Friday, May 20, 2016

Lady Eleanor Smith (1902-1945)

Eleanor Furneaux Smith
Author, Reporter, Reviewer, Publicist, Circus Fan
Born 1902, Birkenhead, Merseyside, England
Died October 20, 1945, Westminster, England

In the classic screwball comedy of the 1930s and '40s, a wild or headstrong young woman, often an upper-class young woman, takes everything and everybody around her by storm. I don't know the origins of the screwball comedy heroine, but it seems likely that she was the younger sister of the 1920s Flapper, who was probably, in turn, the daughter of the more subdued Gibson Girl from the previous generation. The Gibson Girl, the Flapper, the heroine of the screwball comedy--all were from what is perhaps a unique breed, the liberated American woman.

Britain had its own breed of wild and liberated women, and for a while they ran with wild (though often feminized) men. Observers of the British cultural scene of the 1920s called them "Bright Young Things," and writer Ben Johnson describes them with a string of epithets:
Attention-seeking, flamboyant, decadent, rebellious, promiscuous, irresponsible, outrageous and glamorous . . . . (1)
For a decade or more, from the end of the Great War to the beginning years of the Great Depression, they held wild parties, drank like fish, tooled around town and country in their roadsters, went on scavenger hunts, engaged in drug use, and carried on sexual affairs with abandon. Like Edna St. Vincent Millay, they burned their candles at both ends. But then, according to Mr. Johnson (no pun intended), it all gave out with the excesses of a Masque-of-the-Red-Death-type party called the Red and White Ball, held in November 1931. Maybe, too, the Bright Young Things weren't so young anymore. And maybe their brightness came from a fast-burning and all-consuming flame.

Lady Eleanor Smith was one of them. Born Eleanor Furneaux Smith in 1902, she was the daughter of Frederick Edwin Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead (1872-1930), and Margaret Eleanor Furneaux, daughter of a classical scholar. Like his daughter after him, F.E. Smith was a hard liver--and it proved hard on his liver, for he died of the effects of cirrhosis at age fifty-eight after many decades of heavy imbibing. Two pieces of trivia about him: First, he successfully defended Ethel le Neve, mistress of bug-eyed murderer Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, whose story was a weird tale if ever there was one. Second, F.E. Smith published a utopian novel, The World in 2030 A.D., in 1930, the year of his death.

Lady Eleanor Smith attended day school in Queen's Gate with two other Bright Young Things, Zita and Teresa, the Jungman Sisters. She didn't like school and in fact didn't seem to like strictures of any kind. The whole mess of them, all the Bright Young Things, inspired Evelyn Waugh’s novel Vile Bodies, published in the same year as The World in 2030 A.D. and only a year short of the Red and White Ball. By that time, Lady Eleanor Smith had already begun delving into her twin obsessions, both of which are about performers and outsiders, this in a woman who was--as an early celebrity--something of a performer and--as an aristocrat--an insider. I wonder now whether that first generation of postwar upper crust would have seen themselves as insiders, or if they, as aristocrats tend to do, sought to escape from their insular and bored lives by literal and figurative slumming, of descending into the low life of the common people.

So what were Lady Eleanor's obsessions? Well, like the early John Irving with his bears, wrestling, and Vienna, she wrote again and again of Gypsies and circuses. Eleanor believed she had Gypsy blood and she went into the field to be among the people with whom she identified. She also worked as a publicist for circus companies. In 1934, she became the first president of the Circus Fans Association (later the Circus Friends Association). Even by then, Lady Eleanor Smith had been writing about Gypsies and circuses--dancers, too--for several years, perhaps by no coincidence at all as she approached age thirty and as her father approached his end. Her books and articles include the following:
  • Red Wagon (1930)
  • Flamenco (1931)
  • Ballerina (1932)
  • "The Gypsies of Roumania" in The Spectator (Dec. 2, 1932)
  • Christmas Tree (1934)
  • Romany (1935)
  • Tzigane (1935)
  • The Spanish House (1938)
  • Life's a Circus: The Reminiscences of Lady Eleanor Smith (1939)
  • Lovers' Meeting (1940)
  • The Man in Grey (1941)
  • Caravan: A Romantic Novel (1942)
  • The Magic Lantern (1945)
  • British Circus Life (1948)
Many of those books were adapted to the silver screen. Look for Lady Eleanor in The Internet Movie Database.

In 1932, Gollancz published her collection Satan's Circus and Other Stories. The stories from that book:
  • "Candlelight"
  • "Lyceum"
  • "Mrs. Raeburn's Waxwork"
  • "One O'Clock"
  • "Portrait of a Strong Man"
  • "Satan's Circus"
  • "Sweet Spanish Ladies"
  • "Tamar"
  • "The Brothers"
  • "The Hurdy-Gurdy"
In 1934, Bobbs-Merrill reprinted Satan's Circus for American readers and included a new story, "Whittington's Cat." The title story, "Satan's Circus," was printed in Weird Tales in October 1931. Lady Eleanor had another genre story, "No Ships Pass," in the 1947 collection Travelers in Time, and a fairy tale, "The Little Mermaid," in The Fairies Return, or, New Tales for Old by Several Hands (1934).

In the end, time and death do us all in, even Bright Young Things. Lady Eleanor Furneaux Smith, barely into middle age, passed away on October 20, 1945, in Westminster, England.

Lady Eleanor Smith's Story in Weird Tales
"Satan's Circus" (Oct. 1931)

Further Reading
There is plenty to read about Lady Eleanor Smith on line and in print. You might start with:
  • "A Good Turn," review of Life's a Circus: The Reminiscences of Lady Eleanor Smith in The Tablet: The International Catholic News Weekly, August 5, 1939, here.
  • Lady Eleanor Smith: A Memoir by Lord Birkenhead (1953)
(1) Quote from "Bright Young Things" by Ben Johnson on the website Historic UK (undated), here.

Lady Eleanor Furneaux Smith (1920), from the National Portrait Gallery.

Text copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley

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