Writer and pioneering film critic
Friday 29 October 2004
Nerina Shute was a pioneering film writer in the early part of the last century, becoming a feared and respected critic for
Film Weekly in the late 1920s. At the age of 18 she was the youngest columnist in Britain, and by 22 had published the first of 14 books. She was also a courageous advocate of sexual freedom in an era that frowned upon such departures.
Elizabeth Nerina Shute, writer and film critic: born Prudhoe, Northumberland 17 July 1908; married 1933 James Wentworth Day (marriage dissolved 1934), 1944 Howard Marshall (died 1973); died London 20 October 2004.
Nerina Shute was a pioneering film writer in the early part of the last century, becoming a feared and respected critic for Film Weekly in the late 1920s. At the age of 18 she was the youngest columnist in Britain, and by 22 had published the first of 14 books. She was also a courageous advocate of sexual freedom in an era that frowned upon such departures.
Born in Northumberland in 1908, Shute was the eldest child of a wealthy and privileged family. Her mother, Renie, was an eccentric who aspired to be a novelist and screenwriter. When Nerina was only 12 years old Renie took her to live in Hollywood, the heart of the fledgling movie world. Renie had little success as a screenwriter but enjoyed many exotic romances and several marriages. It was there in California that Shute spent the happiest days of her life, attending the celebrated Bishop's School in La Jolla and soaking up the atmosphere and excitement of early Hollywood. She spent hours on her own, reading voraciously and observing closely the luminaries of the film capital.
When Nerina was 16, her mother purchased a goldmine in the mountains above San Diego. It turned out to be a major disaster, ending in financial ruin. Nerina was sent back to England, where she drew on her experiences to secure a job as the Studio Correspondent for Film Weekly. Her acerbic wit attracted the attention of the editor. "You have a very impertinent pen, Miss Shute," he told her. "You described Nelson Keys as a Baby Austin lady-killer, and Madeleine Carroll as a ruthless Madonna."
"Are you going to sack me?" Nerina asked. "Certainly not," was the reply. "I'm going to give you a contract and a column of your own."
Shute revelled in her new position. She was courted and feared by luminaries from every aspect of the movie industry; her column could both promote and destroy careers and she was never afraid to speak her mind.
The great director Alfred Hitchcock banned Shute from his set. But Shute was not so easily dissuaded. She disguised herself as a boy and managed to get a job as an extra on his film, reporting gossip from the set with her usual candour.
In 1931 Shute published her first book, Another Man's Poison, which caused a furore in literary circles. Rebecca West reviewed it and said: "Miss Shute writes not so much badly as barbarously . . . yet she is full of talent." Shute began a column for the Sunday Graphic which caught the attention of Lord Beaverbrook. He asked her to come and talk to him. Shute got on well with him and, as the interview ended, Beaverbrook placed a hand on her arm. "Come and work for me at the Daily Express," he said. "One of these days you might be famous. I would like to think I was the one to find you."
By the 1930s Shute had set up home in London, enjoying the intoxicating whirl of decadence and sexual freedom to the full. She grew tired of her work for the Express, and joined the Sunday Referee as their film critic.
She travelled to Russia for Gaumont British News, and reported frankly about the plight of Russian women. She moved on to work for the Sunday Dispatch, managing to secure an exclusive front-page interview with H.G. Wells. But she was growing tired of the pressures of the journalistic life and turned instead to a new career in PR. She became publicist for Max Factor.
The new career was short-lived, and thereafter Shute became a full-time author, writing 14 books including biographical novels of Shelley ( Poet Pursued, 1951), Dante Gabriel Rossetti ( Victorian Love Story, 1954) and Fanny Burney ( Georgian Lady, 1948), a history of the relationship between the Spencer family and the Royal Family ( The Royal Family and the Spencers: two hundred years of friendship, 1986) and several works of autobiography. The last of these, published in her eighties, was called Passionate Friendships (1992). It was a brilliant and frank account of her struggle to come to terms with her bisexuality, her many friendships, both male and female, and her attempts to break free from the societal constraints of the time.
Nerina Shute was married twice. Her first marriage, to the writer James Wentworth Day, lasted only a year. Her second marriage, to the BBC commentator Howard Marshall, was an extraordinarily happy marriage that flourished during the years of the Second World War and floundered in the peace which followed. Marshall was a leading figure in the early days of the BBC, and he was anchorman for many important events. When war came, he insisted on being a front-line reporter even though he was middle-aged. He was the first civilian ashore at Normandy, surviving two shipwrecks to bring back his story, the first report on the landing to be beamed around the world.
In the years after the war, Shute met and befriended the ballroom dancing champion Phyllis Haylor, and the friendship blossomed into a 20-year relationship that Shute described as "my golden era".
In 1979, she moved to Putney, where she lived quietly until she met her final partner, Jocelyn Williams, an artist, in 1989. Shute was to describe this relationship as her "most passionate friendship of all", and Williams remained with her throughout her final years, caring for her in the home they shared in Manor Fields.
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