But gentlemen marry brunettes

Once upon a time, long, long ago, longer than the first BB creams, or plastic surgery, longer ago than the film of How To Marry a Millionaire, longer even than the age of Flappers and their shingle bobs, when Anita Loos wrote Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and its sequel, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, longer than when unstoppable American heiresses married into the British and European aristocracy, longer ago than universal suffrage and universal education, at a time when the only universally accepted truth for a woman’s fate was in the marriage market, there lived two beautiful, but very poor, dark-haired sisters known as the Gunning Beauties.

They became A-list celebrities of their day, Cinderellas who escaped from genteel poverty in Ireland – so poor that they had to try earning a living on the stage – to social ascendancy in England through marriage to aristocrats – fine, if you like that sort of thing, and even if you don’t, imagine a world in which a woman’s career options were so narrow that only a wedding in a silver dress could save her from destitution or prostitution.

Like Cinderella, they didn’t have dresses for their first ball in Dublin, until a fairy-godmother, in their case the local theatre manager, supplied them with two costumes from his wardrobe department.

Unlike Cinderella, they had a living mother who had a dream for her daughters, “a wonderful dream”, to get her daughters married to princes. She had the advantage of being born on the right side of the tracks, as the daughter of an Irish peer, and had an insider’s knowledge of how to market the girls for presentation at Court. Her daughters’ beauty would get them the wealth and social position that she had been denied by an unlucky marriage.

She steered them over the water to mainland Britain where they would, in the words Sondheim wrote for another ambitious mother, “stand the world on its ear / Set it spinning..” and “have nothing to hit but the heights”….

Elizabeth Gunning Hamilton

“…the cool type of temperament who thinks two is a crowd” (Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) Portrait of Elizabeth Gunning, by Gavin Hamilton, commissioned by her first ducal husband, the Duke of Hamilton, 1752/53. Image: Wikipedia

They were tall and willowy, with perfect slim figures, and, when they arrived in celebrity-obsessed London, were regularly mobbed in the park by fans, according to the social observer Horace Walpole, who never missed a flounce, a pout or a pass.

Like Lorelei Lee and Dorothy Shaw from Little Rock, they were young, sexy and on the make; their fame spurred every man, regardless of class and income, to win them, and the beautiful fortune-hunters quickly bagged their trophy-hunting aristocrats.

Page99illustrationfromFairytalesofCharlesPerrault(Clarke1922)Illustration by Harry Clarke to The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, published in 1922 by Harrap. Image: Wikipedia

Walpole, social observer, politician, art collector and gay man of wit, erudition, taste and imagination, whose private gothic fantasy at Strawberry Hill prefigured a dominant architectural trend of the following century, and whose novel, The Castle of Otranto, inaugurated gothic horror fiction, concluded that the fuss about the Gunnings was because there was two of them, “for singly I have seen much handsomer women than either”.

He tracked their progress in minute detail, their looks, their behaviour, their clothes, their scandals, and their marriages, the younger sister to two dukes in succession, and the elder to a mere Earl – making them, said Walpole, “Countessed and Doubleduchessed”.

Walpole was a natural for social media; he would have been an ideal panel game host and ubiquitous chat show guest; his saving grace was that he didn’t pursue a professional acting career, as well.

NPG 988; Horace Walpole by John Giles EccardtHorace Walpole by John Giles Eccardt, oil on canvas, 1754 © National Portrait Gallery, London.
His creation, Strawberry Hill House, Twickenham, is behind him. He also discovered “serendipity”.

The sisters were tourist attractions. They were under constant scrutiny for flaws. Maria was the prettiest, and the silliest. People made fun of her stupid remarks. It’s unlikely she was so stupid that she didn’t realize everyone was laughing at her, but let’s hope she was for her sake; or let’s hope she was deliberately playing the part of dumb blonde to get laughs, like Lorelei, like Marilyn.

She was terrified that the slightest diminution in her beauty would make her unloved and unfashionable. From girlhood she had used make-up.  She painted her lovely face with white lead and rouge every day so it would always look exactly the same, the face of a Gunning Beauty. And when rashes erupted on her face, she put on more make-up, and when the rashes got worse she put on even more.

Like a cigarette smoker today, or any kind of addict (and I bet we’re all addicted to something) she knew that her habit was dangerous. If she used lead paint long enough, the hair of her eyebrows might fall out. It might kill her. She couldn’t stop.

The fairy tale was cursed.

Page_135(Clarke,_1922)Illustration by Harry Clarke to The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, published in 1922 by Harrap. Image: Wikipedia

13 comments on “But gentlemen marry brunettes

  1. […] History translated into living fairy tales by a multi-talented lady of the English Stage… […]

    Liked by 1 person

  2. […] That’s the saving grace of scavenging the web for a shiny image to illustrate a dull thought: serendipity. Like Vermeer, József Rippl-Rónai describes the spaces in rooms we feel but cannot see. They make […]


  3. erickeyswriter says:

    “The fairy tale was cursed.”

    Aren’t they all?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on By the Mighty Mumford and commented:
    And that is who I married!…a brunette!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. olganm says:

    I agree that you pick up good connections with nowadays circumstances and situations. I guess human nature doesn’t change. Fascinating as usual.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. vinnieh says:

    Nice to hear you’re enjoying my reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. PJR says:

    Thank you, Mary – they are such strong personalities, they bring themselves back to life I think. The challenge would be to write about very dull people…..


  8. PJR says:

    Oh, dear, Walpole doesn’t make an appearance in part 2, as far as I remember (wrote it a week ago) – he might have to be called back for a Special Appearance, just for you, Pete!


  9. PJR says:

    Thank you – it’s a relief to know that the modern day parallels work for you – it’s a risk, I think, and some people might prefer time partitions to be kept intact. Have just had a great time reading some of yr film reviews, BTW


  10. Mary says:

    Great post and entertaining – you write with such imagery that I can see and hear the characters.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. beetleypete says:

    I am warming to Walpole a lot through your writing. He sounds like the sort of man who would be very entertaining at a dinner party. As long as you were on the right side of his wit that is.
    More tales to savour, I am already anticipating part two.
    Best wishes as always, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. vinnieh says:

    Another outstanding, I like how you reference things from the modern day when writing these posts.

    Liked by 2 people

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