Biography & Career

Elsie Carlisle in America

I have been postponing writing about Elsie Carlisle’s 1923-1924 stay in America for eight and a half years now, nearly the entire time that I have been running this website. Originally, I hesitated to comment simply because I was not sure the trip had happened. Later, it became clear that she had spent a few months in the United States, but I could not confidently name a single thing that she did here. There were rumors that she had made the journey to conceal her having a third child.

I am now prepared to clear the matter up a little.

Carlisle’s personal life was admittedly marked by subterfuge. She spent nearly half a century married to Wilfred Malpas, and yet she liked to pose as a single woman, passing off her two sons as her brothers. It is perhaps natural that people researching her life and her family expect to find more examples of secrecy and potential scandal.

I was first tipped off to the possibility of Carlisle’s having visited America by a gracious correspondent who was doing some genealogical research. American immigration records showed that a certain artist named Elsie Carlisle, born in Manchester, England in 1899 and based out of London, had arrived in New York on the steamer Franconia on August 26, 1923. The birth date was incorrect by three years — but might she not have been gilding the lily by making herself three years younger? My correspondent theorized about a secret trip to hide a pregnancy, which I supposed was possible. What turned me off was the final destination. This Elsie Carlisle was on her way to Memphis, Tennessee to visit Mrs. Ernest [sic] Taylor of Poplar Ave. The whole thing seemed so outlandish — what possible connection could the Elsie Carlisle we know have with Tennessee? I dismissed the whole matter as a probable confusion of persons. “Elsie Carlisle” must have been a common enough name, after all.

But soon I would find references in newspapers and trade journals to the famous Elsie Carlisle taking a trip to New York at exactly that time. I reconstructed her movements as follows. As late as August 8, 1923, an advertisement was run in The Era suggesting that Carlisle could still be seen on the London stage in Fred Karno’s revue “1923.”1 By September 5, she was in America:

We hear that Elsie Carlisle, who recently concluded her second season’s engagement in Fred Karno’s “1922-3,” is spending a holiday in America.2

Carlisle had, then, arrived on the Franconia on August 26 and told immigration that she was going to visit Mrs. Taylor in Tennessee. The Era continued to give British readers updates as to her activities:

Elsie Carlisle, who was last seen here in that successful revue, “1923,” opens this week on the Keith Circuit, New York. Elsie went over a few weeks ago for a holiday, but has evidently been prevailed upon to play there during her stay.3

What startled me was the following comment in the U.S.-based journal Variety:

Elsie Carlisle, English, recently arriving in New York will return to London without making an appearance in New York.4

Had there been some ruse? When Elsie really did get back to England — on March 4, after a six-month stay — the press was under the impression that she had been on stage and had been well received:

Elsie Carlisle, who was a principal in Fred Karno’s “1922” and “1923” revues, arrived in England on the “Ansonia” on Tuesday [March 4, 1924] after a six months’ successful tour on the Keith Circuit.5

With the London press suggesting that Carlisle was on stage in the United States but with U.S.-based Variety having her prepare to return to England without appearing in New York, I was beginning to think that perhaps her journey did have an ulterior motive. At this point I compared notes with researcher Terry Brown, who had noticed many of the same references in the press to Carlisle’s American trip. Terry informed me that he had also heard a theory that she had gone to America for privacy while pregnant with a third son (he did not himself take a position on the likelihood of that scenario), one Arthur Davies.

I let some more time pass, but of course I did not forget the intriguing rumor. Finally this month, while pulling together some biographical notes about Elsie Carlisle, I discovered the source of the confusion (which has made its way into a couple of family trees on ancestry.com, I see): there is an Arthur Davies, born either August 4 or September 4, 1923, whose mother was apparently named Elizabeth Malpas — Elsie Carlisle’s legal name. I say “apparently” because Davies’s mother’s last name was almost certainly “Malpass”, with two s’s, and it was her maiden name — I have seen the wedding certificate. She was an entirely different person.

I shared the results of my research with Terry, and he surprised me with some of his own: a clipping from the American publication Billboard (November 8, 1923):

Elsie Carlisle sang several songs in the second spot, affecting a naive style of delivery coupled with an appealing soprano voice. All of her songs are in a rather low key, so low as to make the performance monotonous. Miss Carlisle seemed to have a weakness for rolling her eyes toward an upper box and on two or three occasions while singing she burst into laughter, apparently at her own funny catch lines, or some incident that she happened to think of at that time. Probably it was all in the act, but if it was, she failed to follow it up and receive the full benefit of it, for she closed rather weak.6

So Carlisle was on stage, and in New York, at that! Variety had been misinformed. And the American reviewer had given Carlisle by far the worst review I have ever seen of her.

So the facts fall into place. Elsie Carlisle went to America in 1923 and ended up staying into 1924. I do not think that she could have secretly had a child in either of those years; she would have been on stage enough for people to notice. At least one reviewer thought her U.S. show was unmemorable, but whoever was promoting her career back in London was keen to assert that her performances had been “fully successful.” It is worth noting that The Era first described Elsie’s absence from London as a mere “holiday” or vacation, but it  seems to have turned into a professional opportunity soon afterwards.

But what do we do with the Taylors in Memphis, Tennessee, Elsie Carlisle’s supposed hosts while staying in the States? Mr. Emmett Taylor of 1071 Poplar Avenue was a cotton buyer, according to censuses, and he and his wife Elizabeth were prominent enough citizens to be listed in the social register.7 Their teenage daughter, Elizabeth Scott Taylor, made trips to Europe; a passport application has her leaving New York on the Leviathan on July 28, 1923, the first such trip of hers that I know of. That does not give her much time to become bosom friends with Carlisle, but she could definitely have arranged an invitation.

Did Elsie Carlisle, however, actually get as far as Memphis? Your guess is as good as mine.

Notes:

  1. “Elsie Carlisle – With a Different Style – ‘1923’ 2nd Season L.T.V. Tour,” The Era, August 8, 1923, 15, British Newspaper Archive.
  2. “The Variety World,” The Era, September 5, 1923, 12, British Newspaper Archive.
  3. “The Variety World,” The Era, October 10, 1923, 12, British Newspaper Archive.
  4. “Editorial,” Variety, November 8, 1923, 11.
  5. “Variety Gossip,” The Stage, March 6, 1924, 13, British Newspaper Archive; see also “The Variety World,” The Era, March 26, 1924, 12, British Newspaper Archive, where Carlisle is described as having been “fully successful.”
  6. “B. S. Moss’ Regent, N. Y.” Billboard, October 27, 1923, 18. https://worldradiohistory.com/Archive-All-Music/Billboard/20s/1923/Billboard-1923-10-27-List-Number.pdf.
  7. Social Register of Memphis. Memphis, Tennessee: Penn-Renshaw, 1925, 105.

Anniversary of Elsie Carlisle’s Death

Elsie Carlisle passed from this world on September 5, 1977, dying of cancer at the age of 81 in the Royal Marsden Hospital, Chelsea, London. The informant who signed the death certificate was Wilfred “Willie” Ypres Carlisle, one of her two sons, who gave as his own address the same one that she had been living at for the previous four decades, 8 Deanery Street, in the posh Mayfair district. She is described in the document as “A Theatrical Artist (retired)” and “Widow of Wilfred Malpas.”

The era of British dance band music was long over, and she had lived in great privacy for many years. It was four days before the London Times took notice of Elsie Carlisle’s death, when they printed an abbreviated eulogy:

Elsie Carlisle, who was a notable crooner of the 1930s, has died. Born in Manchester she was an established name by the time she was 16. She appeared in many Royal Command performances, among her song title hits being “No, no, a Thousand Times, No!” and “Little Drummer Boy”. For four years she was partnered by Sam Brown [sic] but they split up in 1935.

By contrast, during the interwar years the praise showered upon Elsie’s talent and winning personality was far more effusive. In 1921, almost five years before Elsie made her first radio broadcast, she earned the following review from the Angus Evening Telegraph for her performance in a Dundee production of the play French Beans:

An ideal Cupid is Elsie Carlisle, who entertains as much with her bewitching personality as with her charming voice. She has a knack of getting to the heart of her audience, and it seemed as though she were not to be allowed to make her bow last night.

In 1926, Elsie began both to sing on the radio and to make records, and her increasingly nationally recognized celebrity attracted ever more fanciful epithets. In 1927 she was a “charming microphone personality.” By 1934 she had become “the champion mezzo-soprano crooner” and “Your Radio Favourite.” In 1936, surveys showed her to be the public’s favorite female radio singer, and she earned the oft-repeated title “Idol of the Radio,” a status she enjoyed for several years. In November 1939, Radio Pictorial famously dubbed her “Radio Sweetheart No. 1,” and in 1941, the penultimate year of her making records, the Hull Daily Mail was still calling her “the charming songstress of the radio.”

Elsie was not only known for her solo work, of course. Her name is closely associated with the elite Ambrose Orchestra (with whom she recorded the still-popular songs “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By,” “Pu-leeze! Mister Hemingway!” and “You’ve Got Me Crying Again”), but some of her best work was done with other bands, such as the Rhythm Maniacs (under the direction of Arthur Lally), Ray Starita and His Ambassadors’ Band, and Jack Harris and His Orchestra. She was also frequently paired with the singer Sam Browne, with whom she  recorded duets in the early 1930s.

In 1940-1941, nearing the end of her professional career, Elsie toured the country with a troupe of younger entertainers. The draw that her name exerted is attested by the fact that the group called itself “The Carlisle Express.” She stopped making records in 1942, but she was still  on stage and continued making broadcasts through 1945. After this point she almost completely dropped out of the public eye, but it is worth noting that that was true of most dance band personalities; the genre did not really survive the war. Her attention shifted to business ventures, including a ballroom in London and an inn in Berkshire.

It was not only for stage, broadcasting, and recording that Elsie was known; she also worked in other media. In addition to making short but amusing appearances singing in a number of films, Elsie was an early television star, appearing first on the crude Baird system in 1930, and she continued to pop up on TV as the technology improved during the 1930s. In the early 1950s, she did a television interview accompanied by Ambrose and then disappeared utterly from public view until 1973, when she appeared on the Denis Norden program Looks Familiar. She was to return to that show in 1975. 1

An erstwhile child actress who rose to striking celebrity and dominated the airwaves for nearly twenty years, Elsie Carlisle ended her days in comparative obscurity, but those who had worked with her remembered her not just as a great musical talent, but as a warm, fun, and charitable person. In the words of accompanist Bert Read, writing in the months following her death: “I shall always retain the warmest memories of a fine artiste and a gentle, compassionate, woman.  R.I.P.”

Notes:

  1. David Weavings tells me that he saw the 1973 appearance of Elsie Carlisle on Looks Familiar, and that Denis Norden was able to convince Elsie to sing the first line of “My Man o’ War.”

Elsie Carlisle’s 126th Birthday

Elizabeth Carlisle was born on January 28, 18961 in Manchester, England to James Carlisle and Mary Ellen Carlisle (née Cottingham). Elsie was not the only member of her family to show a knack for show business; her brothers James (“Jim”) and Albert (“Tim”) were both singers who worked with the great composer, publisher, and impresario Lawrence Wright. By her own account, Elsie was encouraged to learn singing by her mother, who paid for her to have lessons when she was only a small girl.2 It was her brother Jim who got her her first theatrical role at the age of 12,3 and by the time of her marriage in 1914 she could be described as a “musical hall artiste” on the wedding certificate. By 1919 she was appearing in the West End in a show whose cast included Betty Bolton, and the next year she merited her own show, entitled Elsie Carlisle – With a Different Style, in which she performed as a solo vocalist.

How “different” her style was would quickly be made known to larger and larger audiences. Her stage career grew, only to be eclipsed, starting in 1926, by her broadcasting and recording efforts. Elsie’s recordings made with Ambrose and His Orchestra between 1932 and 1935 are among the best remembered, but one should remember that she recorded at least 332 record sides between 1926 and 1942 — a prolific output. The British public would have known her better still from her broadcasts on the BBC and Radio Luxembourg. She was often billed as the “Idol of the Radio,” a well-earned epithet. By the mid-1930s she was ranked amongst the top vocalists who could be heard on the British airwaves, and she had film and television credits to her name as well. Her dulcet delivery of themes both comic and plaintive continues to attract listeners well over a century after her first performance in a Manchester music hall, and the world is much richer for her having lived in it.

Notes:

  1. January 28, 1896 is the date that Elsie Carlisle’s mother provided when she registered her daughter’s birth on March 3, 1896. The same birthday appears on Elsie’s baptismal certificate, which is dated April 15, 1896, so the date “21 January 1897” found on Elsie’s death certificate must be erroneous. People are not generally baptized before they are born, and one would assume that Elsie’s mother was a better source of information regarding her own daughter’s birth than Elsie’s son Wilfred, the informant for the death certificate.
  2. Ralph Graves. “Radio Sweetheart No. 1.” Radio Pictorial 251 (November 4, 1938): 8.
  3. According to Richard J. Johnson in “Elsie Carlisle (with a different style).” Memory Lane 174 (2012): 25.

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.

Photographs of Elsie Carlisle in the 1930s

Terry Brown was kind enough to share these photographs of Elsie in the 1930s with me. Click or tap on any of them to open the gallery:

 

"The Idol of the Radio." British dance band singer of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.