The television series, Mr Selfridge, returns to our screens and Harry Gordon Selfridge steps into our blog with his amorous links to women in music hall and variety. He was fifty-three when he opened his department store on Oxford Street, London, in 1909 and put the customer at the heart of the experience. If the customer was his chosen one she could glide through the store choosing clothes and jewels to her heart’s content, knowing that the bill would be picked up by her besotted lover. He came to London from America with his wife and four children but formed close relationships with stars such as Anna Pavlova, the ballerina, and Gaby Deslys.
Gaby Deslys was a French singer and dancer who started off in the chorus line and became a huge success in Paris, London and New York. She was said to be charming, deeply religious, but with a quick temper and ‘One who knew her‘ writing in the Globe claimed she lived an abstemious life, seldom touching wine, never gambling and allowing herself to spend lavishly only on clothes. As well as Selfridge, Gaby also had a long lasting affair with the King of Portugal which it was widely assumed continued after his deposition, although she refused to talk about it. He was reputed to have given her a necklace worth about £40,000 after their first meeting. No wonder she saved her own money with admirers like these. Despite the generosity of her admirers Gaby made some extra money by promoting Reudel Bath Saltrates which, it was claimed, would get rid of superfluous fat, double chin and thick ankles. It came in convenient half-pound packets and was ‘quite cheap’
Gaby’s affair with Gordon Selfridge ended and she died, aged 38, in 1920 from complications of a severe throat infection as a result of catching influenza during the serious epidemic of the time. She had several operations but would not allow surgeons to cut into her throat as she did not want a scar. She left her fortune to the poor of her birthplace, Marseille, and specified that her villa should be turned into a hospital for the poor.
After her death a Hungarian man, Mr Navratil, put in a claim for Gaby’s estate on the grounds that his daughter, Hedwige Navratilova, was in fact Gaby Deslys and that she did not come from Marseille. This claim was made ten years after Gaby’s death and Mr Navratil and his wife had lost touch with their daughter for some years. Hedwige was living in Biarritz and bore a remarkable resemblance to Gaby Deslys. The newspapers of the time don’t make it clear how the claim would work if Gaby was still alive but had died and left a will! Two business men who had known Gaby Deslys for thirty years supported the fact that she was from the Caire family of Marseilles, her real name being Gabrielle Caire. They said she ‘spoke with a Marseilles accent, and although she knew a little English, she was not acquainted with any Central European language‘. Mr Navratil was unsuccessful in his claim.
Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive