When Royal recognition brought variety into the mainstream, small-time singer Millie Lindon underwent a dramatic social reinvention, writes Richard Anthony Baker
In music hall’s early years, its entertainers knew only too well that they were regarded socially as the lowest of the low, derided by the so-called legitimate theatre and scorned by both the upper and middle classes as a collection of painted women and vulgar men. So it must have been somewhat heartening when in 1868 the ‘lions comiques’ Alfred Vance and Arthur Lloyd, together with the jovial Jolly John Nash, became the first music hall entertainers to appear before the Prince of Wales [later Edward VII] at a private party.
When Edward became King, he summoned music hall’s greatest comic, Dan Leno, to entertain him at Sandringham. Seymour Hicks, another of the entertainers, said the King laughed heartily and rewarded Leno with a jewelled tie pin.
The frost finally thawed when George V requested a Royal Command Performance, the first of the Royal Variety shows, in 1912. Nearly the whole of the music hall profession welcomed this hard-earned acceptance but some began getting ideas above their station.
The most astounding example of social re-invention was the work of Millie Lindon, a minor singer, whose music hall career lasted little more than a decade. Her first husband was the tragic TE Dunville, billed as “an eccentric comedian and contortionist”. The “eccentric” reference related to his appearance. His coat was basically a black alpaca bodice, which had belonged to his mother. He added a white frill to the bottom of it and a white linen collar to the top. One reviewer referred to his “wild glaring eyes, a nervous, twitching restlessness and a mad, staccato utterance”.
Dunville remained successful for more than 30 years but we can only guess what he was like, since no film of him exists and copies of the five cylinders he made in the summer of 1904 probably disintegrated years ago.
During the early twenties, he began suffering fits of depression. In early 1924, his second wife, Dora, described him as a bundle of nerves. “The slightest thing seemed to worry him,” she said. In March, he left her a note that read in part: “I feel I cannot bear it any longer.” At the age of 56, he drowned himself in the Thames.
Lindon was born Fanny Elizabeth Warriss, the daughter of a tailor. On her marriage to Dunville in Clapham in 1895, she embellished her name to become Florence Elizabeth Millicent Warriss and reduced her age by nine years. Dunville managed the early part of the career but she had only one hit song, For Old Times’ Sake , written by Charles Osborne. The marriage lasted seven years and Millie then married the Manchester newspaper magnate Sir Edward Hulton, who founded The Daily Sketch, bought and enlarged the London Evening Standard and then sold his empire to Lord Beaverbrook for £6 million. They had two children – a daughter who died at the age of 22, and a son, Edward George Warris [sic]. This marriage, like her first to Dunville, also failed.
The younger Edward Hulton became a newspaper proprietor in his own right, developing a new style of photojournalism in the hugely successful Picture Post. He also wrote his memoirs, When I Was a Child, which gives a vivid account of the highly comfortable style of living his mother enjoyed after leaving the halls.
In the morning, she spent an hour or two making up her face, ate an enormous breakfast, wrote letters and pottered about among her Rococo furniture before driving to lunch. She was well known at all the fashionable restaurants of the day, such as Quaglino’s.
For a man described as having a lively, inquiring mind, Hulton seemed curiously uninterested in his mother’s past. To him, she had been a beautiful actress, whose clothes trunks were marked W-L, as she had sometimes called herself Miss Warris-Lindon.
She told him she was descended from an ancient Spanish family, de Warris, which bore a coat of arms. With apparent naivety, Hulton also described Millie’s collection of ‘gentlemen friends’ – a former president of Peru, a Uruguayan colonel and a handsome, athletic young man, who she said was the original Galloping Major from the song of the comedian, George Bastow.
Millie told her son that she had a penchant for soldiers. Indeed, her third husband was a militaire, as she liked to call them – Major General John Thompson, whom she married in 1928. This marriage lasted just eight years. There was to be one more husband, a Czech landowner, Baron Otto Sklenar von Schaniel, before Millie died at Taormina in Italy in 1940, aged about 70. The Times reported that she had been married three times. Poor Dunville had been air-brushed out of her history.
* British Music Hall: an Illustrated History by Richard Anthony Baker is published by Sutton Publishing Ltd on October 20, priced £20