy’. Could that really be our man Herbert already playing the part of adulterer after only four years of marriage? Perhaps we should not be so surprised. After all, the lifestyle of an actor/actress is certainly not the most conducive to a stable home life, and in the days of different communication technology (where the frequent post service ensured that postcards were the text messages of their time) the chance to cheat and get away with it must have been relatively high.
*Strangely enough, it is the same image which was appropriated by a modern novelty greetings card company, whose ‘new’ card (based on the original Rotary postcard) my mother came across in a garden centre shop in Harrogate, calling her to cry out – But that looks like Herbert!
The original Rotary post card
Is this Herbert Sleath’s message on the reverse?
The novelty card (based on the original card) my mother came across
But the enigmatic postcard throws up more questions than it answers. Would Herbert have known how to write in shorthand, given that he had no need for such training? In addition, the card appears to have been written and posted (in London) only a week after his four-year wedding anniversary to Ellis. Would he have done such a thing, knowing how much she had suffered at the hands (literally) of her first husband? And what is the reference to Paris – was it perhaps a nickname for a West-End club or restaurant. Of course, there’s a good chance that this is all just coincidence, and the card has nothing to do with Herbert. But still, that message taunts (haunts?) me:
10 o’clock / Darling Mabel(ing)? / alone in Paris / thinking of you my dear / leaving other (?) stage (?) gall/ at 2 o’clock / much love from Bertie/ I mean Sleathy
But if it were the case that Herbert was having a dalliance with another woman, then it may put the events of the next few years in a different light. My mother pointed out that Ellis did not seem that happy with her rather posey ‘broncho-buster’ in the pictorial article The Cowboy and the Lady (unfortunately not able to be shown here). It could be that the stress of their last year on Broadway had put their relationship under pressure. One of their plays (The Fairer Sex) was panned and had to be pulled off after a few nights. In addition, Herbert had entered into a legal dispute with the playwright Harrison Grey Fiske, whose play, the New York Idea (in which Ellis had recently starred), Herbert planned to bring to London. An article in the New York Times entitled Sleath Defies Fiske mentions that: Mr Sleath says he paid $1,000 in advance on account of fees and cannot understand why ten days after he had signed a contract with the agent for the play he should receive a cable from Mr. Fiske saying: “I forbid the London production of ‘The New York Idea’.”
Perhaps his more famous wife also threatened Herbert. An interview in the New York newspaper The Evening World in February 1906, entitled Miss Jeffreys Off the Stage Is More Charming Than Ever, was typical of the time in that it focused unduly on Ellis’s ladylike bearing and manners (the subtitle was: Her Potrayal of the Society Woman Is Ellis Jeffreys at Home. NO ACTING IS NEEDED.) Ellis herself goes to great lengths to explain to the interviewer why it takes a lady to play one, stating: The stage to-day in its society scenes reflects the manners and etiquette of the best society circles. You could not expect a woman who had never been brought in contact with culture and the inborn traits of good breeding to enter a stage drawing-room and move correctly than you could expect her to properly conduct herself in a high life social gathering for the first time. Quite!
However, this sycophantic article does at least go on to give us a wonderful and rare insight into Ellis’s private family life. It is worth quoting this section in full below:
Just then a golden-haired little girl of seven came into the room with her governess. There was no need of an introduction to know that this was little Ellis Evelyn Curzon. Another link with high society.
Of course you know that no less a personage than Earl Howe is Miss Jeffrey’s brother-in-law, and some day her small son, George William Penn Curzon, will succeed to his uncle’s peerage and estate.
Little Miss Curzon had just been taking a music lesson.
“I always have my daughter with me,” said Miss Jeffreys, “and wherever I go she and her maid and governess go also.”
“My son is in school in England. No, I have never allowed their photographs to be published. They have no conection with my pubic life and it would be distateful to all of their family.
“You know my first husband, whom I divorced, was the Hon. Fred Curzon, a nephew of Earl Howe, and while I have the custody of my two children, I always remember that their father’s family, whose name they bear, has a rightful interest in them.
“There will never be any necessity for my daughter to go upon the stage as I had to do so there is really no reason why she should ever be before the public in any way.”
Little George William Penn Curzon’s photograph looked back at his mother with a childish face exactly like her own. “Isn’t he ridiculously like me?” laughed Miss Jeffreys. “Oh, you should read his letters. He writes as perfectly as a boy of fourteen and he is only six years old”.
The adult Evelyn Curzon and her brother George Curzon (the actor)
The interviewer goes on to make much of the fact that Ellis had been introduced to the king and other royals at one of her (now deceased) father-in-law’s parties at Penn House – the Curzon family seat in Amersham near to where Curzon jnr. was at boarding school. Perhaps that is why Ellis enjoyed her American tours so much. (Her first visit had been in 1895, in the play The Notorious Mrs. Eddbsmith, when she was just newly married to Curzon, but had ended in a serious illness). While Stateside, her refined manners and accents would allow her to play the aristocratic role she seemed to want to cultivate.
The article also points out that: Miss Jeffreys and her husband, Herbert Sleath, have been sought after by New York Society. On her writing desk were invitations galore and the telephone never stopped ringing every five minutes. And Ellis herself adds: “I have met so many delightful people in New York, friends of my English connections, that my American tours are always the greatest pleasure.”
But to give Ellis her dues, she does tell the interviewer that at the age of eighteen, as an accomplished musician and singer, she had reluctantly become a chorus girl for the D’oyly Carte Opera Company for financial reasons (her father, Captain Dodsorth Jeffreys had died years earlier). Nonetheless, she then goes on to say in what I imagine to be a rather haughty voice: You know I am not of English birth. My grandfather was Chambrey Corcor* (or Corker) of Cor Castle Innishannon. County Cork, and my father was Captain Jeffreys of the army.
*This was Ellis’s maternal grandfather, Major Chambrey Corker. After being destroyed during the independence struggles in 1921, Cor Castle has recently been restored by a descendant.
The interviewer ends her puff piece with a long description about Ellis’s American-born London dressmaker (Ellis was famed for her gowns, both on and off stage), then reminds us once again of Ellis’s credentials (including her link through the Curzons to their illustrious relations, in particular Lord Randolph Churchill). Aside from her former husband’s connections, which have given her entry in the best society, of all the foreign actresses who have come to this country, there have been none whose social position abroad was so excellent, or who have been more gently bred or better educated.
All this must have been extremely galling for Herbert, who is name-checked only once (as opposed to ‘the Hon’ getting several mentions). So perhaps he justifiably had feelings of inferiority. Had his father ever told him about his own lowly beginnings above the tailor’s shop in riverside Bermondsey? Had he perhaps even gone further and told Herbert of his Yorkshire grandfather’s second marriage to the teenage Mary Ann and their resulting children. Did James William decide to reveal to his own children the awkward presence of another Skelton family branch out there, spawning away in South London? A family to which they were very closely related and which would soon create the generation that would benefit most from the sweeping changes about to hit society.
It is hard to really like Herbert and Ellis as characters in this story. They may seem rather snobbish and extravagent to us today. Yet what is about to happen to them – or more specifically to Herbert – is something that no-one could have expected. And on that February day in New York, two years into her second marriage, Ellis might have found it difficult to imagine the fate which awaited her new husband.
To be continued in Herbert Sleath – His Decline and Fall.
Wishing everyone a very merry Christmas!
The Incidental Genealogist, December 2017