When the War broke out 60 years ago they reckoned she was worth two armoured divisions - three if she lost her bra or pants. Brigid Keenan meets the model for Jane, the troops' favourite cartoon girl
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A COUPLE of years after the war, the Daily Mirror abruptly terminated its famous Jane cartoon. Not a soul now seems to remember the exact date, nor the reason (though it might have had something to do with the cartoonist always being late with his work). Clearly, no one expected the mayhem that followed. The switchboard was jammed with calls from readers, and the front desk overwhelmed by furious fans. The besieged paper begged the cartoonist for a hasty drawing to hold the public at bay. He did one frame of Jane peeking saucily out from behind a curtain, with the caption: "Give us a break, boys. I've lost my panties." When this appeared the following morning, all roads to the Mirror's Fetter Lane offices were jammed with delivery boys and taxis bringing ladies' knickers for Jane. Needless to say, the cartoon was reinstated.

The story has probably grown in the telling, but it gives an idea of the Jane phenomenon: not since Mickey Mouse had a cartoon character had such a grip on the public imagination. But Jane had the edge on Mickey, because she actually came to life. Jane the cartoon character was based on a real girl, a natural blonde, brown-eyed artist's model called Christabel. Christabel the model became Jane, and Jane became Christabel. "And I was glad to have all that underwear," she now says. "There was still clothes- rationing at the time, and I had four sisters I could give it to, as well as the chorus girls in my show."

In the war years, Jane had been more than just a strip cartoon. She was the nation's pin-up girl; painted on to planes and tanks and jeeps, she was the morale booster of the Forces. Jane won the war, they said: she was Britain's secret weapon. "Worth two armoured divisions to us," commented some wit. "Three if she lost her bra or pants."

Jane was the first "naughty" in the daily press - Page Three girls were far in the future - but the secret of her success was that while she constantly appeared topless, in her smalls or wrapped in a skimpy towel, it was always for a reason beyond her control. She herself was innocent and good - she was only in her underwear or nude because she'd forgotten to lock the bathroom, or a train door had slammed on her skirt and ripped it off, or a ferocious dog had tugged at her hem, or she'd fallen while climbing a wall, or, in the most unlikely scenario, she'd tumbled out of a plane on to the wing of another aircraft. It was the combination of innocence and naughtiness that everyone loved.

The real Jane, Christabel Leighton-Port, now a pretty lady of a certain age living in Horsham, West Sussex, has lost nothing of Jane's femininity and naivety (though she refuses extremely firmly to reveal her age, and how long she has been married, lest that give the game away).

Perched on her sitting-room sofa, in flowery blue frock and pastel cardigan, brown eyes wide with concentration, she recites one of the saucy ditties from the Jane stage show in which she appeared with her famous dachshund, Fritz. "You could make this sound raucous and blue," she confides, "but Jane did it in a soft small voice like this and pretended to be horrified when everyone laughed." And off she goes in a sweet half-whisper:

Once a month I bathe my little dog,

I soap him all over and I rinse him with a hose,

He runs around and shakes himself, like all dogs I suppose.

I undress before I bathe him or I'd ruin all my clothes.

Wouldn't you like to be my little dog?

It is a truly risque performance (when describing Jane, words unused for decades spring to mind - saucy, scanty, naughty, risque). No wonder fans used to smash the glass protecting her front-of-house photographs and steal them.

The cartoon - originally called Jane, or The Diary of a Bright Young Thing - first appeared in the Daily Mirror in 1932 without Christabel. It was drawn by Norman Pett, life-master at Birmingham Central School of Art, using his wife Mary as the model. It began as one drawing each Saturday, but proved so popular that it became a daily strip. It took up so much time that Pett finally had to stop teaching.

In the meantime, in 1941, young Christabel left her home in Eastleigh, Hampshire, and went to London to stay with one of her sisters (there were 11 children in the family, and Christabel herself is a twin). This sister was an artist, and Jane went visiting at her art school, where they pounced on her and begged her to pose for the life-class.

"I was young and slim, and most of their models weren't. But it was for practical reasons as much as anything - I was very fit, I played a lot of tennis, so I could take up active poses rather than just flop on cushions."

When exam time came round at Birmingham Central School of Art, they were desperately short of models. Christabel was asked if she would go up and help them out in the life-class. One day Pett popped in to see how his successor was coping. "He saw me on the rostrum and said 'There's Jane!'" and asked Christabel to pose for his strip.

"To be frank," she says, "I felt a bit iffy about it, but then his wife came to collect me, and she was lovely to me. It turned out that she was relieved to be able to stop as she wanted to play more golf. It was all very respectable."

Christabel posed every day for Pett, and as often as not the writer of the cartoon, Don Freeman (who also wrote another hugely popular cartoon called Pip, Squeak and Wilfrid) was there too. "These two grown men, they'd spend hours thinking up ways of getting my clothes off - it was ludicrous really." The ideas they came up with often involved Jane tumbling over or taking up some unlikely pose that was difficult to hold, and in this case she would be photographed and the drawing done from the picture.

Jane had a cartoon boyfriend called Georgie Porgie - "He was [based on] Mary Pett's partner at the golf club" - and, most famously, a dachshund called Fritz.

"Mary had a dachshund, so they put him in the cartoon too. After the war broke out they took him out because they thought readers might object to a German dog with a German name, but there was no reaction so they put him back in again, and no one seemed to notice he'd been gone." When the original Fritz died, Christabel bought her own dachshund.

Soon after Christabel became Jane, the Petts moved to Crawley in order to be nearer the Daily Mirror, and Christabel moved to her sister's place in Wimbledon. From there she would travel to Crawley every day to pose. Leslie Grade (theatrical agent and brother of Lew) persuaded her to do a stage show, Jane out of the 'Daily Mirror', which toured the country, particularly the areas where servicemen were based.

As in the cartoon, Jane/ Christabel had to lose, for totally innocent reasons, as many clothes as was legally possible (at the time nudes were not allowed to move on stage and could only pose motionless in tableaux). In one sketch Jane had to startle a robber who, in trying to escape, trips and "inadvertently" pulls off her skirt as he falls. "The actor was such a villain," she smiles fondly. "Every night he used to try and pull my knickers off as well."

Christabel's family were ordinary and respectable. Her mother was a local school governor for years, her father a businessman. But she hid nothing from them, and says she only lied once, when her mother came to see the show when it played Southampton near her home (comedian Benny Hill was on the bill too; before that he'd been the family milkman).

"I was appearing nude in a tableau, but I told my mother I was wearing a body stocking. She wasn't fooled, but she didn't mind. My mother always thought I was wonderful."

Somewhere down the line, Christabel married Arthur Leighton-Port, a tennis- playing friend of her brother's, whom she met again when he joined the RAF and became a Jane fan. They have one son, who also joined the RAF, and two grandchildren.

Christabel has great tenderness for servicemen - "my boys" - and the services, particularly the RAF, have a huge affection for Christabel. Her diary is packed with airfield and squadron reunions, veterans' get- togethers, war anniversaries, and functions at the Imperial War Museum.

For the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings the BBC took her to Pegasus Bridge in France where the British paratroops had been victorious. She met Major Howard, who had led the successful parachute drop, and he told her that after the battle there had been a further drop - of bundles of Daily Mirrors. "Jane's here," someone shouted, and the paras fell on the papers to see what Jane had been up to. In 1976 the Mirror published a book of the old cartoons called Jane at War, and asked readers to send in their memories.

There were hundreds of replies. A woman who'd been in the WAAF remembered the survivors of the airborne troops who'd been defeated at Arnhem returning to base. After they'd kissed the grass of Lympne aerodrome in Kent, they headed for the equipment section to demand the Daily Mirror. "Jane was the sole topic of conversation," she recalled, "even though they were filthy, hungry and worn out."

A veteran Rifle Brigade corporal recounted how his platoon had an artist among them who drew Jane striptease-fashion on their four half-track vehicles. On each succeeding vehicle she wore fewer clothes: "You could see peoples' eyes watching for the next half-track to come along," he wrote. "We had the paintings on through D-Day until some time after, when we had to scrub them off because we were going to be inspected by Monty."

"I used to wonder what was the big attraction. Why was Jane such a success?" says Christabel now. "Then the other day someone said to me: 'Don't be so silly, it was sex'. I would have been horrified if I'd known that. And it still doesn't explain why so many wives and daughters thought, still think, the world of me.

"Anyway, whatever it was, I am grateful. I don't believe there could be anyone who's had such a fuss made of them all their life as I have." 1