Renée Gadd

Dancer and actress romantically involved with Fred Astaire
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The Independent Online

Renée Gertrude Gadd, actress: born Bahia Blanca, Argentina 22 June 1906; married first 1929 Guy Tooth (marriage dissolved), second Harry Hardman (marriage dissolved), third 1950 Joe Wilson (deceased); died Hove, East Sussex 20 July 2003.

When she died, at the age of 97, the dancer and actress Renée Gadd had been in retirement for 50 years. Her face had not appeared on a cigarette card since 1936, nor her name on a movie credit roll since 1950. Her life and career in the first half of the last century, however, had incorporated starring roles in West End hits, film contracts with studios in Britain and Hollywood, and a professional and romantic involvement with Fred Astaire.

Gadd was born in Bahia Blanca, a sea port 400 miles south of Buenos Aires, in 1906. Her mother, Carlotta Le Bas, was the daughter of colonists from Jersey, her father, Talbot Gadd, an American railway manager. The couple separated in 1914, shortly after the birth of their eighth child. The estrangement split the family: Carlotta and the children removed to England, where the boys were sent to public school and the girls lodged with a fierce maiden aunt and a variety of strangers who took in unwanted children as paying guests.

Renée was a chorus girl in Brighton from the age of 14, using her dancing talent to support her hard-up family, and raising the money to send her sisters to private schools. Two years later, and thanks to an audacious letter to the powerful West End producer Basil Dean, she secured a part in his production of James Elroy Flecker's Oriental fantasy Hassan.

She mastered eight changes of costume a night in Rose Marie - which occupied the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, for most of 1925. The following year Gadd was cast with Fred Astaire in the London premiere of Lady be Good, and again, two years later, in Funny Face. She was Astaire's lover as well as his colleague, an arrangement made possible by her friendship with his notoriously possessive sister, Adele. "Everybody said she was a bitch, but she wasn't with me. Luckily she thought I was good for Fred."

In 1929 Gadd broke into straight West End theatre, with leading roles in Supply and Demand, Black Coffee and The Man Who Kissed His Wife. This was also the year that she married her first husband, Guy Tooth, the youngest son of a family of Cork Street art dealers. The marriage did not last: Gadd left him for the actor Hugh Williams, with whom she starred in the film White Face (1933), an Edgar Wallace thriller made for British Lion.

When Williams departed for America in mid-1933 to take up his contract with Fox, Gadd was prevented from following him by her own contract with British International Pictures at Elstree. She had been signed in 1932, after studio bosses had noted her comic turn as Mittens the maid in Monty Banks's film of the farce Money for Nothing (1932), and for two years was cast as a foil to forgotten comedians such as Ernie Lotinga and Albert Burdon. (For Letting in the Sunshine, in 1933, possibly the first British sex comedy about a window cleaner, she spent three days sitting in a bathtub.) She also played one of the leads in Skipper of the Osprey (1933), an experimental colour film shot at Ealing.

Disappointment awaited her in America, once she was free to make the trip. When she arrived in Hollywood at Williams's bungalow in the Garden of Allah, she found that another woman had already taken her place. The collapse of the relationship, however, did not prevent the former lovers appearing together in George Cukor's David Copperfield (1935).

On her return from America, she married again, to Harry Hardman, a wealthy septuagenarian who, after the wedding, took her on a three-month holiday in Europe. (Her sisters came to meet her from the boat-train, and found the honeymooners travelling in separate compartments.) Again, the marriage was short-lived. When they divorced, Gadd declined to accept any financial settlement, but was pleased to accept a small villa in Montego Bay.

By the 1940s her film roles dwindled to little more than cameos, though the Ealing director Basil Dearden kept her in work, allocating her small parts in They Came to a City (1944), Dead of Night (1945) and Frieda (1947). Her last day in front of the camera was spent playing a supercilious motorist in Dearden's celebrated crime drama The Blue Lamp (1950).

The next 50 years were quieter, happier and more settled. She married again, to Joe Wilson, an insurance manager, in 1950, and lived with him in a brownstone apartment in Washington Square, and, latterly, in London. After his death she bought a mansion flat in Hove, where, in her last years, she kept in touch with old friends such as Googie Withers, proved an indulgent aunt to her siblings' many grandchildren, and was always happy to discuss her film and theatre career with interested visitors.

Matthew Sweet