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April 28, 2022

The Most Beautiful Woman in the UK: 30 Fascinating Portraits of Edwardian Singer and Actress Gabrielle Ray

Gabrielle Ray was an English stage actress, dancer and singer, best known for her roles in Edwardian musical comedies. She was considered one of the most beautiful actresses on the London stage and became one of the most photographed women in the world.

Gabrielle Ray, real name Gabrielle Elizabeth Clifford Cook, was born in Stockport, Cheshire (UK) on April 28, 1883. Her stage career began at the delicate age of only ten years old, playing a succession of juvenile roles in the many theaters that then existed in London’s West End. Her debut appears to have been in the musical play Miami at the Royal Princess’s Theatre, Oxford Street, in October 1893.

The following year she appeared in A Celebrated Case at the Elephant and Castle, a particularly tough venue which catered exclusively for the working classes who were not slow to show their appreciation, or vent their disapproval of what they saw. Gabrielle played the daughter of the wronged heroine of the piece.

Her first big break came when she was spotted by touring company manager Ben Greet whilst performing in the pantomime Sinbad the Sailor at the Hammersmith Lyric Opera House in 1899. Impressed by her talent, Greet signed up the 16 year old to play Mamie Clancy in his touring companies production of The Belle of New York, a musical comedy. This was followed by a provincial tour in another Greet production, playing Dolly Twinkle in The Casino Girl before returning to the Lyric in 1902 play the lead in the pantomime Little Red Riding Hood.

By now, at age 19, the young girl had grown into a stunningly attractive young woman. A vision of loveliness with bright blue eyes and golden blonde hair who enchanted her audience from the moment she appeared on stage. Present at the opening night was the famous theatre manager George Edwardes, whose Gaiety Theatre was one of London’s top venues. Recognizing her as a star in the making Edwardes wasted no time in contracting her that very night to join his company on completion of her engagement at the Lyric.

Gabrielle’s first engagement for Edwardes was as understudy to Gertie Millar, only four years her senior but already a renowned musical/comedy performer, in 'The Toreador' at the Gaiety. When the Gaiety closed for refurbishment in the Autumn of 1903, Edwardes engaged Gabrielle to take over from Letty Lind to end the run of The Girl from Kays at the Apollo.

When the Gaiety reopened on October 26, 1903, with a royal premiere of The Orchid, attended by Their Majesties King Edward VI and Queen Alexandra, Gertie Millar again played the lead whilst Gabrielle returned not as understudy, but to play the major role of Thisbe which included a solo song-and-dance number that Gabrielle made one of the highlights of the show.

By now Gabrielle’s success was assured and she continued to perform for Edwardes in a string of successful productions, including his biggest hit, a reworking of Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow which opened at Edwardes second theatre, Daly’s on June 8, 1907. Lily Elsie played the lead but Gabrielle’s major role as Frou Frou included a whirling dance routine with handstands and high kicks performed on a table held head-high by four men that she again made into a show-stopper.

In 1912 Gabrielle announced her retirement from the stage in order to marry Eric Loder. Thousands of spectators who turned up to see the spectacle at St Edwards Roman Catholic Church in Windsor on February 29, 1912 were disappointed when the bride failed to arrive and the wedding was cancelled. Gabrielle later explained that she could not go through with the wedding in front of the mass crowd of waiting newspaper reporters and socialites. The couple were married in a private ceremony the next day. It was not to be a match made in heaven, however, and she split from him after only two years.

Following the break-up of her marriage Gabrielle returned to the stage in 1915, but the Theatre was changing as cinema seduced its audiences away. The death that year of her mentor George Edwardes, and her own emotional scars from her broken marriage affected her deeply. Still, she appeared in two more major West End productions, Betty at Daly’s and Flying Colours at The Hippodrome before ending her career appearing spasmodically in provincial pantomimes and variety tours.

At the height of her fame Gabrielle had been a much admired and frequently photographed musical comedy star who was feted as being “the most beautiful woman in the United Kingdom.” Never a brilliant actress, which had limited her to mainly supporting roles, it was her beauty and her dancing which had brought her fame and fortune. She had a graceful fluidity coupled with an acrobatic prowess that made her dancing nothing less than sensational. She was also a shrewd businesswoman, when she and Lily Elsie each signed exclusive photo contracts with Foulsham and Banfield (who produced the Rotary Photographic postcards series) Gabrielle negotiated for herself four times the commission paid to Elsie, despite being the lesser star.

Tragically, as her career waned a damaging combination of depression and alcoholism brought about a total breakdown in health. She was helped by the financial support which she continued to receive as part of the marriage settlement from her ex-husband, Eric loder, but in 1936 she suffered a total nervous breakdown which led to her remaining institutionalized in a mental hospital for nearly forty years.

Gabrielle Ray died, childless and alone, at the age of 90 on May 21, 1973.

(via Stage Beauty)


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