How to Grow Old Disgracefully: An Autobiography, by Hermione Gingold
If you’re a fan of classic films, say, Vincente Minnelli’s 1958 musical, Gigi, or classic stagings of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, you already know Hermione Gingold, the earthy actress with the husky voice and wicked sense of irony. Otherwise, Gingold is likely a mystery, perhaps a relic from the twentieth-century stage and film, but she shouldn’t be. Known for her range of roles, from the wickedly humorous to the poignant, in her day Gingold had no peer. The English actress of stage and screen wrote her memoir, How to Grow Old Disgracefully at the end of her life when she was suffering from heart trouble and requiring round-the-clock care. In those final months, she set about the task of her book with an aim to “delve deep into my past and tell it as it was and is, and to hell with scruples.” The result was an account that certainly doesn’t hold back, and reading How to Grow Old, it would seem that when it came to her choices in both life and art, Gingold was never particularly worried about the consequences.
She was both determined and adventurous from the start. Named by her mother for the character of Hermione in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, the actress appeared to approve of little else her mother did after that. One can see why: “My mother told me people used to look at me in my pram and exclaim, ‘What a very ugly baby!’” She grew up wealthy and privileged in London’s Maida Vale, the daughter of a wealthy Viennese stockbroker and the detached, society-focused mother. As Gingold observed, “You could write the feelings of love I have for my mother on the head of pin and still have room for the Lord’s Prayer.” There are moments in Gingold’s memoir when you might flinch, but she never does, and the book’s appeal is its mix of classic stage and screen backstory and of course, Gingold’s voice on the page, as eccentric and arch as it was in life.
Gingold’s professional career began as a child, playing parts in Shakespearean productions alongside luminaries like Ellen Terry and would-be luminaries like fellow child-actor Noel Coward. Her career began in a serious vein, though as a gifted soprano with a comic flair, her genre eventually shifted to the revue—both on stage and in broadcast entertainment for the BBC. Gingold’s professional arc was a long one, though wider recognition was slow in coming. By the time she left the UK for New York in 1950, she was a veteran of West End productions, but it wasn’t until she appeared on Broadway that she found success. With a voice described as “powdered glass in deep syrup,” the result of suffering nodes on her vocal codes in her thirties, Gingold simply had a presence US audiences found hard to ignore. With her infectious sense of bemused delight, her nonstop double entendres, and (one presumes) an affect of obliviousness to the ordinary and the practical, she became a regular on the early talk shows, including Jack Paar and Merv Griffin, and the game shows, like What’s My Line?
In recounting her life, Gingold is straightforward and doesn’t seek sympathy, or understanding, for the cruelties she suffered or the mistakes she made. When escaping from her first marriage, as in escaping literally from then-husband, the publisher Michael Joseph who’s just beaten her with a curtain rod, she takes refuge in the “Ladies Only” car of a train, and finds herself surrounded by a group of habit-clad Sisters:
all I wanted to do was howl my eyes out at the mess I was making out of my life, but there I was, surrounded by five silent self-disciplined nuns.
Gingold is similarly satirical about other difficult turns, of which there were many: leaving her two young sons behind with Joseph, then a rebound marriage gone awry—with another difficult man, the Lothario lyric-writer Eric Maschwitz, (whose classic “These Foolish Things Remind Me of You” was inspired, he claimed, by Gingold and Anna May Wong, among others)—and a string of love affairs in which she is often left for another woman or part too good to pass up. Yet as Gingold noted, what she did manage well was her finances. “Sometimes I wonder if I’ve given up too much for the theatre, but I have one big consolation—money. I’ve saved hard and invested wisely and it’s amazing what a comfort filthy lucre is.”
Later in life, playing the part of Madame Alvarez in Gigi, Gingold won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. And after Gigi, a string of great roles followed, including the classic film Bell, Book, and Candle (1958), playing alongside the flawless cast of Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak, Jack Lemmon, and Elsa Lancaster; and in 1962, The Music Man, with Robert Preston and Shirley Jones, considered one of the last great movie musicals.
Known to her friends as Toni, in 1961 Gingold appeared in a memorable installment of This Is Your Life—a weekly show known for opening with a surprise ambush of each episode’s star. As Gingold is on her way out of Warner Brothers studio in Burbank, she’s stopped by host Robert Edwards. She steps from a convertible wrapped in an elegant rebozo with her Yorkie tucked close, and learning she’s the subject of that night’s show, she quips: “Oh, I’d have put on my false eyelashes if I’d known.”
If you’ve never seen Gigi, it’s a confection of a film, with gorgeous music by Lerner and Loewe arranged by André Previn. Watch Gingold sing the legendary duet, “I Remember it Well,” with the incomparable Maurice Chevalier, here.