Sometimes, as I try to trace cause and effect, I marvel at how one’s life is shaped by events. My illness and my recuperation in the South of France took Johnny away from the John Graham Company. His absence led, finally, to the company’s bankruptcy when we returned to London in the spring of 1929. Forced to look elsewhere, Johnny was appointed as a national sales representative of a thriving brick-and-cement firm. Here, where personal charm rather than business acumen counted, Johnny did extremely well. For the first time since our marriage, we began to emerge from our financial quicksand.
It was just as well. Now that my marriage was known, it was tune to turn a new chapter. In the South of France, Johnny and I had come to a decision. We must extricate ourselves from any further obHgation to Sir Richard. I had had time to think about this man. Although Sir Richard had never overstepped the bounds of propriety with me, the curious prints on his walls, his yearning at my feet, his strange excitement at the idea of adopting me—all this disturbed me. I did not want to see him again. I wrote him a letter expressing our gratitude, promising to repay him when possible, but making clear my husband and I felt it best not to be in his debt any more. We would manage, somehow. Sir Richard, obviously deeply hurt, never replied.
We had only been in London a few days when Cochran called to chide me for keeping my marriage a secret from him. If I wished, he said, there would be a part for me in Bitter Sweet, which he expected to produce next. But I was not ready to return to the stage. Perhaps I sensed, without knowing it, that my stage career was over. It had all been, I realized now, a tremendous ordeal.
For the next few months I rested, read, and sat in the sun in Hyde Park, practicing my French on the French nannies who came there every day with their charges. With the little I had learned at the Berlitz School, and the additional experience I’d had in France, I did not speak badly.
And then I met Judith Hurt, who opened a world to me that quite eclipsed everything the stage had to offer.
Miss Hurt and her mother came from Scotland. While we had been away they had moved into the third-floor flat directly above us at 128 Wigmore Street. I began meeting my new neighbor on the stairs—extraordinarily dainty and petite, her face piquant, with the blondest hair, and the pinkest skin and bluest eyes I had ever seen. About my age, she lived a gay social life: young men from Oxford and Cambridge were constantly stamping up and down the stairs and often I caught a glimpse of her, an exquisite figure of a girl, dashing down, her coat floating behind her. We came to know each other when she asked if she might keep her corsages in our refrigerator which stood on the stair landing. She was pretty, unassuming, and friendly, and I liked her immensely.
One afternoon I emerged to take my walk in Hyde Park just as she and a taU, heavily bespectacled young man, ice skates slung over their shoulders, came hurrying down the stairs. “Oh, Mrs. Gillam,” Judith greeted me cheerily, and introduced me to her escort, Jock West. Behind his thick lenses Mr. West seemed to be examining me from a great distance, but his smile was eager as he took my hand. Judith said, “We’re going to Grosvenor House to skate—would you like to come?” “Oh,” I said, embarrassed. “I don’t know how to skate.”
Jock West spoke up. “I’ll teach you. Love to. Please come, Mrs. Gillam—we can get skates for you there.” I went with them to the most fashionable skating rink in London. Jock taught me how to manage on ice. As Judith and I sat on a bench watching lum go through a repertoire of graceful figure three’s, she observed, “Jock’s a great friend of my cousin. You know, they were both in Pop at Eton.”
“Oh, yes,” I said, having no idea what she meant. A few minutes later, on the ice, sliding and slipping prettily on Jock’s arm, I said, “Judith told me you were in Pop.” He seemed pleased, so I added, “Tell me all about it.” He was delighted to do so. Pop, it developed, was the most exclusive social club at Eton, whose members seemed to spend most of their time carefully blackballing virtually everyone else. I learned from Jock that Judith’s home was near Aberdeen, that she and her mother took a flat in London only for the season, and that she was engaged to a Pop alumnus now in Scotland.
We got along famously. I learned to skate quickly: sports had always come easily to me. I bought a red turtleneck sweater and a little black flared skirt that showed off my legs. Skating at Grosvenor House as a guest of Jock West or Judith Hurt, or learning to play squash and tennis under Jock’s tutelage, now took the place of my afternoons in Hyde Park. Johnny, busy with his new job which often took him on selling tours through the country, watched my progress with satisfaction. Everyone at Grosvenor House knew everyone else; and to them I was the young, pretty Mrs. Gillam, whose husband never seemed too much in evidence and who was considered rather daring because she had once taken a fling at the musical-comedy stage.
One afternoon when I was practicing my figure three’s, a tall man of military bearing, with blond hair graying at the temples, skated up to introduce himself. His name was Jack Mitford. He’d often seen me on the rink with Jock West. Would I like to waltz with him?
We waltzed together. He was a superb skater and taught me how to improve my figure skating. Later, he invited me to have a drink. At the bar a ruddy-faced man approached us and clapped him heartily on the shoulder. “May I present Captain Gill?” Jack said. He cafled him “Gillo.” Gillo, I learned, was a ranking player on the All-England Polo Team. We sat at a little table while the two men discussed a new club they were forming, to be known as the International Sportsman’s Club, of which Captain Gill would be secretary. It would be open to a limited international membership of both sexes; its quarters, at Grosvenor House, complete to skating rink, squash courts, swimming pool, and living accommodations, would serve as a town residence for members living outside London or in foreign countries. Already on the board of directors were the Aga Khan, Commodore Vanderbilt, the Duke of Westminster, the Due de Alba, the Earl of Lonsdale, a number of French princes and Italian barons… I swallowed as I listened. I told myself, this will be one of the most exclusive, blue-blooded clubs in the world!
When Johnny heard about it he was impressed. I had skated with Jack Mitford? That could only be the Honorable Jack Mitford, brother of Lord Redesdale and uncle of Nancy, Unity, and five other Mitford girls and one Mitford son, Tom. The Mitfords, Johnny explained, were one of the oldest families, older even than the royal family. Now I was meeting England’s finest society— county people—as differentiated from London, or town society. County society was not as sophisticated, nor as rich—they were true gentlefolk. “Wouldn’t it be topping,” Johnny went on, carried away, “if you could join the new club? The people you’d come to know—”
“Why Johnny,” I protested. “That’s ridiculous. I couldn’t possibly get into a club like that. Anyway, who would propose me?”
“Jack Mitford,” said Johnny. “There’s one. Gill is another. And if he’s secretary he has a good deal to say.”
It turned out to be far easier than I thought. The next time I sat at the bar with Jack Mitford, I said, “I would adore to join your club. Then I could skate all the time. Do you think you and Captain Gill could propose me?”
He said, “Why, I think it could be arranged, Sheilah. Let’s go up and see Gillo.” Gillo was in the club office that had just been opened. I felt rather hopeful about Gillo. He was a gallant army type who only a few days before happened to follow me up a flight of stairs. “By Jove, what ankles!” he had exclaimed. I had smiled sweetly back at him. Now, presented with my request, he said, “Of course.”
I was proposed—Mrs. John Gillam, wife of Major John Gillam, D.S.O.—and elected to membership.
Lily Shell was a member of the International Sportsman’s Club.
I presided at a salon in our flat. On the floor, chatting gaily over a huge omelette I had prepared, were Judith Hurt, her closest friend. Lady Joan Villiers, daughter of the Earl of Clarendon, Jock West, Captain Gill, and Jack Mitford. Jock was keeping my guests in roars of laughter with a hilarious story of how he and his fellow members of Pop “took turns kicking the bottom of the King of Siam.” I dashed in and out, with tea and jam, trying to believe my eyes. These people, sitting on the floor in my flat, eating my omelette. 1 thought,
if only this were real: if only I were the same as they!
Jack Mitford invited Johnny and me to dinner one January night. The talk turned to Switzerland. The Mit-fords were going to St. Moritz in a few days. I must come along as a guest. Judith Hurt and her mother would be in St. Moritz, too. So would many of their friends.
“Of course you must go,” said Johnny later. “Think of it—spending a fortnight in Switzerland with the Mit-fords!” I outfitted myself with a skiing suit, heavy boots, warm sweaters—and that winter of 1930 I accompanied the Mitfords to St. Moritz. There I met Jack’s brother, Lord Redesdale, head of the clan, who looked like an ancient Saxon king, a blond, blue-eyed giant of a man with a striking head, great shoulders, and a hawklike look to his finely chiseled face. I met Lord Redesdale’s son, Tom Mitford, a youthful edition of his father and, at twenty-one, one of the handsomest young men I had ever seen. I gazed at Tom Mitford curiously. How must it feel to be the only son in a family of seven daughters? Outrageous fantasies danced through my mind. I had always wanted children so I would have relations in the world, but Johnny and I had not been successful. Perhaps I could stiU found an aristocracy of my own. And I would choose Tom Mitford to be the father, and my sons would look like Saxon kings…
St. Moritz was another fairy tale come true. I skiied. I skated. I went skijoring. As the Mitford family protege, I dined at long tables with their friends, I listened to them turn from French to German to Italian, speaking each flawlessly, and I thought: how little I know! I was introduced to Lord Grimthorpe, Lord Bradboume, the Due de Yonne. I loved to hear them speak: such charming voices, so modulated, so easy on the ear, such gentlefolk! They treated me solicitously, graciously—they cherished me—and again I lived on compliments. It was gratifying to be told I was pretty, but when Jack Mitford remarked, “SheUah, you have such a lovely voice,” I was beside myself with pride. It was as though I had won a diploma.
Back in London the fairy tale continued. Now I was invited with Johnny to spend weekends at the houses of county society, to ride, to play tennis, to swim, and lie on the grass and, in the evening, dress for dinner and play billiards. I thought little of world events. County society made no pretense of keeping up with the times. These were difficult days in England; the pound was about to go off the gold standard, unemployment was rising and there was great discontent—but all this seemed far, far away to me.
One weekend 1 found myself a guest at Lord Brougham and Vaux’ shooting party, wearing tweeds, heavy brogues, and thick gray woolen stockings, the very picture of a county society woman. Lord Brougham and Vaux lived in a castle with a moat: we dined in a great baronial hall; ancestral portraits looked down on us, there were liveried servants in attendance, and a giant fireplace emblazoned with the family coat of arms over the mantel, I loved it. I could not bring myself to shoot but I adored going along with the guns, sitting on my shooting stick, watching the beaters work their way through the underbrush and respond, “Yes, m’lord,” and “No, m’lord” to our host’s instructions. In my room I would laugh with pleasure, and sigh, thinking: how did I get here? but isn’t it lovely! When the shoot was over I was given six brace of pheasants and returned to London carrying the dead birds I did not know what to do with.
I felt my way carefully in this enchanted world. I had been taken up: I had been accepted. But there was danger of exposure at every turn. I never doubted that these people were better than L They were better by right of birth, by right of environment, by right of education, by right of their calm acceptance of themselves as belonging. They had no secrets to hide, no pretenses to maintain—no ignoble impulses, stemming from fear or necessity, to crush. This, I believed, was why they were better human beings than I, and why, were they to know the truth about me, they would have been shocked, felt hoodwinked, and have no alternative but to cast me out.
It meant always being on guard. When other women spoke of their schools, their presentations at court, I trembled. I dreaded to hear talk of cousins and relatives. No one had ever met a cousin or uncle or aunt of Mrs. Gillam, or even a schoolmate. To all intents I might have grown on a tree.
I recalled a terrible moment at St. Moritz when I had gone skating with Lord Long of Wraxall and his mother. They introduced me to a lovely, dark-eyed woman. I had seen her at the bobsleigh runs, the fancy-dress parties at the Palace Hotel. “Let’s skate together, shall we?” she suggested with a smile. Arm in arm we moved rhythmically across the ice. We were quite alone. Without slackening her pace she said, “You’re an adventuress, aren’t you?”
It was as though the ice had suddenly yawned open before me. Skating along with her, arm in arm, I thought frantically, “How shall I answer this? After a little pause I said, “Yes, I am.” And having said “Yes, I am,” I felt calm again. She knew the false from the real coin. She could expose me if she wished. Yet I knew she would not. When I saw her again she smiled courteously. She said nothing to anyone.
I was fortunate. For the people about me were gentlefolk, and the mark of gentlefolk was that they rarely embarrassed you. I could be sure that the Honorable Ursula Bowater, daughter of Lord Dawson of Penn, would never turn to me to ask: “Were you ever presented, Sheilah?” Or, “What school did you go to?” Nonetheless I was prepared for almost anything that might be asked—if anyone were so unbelievably rude as to ask me.
The story I allowed to get about was that I was the daughter of John Lawrence and Veronica Roslyn Graham —both solid-sounding names. We had lived in Chelsea, a fashionable yet Bohemian section of London. This slightiy unconventional background could account for any oddness, any slips, in my social behavior. My father, who owned considerable property in the City, died on a business trip to Germany when I was little. I had had tutors, then gone to finishing school in Paris. My mother died when I was seventeen; I had married Major Gillam, D.S.O., almost immediately thereafter.
It was a good story. It lacked only one essential. I had not been presented at court. Every young woman in the circle in which I now moved so delightedly, yet fearfully, had made her curtsy, at eighteen, before Their Majesties.
“If only,” I said to Johnny, “we could have managed that, too.”
As I spoke, I could see another ingenious Gillam project in his eyes. “Do you know,” he said thoughtfully, “you can be presented even now? Even though you’re not a debutante?” He explained that debutantes were nearly always re-presented when they became married women. It was necessary only to be presented by someone who had, herself, made her debut at Buckingham Palace.
I had no such relative, to be sure, but Johnny recalled a most charming woman, the wife of Colonel Arthur Saxe, who had been at Gallipoli with him. Mrs. Saxe, a popular debutante in her day, now lived modestly outside London. She might welcome an opportunity to go to court again…
He wrote to her. To my utter delight, Mrs. Saxe indicated that she would be happy to present Major Gil-lam’s wife, if he could arrange for her to have a gown from Norman Hartnell (the queen’s dressmaker) appropriate for such an occasion. And so it was done. My name was duly forwarded to the lord chamberlain. In return, when the time came, we received an imposing invitation, which read:
The Lord Chamberlain is commanded by Their Majesties to summon Major and Mrs. John Gillam to a Court at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday the 9th June, 1931 at 9:30 o’clock p.m.
Ladies: Court Dress with feathers and trains. Gentlemen: Full Court Dress.
As a major, Johnny was entitled to the rank of diplomat at court functions. From Moss Brothers, he rented a diplomat’s court dress: knee breeches, black court stockings, a cutaway black velvet coat, silver buttons and white tie, shirt and waistcoat—and he wore the sword that I had always admired when I visited him in his bachelor flat.
On presentation night our hired Daimler with its chauffeur and footman slowly negotiated the turn into the Mall and joined the long queue of cars waiting for hours to be admitted within the Palace gates. The Palace was ablaze with lights. Everywhere crowds milled about— hundreds of home-bound clerks, office workers, men in bowler hats, stenographers, salesgirls—many dashing excitedly from car to car to peer inside and exclaim at what they saw. Dressed in an ivory court gown, with three white ostrich plumes in my hair, I sat regally between Mrs. Saxe, wearing a tiara and feathers, and Johnny, resplendent in his court dress and high plumed hat.
“Coo-er! Lookut those diamonds!” and “Lookut ‘er! Wonder ‘oo she is!” and “Lumm-ey! Ain’t she beautiful!” The exclamations of the crowd, the rapturous look on their faces, the expressions of awe, envy, and excitement—
Was there a Mildred among them? And a Lily? Who can imagine iiow I felt?
Then our car rolled noiselessly forward and came to a halt before the Palace steps. Footmen in royal Uvery sprang to help us out: we mounted an enormous curved staircase and waited in double file outside the throne room with pale, nervous debutantes and those who were to present them. The procedure was to enter, have our names announced, proceed to a point in front of Their Majesties, curtsy, then slowly back out.
Now my stage experience came to my aid. I knew how to walk across a room, how to keep my head up, how to make an appearance before an audience. As I entered the throne room and the full scene burst upon my eyes, it was all I could do not to gasp. There, in magnificent royal robes of state, sat King George the Fifth and Queen Mary. Behind Their Majesties stood the Prince of Wales, and at his side the Duke of Gloucester, Prince George, Princess Mary, Princess Alice, the Dowager Marchioness of Milford Haven—I could not name them all. And behind the royal family, in banked rows of striking color, the peers of the realm in their velvet and ermine. I thought for a frantic moment, will I trip over my train? Will my feathers tumble to the floor? Will I be sick? I heard the lord chamberlain’s voice boom out: **Mrs. Arthur Saxe presenting Mrs. John Gillam.”
Mrs. Saxe walked slowly forward and curtsied. Someone touched me on the arm and I followed her, at train’s length behind. I found myself directly in front of the King and Queen and curtsied slowly and deeply. I raised my eyes and dared look directly into the faces of Their Majesties, Queen Mary appeared quite bored: the King gave me, 1 thought, a piercing look; but behind them Pragger-Wagger winked—or seemed to wink—at me! There was an amused query in his’eyes as if to say, “Haven’t I seen you before?”
Then I rose and, sweeping my train to one side, gracefully backed out to find myself with the others in an enormous anteroom. There we waited until the King and Queen and their entourage passed through. We formed a corridor for them and, as they approached, the men bowed, the women curtsied deeply. We remained in that position while the royal procession moved by—first, the lord chamberlain and his staff walking backward and bowing, then the King and Queen, their long trains behind them held by two pages of honor, then the members of the royal family. When the full court retinue had gone by, we rose and proceeded from the room.
Later, downstairs, we ate little cakes and sandwiches off plates of gold and drank champagne from priceless crystal, and afterward Johnny took us to Quaglino’s, London’s most fashionable restaurant. I was flushed with triumph as we danced. We had carried it off! I thought exultantly, would one, meeting Judith Hurt and me, note any difference, any difference at all, between us?