My grandmother could have been Margaret Rutherford, or even the Queen Mother, for she had the same type of eyes, smile and well-lined face. Maybe, they were all sisters? If they’d been lined up together, you might think they were some ancient showbiz troupe like septuagenarian Andrews Sisters. Or maybe, like babies, all old people eventually begin to look the same? (My grandfather had a hint of Stan Laurel.)
I quite liked the fact my old grandmother had the look of Dame Margaret Rutherford, as I loved this fine actress as Miss Marple, and it took years before I could accept anyone else playing that role. She was unforgettable. It was like Rutherford’s turn as Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit—no one could ever better her performance.
Dame Margaret was beloved by millions, and greatly praised for her various stage and cinematic roles, winning an Oscar for her scene-stealing performance in the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton movie, The V.I.Ps.
Yet behind all this talent and success was a woman terrified of inheriting the murderous mental illness that had destroyed her family.
In 1882, ten year’s before Margaret’s birth, her father, William, had battered his own father to death with a chamber pot. No matter the potentially comic value of murder weapon, it was a brutal and bloody crime, and let’s be honest, most working class killers would have been sent to the gallows for such an offense, but William was sent to Broadmoor psychiatric hospital, where he was detained for seven years. He was then allowed to return to his family.
In a bid to start a new life, her father changed his surname from “Benn” to “Rutherford” (The family were related to British Labor politician Tony Benn.) After Margaret’s birth in 1892, the family moved to India, where the mother suffered severe depression and committed suicide by hanging herself. The three-year-old Margaret was then entrusted to her aunt, who raised her in a comfortable lifestyle in suburban Wimbledon, London.
As Margaret grew-up happy and loved, her father had another breakdown and was re-admitted to Broadmoor. To shield her of this “blight,” Rutherford was told her father had died.
A few years later, the young Margaret was confronted by a strange, disheveled man who claimed he had a message from her father. The news devastated the impressionable girl, who on being told the truth of the matter by her aunt, was terrified that her father might escape and murder her.
The twelve-year-old Rutherford was sent to a boarding school, where she developed her talents for music and acting. She spent her twenties leaning her craft, and joined the Old Vic Theater company in her early thirties. Once established, her career blossomed with great and rapid success. She met and married fellow actor Stringer Davis, who became literally her dog’s body, looking after every aspect of Margaret’s life. This included nursing the actress during her long bouts of depression; her electro-shock therapy; and her “bad spells.”
Having no children of their own (it’s uncertain if the pair ever had sex with each other), Margaret and Stringer adopted a young man, Gordon Langley Hall, who was in his twenties and had started a promising career as a writer. Gordon later said he was born intersex, and had “an adrenal abnormality that causes female genitalia to resemble a man’s.” He changed his name to Dawn Langley Hall and began a long career as writer, eventually having gender reassignment surgery in 1968. Dawn then married a motor mechanic, John-Paul Simmonds, and wrote a biography of her adoptive mother, Margaret Rutherford: A Blithe Spirit in 1983.
Margaret Rutherford described herself as a buff of all things paranormal, and had an interest in ghosts, hauntings and things that go bump in the night. In 1965, Dame Margaret appeared in the NBC documentary film, The Stately Ghosts of England, alongside her husband Stringer Davis, and “society clairvoyant” Tom Corbett. This trio of ghostbusters visited three stately country houses that are claimed to be haunted, Longleat, Salisbury Hall, and Beaulieu. They interviewed the householders, and witnesses, and even captured a “ghost” on film. Based on Diana Norman’s book The Stately Ghosts of England, this is a beautifully made and thoroughly delightful film.
The remainder of Dame Margaret Rutherford’s ‘The Stately Ghosts of England,’ after the jump…