Hermione Gingold

On this date in 1897, Hermione Ferdinanda Gingold, once dubbed “the funniest woman in the world,” was born in London. Her first name came from the queen of Sicily in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.” Her career started with childhood appearances on the stage with a young Noel Coward. (Her mother, not impressed with Coward 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 performed Shakespeare at London’s Old Vic and made her name in comedic revues for the BBC and on 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.” She perfected a withering 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).  She was the postmistress of one-liners, recounted 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.” She mentioned several times in her autobiography that she didn’t believe in God.

She was married to the publisher Michael Joseph from 1918-26 and had two sons with him. The younger, Stephen, pioneered theater in the round in Britain. She was married to Eric Maschwitz from 1926-45. She died at age 89 in New York City in 1987.

Photo: Gingold in the 1950s. CC 3.0

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