Obituary: Gwyneth Lloyd

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The Independent Online
Gwyneth Eliot Lloyd, actress, antique textile dealer: born Edgbaston, Warwickshire 4 June 1913; married 1936 John Heygate (died 1976; two sons; marriage dissolved 1947), 1947 Arthur Donaldson (died 1980; one son, two daughters, and one stepdaughter; marriage dissolved); died London 6 May 1994.

IN HER varied and unconventional life, Gwyneth Lloyd managed to combine three careers - film star in the 1930s, Women's Royal Air Force in the 1940s, and antique textiles expert in the last two decades - as well as two husbands and two families.

She was born in 1913 in Edgbaston, Birmingham, to a respectable Quaker family. Her grandfather, Howard Lloyd, had been managing director of Lloyds Bank from 1871 to 1902. Her mother, Florence (nee Armstrong), was a progressive woman for her time (it was said she owned one of the first washing machines).

Gwyneth trained as an actress at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where two important things happened to her. First, she met Diana Churchill, Winston's daughter, who became her best friend for many years. Gwyneth said later that it was in the Churchills' house, Chartwell, that she really learnt to make intelligent conversation.

The second key event was a newspaper competition which won her a contract with Gaumont British Films. The company had decided to launch a counter-attack on Hollywood's monopoly of the stars and she was one of the few English beauties to selected to be 'Baby Film Stars'. Before long, Gwyneth became the first of these stars to get a leading role in a British feature film - in 1934 she starred opposite Sonnie Hale (then married to Jessie Matthews) in Wild Boy, directed by Albert de Courville. Her other co-star in that film was the famous greyhound Mick the Miller.

In practice, her career was not to be a long one. John Heygate, recently divorced from Evelyn Waugh's first wife, Evelyn Gardner ('She-Evelyn'), saw Gwyneth in Wild Boy and was strongly attracted by his first glimpse of her extraordinary beauty (although he complained later with his typically dry wit that, 'he only went to see the dog'). Shortly afterwards he took the trouble to gatecrash her 21st birthday party, ambushed her in the kitchen and discovered a mutual liking for fine cheeses. Dinner at Quaglino's followed and the romance developed quickly.

During the early Thirties she met many artists and writers including Vyvyan Holland, Oscar Wilde's son. Her portrait by Tristram Hillier still hangs in her bedroom. The Cafe Royal and the Gargoyle, in Dean Street, were regular haunts. The Charleston, the foxtrot and later the quickstep were all the rage.

In 1935, Heygate, recently sacked from the BBC by Lord Reith because of the publicity surrounding the Waugh divorce, went to work for UFA films in Berlin, writing scripts for the trilingual films being produced there at the time with Lillian Harvey and other international stars. This was the era of Christopher Isherwood's Berlin and as Germany was slid towards dictatorship there was much to see for the now engaged couple, as they motored about the country in Heygate's MG.

Back in England, John and Gwyneth were married at St Ethelburga's (the only church in England that would marry divorced people), in the City, and then settled in a country house in Sussex. Although the period is given a rosy glow of nostalgia in one of Heygate's novels, A House for Joanna, the truth was less romantic. He preferred writing on the counters of smoke-filled, working men's pubs, rather than in his smart new study. The couple drifted back to London.

The war now intervened on a marriage already weakened by Heygate's drinking and unpredictable temper. While he was away in the army in Ceylon, Gwyneth joined the WRAF as an aircraft plotter. Here she met a handsome young fighter pilot, Arthur Donaldson, one of three brothers all of whom won the DSO in the air war, and consequently achieved almost 'pop star' status at the time.

After the war, Gwyneth and Arthur followed the transient lives of station families in Germany and England. Gwyneth produced three more children to add to the two boys from her first marriage and Arthur's daughter by his first marriage. In the 1950s, Arthur retired from the RAF and they settled in a large house in Buckinghamshire. Although the marriage lasted 18 years, it too finally ended in divorce in the mid-1960s.

But Gwyneth's independent mind and courage saw her through these difficult times. 'I refuse to be frightened of life,' she said. She built herself a new career as an antique dealer, textiles expert and member of LAPADA, the professional association of antique dealers. In the 1970s and 1980s she became a well-known figure in her shop in Belgravia and at antique fairs, where she would stand surrounded by beautiful old fabrics, engaging passers-by in conversation. She ran her own business until the last year of her life.

Gwyneth Lloyd was almost impossible to shock and she had a great sense of self-irony. She was highly amused when, in her late seventies, somebody said to her 'You're quite a relic, aren't you?' (Not long after, the invitation to ther 80th birthday party announced a 'Relic's Rave-up'.)

Gwyneth was always active and on the move. As a young woman, she played at Junior Wimbledon. And she was a keen skier in the days when there were no ski-lifts and no package tours to the Alps. She spoke French and German and travelled to five continents during her life. All her life she was full of new ventures - when she inherited some money from her parents at the end of the 1950s, she bought a racehorse, a motor boat and some land in Portugal.

She retained a youthful spirit, and never fully accepted old age or the prospect of losing her independence. Even as an 80-year-old she had friends of every age, male and female. She loved good conversation, good food, parties and picnics. Everybody who visited her flat was dazzled by her distinctive taste and the atmosphere she created there.

(Photograph omitted)