Hermione Gingold

On this date in 1897, Hermione Gingold, once dubbed “the funniest woman in the world,” was born in London. Her career started with childhood appearances on the British stage with a young Noel Coward. (Her mother, not impressed with Noel after inviting him to tea, warned Gingold: “You are never to ask that boy to tea again — he’ll come to a bad end.”) Gingold’s first stage role as a child was in the company of legendary stage actress Ellen Terry. Gingold (whose first name, Hermione, came from A Winter’s Tale) performed Shakespeare at London’s Old Vic, and made her name in comedic revues for the BBC, and on West End and Broadway. She often wrote her own material. A critic once observed, “She can turn a melting smile into a baring of fangs more outrageously than anyone I know except Groucho Marx.” The Grande Dame of vaudeville and theatre perfected awithering stare and deadpan delivery, and had a voice that was once described as “powdered glass in deep syrup.” She is best known for the unforgettable duet with Maurice Chevalier in “Gigi” (captured in only two takes), and for portraying Eulalie Shinn, the mayor’s wife, in the film version of “The Music Man.” Gingold originated the role of Madame Armfelt in “A Little Night Music” by Stephen Sondheim. Director Hal Prince told her his only concern in casting her was whether she could pull off acting like a 74-year-old woman. “But Mr. Prince,” she told him, “I am 74.” The ageless Gingold became the belle of Broadway at age 81 in “Side by Side with Sondheim.” In Walt Disney’s animated film, “Gay Pureee,” she and Judy Garland provided the voices of the female cats (lyrics by Yip Harburg). Gingold recounts one fan recognizing her on the streets of New York and saying, “It is Hermione Gingold, isn’t it? You’ll never guess how we recognized you — by your face.” In How to Grow Old Disgracefully, her posthumously-published and very funny autobiography, Gingold boasted that her last great love, with a man 55 years her junior, lasted into her eighties. She was the postmistress of one-liners, recounts her friend Anne Clements Eyre in the prologue of Gingold’s autobiography. When a young man introduced himself to Gingold by saying he was in public relations, she quipped: “Oh I prefer to keep my relations private.” Eyre asked Gingold to be a godmother: “It’s only Anne,” Gingold wrote, “who would choose a godmother who isn’t religious, hates children, and lives three thousand miles away.” Gingold mentions several places in her autobiography that she “didn’t believe in God.” D. 1987.

Photo by Allan Warren and OTRS under CC 3.0

“Although we weren’t brought up to be any particular religion, we were taught to say our prayers. I remember one that ended, ‘Thy glorious kingdom, which is for ever and ever. Amen.’ These words made me scream, “I don’t want to be anywhere for ever and ever. It’s too much.” 

—Hermione Gingold in her biography How to Grow Old Disgracefully, 1988

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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