Happy 100th Birthday, Dame Vera Lynn!

The wonderful Dame Vera Lynn was born Vera Margaret Welch in East Ham, Essex, 100 years ago today! Here are 10 VL Did-You-Knows:

  • On March 17, 2017, Lynn celebrated her centenarian status by releasing a new album, Vera Lynn 100, breaking the record she set at age 97 to remain the oldest person to ever release a new album.

    The album comprises some of her most beloved hits with her original vocals set to new re-orchestrations, with the addition of vocals from a number of contemporary British performers.

  • On March 18, a charity concert at the London Palladium featuring some of Britain’s best contemporary talent paid tribute Dame Vera and her remarkable life and career. Queen Elizabeth was in attendance.
  • Lynn was performing for audiences by the tender age of seven (which means she’s been in show business more than 90 years) and by 11 had taken a stage name, Margaret Lynn (she later returned to her given first name, Vera).
  • She first performed on the radio, with the popular Joe Loss Orchestra, in 1935, and in 1936 released her first solo recording, Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire.
  • Lynn is best remembered today for her moving renditions of sentimental wartime favorites, such as The White Cliffs of Dover, A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, There’ll Always Be an England, and her signature song, We’ll Meet Again. She further supported the war effort by hosting her own radio program, Sincerely Yours, on which she performed songs that were requested by soldiers and sailors. She also visited hospitals to meet with new mothers so that she could send their husbands who were serving overseas messages of love and support.
  • Known during the war years as “the Forces’ Sweetheart,” Lynn performed for the troops in such remote and often dangerous locales as Egypt, India and Burma. For her tireless and courageous efforts, she was awarded the British War Medal and the Burma Star.
  • After the war, she continued to record, topping the American charts (she was the first British performer to accomplish that feat) in 1952 with her recording of Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart. She was also a regular for some years on Tallulah Bankhead‘s American radio program, The Big Show.
  • In the late 1960s and early ’70s, Lynn hosted her own variety television series on BBC1 and guested on a wide range of other TV programs.
  • In all, Lynn placed 16 singles on the charts (UK, US or both) between 1948 and 1967. After the war, she continued to work for many worthy causes, including assisting ex-servicemen, disabled children, and breast cancer charities.
  • In 1969, she was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) “for services to the Royal Air Forces Association and other charities.” In 1975, she was advanced to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE). At age 85, Lynn founded the Dame Vera Lynn Children’s Charity, which provides support and education for families affected by cerebral palsy.
  • In 2000, Lynn received the Spirit of the 20th Century Award as the Briton who best exemplified the spirit of the 20th century.

Happy birthday, Dame Vera Lynn, and many happy returns of the day!

We’re featuring the music of Dame Vera on Cladrite Radio all day long today and well into the evening, so be sure to tune in!

Dame Vera Lynn

This story originally appeared in a slightly different form at guideposts.org.

Happy Birthday, Dan Duryea!

Given his screen persona, Dan Duryea, born 109 years ago today in White Plains, New York, might not strike the average movie buff as an Ivy Leaguer, but he was, in fact, a member of Cornell University’s class of 1928. He majored in English, but was interested in theatre, too. In his senior year, he even succeeded Franchot Tone as president of the college drama society.

Duryea went on to work in advertising for a bit until the stress got to be too much. A mild heart attack in his twenties convinced him to pursue an acting career instead, a move that paid off nicely. He appeared on Broadway in Dead End and The Little Foxes, and it was the latter play that provided his ticket to Hollywood. Though Bette Davis was named to replace his Broadway co-star, Tallulah Bankhead, in the role of Regina Giddens when Sam Goldwyn bought the rights to produce the cinema adaptation of the hit play, Duryea was retained to play her nephew Leo Hubbard, his cinematic bad guy (or, at the very least, his first weasel).

Dan Duryea

In an early 1950s interview with Hedda Hopper, Duryea claimed that his focus on playing bad guys was intentional, even planned:

“I looked in the mirror and knew with my ‘puss’ and 155-pound weakling body, I couldn’t pass for a leading man, and I had to be different. And I sure had to be courageous, so I chose to be the meanest s.o.b. in the movies … strictly against my mild nature, as I’m an ordinary, peace-loving husband and father. Inasmuch, as I admired fine actors like Richard Widmark, Victor Mature, Robert Mitchum, and others who had made their early marks in the dark, sordid, and guilt-ridden world of film noir; here, indeed, was a market for my talents. I thought the meaner I presented myself, the tougher I was with women, slapping them around in well-produced films where evil and death seem to lurk in every nightmare alley and behind every venetian blind in every seedy apartment, I could find a market for my screen characters.”

We’re not necessarily convinced that Duryea entered the movie business with that much foresight and wisdom, but it sounded good after the fact, and in any case, it’s certainly true that he came to be closely identified with the film noir genre and known for his memorable portrayals of sketchy (at best) characters, in classics such as The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945),Criss Cross (1949), and Too Late for Tears (1949).

For our money, Dan Duryea was a sort of poor man’s Widmark, but as we see it, there’s not a thing in the world wrong with that.

A nice guy and dedicated family man in real life, Dan Duryea was married to his wife, Helen, for 35 years until her death and was an attentive parent, serving as a scout master and PTA papa to his two sons.

But on screen, he was the sniveling creep you hoped would get his. And while he usually did, he gave as good as he got.

Happy birthday, Mr. Duryea, wherever you may be—you heel, you.

Formerly Famous: Marion Barbara “Joe” Carstairs

Many a 1930s screwball comedy mined the eccentricities of the well-to-do, but it’s hard to imagine even the most imaginative screenwriter coming up with a character as eccentric as Marion Barbara “Joe” Carstairs.

Carstairs, a ballyhooed champion speedboat racer in the speed-crazed 1920’s, wasn’t memorable merely for being the fastest woman on water. Her visible tattoos, penchant for cigars, and preference for men’s clothing ensured she stood out in a crowd.

Born in London in 1900, Carstairs inherited her wealth from her maternal grandfather, Jabez Abel Bostwick, a founder of the Standard Oil Company. Given her family’s financial standing—not to mention the influence and power that accompanied it—it’s perhaps not surprising that Carstairs’ approach to life was adventurous, her personality brash and self-assured.

Living in Paris in her teens, Carstairs had her first lesbian experience, about which she later remarked, “My God, what a marvelous thing. I found it a great pity I’d waited so long.” Soon thereafter, she took part in an affair with Dolly Wilde, Oscar’s niece.

Carstairs served as an ambulance driver in France during World War I before traveling to Dublin to join the Women’s Legion Mechanical Transport Section. She returned to France following the signing of the Armistice to help to rebury the war dead as a member of the Royal Army Service Corps.

Carstairs returned to London to launch an all-female chauffeur service called the X-Garage in 1920 before selling that concern and turning her focus to speedboat racing.

Carstairs won a handful of championships in the 1920s, including the prestigious Duke of York’s Trophy, the Royal Motor Yacht Club international race, and the Lucina Cup. “I liked the boats,” Carstairs said. “I liked the way they behaved. I understood them.”

Carstairs earned the respect of her male counterparts in the world of speed-racing, and she proved to be a supportive and generous friend to many. Sir Malcolm Campbell, who held the world speed record on land and on water at various times in the 1920s and ‘30s, is said to have described Carstairs as “the greatest sportsman I know.”

Though she lived openly as a lesbian, Carstairs married her old friend Count Jacques de Pret in 1918 in order to gain access to her trust fund and appease her drug-addicted, adulterous mother, Frances Evelyn Bostwick, who disapproved of her daughter’s sexual proclivities. Upon Evelyn’s death, though, the marriage was annulled on grounds of non-consummation.

Carstairs bedded dozens of women in her life—among them, reportedly, actresses Tallulah Bankhead and Marlene Dietrich—but avoided long-term romantic attachments. It was said she kept a photographic file of 120 of the women she’d slept with, but her life’s companion was Lord Tod Wadley, a stuffed leather doll 12 inches in height that was a gift from a girlfriend in 1925.

What fostered Carstairs’ attachment to Lord Wadley is unclear, but she was rarely without him and even had tailored clothing made for him on Saville Row.

In 1934, Carstairs purchased Whale Cay (pronounced “key”)—a small island 30 miles northwest of Nassau and 90 miles east of Miami—for the sum of $40,000. She moved there and set up what might be described as a relatively benign fiefdom.

Quickly making the island her own, Carstairs hired locals from her own and neighboring islands to clear away vegetation and build an extravagant plantation that boasted a huge house for herself and her guests as well as small cabins for her workers, a dock, a school, a church, a fish cannery, and a general store.

Carstairs also undertook a reworking of the island’s social structure. New laws were created according to her whims (adultery and alcohol were outlawed), she took for herself the right and privilege to name all the island’s newborns, and she formed a private militia—complete with uniforms and machetes—to enforce these laws.

Shortly after arriving on Whale Cay, Carstairs had impressed the locals, many of whom were adherents of a form of voodoo known as obeah, by throwing a knife so skillfully she cut off the head of a snake several yards away. Many of the island’s residents also attributed special powers to Lord Wadley, so it’s not difficult to understand how Carstairs came so quickly to assume an almost royal role on the island.

Carstairs, who played host at Whale Key to many famous friends over the years (among them the Duke and Duchess of Windsor), was often seen by the island’s longtime residents riding about on her motorcycle, with the ever-present Lord Wadley strapped in behind her.

In 1975, long since out of the public eye and afflicted with failing health, Carstairs sold Whale Key, thereafter dividing her time between Miami and Long Island. When she died in 1993, her beloved Lord Wadley was cremated and buried along with her.

This story originally appeared in the Spring/Fall 2012 issue of Zelda, the Magazine of the Vintage Nouveau.