Elsie Carlisle’s 103rd Wedding Anniversary

Elsie Carlisle’s public persona was always that of a coquettish single girl. A 1935 human-interest piece begins with the sentence “Miss Elsie Carlisle, ace woman crooner, has no time for introspection, no time to marry...” (emphasis mine). Her friends and associates seem to have known little that suggested otherwise. Particularly poignant and somewhat intriguing is the comment that her frequent piano accompanist Bert Read made after her death in a letter to a magazine:

Off-stage she was a joy to be with; always cheerful, cracking gags, and telling very funny stories in a superb Mancunian accent.  A great party-giver and a charming hostess she was at home in any company.  Yet secretly, she was undoubtedly a far from happy woman, never having fully recovered from a romance that had soured some years before I met her.  Such a wonderful person deserved to have a good marriage, but it would appear that didn’t eventuate – at least, not within the limits of my knowledge.

Bert Read alludes to some crushing disappointment in Elsie’s life that is impossible to identify now with any certainty. What is most fascinating, however, is the way that, writing a few months after her death, he qualifies the claim that she died a spinster with the proviso “not within the limits of my knowledge.”

Elsie Carlisle’s death certificate shows that Bert Read’s hesitation was well-placed. The certificate describes her as “A Theatrical Artist. (retired), Widow of Wilfred Malpas.” The informant who certified the document is one “Wilfred Ypres Carlisle, Son,” who signed his name “Willie Carlisle,” and who is presumably the same “Wilfred Y. Malpas” (mother’s maiden name “Carlisle”) found in the first-quarter birth registry for 1915 (the date of birth is listed as November 20, 1914). This son’s address given on the death certificate is identical to that of his mother:  8 Deanery Street, Elsie’s posh Mayfair apartment.

His father, the elder Wilfred Malpas, had married Elizabeth (“Elsie”) Carlisle on August 8, 1914 in St. Edmund’s Roman Catholic Church in Monsall St., Miles Platting (in Greater Manchester),1 “according to the Rites and Ceremonies of the Roman Catholics,” as the marriage certificate states. We know little about Mr. Malpas, other than that he is described on the certificate as a “House and Church Decorator Journeyman” (eighteen-year-old Elsie being described already as a “Music Hall Artist”). The couple’s fathers were both deceased by this time; Wilfred Malpas’s father had been some sort of musician. At the time of the wedding, Wilfred was 23, Elsie 18.

The sort of people who like to count the number of months between a marriage and the birth of a child might have tittered over the very short interval between Elsie’s nuptials and Wilfred Ypres’s2 birthday (November 20, 1914) — slightly over three months — but in that era of considerably less tolerance regarding premarital sex, a complicating factor would have been the couple’s already having had a child before they were married, one Basil Albert Carlisle, born June 16, 1913, well over a year before the wedding. Elsie had been only seventeen when Basil was born, and his father’s name appears nowhere on his birth certificate, although a small amendment appears in the margin of that document noting that he was “Re-registered under the Legitimacy Act 1926 on 5th February 1934” (the Legitimacy Act established that people born out of wedlock could be considered legitimate if their parents married subsequently). Indeed, Basil does appear a second time in the first-quarter birth registry for 1934 as “Basil A. Malpas” (with the mother’s maiden name being Carlisle).

So far I have found little record concerning Wilfred Malpas’s and Elsie Carlisle’s married life. Elsie had great success as a musical theater artist, at first just in Manchester, but by 1919 she had established herself as a London actress — and as an apparently single woman. Malpas disappeared from the picture entirely, although he and Elsie must have remained legally married for her to be described as his widow when she died in 1977 (he had passed away in 1962).3 The two boys were raised by Elsie’s mother, Mary Ellen Carlisle, and attended St. Edmund’s Roman Catholic Primary School in Miles Platting, Manchester.4 Elsie meanwhile led an extraordinarily private life for such a visible person.

The potential for scandal was great, however, especially at a time when the BBC, Elsie’s main source of income, was under the direction of the infamously prudish Sir John Reith. When, in the mid-1930s, Elsie’s sons came to London, she began to refer to them as brothers,5 and the press followed suit. Wilfred Ypres Carlisle appears in British newspapers of the 1930s-1950s as Billie, Billy, or Willie Carlisle, brother of the more famous Elsie Carlisle, although he himself had a successful stage career. I have discovered less about Basil’s life; his 1940 marriage is indexed both under the name Malpas (probably out of legal necessity) and under Carlisle, the latter name being the one he used. Both sons went by Carlisle; they had to in order to keep up the ruse that they were Elsie’s brothers. It was Wilfred who acted as Elsie’s partner in the hospitality and ballroom business after she retired from music, and, as we have seen, he lived with her in the 1970s, when she was suffering from cancer. Wilfred died in 1993, Basil in 2000.

What stands out to me as most remarkable is not Elsie Carlisle’s teenage motherhood and the threat it later posed to her career — the former is a common enough occurrence, and the latter a function of the unfortunate mores of the times — but rather the awkwardness of the ruse she adopted, of having her sons pose as her brothers. Yet we shall probably never know the nature of her relationship with Wilfred Malpas or the complexities of her family life even before her ambitious and wildly successful public career had started.  Her narrative, full of gaps and silences, begins with the pregnancy of a sixteen-year-old girl who not only achieved greatness but also had a reputation for being charming and charitable. That she ended her days in the care of one of her sons is perhaps more meaningful than anything else.

Elsie Carlisle at the Bassano Studios (August 22, 1919) - NPG x103149
Elsie Carlisle at the Bassano Studios (August 22, 1919) – NPG x103149

Notes:

  1. St. Edmund’s Roman Catholic Church in Miles Platting, built as a chapel-of-ease in 1871, was closed in 2007 and almost completely demolished, although a small part of a wall survives. Many thanks to Peter Worsley for helping me with the local geography.
  2. One should note that Wilfred Ypres Malpas was born only hours before the Allies won the month-long Battle of Ypres in Belgium, so he was probably given his middle name out of patriotic motives. The Battle of Ypres was the beginning of trench warfare in World War I, a war in which Elsie would lose her brother Arthur.
  3. Elsie Carlisle biographer Richard J. Johnson suggests that “[i]t is possible that the marriage had failed but as a Catholic divorce was no option.”  (“Elsie Carlisle [with a different style].”  Memory Lane 175 [2012]: 39). I would note that Elsie was baptized in the Church of England, but she must have converted to Roman Catholicism in order to have a Roman Catholic marriage.
  4. I want to offer my special thanks to Elsie’s great nephew Alan Carlisle and to his late uncle James Carlisle for clarifying many details of Elsie’s sons’ upbringing. Incidentally, Basil and Wilfred’s time at St. Edmund’s may have overlapped  with that of the future author and composer Anthony Burgess, whose father was known to play piano accompaniment to the singing of Elsie’s brother, Albert “Tim” Carlisle. My thanks to Simon Johnson for pointing out the family connection.
  5. Johnson, Memory Lane 174 (2012): 24.

“Tell Me More About Love” (1929)

“Tell Me More About Love.” Words and music by Bert Page. Recorded by Elsie Carlisle, accompanied by Jay Wilbur and His Orchestra (uncredited) c. late June 1929. Dominion A. 168 mx. 1363-3.

Personnel: Laurie Payne-Jimmy Gordon-cl-as-bar / George Clarkson-cl-as-ts / Norman Cole-vn / vn / vn / Billy Thorburn-p / Dave Thomas or Bert Thomas-bj-g / Harry Evans-sb / Jack Kosky-d

Elsie Carlisle – "Tell Me More About Love" (1929)

Elsie Carlisle – “Tell Me More About Love” (1929)

“Tell Me More About Love” is a woman’s account of her love-making technique. Her approach is to seem innocent and to want instruction in the ways of love; hence the repetition of the title line “Tell me more about love.” She represents herself as a sort of student (“I don’t know what to do — / I can learn lots from you…”; “Teach me all — please don’t wait…”). She is “bashful” and “shy,” and explains that “love has never come [her] way,” but then she lets it slip that the various “lines” that she is rehearsing are ones that she practices every night with a different boy! In retrospect, her earlier request to have the lights dimmed or even turned off should have given her away.

Elsie Carlisle’s perky and chatty delivery in “Tell Me More About Love” showcases her talent for dramatizing a song and making it somewhat conversational, in spite of the absence of an interlocutor. Here Elsie’s delivery sounds a bit like that of Helen Kane, minus, of course, the exaggerated Bronx accent. Elsie’s romantic whimper at the end of the song is particularly precious, rivaled only by the primal girlish giggle in “Wasn’t It Nice?” (recorded the next year). A light  and upbeat piece of music, “Tell Me More About Love” contrasts nicely with Elsie’s decidedly plaintive rendition of “Mean to Me” on the flip side of the record.

“Tell Me More About Love” was also recorded that year by Mabel Marks, the Arcadians Dance Orchestra (under the direction of Bert and John Firman), Florence Oldham (accompanied by Sid Bright on the piano and Len Fillis on the guitar — Oldham  is sometimes portrayed on the sheet music), Kay and Kaye (a.k.a. Stanley Kirkby & Rita Bernard), and Billy Bartholomew, an English bandleader who recorded primarily in Germany from 1924-1938.

“My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes” (1931)

“My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes.” Words by Ted Koehler and Eddie Pola, music by Jack Golden (1931). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur on c. June 10, 1931. Imperial 2489 mx. 5717-3.

Personnel: Jay Wilbur dir. Laurie Payne-Jimmy Gordon-cl-as-bar / George Clarkson-cl-ts / Norman Cole-?George Melachrino-vn / Billy Thorburn or Pat Dodd-p / Bert Thomas-g / Harry Evans-sb / ?Max Bacon-d-vib

Elsie Carlisle – "My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes" (1931)

Elsie Carlisle – “My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes” (1931)

“My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes” is a somewhat bizarre reflection on the topic of avian overindulgence. It begins with an introduction that marvels at a recent upheaval in social norms:

All this world is up to date —
Even children stay up late.
Things are not just what they used to be.
All this world is off its nut,
Going crazy, nothing but!
Just get this earful from me…

The singer proceeds to list off the ways in which 1931’s fast-paced, bibulous, dance- and sex-crazed society has affected the habits and health of a pet canary. The bird seems to have been infected with a passion for every form of loose living and pedestrian moral decadence. He dances “snake hips.” He is obsessed with some sparrow or another. He may be in some embarrassing sort of trouble (the reference in London recordings of this song to “look[ing] in Swaffer’s column” involves a notorious newspaper source of gossip). Finally, instead of responding favorably to birdseed, it is gin that he now likes — or harder stuff, in some versions.

The words of the song vary a good deal from singer to singer. Elsie Carlisle’s version for the Imperial label references a number of other songs: “Makin’ Whoopee”  (1928), which Eddie Cantor popularized and which provided Anglophone culture with a new term for sexual congress; “The Prisoner’s Song” (1925), which deals with a man who is to be jailed and who will be without his sweetheart — a useful comparandum for the formerly solitary canary in his cage; and “What Is This Thing Called Love” (1929), which only seems to be found in Elsie’s versions, probably out of respect for her having introduced the song two years earlier.

The success of Elsie’s Imperial recording of “My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes” rests in her realization of the fundamental silliness of the song’s underlying concept. She rattles off the catalogue of her pet’s newfound moral weaknesses fairly seriously, and the mock-solemnity of her complaint enhances the comic effect. We can see this approach to the song in her Pathétone short from the same year that also features it:

Elsie Carlisle (1931)

Elsie Carlisle (1931)

Video from British Pathé (YouTube)

“My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes” was recorded in 1931 by Sophie Tucker and by Marion Harris, two American singers then working in London. It was recorded in Wisconsin by Lawrence Welk and His Orchestra (with vocalist Frankie Sanders).  British artists who recorded the song that year were the Debroy Somers Band (with vocalist Dan Donovan), The Waldorfians (with vocalist Al Bowlly), Billie Lockwood, and Fred Spinelly.

“Deep Water” (two versions; 1933)

“Deep Water” was composed by Hungarian-born Tin Pan Alley composer Jean Schwartz, with words by Canadian lyricist Alfred Bryan. The song employs an extended metaphor of shipwreck to describe emotional distress and a feeling of desperate loneliness. The singer complains of being submerged in deep seawater and asks for an oar, a lifeline, or, failing those, prayers or sympathy. Her plight would appear to be entirely figurative, her ailment psychological depression, not drowning; so it is funny that the refrain ends with the complaint “Deep water never drowns my troubles for me!” Here the expression “drown your sorrows” (which usually refers to resorting to alcohol) is invoked, and it clashes with the larger theme of drowning from depression. The overall effect of the song is thus a playful, rather than a genuinely depressing, one.

Elsie Carlisle first recorded “Deep Water” on a solo record, with an excellent but anonymous studio band:

“Deep Water.” Music by Jean Schwartz, lyrics by Alfred Bryan (1931). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle on March 3, 1933. Decca F. 3507 mx. GB5629-1.

Elsie Carlisle – "Deep Water" (1933)

Elsie Carlisle – “Deep Water” (1933)

This March recording of “Deep Water” is melancholy for its first few seconds but straightway becomes more upbeat. Elsie’s delivery of the song’s complaint is in every way fun and is complemented by a piano solo whose virtuosity drowns any idea that the song is meant to be depressing.

On May 9, 1933, Elsie recorded three takes of “Deep Water” with Oscar Rabin and His Romany Band: one on Sterno 1187, one on Four-in-One 44, and one that appeared both on Plaza P-103 (with the band identified as “Brockman’s Band”) and on Lewis L-4 (where the band is called “Phil Conrad’s Serenaders.” The arrangement that Oscar Rabin used is somewhat more morose than Elsie’s original recording but catchy nonetheless:

“Deep Water.” Recorded by Oscar Rabin and His Romany Band (as Brockman’s Band) with vocals by Elsie Carlisle on May 9, 1933. Plaza P 103 mx. L995-1.

Personnel: Harry Davis-bj-g dir. Hamish Christie-t-tb / Johnny Swinfen-Raymond Doughty-cl-as / Sid Brown-cl-ts / Oscar Rabin-bsx-vn-ldr / Alf Kaplan-p / Cecil Walden-d

Oscar Rabin and His Romany Band (with Elsie Carlisle) – "Deep Water" (1933)

Oscar Rabin and His Romany Band (with Elsie Carlisle) – “Deep Water” (1933)

The only other contemporary recording of “Deep Water” would appear to be the one that Maurice Winnick and his band made on May 12, 1933, with vocals by Sam Browne.

"Deep Water" Sheet Music featuring Elsie Carlisle
“Deep Water” Sheet Music featuring Elsie Carlisle

“Since I Found You” (1927)

“Since I Found You.” Words by Sidney Clare, music by Harry Woods. Recorded by Elsie Carlisle at Studio B, Hayes, Middlesex, on May 6, 1927. HMV B. 2489.

Since I Found You – Elsie Carlisle

Elsie Carlisle – “Since I Found You” (1927)

Video by David Weavings (YouTube)

“Since I Found You” is an effusive love song, but one vague on details: the song tells us very little about the “I” or the “you” of the title. Even the sex of the “I” is only implied by that of the singer; there is nothing internal to the song that suggests boy-loves-girl or girl-loves-boy, the two most obvious scenarios for a popular song of the early twentieth century. Ironically, the ambiguity of “Since I Found You” may be one of its strengths.

When I first began to listen carefully to different versions of popular songs from this period, I marveled that artists and arrangers were so adept at shifting the male and female pronouns in love songs around to suit the sex of the singer (and thus incidentally to preserve a heterosexual norm). At length I came to the conclusion that the lyrics were carefully written that way in the first place. A commercially ambitious Tin Pan Alley songwriter would never want to limit the number of artists who could record his music by using words that could not easily be swapped out. An example of success in this regard would be “I Can’t Get Over a Girl Like You (Loving a Boy Like Me)”; the pronouns in the title are simply begging to be reversed, as they were when Elsie Carlisle sang them.

“Since I Found You” is particularly ingenious in this regard, insofar as it mostly involves the first and second grammatical persons (“I” and “you”); there are no he‘s that need to become she‘s. In fact, the “I” of the song tells us practically nothing about himself (or herself) or about the “you” of the song, except to say that the former is absolutely ecstatic about having found the latter. The singer expresses his or her joy by insisting that the whole universe feels it, by transferring his or her feelings to heavenly bodies, birds, bees, and insects. This clever use of the pathetic fallacy renders the song simultaneously more general and even vague (and thus requiring no adaptations for sex) and yet entirely effective as an effusive emotional outpouring.

I do not mean to suggest that there is any doubt as to Elsie Carlisle’s identity in her version of “Since I Found You”; to the contrary, she is ebullient in a feminine and perhaps even girlish way. The lack of a real plot line does not prevent her from vocally caressing each of the lyrics’ hyperbolic claims regarding the transformation of the natural world by her love life. Elsie’s dulcet cooing is complemented in this 1927 recording by the piano playing of Carroll Gibbons.

“Since I Found You” was recorded in 1926 and 1927 in America by Cliff Edwards (Ukulele Ike) and His Hot Combination, Vincent Lopez and His Casa Lopez Orchestra, Jim Miller and Charlie Farrell, and Vaughn de Leath (in January with an orchestra and in February with piano accompaniment).

British recordings were made in 1927 by Bert Firman’s Dance Orchestra, Bert and John Firman (as Eugene Brockman’s Dance Orchestra), Teddy Brown and His Café de Paris Band (with vocalist John Thorne), Jack Payne and His Hotel Cecil Orchestra (with Jack Payne singing), and the Savoy Havana Band. In late 1927 Al Bowlly recorded “Since I Found You” with Arthur Briggs’ Savoy Syncopaters Orchestra in Berlin.