Tuesday, February 16, 2021

"Heigh ho! If love were all ... ", the sad tale of a 'British Blonde'


Beautiful mild summer's day. Still on a high after reaching three-quarters of a century, in relatively good shape, a couple of days back. Intended to spend the day titivating the gardens and getting a gentle tan. But.  With my first coffee of the waking day I flicked on ebay. Pretty bad photo of Emma Grattan. Yes, I know who Emma Grattan was. She spent some time as one of Lydia Thompson's troupe. And I, of course, am the author of the definitive biography of Lydia.

In the course of writing that book I, naturally, investigated the histories of my heroine's supporting troupe. Several of those histories were published as an article in a learned Franco-German manual a few years back, but the rest are still on my computer.  And as my birthday reminded me ... tempus fugit. And Andrew Lamb's words, engraved in my earlobes, echoes .. 'and so you'll die, and all that work is lost'.

So I pulled up my piece on Emma. And here it is. 


GRATTAN, Emma [HUNT, Emma Margery] (b St George’s, Southwark 28 February 1835; d Hospital for Incurables, New York 8 August 1893)

The pretty dancing actress who elected to be known as ‘Emma Grattan’ could and should have had a gentle and safe career at home as a soubrette in the theatres of England. But, instead, she travelled half way round the world, in and out of the law courts, in and out of the newspapers and their scandal columns and of theatres of all types on three continents, including a stint as a British Blonde on Broadway, suffered tragedy and slander … Why? There’s only ever one answer. A man.

 Emma was born in Bermondsey, the daughter of one Joseph Hunt, surgeon, and his wife, Amelia (Hunt, not Arndt). That’s what her birth registration says. Joseph must have died soon after, for by the 1851 census, at no 4 Stangate, Amelia is Mrs Francis Baker, ‘chorus singer’, wife of a Lambeth carpenter and mother of a two-year-old half-brother for Emma. Emma is a 16 year-old dancer. 

I first spot ‘Emma Grattan’ on the theatre bills of the Royal Amphitheatre in Liverpool.  On 25 April 1854, the theatre opened for a new season with the comedian George Honey topping its bills, Miss Swanborough as leading lady, and neophyte Emma teaming with Honey in ‘several amusing farces’ (The Married Bachelor, Katherine in The English Fleet, Don Giovanni burlesque, later A Loan of a Lover, The Swiss Cottage). The company also included a juvenile man ‘of considerable promise’ who called himself Courtaigne or Courtaine or Courte, or other approximations of ‘Curtain’, which was his actual name (William Henry Young Curtain). Before the season was over, Emma was ‘Mrs Courtaine’ (Emma Margery Grossmith (!) Curtain) and her troubles could begin.

Harry was not bad boy. And definitely not a bad actor. Helped by an exceedingly handsome physique and a winning way. But Harry had a weakness. He was an aggressive drunk. And, as Emma would discover pretty soon, he was very often drunk …


The couple played a second season at Liverpool (Love Laughs at Locksmiths, Blue Beard, Osbaldistone and Diana in Rob Roy, Lydia Languish in The Rivals, Robert le diable burlesque, The Siege of MontgateThe Sleeping Beauty etc), produced a son, William Frank Curtain (b Bolton 5 September 1855), and Henry notched up a first conviction for drunken assault. 


In 1856, I spot them at Norwich, at Leicester and then at Bath and Bristol where Harry was Laertes, Emma played Nina Gordon in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and they teamed in The Swiss Chalet and as Jack and the Giant in the panto Jack the Giant Killer. 1857 saw them touring with a Templeton/Wadham company labelled ‘Drury Lane’ for the summer (A Wonderful Woman, A Rough Diamond), until a Mr Butler of Bow Street brokered the pair an American deal. But not for the marginally civilised east coast: Mr Butler was representing Thomas Maguire of Maguire’s Opera House, San Francisco. Was the wild west with its roaring saloons the wisest place to send Harry and his little weakness? The answer was ‘no’.

The pair made their first appearance 23 November 1857 in the musical farce The Little Treasure and were much liked ‘really a pleasing actress’ ‘Miss E Grattan who came among us in the humble capacity of a vaudeville actress, possesses much native vivacity and a good voice, sings cleverly, and enacts her roles fully up to her modest pretensions in her art … They came among us, not as stars, but after being ‘featured’ three times passed into the stock’.

Harry would fulfil his promise and become something of a star in California, but that was not the only promise he would fulfil. Less than a month on, Emma had him up in court for ‘assault’. Drunken wife-beating? The next time it was for ‘threatening to kill her’. In July 1859, she instituted divorce proceedings. And again the following year. And in between times Harry had been dragged to the lock-up for more drunken fights or just plain public drunkenness. But he was a good boy, and popular with audiences when he was fit to go on, and Maguire renewed his contract again and again, in spite of his misdemeanours and disagreeable press comments. And when Harry-boy promised Emma that ‘he would be good’, she weakened and took him back. And they played Mr and Mrs White and danced together, and sang ‘Pit a pat goes my heart’ together, and the papers mused how nice it would be if their on-stage personations could be carried into real life.

1860 US census

And Emma played the Princess in The Invisible Prince, Conrad and Medora, Fluvia in The Naiad Queen, Lazarillo in Don Cesar de Bazan, Pluto and Proserpine, Lucidora in The Fair One with the Golden Locks, Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Helen in Faust and Marguerite, Susanna to her husband’s Figaro in The Two Figaros, Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, now billed not as ‘Emma Grattan’, but as ‘Mrs Harry Courtaine’. Until he was picked up drunk in the streets of San Francisco and she reinstated the divorce proceedings.


What followed, is ‘unclear’. It depends on whether you’re one Californian paper or another, and on Harry’s side or Emma’s. One version was that Emma did a moonlight flit with a ‘fiddler from the Melodeon’ the ‘home of obscene shows’, who was named Emonds or Edwards or something, heading for Australia on the Robert Passenger. The other version was that Emma had plotted to take a couple of actors and go to China and India and had actually booked passage. But the lady actor changed her mind, so the plan was aborted. Except that Harry was currently having one of his bigger battles with the booze, so Emma took her savings and her son, staved off the vultures, and went anyway. 

Which she provenly did. Whether a third person went with them, only a ship’s list would tell for sure. She arrived in Hong Kong in May with … a brother? The Californian press snorted at the ‘subterfuge’, accused her of using fake reviews for advertising, ‘reported’ that she had fled Hong Kong for Singapore … and then found someone else to have a go at, while a temporarily dried-out Harry climbed back on the stage…


My next sighting of Emma is four years later. In Edinburgh. Starting over again. Where, I wondered, had she been? Australia? No sign. And then I came upon a christening registration from Byculla, Bombay. A late christening. Little Willie Curtain aged 7. Byculla. Why? Well, a gentleman named Simin Patel wrote a DPhil dissertation (at last I’ve discovered a use for those terrible things!) in 2015 in which he says ‘Among the well-known guests that Rustomjee Framjee hosted at the Imperial Hotel, Fort, were the Grattans, an English family of theatre actors. The star of the company was Emma Grattan, her father, Henry, served as both manager and lead actor. Her brother was also an actor…’. Father? But father was a dead surgeon named Joseph. Well, wasn't he? Mr Patel continues wisely ‘The shield of a family-run concern, under the watchful eye of the patriarch, allowed unmarried young females to perform and tour without serious aspersions being cast on their respectability’. Unmarried? If only they knew! Anyway, there’s that ‘brother’ again. And no sign of a fiddler. I think he was a red herring. One of those journalistic inventions so popular in the time and place.


Emma was back in Britain, by one route or another, by early 1865, and back on the more conventional stage in the company of – just as a decade earlier – the grand George Honey. Honey was touring Miriam’s Crime (Emma was Miriam), The Flying Dutchman and a repertoire of burlesques – Mazourka, Orpheus and Eurydice, Turko the Terrible -- and Emma and the Bourke sisters were his assistants, through a good tour. She played Luciana in A Comedy of Errors at Bradford, Phoebe in As You Like It, Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew and Diana Vernon with ‘Professor Anderson’ at Birmingham, she played in the burlesque Sonnambula, A Wonderful Woman and, this time, really did play Drury Lane as Mrs Derby, opposite Charles Warner, in The Ladies’ Club. Drury Lane’s F B Chatterton was also running the Theatre Royal, Hull, and thence Emma was next deployed to appear in Lydia Thompson’s role in Magic Toys, in Under the Gaslight, The Hunchback, Lady Audley’s Secret …

Emma as Lydia Thompson

She seemed to have re-kickstarted her English career nicely. But then came another offer from America, and, in late 1868, Emma joined Elise Holt, Eliza Weathersby and the Pitt sisters on The City of Antwerp heading for Boston and a tilt at the hugely successful Thompson troupe.

The Elise Holt season was a flop, and like the Pitts and the talented Eliza, Emma ended up transferring her services to the bigger and better company, opening at Niblo’s Gardens as ‘Orchobrand, the enchanting enchanter of the Silver Forest, ground-landlord of the 40 Thieves’. She was delightedly received, played her role throughout the some three months of the run, and then departed to Tammany Hall to star opposite Myron Leffingwell as Fra Diavolo in Byron’s burlesque of the opera and Dandini in Cinderella.


The gossip press hinted that she was ‘on her way to California for the delectable purpose of arranging certain little matrimonial and professional affairs’, But she turned up, instead, in Chicago, in Pittsburgh, in Boston, then back in New York in the bills at the Theatre Comique. She appeared in burlesque and variety here and there, was seen at the Union Square with Felix Rogers’s troupe, at Wood’s Museum in The Silver Demon, which reassembled a number of the original Blondes to limited effect, Blood Money, Nobody’s Child, Young Jack Sheppard et al, she sang on the bills at Barnum’s and with Dan Shelby, and then, in 1874 she joined the fine stock troupe at Booth’s Theatre. There she played roles ranging from the Gentlewoman to Charlotte Cushman’s Lady Macbeth to Mrs Micawber in Little Em’ly and Olympe to Clara Morris’s Camille over four seasons …


Then, in 1877, tragedy hit. I don’t know in which order but, 1 July, 23 year-old William Frank was murdered in Port Clinton, Ohio, in a payroll robbery. And back in San Francisco, Harry had gone once more too often to the pub and was now said to be dying. And what did Emma do? She threw in the best job she’d ever had, and set out for California.


As the tale was told, eighteen years after leaving him, she nursed her sodden husband (the divorce had never eventually happened, just Bombay) back to a semblance of health, back to the stage in the company at the Bush Street Theatre … and there they are, in 1881, touring together in Steele Mackaye’s company in A Fool’s Errand…

Emma in 1883

 In 1885, she is Jemima Boggs in The Wages of Sin .. 


I’m going to stop there. It seems unfair that Emma died in 1893 in a Home for Incurables (I wonder from what she was unable to be cured), and Harry, after 18 years institutionalisation, at Randall’s Hospital, on 18 August 1910. He was buried in the Actors’ Fund plot at Evergreen Cemetery, Brooklyn. Alongside Emma.


Post scriptum: During my later research, I have happed upon a photo dated 1880, signed by Emma (in Boston) to my dear brother Frank from his devoted sister, Emma Courtaine. There’s that brother again!  As far as I have so far found, Amelia (who was eight years older than her carpenter) had only the one child, John Baker, after her seeming widowhood. In 1881, she and Baker, and a widowed sister named Margaret Anderson are at 5 Esher Street, Lambeth with no children. 

Ah! Here we are 4 November 1837, Union Place, Southwark Bridge Rd, born Joseph Hunt son of Joseph, surgeon, and Amelia …  But that’s not Frank …. So where are all these folk in the 1841 census? And why has someone scribbled out the dedication on this photo?

There is more, much more, to discover about Emma and her family. But this, at least, is a start. 'What I did for love' eh?



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