Gertrude Lawrence (June 4, 1898 - September 6, 1952) was an actress and musical performer popular in the 1930s and 1940s, appearing on stage in London and on Broadway, and in several films She is particularly associated with the light comedy of Noel Coward.
She was born Gertrude Alexandria Dagmar Lawrence-Klasen, of English and Danish extraction, in London, England, and was a professional performer by the age of ten. She was sent to Catholic convent schools and attended the Italia Conti Academy, presumably to keep her out of trouble. She understudied Beatrice Lillie in the Andre Charlot London revues in the 1920s and in 1921, in the revue "A to Z", she co-introduced with Jack Buchanan Furber and Braham's "Limehouse Blues". She achieved stardom when the revues were brought to Broadway in 1924 and 1926. She was one of the foremost comediennes of her day, capable of playing both slapstick clowns and elegant ladies. Her great charisma is attested to by those who saw her on stage, but her films struggle to convey her charm.
She married Francis Gordon-Howley, a director, during World War I, and they divorced in 1928, having had one daughter, Pamela (1918-2005). In 1928, she announced her engagement to Bertrand L. Taylor Jr., a New York stockbroker but the marriage was eventually called off. Lawrence then married Richard Aldrich, an American theatre owner from a blueblood family, on July 4, 1940, and they remained married until her death.
Lawrence's onstage persona inspired composers and writers. George and Ira Gershwin wrote the play Oh, Kay! for her, with the well-loved song "Someone to Watch Over Me". She was the first British actress to have a lead role on Broadway. Cole Porter wrote Nymph Errant for her to star in, and it opened in London in 1929. Noel Coward wrote Private Lives and Tonight at 8:30 (a cycle of nine one-act musicals and plays) for her. She starred as Liza Elliot in Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin's psychoanalytical musical Lady in the Dark (played in the film version by Ginger Rogers), and was a popular entertainer of the troops in World War II.
In 1949 Lawrence found a book called Anna and the King of Siam, which she decided would make a perfect musical. She persuaded the American team Rodgers and Hammerstein to write it for her. The result was The King and I, which introduced such memorable songs as: "Hello Young Lovers", "Getting to Know You", and "Shall We Dance".
The King and I opened on Broadway in 1951, with Lawrence in the role of Anna, and was her greatest success; she won the 1952 Tony Award for Best Actress for her role as Anna Leonowens. Sadly, it was also her last.
Lawrence died of liver cancer, which caused her to suffer jaundice, in New York, New York at the age of only 54, and she was buried in her pink "Shall We Dance?" gown from the second act of The King and I, in Lakeview Cemetery, in Upton, Massachusetts.
In the biographical 1968 film, Star!, loosely based on her life, Lawrence was portrayed by Julie Andrews.
Lawrence's grandson is the jazz saxophonist Benn Clatworthy, who is the child of her daughter, Pamela Gordon-Howley, who was a painter, and her second husband, the British sculptor Robert Clatworthy. Read more...
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