Film

A Queer Alliance: Dame Margaret Rutherford and Dawn Langley Simmons

Margaret Rutherford (L) Dawn Langley Simmons (R)

Rutherford, an actor famous for playing spinsters and quirky aunts. Simmons, an author infamous for changing sex and marrying outside her race.

The relationship between famous character actor Dame Margaret Rutherford and transwoman author Dawn Langley Simmons was undoubtedly an alliance of eccentrics, formed in 1960 and developed outside the status quo. What "queers" this alliance, making it not only more unique but also pre-Stonewall significant, is how the two challenged gender norms and blurred sexual identity categories just by being themselves.

Transsexualism is no mere eccentricity, of course, but the perception of Simmons as eccentric was magnified by her out-of-the-closet role as one of the first transsexuals to undergo sex reassignment surgery, directly after which she took on another then-shocking role as the first white woman in South Carolina to marry a black man. The perception of Rutherford as eccentric was magnified by a longtime spinster aura and a late marriage to an equally eccentric fellow actor with a similarly vague sexuality. Not having children of their own, they "adopted from the heart" certain talented outsiders whom they admired, most prominently the British expatriate Simmons when she was still living as Gordon Langley Hall.

Rutherford and Simmons -- their individual stories are as remarkable as their intersecting story, culminating in Simmons' biography of "Mother Rutherford" that was published in 1983, a decade after Rutherford's death.

Dame Margaret Rutherford (1892-1972)

Rutherford was an eccentric known for playing eccentrics, usually comic spinsters or quirky aunts like Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit (1945), Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), and Jane Marple in Murder, She Said (1961) and its sequels. She was a master at bringing sincerely realized comedy to even the most fleeting incidents, her large, unpretentious face registering the subtlest shifts in expression. The Observer said she could act with her chin alone, while a Tatler review declared: "To see her Madame Arcati get up from an armchair is a lesson in eccentric observation."

Success was hard-won for Rutherford. Spending her adult years until 33 taking care of the saintly "old maid" aunt who'd raised her, Rutherford was considered an old maid herself by the time she joined London's Old Vic repertory company in 1925, living on her aunt's bequest. Her plain looks, and her own indifference to them, rendered conventional lead roles out of reach, as did her gaining shape (compared to a padded windmill) and her combination vigorous / genteel physicality.

Rutherford did not take on her most iconic stage and screen roles until her late 40s and early 50s. Between ages 69 and 72, her role as a pill-popping duchess in The VIPS (1963) earned a Best Supporting Oscar and her four Jane Marple comedies (1961-'64) upped her from national treasure in England to international star, Time magazine naming her "funniest woman alive". No wonder the British Empire honored her with an official Dame title, putting her in the league of other Dame-honored actors like Edith Evans, Maggie Smith, and Judi Dench.

William J. Mann's carefully researched history of gays and lesbians in classic Hollywood, Behind the Screen (2001), claims that on the screen "the true counterpart to the male sissy is not the tomboy but the old maid" with her "intertextual impression of queerness". Applied to Rutherford, as to her characters, terms like old maid and spinster are always potentially but never necessarily code for lesbian. It's reasonable to make the link, with biographers having found no evidence of romance prior to Rutherford meeting husband Stringer Davis. Even then, Andy Merriman describes their 15-year courtship as sporadic and "decidedly lukewarm".

Only after WWII, and more importantly after Davis's controlling mother passed away, did the two marry; Rutherford was 53 and Davis 46. Eight years into their marriage, Rutherford's sudden yet unrequited love for a pianist named Malcolm Troup prompted a nervous breakdown and six-month institutionalization. Ironically, her non-affair served only to fortify the bond with Davis.

Margaret Rutherford and Stringer Davis in Murder at the Gallop (1963)

British actor Sarah Miles described the couple as "so much in love with each other", adding: "They'd have to be. Stringer had the habit of reading poems out loud all the time, his own poems, naturally, and Stringer, bless his heart, was no poet." Beyond their separate bedrooms, he went everywhere Rutherford went, warranting the nickname Stringalong. Even those who deemed theirs a "lavender marriage" believed them suited and their loyalty absolute. Asexual or perhaps profoundly innocent may better describe them. In a delightful one-person drama from 1993 called A Night to Remember, with actor Timothy Spalling playing Rutherford, she reflects on her honeymoon and informing Stringer that he's found not her "yin", but her navel.

It should be obvious how it's not obvious, in other words, how Rutherford's queerness defied both heterosexual and homosexual categories. Even if not gay, per se, Time Out London insists Rutherford should be considered a gay icon, the article barely touching on the complex degree to which her career entwined with the careers of prevailing gay and lesbian figures.

The Old Vic, where Rutherford started, was operated by spinster Lilian Baylis whom historian Rosemary Auchmuty sees as central to a major lesbian theater network. Binkie Beaumont gave Rutherford's career a leg up in the mid-'30s; he was rumored to control a theater-world "gay mafia" that privileged gay talent. John Gielgud and Anthony Asquith, both gay, directed Rutherford in stage and film versions (respectively) of The Importance of Being Earnest, penned by the most famous homosexual of all time Oscar Wilde.

In the early '40s, Noel Coward -- the most famous homosexual of his own time -- enlisted Rutherford to play Madame Arcati in his hugely successful play Blithe Spirit and its classic film adaptation. Asquith would direct Rutherford again in The VIPS, for which she won her Oscar. It's noteworthy that, according to Simmons, female impersonators loved to impersonate Rutherford as they did Bette Davis and Mae West. This is probably because Rutherford stood just as iconic if not so glamorous, layered in her woolen capes, intrepid scarves, and clunky jewelry.

Gay men, out and not out to varying degrees, were important to Rutherford's social life as well as her career. Dreadnought with Good Manners (2009), Andy Merriman's biography of Rutherford, speaks of her in the early '40s as a regular guest of decadent aristocrat Stephen Tennant, at whose manor she spent time with writers E.M. Forster, L.P. Hartley, and Siegfried Sassoon, as well as actor-director John Gielgud. Tennant fixated on Rutherford but proved catty and disloyal, unlike Ivor Novello whose affectionate term for her was always Big Sister. Novello is remembered for composing the ubiquitous WWI anthem "Keep the Home Fires Burning" and starring in Hitchcock's thriller The Lodger (1923). Rutherford and Davis attended many of Novello's garden parties, which could last for days. His evening parties were pure opulence and Merriman writes of Rutherford's attendance:

[As Ivor] opened the front door to her, revealing ornate furnishings, twinkling lights and, in the background, Noel Coward, Siegfried Sassoon, and a host of matinee idols among an array of impossibly beautiful young men, Margaret gasped with excitement, "Oh Ivor! It's enchanting. It's like a fairyland."

Given how Rutherford was drawn to gay men, and they to her, a "lavender marriage" to Stringer Davis is even more plausible. The closest thing to evidence that Davis was homosexual, however, seems more romantic than sexual in nature. Simmons, in her biography of Rutherford, notes how John Gielgud "was the man Stringer most admired throughout his life" and that Stringer died with a "treasured letter" from Gielgud in his pajama pocket, a letter that was buried with Davis: "We never knew the contents," says Simmons.


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To get a sense of Rutherford and Stringer Davis as a pair, view their chummy antics in the Jane Marple movies. Davis played bit parts in 24 of Rutherford's films, and a few of her plays too, but his winning role as Marple's sidekick -- a bachelor librarian named Jim Stringer -- had to be written in especially for him, not original to Agatha Christie's novels. Miss Marple (often wearing clothes from Rutherford's own wardrobe) alongside Mr. Stringer strikes an obvious parallel to the actors playing them. He may seem her "timorous aide", to quote a New York Times review, yet, as in life by her side, his watchfulness is keen and his devotion unreserved.

Throughout their marriage, Davis proved his devotion to Rutherford again and again as she suffered repeated breakdowns. Mental illness was the deep dark secret in Rutherford's family, with her mother hanging herself and her father dying in an insane asylum -- facts never made public in her lifetime, not even in her autobiography. Rutherford herself suffered what would now be called bipolar disorder, spending days, weeks, and sometimes months in nursing homes where she was subjected to electroshock treatments (ECT) -- facts spun as byproducts of the actor's life with its emotionally intense ups and downs.

Rutherford achieved great success despite her struggle with mental illness, and to a degree because of it. She told a BBC interviewer: "Every great clown has been very near to tragedy, you know?" In her final years, alas, it was Alzheimer's disease to which she succumbed. Davis attended to her until her death in 1972, at age 80. About a year later, at age 74, he died in his sleep.

They were survived by Simmons, who never failed to remind the world that she was their adopted daughter.

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