THERE was a part of Delia De Leon, the actress and co-founder of the Q Theatre, which preferred to have nothing to do with the crude machinations of this world. She was often delightful, yet infuriatingly hard to pin down to the end of her life.
Born in 1901 in Panama, the eldest of a large family of Sephardic Jews, De Leon was sent at the age of eight to an English boarding school. In 1911 her whole family moved to London, eventually settling in West Hampstead.
She had two burning ambitions. 'The first,' she wrote in her autobiography, The Ocean of Love (1991), 'was to know and understand about God. The second was to be a great actress. Both desires ran parallel and were the pivot of my life.' In her early thirties, alongside her more well-known brother Jack and his redoubtable wife Beatie, she co-founded and put most of the money into the Q Theatre, the fringe theatre of its day. Conveniently situated opposite Kew Bridge station, it attracted a host of talent including Vivien Leigh, Peggy Ashcroft, Anthony Quayle, Flora Robson, Michael Hordern, Margaret Lockwood, Donald Wolfit, Donald Sinden, Mrs Patrick Campbell, Joan Collins, Sean Connery and Roger Moore
Acting under the name Delia Delvina in the late Twenties, De Leon won acclaim for her performance in Walter Hackett's The Barton Mystery, which transferred to the West End. But by the summer of 1931 she and her large family were looking for a meaning they hadn't found in the theatre.
Delia De Leon's first meeting with the Indian God-Man Meher Baba took place in the unlikely setting of a box at the Coliseum before seeing a musical comedy, The White Horse Inn. Up to that point, Baba's main claim to fame had been his difficult relations with Mahatma Gandhi, with whom he had just travelled to England on the same ship, the Rajputana.
Star-struck, De Leon describes the impact Meher Baba, with his clipped moustache, had on her: 'I was stunned. I had seen his face before in my dreams: the eyes were startling in their beauty; the face seemed luminous, framed by a halo of long, dark hair. He seemed to be enjoying the play; there was a funny man in it and I heard Baba chuckling.' It was the first intimation De Leon had of how much Baba enjoyed comedians, including the silent Charlie Chaplin. Baba's own silence, which had began on 10 July 1925, continued to his death on 31 January 1969.
From the early Thirties Delia De Leon, Margaret Craske, the dancer, and Kitty Davy (as well as other well-heeled middle-class women) became increasingly involved with the silent God-Man. They were known as 'The Frivolous Three' or 'Kimco', and their romance was well documented in the tabloids.
I first met Delia De Leon in 1968, at the top of a building in Wardour Street in which Pete Townsend then had a flat. I was with Craig San Roque, a poet later to become famous as the first Jungian psychotherapist to work with the Aborigines in Alice Springs. Delia was positioned at the corner of the room, poised to take on all comers. She plied us with steaming cups of tea, and as many sandwiches and cakes as she could lay her hands on. I remember how thrilled she was when, in 1976, Townsend started the recording studio Meher Baba Oceanic with fanfares of trumpets, and 10 days of music, drama, films, poems and more concentrated sandwich- and cake-eating. Adi K. Irani, Baba's secretary, was flown in to perform the opening ceremony. For one brief moment this seemed the culmination of her and Townsend's dreams. But the studio closed after only five years.
By then De Leon must have grown used to Baba's methods of raising hopes only to dash them. Apart from his film Delia (1974), an hour-long tribute to her and Meher Baba, Pete Townsend leaves the most lasting memorial - commenting on Baba's most famous saying, 'Be Happy, Don't Worry': 'Perhaps there are others who worry as much as she, but I doubt it. Her passion, constancy, meticulousness, and enormous anxiety have all blended to produce an endearing eccentricity that enriched my life.'
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