Sunday, January 30, 2011

Growing Up at the Actor's Orphanage: Chapter Three of "Silverlands"

By Judy Staber

"When We Were Young"

When Germany invaded Poland on September 1 1939, Father and Mother were living at 5 Raphael Street in Knightsbridge with Susannah not quite two months old. Until her pregnancy was no longer possible to disguise, Mother had been playing yet another schoolgirl, Judy Bingley, in Little Ladyship with Lilli Palmer.

As soon as war was declared, able-bodied men rushed to enlist in the armed services to fight for King and Country. Father, who turned thirty-two that October, signed up and on November 4, 1939, unfit to fight because of poor eyesight, was appointed by the War Office as Public Relations Officer for the Western Command. By June of 1940, with the Germans targeting England, Father was given the rank of Second Lieutenant in the Gloucester Regiment and immediately promoted to the rank of Acting Captain. His job was to meet with, and release information to, members of the press corps; information fed to him by his commanding officers. For this purpose he was allowed an imprest account and he was allowed to spend seven shillings and sixpence per head per meal.

By the autumn of 1940 the Blitz had begun and London and the Home Counties were taking a beating from the German bombers. The stage-house of Father’s theatre, The Duke of York’s, was hit, as were several other London theatres. With the war begun in earnest, Mother and Father gave up their tiny Raphael Street flat and moved with Susannah to the relative safety of South Moreton in Berkshire where Mother’s parents, recently retired from the Eastern Telegraph Company, were living. Father was posted to Chester in the north of England. Mother and Sue stayed on with her parents and Mother helped with War Canteen work, putting on plays with village children and the evacuees from London. She wrote,

The village children were no trouble at all but lacking in talent. Whereas, the Londoners were like belligerent sparrows, sharp and talented.

With the bombs falling closer and closer, Mother and Sue moved further north to Snitterfield, a little village just above Stratford-on-Avon in Warwickshire. There they spent six months lodging with a Farmer Cox, growing vegetables in a victory garden and collecting eggs from the chickens, all given names by Sue, now a toddler. On the moonlit night of November 14, 1940, having put Sue to bed, Mother was sitting and chatting with Farmer Cox on the porch. Looking to the northeast, they saw a tremendous fire on the horizon. She wrote later,

In spite of the distance we clearly saw the flames and smoke rising. We learned later that it was the city of Coventry: over 500 German bombers had massed for the biggest raid of the war to date - their target Coventry - a city at the industrial heart of Britain's war production engine.

Hundreds of people were killed and almost the whole city was decimated including its magnificent Gothic cathedral.

As the weather turned colder up north, Mother and Sue moved down to Maidenhead and by mid-1941 were back in London now that the Blitz was over. Father’s war work kept him out of town, but he was often able to be in London. In 1941, together they found and purchased the lease on 36 Paultons Square in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

Paultons Square had, and still has, one of London’s charming little private gardens. Just off the King’s Road, the garden had flowering trees and shrubs, beds of seasonal flowers and shaded benches by small lawns; everything lovingly tended by some of the residents. Each house on the square owned a key to this gated garden, keeping out undesirables. Every day, starched nannies with their high, shiny, black perambulators, their toddler charges firmly in hand or harness, would enter the leafy green enclosure, sit on the benches and gossip while the children played — nicely.

By September 1941 Mr. and Mrs. A. P. Moore had moved in. Number 36 was a charming Regency row house near the southeast corner of the square. Guests entering from the street went up three scrubbed-till-they-shone steps to the front door with its shiny brass lion’s-head knocker, passed through the front hall and into the dining room, the front parlor or the cozy rear sitting room. The main bedrooms were one flight up and on the very top floor were Susannah’s nursery and a room for Nanny.

Delivery boys and dustmen reached the kitchen by going down the stone steps behind the black wrought-iron railing. From the kitchen with its big wood-fired stove and dominant solid kitchen table, a door led onto a rear, rectangular, walled garden. In the middle stood a large laburnum tree under which Father and Sue one day solemnly buried Sue’s goldfish. Purple wisteria and ivy climbed the walls. A large tabby cat adopted the new family. Susannah named him Tiger. Much to Nanny Ball’s disapproval, Tiger would sit on my pram and watch over me as I slept in that walled garden under the laburnum tree.

They had hired Nanny Ball before I was born. I am sure that living at such a posh address, with daily help in the kitchen, having a Nanny was a MUST. Sue wrote to me,

I think she (Nanny Ball) came to Paultons Square along with the house and the up-style living. I can remember Father having a chauffeur driven car and also being exceedingly handsome in his uniform. Peaked Captain’s flat hat no less!

She continued,

I remember you sliding down the stairs on your belly and consequently getting Impetigo, a nasty scabby rash and Father painting pictures of battleships on your belly with Gentian Violet. I remember Nanny taking us to the Paultons Square garden, or along the Kings Road, in that huge Silver Cross pram, with you at one end and me at t’other, and her saying that you had got Impetigo from gutter-snipes who leaned into the pram to see you. But I only got to ride when my little legs were too tired to walk.

What Sue remembers most about Nanny is how strict she was. We were both rigorously potty-trained. Being a sturdy infant, as soon as I could sit up I was made to sit on my potty immediately after breakfast and I was not allowed to get off it until I had ‘done something.’ It is sixty-some years later and my insides are still bound up by that infant regimentation of Nanny Ball.

Nanny Ball lived with us only until the War was over and the house was put on the market; yet she left her mark on our little minds. Sue still remembers going one day to visit Nanny Ball’s home. Her father kept greyhounds locked in a big wire cage in the garden, but where it was and exactly when, she couldn’t recall,

‘Fragmented memory, sorry! she said.

Memories of early childhood do come in fragments: a smell, a sound or a particular kind of day can kindle a memory, but pure memory becomes muddied with the introduction of old photographs or other people's reminiscences and suggestions. My life from birth to four is shrouded in mist, but certain things ring out clear and true when triggered.

My parents befriended Rudy, an American soldier, when we lived in Chelsea.

I remember his rough army uniform and him bringing Wrigley’s chewing gum and Hershey chocolate bars for Sue and I as we sat in our safe house under the kitchen table. We were probably in the kitchen because of the nightly blackouts. I still remember the whine of the buzz bombs: in early 1945, one destroyed a row of houses behind Old Church Street, close to our house.

I have very few real memories of family life: my sister Susannah screaming after being burned by Nanny with an iron to teach her that irons were hot; the smell of my mother’s perfume and the softness of her fur coat as she brushed my cheek in a good night kiss on her way to the theatre; my father, in a dark blue apron with white stripes, cutting up something in the kitchen — but perhaps that was just a fantasy, for I have been told by Sue that he liked to cook. When you have no idea what kind of man your father was, your imagination takes over. Not ever knowing a parent leaves a rather large gap in one’s make up.

All that I have are two small black and white photographs of him. One is of an idyllic family scene in the English countryside: my sister, Father and I are in a grassy meadow, Susannah, aged about four, holds a bunch of wild flowers in her fist, Father, crouched beside her, has me, a most substantial baby on his knee. It must have been taken in the summer of 1943 for I was born that January. The other photo shows him at his desk in 1960, just two years before he was to die at fifty-five. Wearing dark-framed glasses, his hair dark and wavy, he sits behind piles of papers looking off to his right, a smile on his face, as if welcoming a visitor.

He left our family when I was two and a half. The war in Europe was finally over. No one knew, or at least ever said to us, where or why he had gone. One story, we heard later, was he had embezzled £9 to buy Sue a teddy bear; but that wasn’t true. In 1960, he sent Susannah in Canada a telegram on her twenty-first birthday. She was about to give birth to her first son, Jamie. Father telegraphed that now she was twenty-one he could legally see her.

We were to learn much later, after Mother died, that she had had a restraining order put on him when he left the family. He had kept up with news of us through his brother Arthur. We never knew why Mother did this, and she would never talk about it. In our ignorance, while we were growing up, we assumed all kinds of terrible things about him. We were wrong. None of them were true.

I was to learn, much later on, these truths about my father: that he had been a successful theatre publicist and manager; that he had produced avant-garde plays and introduced many innovative works to London audiences. Under his aegis, in addition to Susannah and the Elders which starred my mother, the London International Theatre Club introduced the French playwright Jean Anouilh to England with his play Le Voyageur sans Baggage and, later, Gentleman’s Agreement, an English adaptation of a Hungarian play about anti-Semitism — given what was happening in Germany, a production both controversial and timely.

I don’t know if it is in my genes, for I never knew him, but I too had a career in arts management and public relations and have helped to introduce new theatre works to audiences here in America. How I wish I could have talked to him about it all!

TO CONTINUE READING "When We Were Young," GO TO JUDY STABER'S WEBSITE, "Silverlands," which is available for purchase at the website, tells the story of how Staber grew up in the Actor's Orphanage in Surrey, England, while her mother pursued an acting career. Staber, herself an actress, was also, before she retired, an arts manager. Staber's memoir is also available through the Troy Bookmakers, and through The Chatham Book Store, in Chatham, New York; Blackwood & Brower in Kinderhook, New York; The Book House, in Stuyvesant Plaza, and in bookstores in Great Barrington and Lenox, Massachusetts. The PROLOGUE to Silverlands ran in MyStoryLives in December, 2010.

No comments: