Snapshot: Grandma in her theatrical glamour
This photograph shows my grandmother’s theatrical calling card from the 1920s, when Norah Ada Beatrice Levy became the cheerfully named Molly O’Day. With fashionable, flapper finger-waves in her hair and a fur collar framing her face, she was a coy soubrette. Born in Camberwell, south London, in 1908, she was the only surviving daughter of two music hall artistes.
At 18, Norah ignored the plaintive cry of many a theatrical parent not to follow a career on the stage. She had benefited from the largesse of my very successful music hall great aunt, Miss Daisy Dormer, and been privately educated. Norah succeeded academically and was an accomplished pianist and singer. She was due to study at Girton college, Cambridge – an unusual story of social mobility for a girl whose own mother had been a Portsmouth docker’s daughter.
In the summer before she was due to “go up”, so family legend has it, she took a holiday job at Harrods. One lunchtime, flicking though her parents’ copy of The Stage, she saw a call for chorus girls at the Palladium. The roar of the crowd and the smell of the greasepaint was too strong – she skipped off to the audition and it was goodbye to Girton.
Her parents’ fears of the precarious nature of a life on the stage were well founded. They had struggled to make ends meet in an exhausting touring schedule that took them all over the UK and abroad, never quite making their way to the top of the bill. Norah dreamed big, yet after the euphoria of the Palladium she was soon to be found playing panto in Merthyr Tydfil.
By 1937 she was married to an engineer and living in West Sussex, in a house provided by Daisy’s estate. She had three sons, yet her marriage was unhappy, her husband so scarred by his second world war experiences that he took his own life in 1955. I often wonder how she managed in 1950s Britain, where attitudes to both suicide and single parenthood were unforgiving.
As a child, visits to Grandma always involved a musical singalong and she would sit at her piano wrapped in a beautiful embroidered shawl, bashing out the old favourites: My Old Man, Daisy Bell, I’m Henry VIII I Am. My sister and I would sit entranced as her nimble fingers tore across the piano. She died when I was 10 years old but the memories and the melodies linger.
This was published in The Guardian, Saturday 4 June 2016