Category Archives: Singers and Dancers

Yvette Guilbert

Yvette Guilbert was born in 1865 and lived her early life in poverty but became the toast of Paris, adored by everyone from the poor of the Marais to artists and the literati. She was tall and thin with hennaed red hair and wore a long dress and long black gloves on stage. Yvette Guilbert said of herself, ‘I was looking for an impression of extreme simplicity, which allied itself harmoniously with the lines of my slim body and my small head —in a repertoire that I had decided would be a ribald one. To assemble an exhibition of humorous sketches in song, depicting all the indecencies, all the excesses, all the vices of my contemporaries and to enable them to laugh at themselves — that was to be my innovation, my big idea.’ 

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Yvette Guilbert

She was said to come on to the stage in a rather distracted manner with her shoulders drooping and her arms hanging limply by her sides and was termed a diseuse as she half sang, half spoke her songs. Yvette Guilbert sang earthy songs about characters polite society would rather forget and some were so filthy they were said to make a Sapper blush. She had perfect diction and not a word of the songs escaped the audience. However Yvette was not universally admired and one British newspaper report states that, ‘Mdlle Guilbert is not specially pretty, dresses very simply, and unlike the majority of her vocalising countrywomen, does not indulge in high kicking.’ Faint praise. The reviewer  was not impressed by the fact that Mdlle Guilbert had turned down an offer of several hundred pounds to sing at Marlborough House at a party for the Prince of Wales. She asked for a much higher amount but received no reply from the royal household.

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Portrait by Toulouse Lautrec

When she first appeared in London in 1892 it was noted that she spoke fluent English but it was suggested she should be careful not to translate her songs too literally in case of action from the Lord Chamberlain and the London County Council. In 1894 she appeared on the same bill as Marie Lloyd which must have given the authorities sleepless nights. In London in 1909 she was appearing at the London Palace Theatre and remarked that the theatre  impresario Sir Alfred Butt ‘neglected my publicity for the sake of my fellow actor, Consul the chimpanzee.’  Consul appeared above her on the bill. Yvette was given the honour of an impersonation by the celebrated music hall mimic Cissie Loftus but Yvette sang one of Cissie’s songs, Linger Longer, Loo copying the mannerisms of it’s original singer.

 

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Cissie Loftus

In 1899 Yvette had an operation to have a kidney removed. She had been in great pain around the waist, said to be caused by excessively tight lacing. The road to recovery was long and she could not avoid thinking about the future. A highly intelligent woman, Yvette Guilbert realised that to remain popular she needed to move on from the crude songs which had made her name. She had researched old French chanson and sung them to small audiences on occasion. She determined this would be her new path. She was interested in mediaeval songs as well as those from later centuries and set about studying Latin grammar and collecting old manuscripts. For her first public performance after her illness she had Baudelaire’s poems set to music and sang dramatic songs by Maurice Rollinat. She did not wear the black gloves. It was a brilliant performance but in a small theatre with a high class clientele. It took longer to win round her previous audience who perhaps felt she was deserting them for a greater respectability.

Yvette Guilbert was admired by George Bernard Shaw, became a friend of Sigmund Freud and was painted by the leading artists of her time, although she rebuked Toulouse Lautrec for his depictions of her on stage. She wrote novels, lectured on chanson, appeared in  operetta, was a suffragette and was elected to the French Société des ancients textes. She died in Aix en Provence during the Second World War in 1944, having moved there from Paris with her husband Max Schiller who was Jewish.

Thanks to the britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk, and That was Yvette by Bettina Knapp and Myra Chipman

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Kitty Lord

Kitty Lord possibly wearing Symmetricals

Kitty Lord possibly wearing Symmetricals

Kitty Lord was originally in service and then took the giant step towards appearing on the music hall and theatrical stage. On her postcard she is described as an eccentric singer. Hour glass figures were popular on the stage at that time and Kitty has curves and a nipped-in waist. Help was available to achieve this result and padding was widely used. Padded tights, known as Symmetricals, could be bought at theatrical suppliers as seen in the advert.

Otero probably wearing Symmetricals.

Otero probably wearing Symmetricals.

Advert for Rayne's theatrical suppliers

Advert for Rayne’s theatrical suppliers

In November 1904 Kitty Lord, described as an actress, was fined £7 for furiously driving a motor car and failing to provide a driver’s licence. A policeman reported she passed him like a flash of lightning. When stopped, she said, as she gave her name, “Don’t make any mistake. I shall be awfully disappointed if I don’t get a summons.” Apparently she had fulfilled an engagement in Blackpool and was on her way back to London. While the owner of the car was having a cigar she took the steering wheel.

Kitty was no stranger to the courts and found herself involved in two cases which revolved around variety theatres in Buenos Aires and Brazil. Another variety performer, Mamie Stuart, took action which resulted in two court cases over an engagement in various South American variety theatres including the Casino, Buenos Aires. It was suggested unscrupulous agents inveigled female artistes into disorderly houses and that they were then ‘ruined forever both morally and socially.’ Kitty Lord gave evidence as to the character of the house.

Four years later Kitty and her husband were sued as Mr & Mrs Parker for £49 said to be owed for a passage back to England from Brazil. The theatrical engagement had not gone well and the performers were  expected to pick up money to enable them to live ‘ by any means that came their way.’ The artistes had met Henry Barnes and George Spearman after their first performance and had supper with them. The newspaper reports that Kitty Lord and her companion were in a difficult and dangerous position having run out of funds and with an angry theatrical management on their tail. Barnes and Spearman claimed to have settled their bills and paid their passages to England but once home Kitty and her husband refused to pay. Kitty denied any money was given to her and said that she went to Para, in Brazil, against her husband’s wishes. She said Para was a dangerous place for some people, but not for her, and that she had been to many strange places all over the world but always got out of them. The judge found against Kitty but held that her husband was not liable as she had gone against his authority.

Newspaper reports from the British Newspaper Archive britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk