Jessie Matthews (1907-1981) was Britain’s first and greatest international movie star.
Known as the Dancing Divinity, Matthew’s tragic and scandal-ridden life was more akin to hell on earth.
Born above a butcher shop in London’s Soho district, the seventh of eleven children, George, Jessie’s father was illiterate, a harsh and distant drunk. In contrast, Jessie’s mother, Jane, was warm and loving, but Jenny lived under the thumb of her tyrannical husband and so her unconditional love for Jessie was severely blunted by her husband’s drunken rages and frequent physical abuse.
The large cockney family rarely had enough to eat.
Jessie’s older sister, Rosie—a frustrated actress and furiously ambitious for her baby sister—recognized that Jessie possessed an abundance of natural talent. And so Rosie labored in a button factory to pay for Jessie’s dancing lessons. Jessie’s father considered the lessons a waste of time and money.
Jessie’s teachers were quick to spot their student as a supremely gifted singer, dancer and performer, and they urged producers in London’s musical stage world to audition the tiny, rough-hewn cockney girl.
In 1923, Jessie, an innocent sixteen-year old chorus girl, sailed to America with the prestigious Andre Charlot’s Revue. On board she met a handsome Argentinian playboy named Jorge Ferrara.
Jessie was instantly smitten by the dashing and worldly twenty-eight year old Ferrara, whose family had close ties with the British royals.
In New York, after a few months dedicated to seducing her, Ferrara raped Jessie.
Matthews became pregnant, and once back in England, Ferrara forced the confused and terrified young girl to have a backroom abortion.
As a result of the rape, pregnancy, and abortion, Matthews, for the rest of her life, endured recurring bouts of depression and mental illness. She believed that the abortion caused her to suffer several miscarriages and two still-born babies.
Matthews married and divorced three times, each man totally unsuitable: Husband #1 was the idle and spoiled Henry Lytton, Jr., a degenerate gambler, heavily in debt. Then came song and dance man Sonnie Hale, who had a weakness for chorus girls. He ended up running away with their adopted daughter’s nanny. And finally husband #3, army officer Richard Brian Lewis, thirteen-years Jessie’s junior and far too attached to his mother.
Matthew’s work in film can best be viewed as Cyd Charisse meets Audrey Hepburn. She dances like a dream—her ballet training recalls the flowing Charisse style—and sings with a powerful, clear-as-a-bell voice. Her round melting eyes commanded audience attention and empathy immediately.
In spite of Jessie’s scandalous, screaming-headlines divorce from Lytton in 1933, her role as Susie Dean in The Good Companions, a shimmering movie about a struggling entertainment troupe, catapulted Jessie to international stardom.
Audiences adored her wide-eyed, gamine-like personae. She was the adorable girl next door who is transformed into a glamorous swan.
Nevertheless, Jessie’s very public divorce from her first husband, with Jessie’s sexually explicit letters to her lover entered as evidence—shades of Mary Astor—plus a series of sexual scandals and multiple confinements to psychiatric hospitals, eventually tarnished her appeal and by the end of the 1930’s Jessie’s career was in steep decline.
Matthews produced a memoir (as told to Muriel Burgess) Over My Shoulder, that is most notable for what the British star does not reveal. For instance, here’s how she describes the Ferrara rape:
“Something awful had happened in New York and now memories of it crowded upon me.”
Also not mentioned is a shattering incident in 1927 that Jessie kept secret until the mid-seventies. After appearing in the smash stage revue One Dam Thing After Another, an invitation from The Duke of Wales was extended to Jessie—in awe of British royalty, Jessie interpreted it as a royal command—to have back to back, ahem, dinners, first with The Prince of Wales and then his brother, the dissolute Duke of Kent, Prince George.
With palace servants conveniently absent, at York House, St. Jame’s Palace, the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, coaxed Jessie into bed. When finished, he coolly sent her to brother George, who was so drunk that he passed out before touching the stunned young entertainer.
The serial ellipses in Jessie’s memoir are heartbreaking.
In contrast, there are two brief but revealing passage in which Jessie explains how she manged to earn a few pennies and eat during the hard times of a Dickensian childhood:
I came downstairs one Saturday morning about six o’clock and helped dad harness Jenny the horse in the yard, and then we drove off to Smithfield Market to fetch the meat and poultry for the Jewish butchers of Soho. Saturday, being the Jewish Sabbath, meant that we children often picked up a copper or two lighting fires or running errands for the orthodox. One old Jewish lady who wore a black wig gave me a regular Saturday penny for running her errands.
Other notable non-Jews who generously helped their Jewish neighbors as a Shabbos Goy are: Elvis Presley, Martin Scorcese, Mario Cuomo and General Colin Powell.
A few pages later, Jessie fondly recalls further involvement with England’s Jewish community.
All the dancing I did made me perpetually hungry and I never seemed to find enough food to eat at home. Feeding twelve people took more money than my father ever brought home. Rosie said he made a good living in the market but he stood too many rounds of drinks to his mates. Billy, Rosie and Jenny [siblings] were all at work, but their wages were miniscule, and most of Rosie’s salary was spent in pursuit of my dancing career. I was the one with the big hungry eyes who was often sent next door to borrow half a crown from the Phillips to get some bread and sausage for supper.
I often wished we weren’t so poor. For Beattie Joel, who lived with her parents, the landlords of the Blue Posts Pub, I often felt envy. There were curtains at their windows, a red plush cover with bobbles over the table and a velvet sofa and chairs. I could never understand Beattie saying, “Let’s go and play in your yard.” How could she bear to leave such elegance to play amongst a lot of old vans and ladders.
Mrs. Joel, Beattie’s mother, was always kind to me. She’d look at my skinny frame and ask me to stay to dinner. In many ways the Jewish community of Soho helped to stifle my hunger pangs. Humble Jewish families would impoverish themselves for years over a major event like a wedding reception. Little Jessie Matthews ‘the ballet dancer,’ accompanied by one of her Jewish friends who knew where it was all happening, would be glad to attend and do a little dance, after which they would be rewarded with as much food as they could eat. I used to go to all the Jewish receptions, the bar mitzvahs, the circumcisions, any event where there was food around.
The warm ties of the British Jewish community was a model for which Jessie yearned but eluded her for the rest of her life. Even Catherine, the daughter she adopted with second husband Sonnie Hale, fled Jessie’s home and maintained little contact with her mother.
Inevitably, fame was a weight far too burdensome for the fragile young woman. Jessie confesses in her memoir that she was always terrified when performing. No doubt, Jessie enjoyed the big money, applause and adulation that goes with stardom, but one gets the impression that she found little joy in her stage and screen work. It was, instead, an endless grind. And if an actor does not love what they do, you can be sure that anger, bitterness and self-destructive behavior will colonize the vacuum in the heart and mind.
In 1974, Michael Thornton authored: Jessie Matthews: A Biography, the only biography of the great British star..
For Thornton, Victor Saville provided a simple but illuminating summation of Jessie Matthew’s career.
“She had a heart. It photographed.”