Saturday, October 27, 2018

RALPH WRECKSTRAW … or a tenor and his troubles

‘Henri Laurent’. It is a matter of decades since I first bumped into this fellow. Right at the beginning of my Emily Soldene researches. I’ve written about him a bit a few times since, for slices of his story collide with, not only Emily’s, but that of the great dramatic soprano, Rosa Csillag (see Victorian Vocalists), with the tale of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas in America, the history of the grand San Francisco Tivoli Opera House … so, I thought: let’s put the story of ‘America’s first Ralph Rackstraw’ together as coherently as possible, for the sake of the Great Goddess Clio (muse of history) and the family historians on who have got his tale hilariously wrong, and even kill him off a quarter of a century early, at a time when he was still on the stage.

For yes, ‘Henri’, the man who must have got more ‘can’t sing, can’t act’ notices in his life and career, worked steadily – or, more accurately, unsteadily -- on the stage for a whole thirty-five years. How? Why? I have no idea. He was a tenor, which helps. A light and often, it seems, effortful tenor. He was tall, with a good figure and clearly had some sort of physical charm, judging by the number of wives and ‘wives’ he went through. Also, he didn’t seem to mind whom he worked for, for how little time, and when there was no work he mounted his own companies, which lasted anything from a few days to, on a good day, a month or two …
Anyway, I’ll tell the story, and you tell me what you think!

First of all, who actually was this ‘lanky tenor’ who claimed sometimes to be French, occasionally English, and ultimately (and correctly) a naturalized American? Well, he was actually born in Brighton, Sussex, of an English father and an allegedly French-born mother. I know nothing about mother, who is listed on her children’s birth records as Henrietta, Laura Henrietta and even on one occasion Louisa Henrietta. Not Laure Henriette, so maybe she was a French-born Englishwoman. The family historians modestly put ‘private’ in the place where her name should be, so I imagine there’s some ‘irregularity’ in the tale. Anyway, Henrietta née ??? only appears in one census, because at some stage in the 1850s the family relocated to Paris …

Father is different. Father was born, in Brighton, John James Hayward Ghislain, on 19 August 1816, son of ‘surgeon’ Alexander Ghislain (which sounds pretty Belgian to me) and his wife Anne née Lloyd (m 8 August 1813, Tower Hamlets). By the time he got round to being christened, in 1832, Alexander was ‘deceased, and John and his mother were living in George Street, Hackney. Still ‘Ghislain’. Fast forward. My next sighting of John is in 1841. He’s back in Brighton, with his abovesaid wife, and producing their first child. So is he the John Hayward ‘Geshing’ who was married the previous year in London? But to whom? Elizabeth Hornsby? Jane Polkinghorne? Sarah Todd? She's supposed to be Henrietta. More mystery.

There seem to have been about eight children born to the couple in the next decade or so, all surnamed ‘Gesling’, all born in and around Brighton, and latterly at the Shakespeare Inn, Howard Place, West Hill and an address in Montpelier Road. Both addresses were pubs, and father was a ‘licensed victualler’. And in the 1851 census, the family’s name was given as ‘Hayward’. ‘Hayward’ was the middle name of most of the children, too. Curious. More mystery.

Anyway, there is Mr ‘Hayward’ in the 1851 census, at the Shakespeare Inn, with Henrietta and Emilie (8), Reginald (7), Harry (5), Randolph (3) and Alfred (1). A couple have gone missing. Anyway, Harry (sic) is our man. Christened 26 November 1845.

And now, in the 50s, father had a career change. And a change of residence. The family had at some stage left for Paris where I spy John in 1856 working for John Arthur, an English agent and wine merchant. He then set up as the ‘English Agency Office, wine merchant, general agent’ at Faubourg Saint-Honoré 30. His employer dragged him to court where he was fined 25,000 francs for breach of contract and obliged to cease trading. Then, in 1858, ahe turns up as ‘clerk to the Rev Archer Thomas Gurney’, the vicar of the official Parisian English Church in the rue d’Aguesseau. In 1862 he was appointed to raise money from British residents of Paris for the Albert Memorial.

The English Church, rue d'Aguesseau

But it was other members of the family who made the splash. Reginald and Harry became sculling champions and the Brighton press reported, in 1865, ‘several very valuable prizes, amounting to between 50 and 60 pounds, were carried off by the sons of Mr Hayward Gesling, formerly a much-respected resident of Brighton’. Reginald ‘of the Paris Rowing Club’ indeed became for a number of years champion of France, then President of the Cercle d’aviron. He, of course, had a day job too. I see him referred to as ‘chaplain of the British Embassy’, but it appears he was specifically the funeral officer of the Embassy, responsible for the repatriation of strayed Anglican corpses to the motherland. One of those bodies was that of Oscar Wilde. 

Later he would make a second appearance in the headlines when he was involved in a celebrated and complex lawsuit (Viditz v Gesling) concerning an inheritance from a maiden Irish lady, which established a point of law.

Reginald with some of the Brits who stuck it out through the Franco-Prussian war.

Reginald’s younger brother, Rowland, later became his adjoint. But Harry, as we shall see, was vowed to a different kind of life.

In 1868, Harry won the French junior sculls (ah! that physique again), and in the same year John Ghislain-Gesling died. By the 1871 census, Harry was back in London, staying in an hotel and described as an ‘agent’. For whom or what it is not said. But it wasn’t for long. Within months he had got himself a job as a chorister with the Gaiety Theatre company. One of those useful men that the company employed to play all the little bits and pieces where necessary and make up the vocal choruses. I see that he got to play Achilles in La Belle Hélène on tour.

During the 1872 summer he went on tour with the Liverpool Prince of Wales Company in Geneviève de Brabant playing the little part of the Hermit, and later one of the gens d’armes, and when he returned to the Gaiety tour he was promoted to the role of Grog in La Grande-Duchesse. The tour company appeared for a while in London, and Harry was cast to play Lischen and Fritzchen, as a forepiece, with Claliah Albertazzi and in the bit part of Count Screwem in the burlesque, Snae Fell at the Gaiety itself. But the understudy got his chance. Augusta Thompson, principal boy in the burlesque, went ‘off’ and Harry played her part for the nonce!

He toured some more, played a bit part in Guy Fawkes MP at the Gaiety, and he got married (16 February 1874). ‘Lizzie Wright’ (1850-1936) had been, for several years, one of the most appreciated British principal dancers around town. Emily Soldene recorded that she was ‘a brilliant dancer’. Her real name was Elizabeth Macintyre (and she must not be confused with 'Lardy Wilson' of the Gaiety), she hailed from Glasgow, and the marriage turned out to be a mistake, but the scandals were not for just yet.

In England, Charles Martel was often played by a leggy lady

Harry finished at the Gaiety, after three years’ service, and joined up with Emily Soldene’s party. Seemingly as an understudy, for he replaced Violet Grenville as Charles Martel in Geneviève de Brabant part way through the run. However, Emily’s next date after London was New York, and so Harry, established as 2nd or 3rd tenorino to her troupe, got to make the trip. He appeared as Martel, as Pomponnet in La Fille de Madame Angot, as Grog in La Grande-Duchesse, and as Landry in Chilpéric on the left-hand side of the Atlantic, and when the rest of the company went home, he didn’t. 

The rest of his career and most of his life would be in America.

Henri and Lizzie in San Francisco 1876

The Soldene company and their shows had been decidedly successful, and other venues leaped to imitate them. One of these was the Robinson Hall, and even though Harry had only been a supporting player with Soldene, he was billed big for the title-role in Chilpéric, next to Louise Howard and E P Jepson. He lasted less than two weeks. But that may have been because he had been offered a better job. Less than two months later he opened a season of comic opera (20 September 1875) as leading tenor to America’s comic opera sweetheart, Mrs Alice Oates. It was a fair company: Australian baritone John Howson, Charles H Drew, Gus Hall, Annie Kemp Bowler and … Miss Lizzie Wright? Alice played a large repertoire of rather individual versions of the opéra-bouffe repertoire – Giroflé-Giroflà, La Fille de Madame Angot, Le Près St Gervais, La Grande-Duchesse, La Jolie Parfumeuse, La Princesse de Trébizonde, what was billed as America’s first Trial by Jury, but wasn’t, etc – and Harry was the leading man in each and every one. He was also, soon, rather obviously, leading man to pretty Alice in more than one way, and 4 December 1877 the merde hit the machine.

Well, most pictures of Alice show her as a pouting, fluffy blonde!

‘On December 4, in this city, the wife of Henri Laurent, first tenor of the Oates troupe, instituted proceedings for divorce, alleging grave improprieties with a prominent lady member of that troupe. These proceedings explain why Mrs Laurent, as she shall be called here, returned so suddenly last October from her home in Scotland where she had gone after relinquishing her engagement as a chorister in the Soldene troupe ...’.
Hmm. Lizzie ‘relinquished her engagement with the Soldene troupe’, did she? Why? When? She went to Scotland when her husband was touring America with a company that could very well have used her services? Why? When? Anyway, now she came back and by February the Clipper was reporting: ‘ The Washington papers report that Mr and Mrs Henri Laurent have adjusted their matrimonial difficulties and Baltimore journals confirm it. We hope the report is true, but are not prepared to endorse it..’. This was the beginning of a longish period where Harry featured more in the gossip columns than the music ones. He was suing the Cincinnati Times for $20,000, Alice had dismissed him because managers wouldn’t book the troupe because of his immorality (what, asked the paper, advisedly, about HER immorality?), he has sailed for Le Havre …

I guess he had. Lizzie was reported to be touring with Rice. But it might not have been she, for some little wanna-bes were rushing to call themselves ‘Miss Laurent’. How deliciously scandaleux!

In a few months, he was back. To what could have been the job of his career. James Duff was staging what would be New York’s first sighting of a version of HMS Pinafore (15 January 1879). 

Tom Whiffen as a 'perfect' First Lord

Tom Whiffen and his wife Blanche Galton as Porter and Buttercup gave the company a solid backbone, Eva Mills was Josephine, William Davidge was Deadeye and Harry really was ‘America’s first Ralph Rackstraw’. 

Wm Davidge as Deadeye
The show and Whiffen were immediate hits, and the jiggery pokery started. HMS Pinafores, or shows sailing under that title, went into production all over the place, while those that had got in on the ground floor started squabbling amongst themselves. Duff had, apparently, signed his cast – or Harry, anyway – for the 8 weeks he counted on the piece running. 2 weeks right of notice. Harry sniffed a better opportunity and a better deal up at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, so he gave notice. On his last performance he refused to go on for Act 2 until his salary was paid. Duff had foreseen this, had Alonzo Hatch standing by, and Harry – wearing the all-important costume – refused to leave until paid. Duff called the police, Harry spent the night in the cells and then sued Duff for false imprisonment … and lost.

Anyway, Hatch stayed on at the Standard, Harry played night one at the Fifth Avenue and, on legal advice, stayed off on night two. The Josephine – ‘Blanche Corelli’ – played Ralph. But the courts ruled that Harry could play until everything was sorted out … as Pinafores began to flood the nation, and the nation’s newspapers. The Chicago Tribune, in its usual National Enquirer style of journalism, headlined ‘Pinafore is getting stale’ before inventing a tale about Harry in a cupboard in Alice’s room and a resulting fight with Edward Connell ..

Harry had used the Fifth Avenue season to put together his own company, allegedly with financial help from Alice, and Henri Laurent’s Fifth Avenue HMS Pinafore company duly set out on the road. Leading lady: Blanche Corelli. Byebye, Alice. Hello, Blanche.

I won’t go into Blanche here, because she has won a place in my Victorian Vocalists. Not on her own merits, but because she was born Eva Dorothea Hermann, daughter of the magician Carl Hermann and the great soprano Rosa Csillag née Goldstein. The press took violent sides, published the usual amount of fiction, and then for heaven’s sake, Lizzie got in on the act waving a bundle of love letters. Alice accused her of blackmail (and it’s pretty clear Lizzie was after and got money), but both girls were already out of the picture. In mid-1879 there were more ‘rumours’ about divorce, but it seems that in the end Blanche was the only one to go through that formality. Yes, she too was married: to her father’s ex-manager William Singer. The couple’s Pinafore company folded in Canada in July 1879, and they joined up with Grau [and Wolfsohn]’s troupe playing Fatinitza, Giroflé-Giroflà and an unfortunate piece by the young Gustav Kerker entitled Cadets.

Blanche Corelli

The partisan press sneered: ‘The vivacious Oates will probably pour ashes on her head when she hears that the Laurent-Corelli party has come to grief in the bleak northwest..’

But work was not lacking. The Kiralfys had mounted a spectacular entitled Enchantment at Niblo’s Gardens, with two English vocalists, Charley Campbell and Rose Lee, as the vocal relief to the piles of scenery and dances which were the raison d’être of the show. Now it was going on tour, and Harry and Blanche were hired for the singing roles. When summer came, they went to St Louis and had three tries at giving their comic operas there, but they were saved from the wreckage by Enchantment which was revived for a second run at Niblo’s. 

Now watch, and count, very carefully.

After the Niblo’s season the couple set off for Boston to head ‘Henry Laurent’s original Fifth Avenue Company’ in Pinafore, Trial by Jury, Olivette et al. Blanche had rewritten the libretto of Olivette so as to combine the roles of Valentin and Mérimac into one and the whole affair was desperately amateurish (‘he can neither act nor sing’), but that didn’t stop Harry from launching a no2 company. At Newport, the 23 members of the company each had a warrant for his arrest taken out for wages unpaid. But they plodded on. Around Massachusetts and environs with the standard repertoire -- Billee Taylor, Olivette, Fatinitza, La Mascotte – and various announcements of new works. They were in rehearsal for Grisar’s Les Poupées de’Infante (Puppets) with Fatty Norcross in Boston when, 14 September 1881, Lizzie was said to have been brought to bed with twin daughters. One is registered in New York and one in Boston. Wow! How did she manage that? Well, the press had once dubbed Harry ‘the Gander-Legged Tenor’. It seems that Lizzie was of the opinion that what was good for the gander was good for the goose! Did you count? Henri and Lizzie hadn’t been near each other for more than nine months. And Blanche and Harry had actually been married in Boston 12 June 1881.
The family historians list these daughters (if there were indeed two) as being surnamed Laurent. Harry is named as the father in the registration. But I’ll guarantee Harry had nothing to do with Lizzie’s illegitimate daughter(s). Nor the one that followed the next year. And meanwhile, he had had a good notice! He was ‘By far the most deserving of praise’ of the artists in Puppets. Rose Stella would not have liked that!

And on it wandered. He played the Duke in Patience for Rice, returned to the Boston Gaiety for Pinafore, Patience and The Pirates of Penzance and then ventured to New York for more Pirates (‘in one or two sentimental moments managed to be quite effective, but generally he so forces and strains what is left of a tenor voice [that was never of much account] that he becomes far from pleasant vocally in the better part of the score..’ ‘a forced-up baritone’) and Billee Taylor (‘a bad Billee both in vocal and dramatic way’). All in all, his acting was, these days, getting better notices than his singing. And … Blanche seems to vanished to tour her own company. And … it was reported that he had divorced Lizzie for adultery! That’s a bit of a joke! But, of course, she had had two or three children in about a year, whereas he either had been careful or couldn’t.

So, on he went. Tony Pastor’s as Pippo in La Mascotte, now the Colonel in Patience, a tour with Catherine Lewis, a disastrous local piece called Uncle Sam, at Chelsea, Mass, a season at Spanish Fort, New Orleans, followed by the quickly folding Acme Co. In November 1884 he was still in New Orleans playing The Merry War and The Little Duke under the banner of Laurent’s Ideal Comic Opera Co. And … what is this? Mrs Laurent choreographing? Surely not!

1885 brought more indifferent employment: with Fay Templeton at Memphis, with Amy Gordon till she got a better job, a tour with Teddy and Fred Solomon and Lillian Russell, which lasted only a few weeks, and, in 1886, an imploding season at Minneapolis. An engagement for summer at St Louis and the one-night stand circuit with ‘Yank’ Newell followed … at the same time as Blanche’s last try at a Blanche Corelli Opera Company collapsed in Baltimore. Blanche had had enough. She went home to Europe, and … well, that’s another story.

1887, 1888 he surfaces trying one more Rackstraw in the boondocks, trying one more suing of a management (Emily Soldene! How very dare he!), until he floated ashore in San Francisco, engaged for an interesting season at the Orpheum. Well, it was interesting on paper. Helen Dingeon was the soprano, Annie Leaf and later Carrie Godfrey … and the repertoire they played, before the management ran out of funds, included The Old Guard, Amorita, The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief, The Marquis of Rivoli, Boccaccio, The Merry War,  Tenor and soprano down-marketed to the Wigwam, but Harry got lucky; Arthur Messmer was struggling with the tenor workload at the Tivoli, so Mons Laurent was hired to supplement him. He made his first appearance as Gaston in Donna Juanita with Ethel Lynton, then played Grosvenor in Patience, and when the house did grand opera he and Messmer alternated Manrico and Faust, and he sang Arturo to Messmer’s Edgardo and the Lucia of one of the Valergas. Lionel in Martha, Jan in The Beggar Student, A Night in Venice, La Fauvette du Temple (The Nightingale) … and then, as usual, Harry fouled up again. He sued the Krelings for back salary, they countersued, and he got 2 weeks wages, the boot, and a ticket to New York.

In June 1889 I see him engaged at Herzberg’s West Brighton Pavilion, Coney Island. He is not only performing but also stage directing. 

Now, I have not been so naïve as to think that Harry had been living a monkish life since the seemingly indifferent-all-round wandering-off of Blanche. Well, he hadn’t. He had allegedly married again, and he had had a son. Well, I suppose it was his. Anyway, the young lady concerned was a soubrette soprano by the name of Julia Glover, said to have been born 1870, and said to have been married to him in 1886, and to this one he would, at last, stick. Their son, born (c 1886), Henry, died of peritonitis in 1901. Anyway, the first time I see Julia on the stage is in this Coney Island season, and she had a gentle rise to small, then larger roles in a perfectly respectable little career.

In 1890 Harry was hired, alongside no less a star than del Puente, for the Hinrichs opera company, but he quit and instead meandered back to Boston (where his notices were often less unfavourable) to join what was billed as Colonel Foster’s Boston Ideals. He was – ideally -- cast as Saint-Angenor, the broken-down tenor, in La Fauvette du Temple (‘[he] has apparently lost his voice but being a comedian of ability does not seem to need it in his part’), but the cast roster resembled in no way the quality of that of the original Ideals, and the venture came to grief nastily in Louisville …

The Able Opera Co, the Shackford Opera Co in Said Pasha, the Sargent Aborn Opera Co, the City Directory company ... then, in 1894, the couple came to New York's Casino Theatre in an English version of the hit German musical comedy Der Corner Grocer aus der Avenue A. New York was not ready for a genuine American musical comedy, and the piece folded in a month. But he was on the right track. He was now a comedian who sings a bit.

As such, he joined Nellie McHenry’s company, playing John Potipher in The Bicycle Girl (Julia was chorus), but allowed himself to be tempted back to comic opera in an attempt to run a Tivoli-type house in Chicago. When he played summer season at Rock Island the local paper protested loudly at their theatre being palmed off with such poor singing. Julia, now promoted to solo parts, had at least the virtue of freshness. Harry was clapped out.

He was seen in The French Maid on tour, in vaudeville, in Edward Rush’s ‘naughty’ Sappho, in potted operas, in something called the Murray Lane Opera Company, and then, somehow, when it seemed he was all done and dusted off, he got hired by the fashionable actor Richard Mansfield to play supporting roles in his company. For some three years he appeared with Mansfield, playing François, the comedy servant in Beaucaire, Artemidorus in Julius Caesar, Michael Nagoy in Ivan the Terrible, Scholorman in the English version of Old Heidelberg, in Beau Brummell, A Parisian Romance, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde et al. And when his time with Mansfield finished, he joined Charles Hawtrey, playing Dr Chapman in A Message from Mars.

A new career, as a character actor, seemed to be profiling for him, but it didn’t happen. My last sighting of sixty-year-old Harry, on stage, is with Hawtrey in an Actors’ Fund Benefit in May 1905.

At some stage, Harry and Julia returned to England. They can be seen, in 1911, at 44a Queen Street Edgeware Road …

Harry died at 3 Deans Road, Merstham, Surrey on 4 January 1920. Julia hung on in for a few years, 'Bramber Cottage, Dean's Road, Reigate' before I see her – Mrs Julia L Gesling – heading for New York … and out of my ken.

To tie up the ends, or as many as can be tied, concerning Harry’s women? Poor Alice was long dead. Blanche became a character singer in the Vienna theatre for some years and then a singing teacher in Berlin. She was still alive in 1939. Did she brave it out through the war years? They weren’t the years when one needed a Jewish singing teacher in Berlin. Julia, we lose in the mists of 1923 New York, and Lizzie ..
Blanche as a komische Alte

Blanche. A 'respected singing teacher' in Berlin.

Lizzie dodged the war. She died in 1936, in Kensington, at the age of 85. Daughter, Lillian, married Frederick William Parkinson in 1906, and well, anyway, she has nothing to do with Harry.

Lord, what a crew. And what a foremast hand! Which is the only real reason that anyone would write about him ... sorry my lot ...

Postscriptum: three different (?) people have posted Gesling 'trees' on the web. Largely because of Reginald, who married properly (Miss Eliza Rule of Thorpe le Soken) and had, to my knowledge, a son (Reginald John Candler Gesling) and two daughters Mary Henrietta (Mrs Robert Taylor Rule) and Laura Eliza; and his sister Laura Henrietta (Mrs Edward Lee) who also had issue. Randolph married too, was widowed, and ended up in the Brighton workhouse where he died in 1922. Reginald, after his marathon court case of more than a decade (which he seems eventually to have won, after eight changes of legal mind), gave up the ghost in 1915 (9 September). 

Post-postscriptum: I finally lighted on photos of Henri, thanks to the always invaluable Andrea Cawelti of Harvard. The three photos of our 'hero' above have been tacked in. However, this fourth one, firmly labelled Henri Laurent is clearly not him. David Stone tells me it is Charles Makin in the role of Bobstay.

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