Hidden Facts About Gertrude Lawrence, The Broken Broadway Idol

Tania Nguyen

Gertrude Lawrence was a 20th-century Broadway darling with a taste for the finer things in life. But behind her professional persona was a woman living on the edge, desperate to please and sometimes desperate for work. In the end, the very ambitions that drove her would be her tragic downfall. Read on to find out more about this forgotten star.


Gertrude Lawrence Facts

1. She Started With Nothing

Lawrence’s parents weren’t rich by any means. Far from it, in fact: the Lawrence family struggled with money, and their daughter’s childhood was very different from the lavish adulthood she would later enjoy. But while little Gertrude had neither pearls nor fancy silks to her name, the hardship of her younger years didn’t end at financial troubles. Far from it.

2. Her Parents Hated Each Other

A happy marriage wasn’t in the cards for Gertrude’s parents, Alice and Arthur. Even worse, her father just wasn’t all that interested in being a dad. Dirty diapers? Constant crying? No, thank you—Arthur much preferred spending his days without his family, drinking himself into a constant stupor and desperately clinging onto the single man’s life. This didn’t go well for him, or Gertrude.

3. She Grew Up Without Her Father

After Gertrude’s birth, her mother Alice found herself saddled with an ailing baby and a drunkard husband. Then one day, it all fell apart. Enough became enough, and Alice abandoned Arthur and took charge of her newborn, all before Gertrude took her first steps. But having her alcoholic father out of the picture didn’t mean Gertrude’s turmoil was over.

4. She Despised Family Outings

Eventually, Lawrence’s mother remarried, and on the surface, everything seemed better. After all, Gertrude’s new stepfather loved to take the family to concerts and theatrical events—which would, normally, be exciting and lively places for any child. But these outings weren’t only for her pleasure. Instead, they were a part of her mother’s much more ominous plans.

5. Her Mother Used Her

While Lawrence’s mother may not have had a drinking problem, she certainly was no picture-perfect doting mom either. In fact, Alice was an extremely early version of a “momager” and pushed Lawrence into going up on stage at a painfully young age. By the age of six, Lawrence could sing and dance and had all the makings of a great performer. Alice was quick to commend this early genius—and even quicker to exploit it.

6. Her Mother Forced Her To Perform

When Lawrence was six, the family took a vacation at a beautiful seaside resort. One day, they all went to see a concert—which Lawrence was having a great time at—until the performers requested audience participation. Lawrence’s mother immediately voluntold her daughter to go up, forcing Lawrence to sing onstage. She even got a gold sovereign for her efforts, which didn’t help deter her mother’s greed. In fact, things got much worse very fast. 

7. She Had To Work Young

After this initial foray, Lawrence’s mother constantly pressured her to convert her talents into cash. When the matriarch joined a Christmas pantomime as part of the chorus, for example, she again pressured her daughter to join the production. This became the little girl’s first official singing and dancing gig—but of course, it couldn’t stop there.

8. She Was An Instant Prodigy

Lawrence’s mother wanted to set her daughter up for success no matter what. So as soon as she caught wind that famous performance teacher Italia Conti was accepting new students, she signed Gertrude up to audition. It went better than anyone could have expected. Conti also saw big things in Lawrence’s future, so much so that she waived her teaching fee in order to mold the girl. Still, it was far from smooth sailing.

9. Her Teacher Worked Her To The Bone

Lawrence’s new mentor Italia Conti became like a mother to her—but as we know, that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. In many ways, Conti was just as demanding as Alice when it came to her young star, and she put Lawrence through the absolute ringer to train her. Soon, Lawrence was appearing in production after production in a huge range of roles.

But even though she was moving up in the world, Lawrence could never fully escape her family.

10. She Couldn’t Let Go

Throughout it all, Lawrence never really forgot her father. We know this because of one telling tribute. The first step she took in her professional career was choosing a stage name—and she chose to take on her father’s. Gertrude had previously had the name “Klasen,” but became Gertrude “Lawrence” instead. And when her father did come back into the picture, it was in a scandalous way.

11. She Was A Daddy’s Girl

Lawrence obviously had her father on her mind, and now she finally had a career to impress him with. Following her stage success, she began searching for Arthur so that she could reconnect with him and show him everything he had been missing while he had been out of her life. Well, Lawrence found him, alright. And when she did, her fantasy shattered.

12. She Found Her Father Living In Sin

When Lawrence knocked on her father’s door, she wasn’t prepared for what was inside. A performer himself, Arthur was a morally derelict as ever and was in fact living in sin with a chorus girl at the time. This wasn’t quite the fairytale ending Lawrence must have hoped for but, ever the optimist, she tried to take it in stride and make the best out of a complicated situation…

13. She Was In A Father-Daughter-Mistress Show

It was painfully obvious to Lawrence that, daughter on his doorstep or not, Arthur still wasn’t particularly interested in being a dad. But she wasn’t going to let him off so easy. She was now older, smarter, and they even had a shared interest this time around. So instead of leaving, she came up with a plan: The three of them—chorus girl included—could tour together in revues. Yeah, bad idea.

14. Her Revue Show Ended With A Bang

In the end, Lawrence, her father, and his mistress worked on two back-to-back revue shows together, and it seemed once more like everything was going swimmingly. Then the other shoe dropped, hard. One day, Arthur announced to both women that he had taken a year-long contract for a show all the way in South Africa. Then he really dug the knife in.

15. Her Father Abandoned Her Twice

In case it wasn’t clear already, Arthur informed his 16-year-old daughter and mistress that he was very much taking this job without them, and that they would have to figure out what to do with themselves once he left. All of Lawrence’s old doubts about daddy’s love must have come flooding back in…and it drove her to some very suspect decisions.

16. She Was In A Girl Group

Lawrence couldn’t bear the thought of going back to her controlling mother and her enabling stepfather. Without any more options available to her, she took up residence at the Theatrical Girls’ Club instead, truly launching herself out on her own for the first time. While there, the unsupervised teen continued to hone her skills as a performer—but she also got into heaps of trouble.

17. She Had A Whirlwind Romance

When she was 18 years old, Lawrence had a slew of professional performances and touring shows under her belt. But was her personal life that was steaming up. While working, she met dance director Francis Gordon-Howley. She fell for Gordon-Howley hard. He was everything a young performer would want—established in the field, mature, ambitious—but there was one big red flag.

18. She Liked Older Men

When Lawrence fell in love with Francis, there was a huge ick factor. After all, the director was 20 years her senior, and anyone from a mile away could see the relationship had “daddy issues” written all over it. Still, Lawrence was too young to know any better, and she jumped into the romance with both feet. Before long, she would deeply regret it.

19. She Had A Quickie Wedding

Soon after meeting Francis Gordon-Howley, Lawrence took it all the way and married him. Again she was a teenager and he was 38. That’s cause for concern enough, but there was something even darker going onVery soon after tying the knot, it became clear that Lawrence was pregnant with Francis’ child. Coincidence? I think not. And these bad beginnings didn’t get better.

20. She Had A Bundle Of Joy

Eventually, Lawrence gave birth to a little girl she named Pamela in 1918. The problems started almost immediately: Soon after having the baby, Lawrence developed a serious case of lumbago, or lower back pain. It was so obviously excruciating, her manager Andre Charlot allowed her to take two weeks off of performing. For a workhorse like Getrude Lawrence, that was a millennia…and she got uncomfortably antsy.

21. She Got Fired

Lawrence might have been a mother, but she was still a young mother, and the impulse to have fun was too strong. Two days before she cleared her medical leave, she attended a theater party for her friend’s opening night. It led to disaster. Her boss Charlot was also at the party and was none too pleased to see her there. In a rage, he reportedly fired her from her upcoming show. The fallout was devastating.

22. She Suffered Slander

According to one version of events, this single moment changed the rest of Getrude’s career. Word spread about her “laziness,” and soon other theatrical producers were completely unwilling to hire her on, fearful that the “lazy diva” would be more eager to go to parties than fulfill her work commitments. Before Lawrence knew it, she was out of work entirely. And when it rained, it poured.

23. Her Marriage Fell Apart

Gertrude and Francis had started off madly in love with each other, but the struggles of reality quickly got in the way. It all fell apart fast. With Lawrence struggling for work, the couple split right after baby Pamela was born. With nowhere to turn once more, Lawrence had to do the unthinkable and move back in with her mother and stepfather.

24. She Couldn’t Even Get A Divorce

Although Gertrude and Francis had already separated, they weren’t able to formally divorce for a long time—a whole 10 years, in fact. But while the couple didn’t seem to be in any hurry to make the split official, Lawrence was hardly waiting at home hoping things would work out. Oh no, she was on to the next thing with alarming speed.

25. She Found A High-Class Beau

While Lawrence had her fair share of wealthy friends as she rose to the top, she didn’t know how to act around high society. One man changed that for good. When she finally picked up work at the trendy London nightclub Murray’s, Lawrence met Captain Philip Astley, a high-ranking officer in the British Army. Over time, Astley when from a mentor to Lawrence in all things aristocratic to a full-blown lover.

Lawrence was quickly getting a taste for “more.” But, nothing ever came easy.

26. Her Work Dried Up

Gertrude stayed at Murray’s for two years, but she never lost sight of her true aim: Stardom on the stage. Time and time again, she tried to dip her toes back into the theater—but she couldn’t overcome her reputation as a “lazy diva.” She landed some gigs, but it just wasn’t enough. Fortunately for the star, a surprising figure would step in to redeem her.

27. A Childhood Friend Took A Gamble On Her

When Lawrence was still starting out in the theater, she became fast friends with Noel Coward, then a virtual unknown. Since Lawrence had been working at Murray’s, however, Coward had become something of a famous playwright. He gave her an unlikely chance. Seeing she was down and out, Coward wrote the play London Calling! just for Lawrence. And boy, did it pay off.

28. She Became A Star

London Calling! was incredibly successful. So successful, in fact, that the show spawned several spin-offs and international tours, many of which had Gertrude Lawrence right at the center. Her song “Parisian Pierrot” from the show became something of a signature for her, and critics waxed rhapsodical about her talent, calling her “the ideal star” and “the personification of style and sophistication.” And that wasn’t all.

29. She Made History

In 1926, still high off the success of London Calling!, Lawrence became the first British performer to be on an American Broadway stage, appearing in Charlot’s Revue of 1926. This was it, at long last. Gertrude Lawrence was at the peak of her career, and everyone adored her. But you know what they say: What goes up must come down.

30. She Fell For A Wall Street Banker

While over in America, Lawrence developed bad habits. Although still technically with Captain Philip Astley (and still definitely married to her first husband Francis Gordon-Howley) she began a serious flirtation with the Wall Street banker Bert Taylor. The two were instantly attracted to each other…except when word got back to the Captain, he went wild.

31. She Was In A High-Powered Love Triangle

Lawrence’s British beau Captain Astley elbowed his way right back into her life after hearing about her American romance. And he did it in high style: Astley suddenly proposed marriage to Lawrence, making it clear that he was willing to settle down and make a commitment. But if the Captain expected Lawrence to throw off her banker for him, he was very wrong.

32. She Turned Down A Proposal

When Captain Astley got down on one knee for Lawrence, her reply was soul-crushing. She said “no,” and under no uncertain terms. After all, Astley was a conservative, traditional man, and Lawrence knew he would expect her to drop her stage career to stay home and make more babies with him. With her stardom just taking off, there was no way she was making that sacrifice. She, did, however, have plans for her strapping banker.

33. She Was A Hot Commodity

Just because she wasn’t going to marry Captain Philip Astley didn’t mean Lawrence was thinking about marriage. In fact, that same year Lawrence finally pushed through an official divorce from Francis Gordon-Howley—all so she and her banker Bert Taylor could get engaged. Imagine getting two proposals and a divorce in one year. But for Gertrude Lawrence, things got even more bizarre.

34. She Wanted An Open Relationship

After declining Astley’s proposal and a life of quiet domesticity, Lawrence finally figured out what she really wanted, and it wasn’t anything conventional. Her relationship was downright scandalous. Bert and Gertrude, although engaged, kept their social lives separate and enjoyed something of an open relationship, which was cutting-edge for the time.

So far, Lawrence was about as lucky as they come. But her luck ran out.

35. Her Next Broadway Show Was A Flop

When Lawrence got the invitation to star in the Broadway show Treasure Girl as a woman who double-crosses her lover, the drama queen couldn’t say no. In fact, the star was so sure it would be a hit, she rolled up to New York with her daughter and a whole entire entourage in tow, planning to stay for a while. She was gravely disappointed: The show was a complete flop.

The audience didn’t like Lawrence’s character at all, and they struggled to feel for her immoral actions. But when one door closes, another opens.

36. She (Finally) Found Her True Love

By 1939, Lawrence’s star power had worn off, and, entering into her 40s, her youth was leaving her too. Besides that, she had Bert Taylor fizzled out just two years after their engagement. But a twist of fate knocked her off her feet. When it came to Gertrude Lawrence, there were second chances in life, and she fell head-over-heels in love with producer Richard Aldrich.

This time, things really were different. She and Aldrich were steady and undramatic; they married without a fuss on her birthday and remained married for the rest of her life. But that didn’t save Lawrence from tragedy.

37. She Lived Through WWII

Life still didn’t come easy for Lawrence, even after sorting out her rollercoaster of a love life. WWII impacted everyone—and she was no exception. It colored her life painfully. Her husband Richard had to leave her for stretches at a time as a Navy lieutenant, a reality she desperately hated. In fact, Lawrence missed her husband so much, she quite literally followed him into the fray.

38. She Did Anything For Her Husband

Throughout the conflict, Lawrence accepted an invitation to perform for the British troops, in part to spend more time with Aldrich. It was more trouble than she ever imagined. She lived in Massachusetts at the time, and it was no easy feat to get to Britain from there in the 1940s. Still, none of this stopped Lawrence. And she’d have to deal with a whole lot more.

Gertrude Lawrence FactsGetty Images

39. She Sacrificed Herself

Being a star, you might expect Lawrence to be a bit of a diva when it came to her accommodations once she made it overseas. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Lawrence didn’t mind sleeping in attics and having scant food options—ever the optimist, she saw these as “fortunes of war,” according to her husband. But there was one thing she couldn’t abide.

40. She Was Demanding

While her husband was away from her, Lawrence became incredibly demanding and insecure about communicating with him. If she didn’t get the letter she was expecting from him, she would throw fits and worry herself raw. Indeed, this was the main reason why she preferred to perform in Britain during the conflict—she was less anxious being in the same place as her husband, even if the place in question was far more dangerous than her own home.

But Lawrence didn’t just love getting letters. She also loved to write.

41. She Published A Misleading Autobiography

In 1945, the final year of WWII, Lawrence published an autobiography, A Star Danced. She poured her heart into this work and even went on a cross-country tour to promote it. But it contained a dirty little secret. According to her close friend Noel Coward, Lawrence left out crucial details from the work, particularly if they were tragic or uncomfortable. And let me tell you: The real story, as we’ll see, was very uncomfortable.

42. Audiences Stopped Loving Her

Eventually, Lawrence returned to London to star in September Tide, a play that Daphne du Maurier—yet another famous writer—had made just for her. The actress was over the moon about returning to the UK stage and imagined the frantic paparazzi, the lights, the fame—but her less-than-warm reception disappointed her. In fact, it gave her one rude awakening.

The country was still recovering from the many years of war and, to her distress, people were no longer interested in celebrities of her ilk. It was the beginning of her fall from grace.

43. She Was Losing Her Touch

Maybe it was London, and maybe it was age—but regardless of what it was, Lawrence became less and less herself over the years. The signs were disturbing. She would fight with her castmates, and little things like making tea for visitors would set her of. As an actress, she could hardly remember her lines or the characters, which certainly didn’t impress producers or writers. Sadly, that was just the start.

44. She Was Financially Unstable

Lawrence was unwilling to accept that she was no longer a star. At this point, the fading celebrity had zero savings, bad credit, and a ton of debt. Despite this, she continued to spend more money than she made. Fashion was her guilty pleasure, and she spent thousands and thousands of dollars on her clothes. She simply couldn’t stop herself, but the debt would soon catch up to her.

45. A Tiny Fee Ruined Her

Lawrence had never been good with money, but one embarrassing moment finally did her in. The straw that broke the camel’s back was, of all things, not having enough money to pay for her laundry. The load cost under 50 pounds, but she just didn’t have enough. Unluckily for her, the London laundry owners decided to take legal action. With this one petition, a whole ugly truth came out.

46. She Lost Everything

Suddenly, the government was scrutinizing Lawrence’s every purchase, and her accounts couldn’t stand up to it. Unable to settle her scores, she had to declare bankruptcy. The London court seized her home, cars, clothing, jewelry, everything. Everything she’d worked hard for in life, everything she’d tried to build for herself—gone in the blink of an eye. But the hits kept on coming.

47. She Was Keeping A Huge Secret

During their investigation, the courts accused her of “gross extravagance.” But then her biggest secret came out. In the proceedings, lawyers discovered that she didn’t pay any American taxes whatsoever, despite living there mostly full-time. With this cat out of the bag, the government ordered her to take weekly salary cuts to pay down her tax debts.

If there was anything Lawrence loved, it was living in luxury. So how could the star manage going without? The answer: she couldn’t.

48. She Couldn’t Stop Working

Despite the dock in her pay, Lawrence wasn’t willing to lower her standard of living one iota. This is where her life really started unraveling. To cover her many costs, she worked on film sets by day, and then would rush over to do cabaret performances at night. In 1951, the former Broadway star even took on work teaching drama at Columbia University.

49. She Made A Comeback

If Lawrence had one signature trait, it was the ability to be down but not out. In 1950, she got her Hail Mary. After watching the film Anna and the King of Siam, Lawrence realized it would make a great Broadway musical, and acquired the rights to the book. She then set about signing on Rodgers and Hammerstein for the musical, all while naturally putting herself in the starring role of Anna. For one final time, it paid off.

The show opened in March 1951, and Lawrence’s performance was so stellar that she won a Tony. Tragically, the peak of Lawrence’s triumphs preceded her final, brutal fall.

50. She Couldn’t Enjoy Her Success

Lawrence was finally back in the public eye, and just as famous as she had ever been during her London Calling! days. But her relationship with fate had always been volatile, and she was about to get a crushing blow. Even as she performed as Anna night in and night out, Lawrence’s health was mysteriously failing. She was so sick that the usually work-a-holic actress even had to miss out on performances. And then came the end.

51. She Fainted Backstage

One Saturday show of The King and I, Lawrence fell ill while waiting backstage. Disaster came in hot. She ended up fainting, and no one could deny that something was very wrong. Lawrence’s husband promptly took her to the hospital to be checked out, but the doctors didn’t have a clear answer yet for what was wrong with her. Instead, they scheduled an operation to perform tests. Lawrence would never make it that far.

52. Her End Came Quickly

On the same day that Lawrence was supposed to go under the knife, she slipped into a coma. Her family entered the room to find doctors and interns frantically trying to bring her back to consciousness, but there was nothing to be done. After a few brief minutes and only a vague awareness of what was happening, Gertrude Lawrence passed. But the heartbreaking autopsy results were yet to come.

53. Her Results Were Harrowing

Once doctors were able to perform tests on Lawrence’s body, they understood the issue all too clearly. The autopsy showed that her body was riddled with both liver and abdominal cancer. But the mystery didn’t end there. No one in the hospital or in Lawrence’s family fully understood the source of the cancer, and they never got any answers.

54. She Had A Stylish Funeral

Gertrude Lawrence passed at the peak of her renaissance, and thousands mourned her when they heard the news. Crowds lined the streets for her funeral, and they buried her in the champagne-colored gown she’d worn in The King And I, arguably her most famous performance piece. Then, as a final gesture, Broadway theatres across America dimmed their lights for her—making her the very first person to receive that honor.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

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