Margaret Rutherford, unsung hero
Comic and character actor, Margaret Rutherford, was born into a drama-filled life. Following her mother’s death, aged three, she was delivered to a kindly aunt, described by Rutherford as ‘my adoptive mother and one of the saints of the world,’ where she was raised in a comfortable, loving, London household.
At a young age Rutherford developed an interest in the theatre and her aunt paid for her to have private acting lessons. In 1925 she was accepted as a student at the Old Vic Theatre where she appeared in several minor roles.
Rutherford made her first appearance in London’s West End in 1933. Her talent wasn’t recognised for some years, until in 1939 she played Miss Prism in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. She followed this with the role of Mrs Danvers in Rebecca, Blithe Spirit in 1941 and The Happiest Days of Your Life’ in 1948. In all three cases she took the role from stage to screen when they were made into feature films. In the 1960s Rutherford became synonymous with her part as Miss Marple in Agatha Christie’s spinster-come-amateur-detective character’s first foray onto the big-screen. In 1963 Rutherford won an Oscar for her performance in The VIPs.
However, it is not for the dozens of films and plays, critical acclaim, her Oscar, OBE or DBE, that wins this denizen of stage and screen the accolade of unsung LGBT hero, but for her off-screen relations and relationships.
In 1945 Rutherford married Stringer Davis. The pair starred in several films together. The internet abounds with rumours regarding Davis’ sexuality; whether he was openly gay or bisexual, one thing remains consistent – that he truly doted on her and barely left his wife’s side until her death in 1972.
It is reputed that Rutherford had wanted children, but had been concerned that a family heirloom of mental instability (which included individuals driven to patricide and suicide) might be passed on from one generation to the next. Instead she and her husband took to “adopting” adults with whom they felt a natural affinity. Among these unofficial adoptions was writer Gordon Langley Hall. The actress met Hall whilst appearing on Broadway in New York. She is said to have wished to play a part in the film adaptation of Hall’s Me Papoose Sitter.
Hall always identified as female, maintaining that she had been assigned to the wrong gender at birth. Aged 30 Gordon Langley Hall became known as Dawn. Margaret Rutherford proudly told everyone that her son was now a daughter.
Aside from being supportive of her daughter’s transition, Rutherfold is also said to have taken great pleasure in the company of gay men. One of her closest friends was Ivor Novello, and Noel Coward wrote the part of Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit with her in mind. She is reputed to have always taken the time to respond to those who wrote to her – often offering words of assurance as to their lifestyles at a time when homosexuality was criminalised in the UK.
Words: Jess Rotas
This article was printed in We Are Family magazine, issue 5, Spring 2014. Details may have changed - please do not rely on this information solely when making decisions - do your own research, make your own checks and get legal or health advice as appropriate.