One of the people interviewed by Peter Cotes about Elvira was Beatrix Thomson, a name once well known in theatre and the cinema. Born in 1900 she was a leading light of the London stage in the 1920s, playing in Capek’s “R.U.R.” and in the iconic Basil Dean production of “The Constant Nymph”, among many others. Today, if she is remembered at all it is as the third wife of Claude Rains (of Casablanca fame), to whom she was married between 1925 and 1935.
It could well be her who provides the very positive view of the aspiring “Dolores Ashley” ( see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/25/dolores-ashley-elvira-as-actress/ ) that contrasts so markedly with the general later consensus about Elvira. She is not especially likely to have been at the cocktail party, due to work commitments, but she is worth considering as an acquaintance of Elvira’s beyond Mrs.Barney’s “Blue Kitten” days.
Yet another of that era’s independently-minded women,so many of whom carved a career in the performing arts, Beatrix Thomson was a playwright as well as a successful actress.Two other factors make her likely to be someone Elvira and her circle would have known and admired.
Firstly, in 1929, she became the first actress, and one of the relatively few Englishwomen, to hold an aviation licence.
Women in cars, speedboats and planes were a powerful symbol of the new freedoms that (generally wealthy) young women of the period were claiming for themselves. The aviatrice had a particular glamour – youthful and modern, a defier of convention – they had a huge impact on attitudes about women, and equally significantly, women’s attitudes to themselves. Elvira, much given to hero-worship, would surely have been a keen follower of press reports about the likes of Amy Johnson and Beryl Markham.
Secondly, in 1931, Beatrix, along with Helena Pickard, became co-manager of the Grafton Theatre on Tottenham Court Road. This gave her a chance to direct as well as act. The Grafton advertised itself as producing “London’s Most Intimate Shows”, a reference to its small size but one designed to appeal to would-be sophisticates. In the short time that Pickard and Thomson ran the place it was dedicated to new plays seems to have particularly focussed on the talent of a number of women playwrights (including the managers’). Indeed, there is something markedly proto-feminist about the whole endeavour.
Elvira, as an avid first-nighter, would have attended many of these plays and, as was her habit, would have socialised with the performers after the show. In that period of time, Beatrix, who had been separated from her husband for three years, was living in Shepherd Market, very much a Mayfair-Bohemian address. It was also next to Half Moon Street, sometime residence of Brenda Dean Paul, Gertrude Gamble and others who hover about the fringes of the case.
Pickard (1901-1959) was the wife of actor Cedric Hardwicke and the mother of Edward Hardwicke (best known as Watson in the Sherlock Holmes series). She was described as “a colourful personality” making her too a candidate for Elvira’s set.
Thomson moved into films for a while (once co-starring with Edward Hardwicke) but returned to the stage after the Second World War during which she volunteered for work in aircraft production. Apparently, she most commonly referred to herself as an “airwoman”, but that is not confirmed on passenger lists where she is definitely “Actress”. She died in 1986.
Thomson and Hardwicke
Cotes claimed that his book differed from other writings on the case because he knew so many people who had known Elvira. I’m convinced Beatrix Thomson was one of those. She fits the profile – free-spirited,wealthy parents,involved with the theatre, based in Mayfair and separated from her husband. There is, it must be said, no hint of scandal or excess, in her long career but the possible areas of overlap are considerable. And, of course, she flew a plane. Irresistible, I would have thought.