Less than a year after he earned an entry in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest working newspaper columnist in the world, Simon Blumenfeld died at Barnet General Hospital at the age of 97 on April 13.
To most of us at The Stage he was known as Sidney Vauncez, one of the several noms de plume he adopted when he came out of the Army in 1946. Vauncez is the Yiddish word for moustache, of which he sported a particularly fine specimen – wide and carefully waxed – which made him instantly recognisable in the showbusiness circles he adorned for many years.
Yet although he was known to hundreds of people in theatre, light entertainment, films and even the world of boxing, few knew of his origins or his early life, which he generally kept hidden – not because he was ashamed of either but because he preferred to retain an air of mystery.
He was born in London’s East End on November 25, 1907, his family being reasonably prosperous by the standards of the day. That he was proudly Jewish there was no doubt – but only racially, for he had little time for the Jewish religion or any other for that matter. He was, in fact, possibly not really Jewish at all. His son Eric, who has traced what he can of the family history, believes it originated in Sicily, where they grew olives, the first original family name being Composiore. At this time they were probably Catholics, who moved to Bavaria following a volcanic eruption which destroyed all their trees. His grandfather was, so the story goes, a seafaring man who was rumoured to be a pirate and smuggler. What is certain is that his father was born in Izmir, Turkey and his mother, presumably Jewish, in Odessa in the Ukraine.
However, Simon did have the equivalent of a grammar school education and had ambitions to become a writer. But he was also a fervent communist, fairly common at that time among both East Enders and writers. He remained so, at heart, until his death, though few would have known, so easily did he mix with the wealthy and even royalty, when occasion arose.
His early tendencies were certainly apparent in his books and his circle of friends, who included Aldous Huxley. Serious writing occupied him throughout his twenties and early thirties. He came to notice with a very personal novel about the East End called Jew Boy, first published under the title The Iron Garden in the United States in 1932, then by Jonathan Cape, the London publisher, in 1935, and republished by Lawrence and Wishart in 1985.
He also wrote three other novels and a number of plays. Phineas Kahn, described as a portrait of an immigrant, was published by Cape in 1937 and emerged again 50 years later with a foreword by Steven Berkoff. Of his plays there is little trace, though one, The Battle of Cable Street, came to light at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1987.
Before the Second World War he did try his hand at freelance journalism, becoming a correspondent of a French news agency and even writing a series of paperback Western novels under the name Huck Messer, the Yiddish term for carving knife.
As a fervent anti-Nazi, he accepted his call-up willingly, being posted to the Royal Army Ordnance Corps in the Midlands, having somewhere along the line become an expert on German ammunition. But because of his writing experience he was transferred to the scriptwriting branch of Stars in Battledress, quartered in some style in Grosvenor Square. It was here that he came in contact with future stars such as Charlie Chester and agents such as Richard Stone, which was almost a crash course in variety and light entertainment, of which he had little previous knowledge.
Having decided that there was a better future in journalism than serious literature and theatre, he was invited by Norman Kark, whom he also met in the Army, to join him in a publishing venture. This resulted in his editorship ofBand Wagon, a monthly entertainment magazine, which, for the time, was luxuriously produced on high-quality paper, the origin of which remained obscure.
It was here that he adopted the name Sidney Vauncez, among others including CV Curtis, which he reserved for his theatre reviews, and Peter Simon. He was particularly proud of the fact that a quote from CV Curtis’ review of The Mousetrap remained outside the Ambassadors and the St Martin’s to which it transferred, for some 30 years after its first night.
AfterBand Wagon, where I first came across his name as a teenage serviceman, he started his own newspaper, Weekly Sporting Review, covering sport and entertainment, in partnership with a fellow ex-serviceman, the irascible and occasionally erratic Isidore Green. The pair eventually had a quarrel of monumental proportions, possibly because of a libel suit instituted by the managers of Tommy Steele concerning an article published in the paper, though not written by Sidney.
Weekly Sporting Review ceased publication, with Green then launching Record Mirror, in which I had a signed column, as did the late Benny Green, but little in the way of reward. Sidney, though, had his own freelance connection, at one time ghost-writing a column in a Sunday paper for Harry Meadows, the proprietor of Churchills, a then fashionable nightclub in which Danny La Rue began his ascent.
Shortly after the death of his beloved wife Deborah in 1960, Sidney became light entertainment editor of The Stage and rapidly put his own stamp on its pages. With variety in its death throes, he quickly realised that not only had many of the big names gone into the northern clubs but they were also finding their own stars. The clubs had no more enthusiastic advocate than Sidney, who relished their raffishness and almost became their official spokesman, helping to organise the numerous events attended by royalty and insisting that our present chairman Frank Comerford, then managing director, accompany him on his journeys into unknown territory.
He will be missed by hundreds of past and present members of the profession, by his former and current colleagues on the paper, by the Comerford family, by myself, who knew him for more than 40 years and whose advocacy helped me to eventually become editor of The Stage, and, of course, by his own family, son Eric, a doctor, daughter Sheba, a pianist married to the violinist and conductor Derek Solomons, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Peter Hepple – Editor 1972-1992