3rd in a new series in which David McGillivray profiles some forgotten but fascinating gay pioneers. This week: The soldier and the hall star…
WILFRED ALEXANDER: THE STAGE-STRUCK SOLDIER
Until quite recently there was panic in the parlour every time a gay man died. The corpse was barely cold before anguished relatives destroyed everything relating to the deceased’s homosexual lifestyle. This should have happened after the death of Wilfred Alexander. It didn’t because Wilfred’s great-nephew, who helped clear the dead man’s flat, was gay himself. He salvaged a stack of mementos including two unpublished autobiographies and a possibly unique photo album showing soldiers in drag during World War I.
These and other precious relics have taken a long time to come to light. Wilfred died nearly fifty years ago. For some of that time his effects have been in boxes in the bowels of the Pleasance Theatre in North London. Wilfred’s great-nephew, Christopher Richardson, ran the theatre until 2005.
We know from his writings that Wilfred was stage-struck from the night in 1887 when he saw Marie Tempest in Dorothy, a light opera by Alfred Cellier. It was “altogether an entrancing evening” that Wilfred never forgot. In his youth he went to the theatre almost every night and twice in a day if there was a matinée. “But at 19,” we learn, “my dream was broken, for the Army claimed me, and held me for 25 years.” During that time he was involved in amateur dramatics all over the world.
Later, between the wars, he had a disastrous career running repertory companies in the UK. When he was a civil servant during World War II he used every scrap of paper he could find to sketch costume designs. Many of these have survived. But we know almost nothing about Wilfred’s private life. All we have are tantalising clues – an ambiguous statement, well-thumbed physique magazines, fading photos of handsome young men.
Wilfred was typical of the confirmed bachelors of his day who were never allowed to be themselves. He died four years before the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales in 1967. Christopher Richardson calls this tragic. “Nowadays he’d be a glorious old queen and nobody would give two pins about it,” he says. “In fact they’d probably think more of him because of it.” But at last the time has come for Great Uncle Wilfred to take centre stage.
Algernon Wilfred Alexander was born in Bristol in 1879. He and his sister, Elsie (Christopher’s grandmother on his mother’s side), were both artistically inclined, both obsessed with the theatre. (It’s astonishing that a man who witnessed Beatlemania also saw live performances by such theatrical legends as Sir Henry Irving, Sarah Bernhardt and Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes with Nijinsky). Elsie went to art school and Wilfred would have liked to have done the same. But his father had other ideas.
The boy was packed off to Sandhurst, then served with the Somerset Light Infantry in India, South Africa and Gibraltar. He seems to have had a complex about what he felt were his plain looks. But he cuts a fine figure at 25 in his army uniform and again ten years later as Don Fernando, a Spanish knight, in a play called The Moorish Castle.
Shortly after Wilfred appeared in this costume drama in Gibraltar in 1914, war was declared. He was posted to Belgium and on his third or fourth night in Ypres he heard his first shell fall. He spent the war as a supply officer. He rose rapidly through the ranks and was soon Lieutenant –Colonel in charge of the 34th Division Train, the unit that conveyed rations and equipment to the front line.
He glosses over the terrible sights he saw, for example when he toured the battlefield after the Arras Offensive of 1917 and inspected hundreds of corpses laid out in rows: “Though there were cases of severe mutilation, the vast majority looked as if they were peacefully asleep.”
Wilfred attaches far more importance to the fact that he was put in charge of The Chequers, the Divisional Concert Party. His finest achievement with this troupe seems to have been a production of Dick Whittington first performed in Ypres at Christmas, 1917, while the war still raged.
Not only did Wilfred write and costume the panto, he and his men also built the theatre in which it was performed: “The men got hold of a lorry and went out at night to see what they could find, often illuminated by Very lights [flare guns] and occasionally by shell bursts. Slowly and painfully, from derelict huts, they reclaimed enough material to construct a theatre to accommodate several hundred men.”
The stage even included a trap door for King Rat, “although sometimes the poor man had to stand in two or three inches of muddy water before being shot up on to the stage!” In his official history of the 34th Division, Lt.-Col. J. Shakespear writes, “The Corps Commander, after witnessing the pantomime and dining at Divisional Headquarters, announced that it was the pleasantest evening he had spent during the war.”
Wilfred refers to his love life only once. He says that one night after dinner he took a lady to a theatre “and [we] held hands between the seats whenever the lights were low enough.” He claims that, when he discovered that she was a married woman, he ended the relationship.
Elsewhere he makes his true feelings more obvious. He’s excited when an American division arrives in Rouen, France: “The Americans bathed and swam frequently, revealing that they were men of fine Physique – much superior to the English in that respect.”
Christopher has reason to believe that Wilfred’s true love was his batman, John Redmond. “That’s my thought,” he confirms. “Wilfred liked young men and they were good friends. I suspect he may have been rebuffed because God knows what would have happened if they were discovered during the war. I don’t suppose anything physically happened. Nothing more than touching the arm, perhaps.”
An indication of how Wilfred felt about physical contact between men is given when he received his Croix de Guerre at the end of the war. He confesses he’s relieved that the award wasn’t presented personally by General Mangin, Commander of France’s 10th Army, because “the traditional kiss on both cheeks would have been a trifle embarrassing.”
“The Americans bathed and swam frequently, revealing that they were men of fine Physique – much superior to the English in that respect.”
In 1924, when he was 42, Wilfred retired from the Army with a pension of £400 a year. He spent it all to realise his dream of becoming a theatre impresario. “Although I lost all the capital I ever had,” Wilfred writes, “I do not really regret having made the experiment.” Why did his rep companies fail? “I suspect he did everything too well,” says Christopher. “The only people who get on in management are those who do it rather shoddily.” After he retired from the Civil Service, Wilfred began writing his memoirs. He mentions a lot of actors who were his close friends and kept a cordial letter from Emlyn Williams, who’d agreed to write a foreword.
Born in 1939, Christopher followed in Wilfred’s footsteps without realising it. As a boy he built a puppet theatre. In the late 1940s Wilfred took him to see Annie Get Your Gun at the Coliseum theatre, where John Redmond was by now stage director. Wilfred was thrilled by Christopher’s love of the theatre. “As a careless youth,” Christopher says with regret, “I wasn’t half as interested in what he’d done.”
Christopher did his National Service. “I toyed with staying on in the army probably for the reasons Wilfred did,” he confides. “There were lots of nice young men around.” Instead he went to the Royal College of Art after which he had a long theatrical career. He’s been one of the most famous faces at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe since 1979.
As a teenager Christopher had a memorable meeting with Wilfred: “A friend of his had written a musical called Spring Song, which never got anywhere, but I did some fairly elaborate designs for it. I took them up to him to do my presentation. We were in a room and there were all these old men – old to me certainly – sitting round looking at me and I thought they’d all come to hear what I had to say.
“Nothing happened. I wasn’t aware of that sort of thing then. I was far too full of myself. Although I knew I was gay I didn’t think it could possibly happen with old men like that.”
Wilfred’s end came in a room in Bayswater that Christopher was never allowed to visit. He saw it for the first time after Wilfred died in 1963. “There was an iron bedstead, a chair and a table,” Christopher remembers. “I think anything valuable had been sold.” But of course there was also the archive. “Fitness magazines with men in jockstraps doing tough things. Plus the pictures of sailors and policemen. I suspect that what money he had was spent on them. No, he was too honourable to pay for sex. I suspect he took them out to supper. They all seemed to remember him with some fondness.”
FRED BARNES: THE BLACK SHEEP OF THE FAMILY
Like William Haines (see Part 2, last week), Fred Barnes was a huge star, who wouldn’t stay in the closet. Unlike William Haines, his story does not have a happy ending. Singer Fred had it all in the early years of the 20th century – good looks (in 1914 The Era described him as a “wavy-haired, blue-eyed Adonis”), money (in three years his salary rose from £4 to £100 per week) and adulation. He threw it all away.
By 1922 he was drinking to excess and missing shows. But for writer Paul Bailey, Fred should be remembered because he was “a queer who admitted to being a queer and actually sang about it.”
These are the lyrics of ‘The Black Sheep of the Family’, his first big hit: “It’s a queer, queer world we live in and Dame Nature plays a funny game,/Some get all the sunshine, others get the shame.” (Shame was a code word for gay). And remember he was singing this in 1907! Fred seems to have been an unashamed, openly effeminate man 20 years B.C. (Before Crisp).
Born in Birmingham in 1885, Fred liked dressing up as a boy. He made his professional stage debut in 1901; and when he introduced ‘The Black Sheep of the Family’ at the Hackney Empire in 1907, he became an overnight success. He soared to the top of the bill and by 1908 he was at the Coliseum.
“It was plain to everyone,” writes Bailey in his book Three Queer Lives, “that Fred was a Nancy.” The boys in the gallery greeted his entrance with shouts of, “Hello, Freda!” It’s possible that Fred’s outrageous behaviour drove his father to suicide. This in turn may have made Fred an alcoholic spendthrift. Before World War I he had four cars and a chauffeur.
He was rejected for military service because of his “nervous condition.” Instead he continued living like the star he was. “Every day I drank more than was good for me,” he told Thompson’s Weekly News in 1932. In 1922 he agreed to an Australian tour. But one night he was nowhere to be found. He was fired and the tour was cancelled.
He pulled himself together and went down well in Cape Town and Johannesburg. But when he returned to the UK, he performed drunk at the Brighton Hippodrome and was fired again.
“It’s possible that Fred’s outrageous behaviour drove his father to suicide.”
Fred liked men in uniform. In 1924 The Times reported that he’d been arrested in Hyde Park for “being drunk in charge of a motorcar.” He had tried to bribe the arresting officer with £100. The paper gallantly made no mention of the half-dressed sailor seen running from the scene of the crime. Fred was sentenced to a month in prison. When he was released, he was banned from the Royal Tournament as “a menace to His Majesty’s fighting forces.”
By the 1930s he’d lost his flat, his cars and his servants. He made a comeback attempt with two more music hall veterans, Vesta Victoria and Harry Champion, in a tour called Stars Who Never Failed to Shine. But he was beginning to look ill.
Fred retired to Southend with his manager/lover John Senior. He occasionally sang in pubs for small change. He was last seen in 1938 in the lounge of the Cricketers’ Hotel, Westcliff-on-sea. Afterwards he went home and gassed himself. Although he was quickly forgotten, another of his songs, ‘Give Me the Moonlight’, wasn’t. In 1955 it was revived by Frankie Vaughan and later became his theme.
Three Queer Lives is out of print but copies are available on Amazon