Ernest Thesiger


Stories and Gossip

 

“Have you ever met or heard of one Ernest Thessiger [sic], the decadent despair of a most respectable family? After years of scandalous behaviour he, on the outbreak of war, enlisted as a private, and has been in trenches for a long time, where he has become most popular because of his good temper and conversational resources. One very dirty night, there came on an inspection-round an officer, who, knowing our Oscarite by reputation said ‘hullo, Thessiger, I expect you find this rather rough. What do you do at home?’ Thessiger’s reply: ‘Oh, I’m supposed to be on the stage, but I do a good deal of needlework.’”

Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, December 26, 1914

“One very wet night we were billeted in an empty house at Crowborough.  The cemented floor of the kitchen was not a comfortable bed, nor was the room improved by the fact that some of my brothers-in-arms had dined more well than wisely.  I elected to roll myself up in my overcoat and go to sleep under a tree in the garden.  There I was disturbed by the officer of the day, who, with the sergeant, was doing his rounds.

‘What’s that down there,’ demanded a stern voice, flashing an electric torch on to my recumbent form.

‘It’s me, sir,’ said I, regardless of grammar.

‘Who’s that?’

‘Thesiger, sir.’

‘You all right there?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Rather wet?’

‘Yes, sir.’

Then, more kindly, ‘Rather different from your home life, eh?’

‘Yes,sir.’

‘What do you do at home?’

What did I do at home?  It all seemed so long ago!

‘Fancy needlework,sir,’ I said at last, that being the first thing I could think of.”

Ernest Thesiger, Practically True, 1927

“Ernest Thesiger once said to Somerset Maugham: ‘Why do you never write me a part?’ ‘I do,’ replied Maugham, ‘but Gladys Cooper always plays them.’”

From a review of the autobiography Gladys Cooper, by herself in the Edinburgh Evening News, November 13, 1931.

"The Winter Gardens had a large open-air swimming pool where actors and the public would often meet and lounge around it in the sun afterwards.  I remember Ernest Thesiger removing the top of his bathing trunks and being reproved by the pool attendant until he had replaced part of it.  'I hereby declare it is indecent to show more than one tit'  Thesiger publicly announced."

Pianist Dudley Steynor recounting an event that took place at the Malvern Festival during the 1930s

Ernest Thesiger was getting off a bus with his shopping when the doors closed on him. He immediately cried, “Stop! Stop! You are killing a genius!”

Story originally told by comedian Kenneth Williams, date unknown, found on Shadowplay.

“Henry Hathaway, the director, lunched at a film studio commissary with members of his cast.  One was Ernest Thesiger, over 80, a gentle man who used to spend afternoons doing petit-point at Buckingham Palace with the late Queen Mary.  At the studio luncheon a young actor, who’d gone berserk before, suddenly wheeled and place the point of his steak knife at Hathaway’s throat.  Thesiger broke the tension:  He slapped down the knife with his own spoon, and said: ‘It’s very rude to point.’”

Grand Prairie Daily News, April 25, 1960.  This story appears to have gone the rounds of newspapers of this date, but there’s no evidence Ernest ever worked with Hathaway, who was a Hollywood director.

“A prominent conductor once recalled a soiree at Thesiger’s home attended by a gaggle of young men.  The actor suddenly broke into the conversation, gazed around at the assembled company, and inquired, ‘Anyone for a spot of buggery?’”

Anthony Slide, Eccentrics of Comedy, 1998.  Unfortunately, Slide does not provide a footnote as to who the conductor was.  The book contains several errors, such as Slide’s contention that “Although the actor may best be remembered for his comic characterizations on the screen, on the stage he was primarily a straight actor.”  Ernest was considered one of the great comedians of the London stage and many, even most, of the productions he appeared in were comedies, as was his greatest hit, “A Little Bit of Fluff.”

“Ernest’s other notable eccentricity also stemmed from the fact of his damaged hands.  Convinced they were unbearable to look at (they weren’t) he had begun wearing rings on every finger and, sometimes, even on his thumbs.  These rings were often very large - and most of them were antiques.  Some had once belonged to historical figures such as Napoleon and Marie Antoinette.  His prize possession was a poison ring that had actually been used by Lucretia Borgia.  I can still hear him saying ‘Used, my dear - if you get my drift!’”

Timothy Findley recounting the fateful “Hamlet” tour to Moscow in 1955, from Bad Trips, edited by Keath Fraser.

“He used to lay lilies at the feet of the handsome doorman at the Savoy Hotel in London.”

All over the Internet, but I’ve not been able to find the original source.

“Many years ago I remember Ernest Thesiger saying at a hilarious lunch-party ‘I should have liked to have a figure so beautiful that an Act Of Parliament would have been passed, forbidding me to wear clothes.’”

Denys Blakelock, Acting My Way: further letters to a young actor, 1964

“I recalled the old, aristocratic actor Ernest Thesiger being stopped in Piccadilly by a woman who said, `Didn't you used to be Ernest Thesiger?' `Still am!' he hissed, and passed on.”

Alec Guinness, A Positively Final Appearance: A Journal 1996-98

“Ernest Thesiger, 74 year old character actor, has just finished his second book of memoirs and has called it ‘I Was.’  Why?  Because one day a woman stopped him in the street and said ‘Weren’t you Ernest Thesiger.’ to which he replied, ‘I was.’”

The Sunderland Echo, December 10, 1953

“One Sunday, my host, Lord Jowitt, asked my husband if he and I would like to see one of the famous castles of the Cinque Ports. Delightedly we accepted.  I don’t know whether William Jowitt telephoned to ask if we might call on Lord Beauchamp, which would have been polite, all I recall is that we arrived and were shown into a garden surrounding a grass tennis-court.  There I saw the actor Ernest Thesiger, a friend of mine, nude to the waist and covered with pearls; he explained that he had the right type of skin to heal pearls.”

Christabel Aberconway, A Wiser Woman? A Book of Memories

Paula Byrne appears to use this anecdote by Lady Aberconway as sole proof of a sexual relationship between Ernest and William Lygon, Lord Beauchamp, while simultaneously stating that Beauchamp “was drawn towards young men of a lower social class. His lovers were invariably tall, handsome grooms or manservants.”  Ernest fit only one of these “invariable” criteria; though tall, he was by no means conventionally handsome, was of the gentry, and at the time was fifty years of age. In addition, Byrne gets the location of the meeting between Ernest and Lady Aberconway wrong; Byrne states that it took place at “the Beauchamps’ London residence” whereas Lady Aberconway clearly indicates it occurred at Walmer Castle in Kent. And though Byrne mentions William Ranken making portraits of the  Lygon family, she fails to note the connection between Ranken and Thesiger.  Newspapers from November 1927 report Lord Beauchamp and Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Thesiger among those attending an exhibition of paintings by William Ranken. In 1931 Lord Beauchamp was driven into exile by his brother-in-law, the Duke of Westminster, who threatened to expose Beauchamp’s homosexual activities.

"When Lady Christabel Aberconway was invited to the Beauchamps’ London residence for tea, she was amazed to find herself being introduced to Thesiger, who was naked from the waist up and adorned with ropes of pearls. He had just been cast in a film called 'The Vagabond Queen.'"

Paula Byrne, Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead

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“I was often surprised at the names Rich associated with great acting.  One such was Ernest Thesiger, a veteran of the stage and screen, whom I first saw as the elderly Emperor Tiberius in The Robe.  A shrunken skeletal figure, he wore a blond wig which made everyone laugh every time he walked on the set.  But he overcame the indignity to turn in a convincing performance.  To this day, it is memorable against a parade of excellent cameos.  But Ernest Thesiger did not steal the picture as he did twenty years earlier as the effeminate mad scientist Dr Praetorious in The Bride of Frankenstein.  From then on he was unrivaled as the elderly eccentric, ever threatening to surprise or shock.  It was a role he relished in real life as much as in fiction.  Rich told me that when Thesiger was invited back to his school, Marlborough College, as a guest of honour, he enlivened a dinner with the senior master by casting a lascivious eye on some of the senior boys.  After taking a more than usual pleasure in a close conversation with a well built sixth former, he turned to his host to express his admiration; ‘I’d give anything to be that boy’s mother.’


On radio, his spindly voice was much in demand to represent frailty - usually with a strong measure of deviousness.


‘He was always around somewhere,’ said Rich. ‘Everybody made jokes about how tiny and shriveled he was.  I was in a studio once when an actor was playing about with an umbrella, trying to furl it properly.  As he opened it someone shouted, Don’t do that, Ernest Thesiger might pop out.’”

Graham Jenkins, Richard Burton, My Brother

”His favorite role would be Polonius in Hamlet, but his fame rested in his female impersonations.”

Gregory William Mank, Hollywood Cauldron

This comment by Mr. Mank has been repeated in at least one other book, Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film by Harry M. Benshoff.  Though Ernest was notable for the quality of his female performances, his fame by no means “rested in” them, as they were but a small part of his enormous variety of roles. 

”The noise, my dear!  And the people!”

Often attributed to Ernest, this quote originally appeared in the book  Sword of Bone by Anthony Rhodes, 1942, according to The Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, 5th Edition, and is apparently referring to the retreat from the battle of Dunkirk.

“12 January 1941.  Walked across Grosvenor Square to dine with Lady Malcolm at Claridge’s.  A London evening - damp air and mist.  The guns in Hyde Park reverberated above the square and further away the guns in St. James’s Park replied.  Clouds slid past a full silver moon....Her son-in-law, Basil Bartlett was there, the playwright now in Military Intelligence, clever and amusing, and Thesiger, the actor - looking at him Lady Malcolm murmured to me, ‘Cooks perfect petits pois a la francaise and always wears a pearl necklace under its shirt - rather sweet - don’t you think?’  He was, too, with his cosy humour.  You felt - there is a talented old creature who does not give a damn one way or the other but will not be bullied. (That was when Basil was trying to force us all to drink white wine because he was eating salmon, although the rest of us obviously wanted red with our fillet of beef.)  ‘I am for red,’ said Thesiger, with a light flick in his tone, and red it was.


He told us about the time in London about 1900 when it used to be the fashion to go down after dinner and sing patriotic songs outside Buckingham Palace to cheer Queen Victoria up. (It must have been during the South African War.)  People would give dinner parties to go on to Buckingham Palace.  One night he was there among the crowd singing with some friends - a foggy, misty London night with the front of the Palace (not the present facade - that was added later) lit up by gas jets.  Suddenly there was a light in one of the windows, then the window opened and onto the balcony stepped two huge footmen bearing each in his hands vast lighted candelabra - ‘and between them,’ said Thesiger with feeling, ‘and between them a little black figure of a woman.”

Charles Ritchie, The Siren Years:  A Canadian Diplomat Abroad 1937 - 1945