To Stan Laurel's fraternity of fans, he was an irrepressible joker who could always raise a laugh. But yesterday, a collection of letters he wrote to a Scottish housewife revealed a rarely glimpsed, troubled side of his outwardly sunny disposition.
Walterina Hunter wrote her first fan letter to Laurel in 1952, five years before the death of his comedy partner, Oliver Hardy.
Over the following decade, Ms Hunter was to become Laurel's long-term pen pal and confidante, forming a remarkable bond with him in which he divulged his personal anguish over Hardy's death and his own failing health which prevented him from attending the funeral.
The extraordinary correspondence of 18 letters, three of which are written in his small, neat handwriting and three signed photographs, were sold at auction yesterday for £2,900.
The letters, addressed to "My Dear Walterina", are written on headed notepaper from the hotels in which the comedian stayed while on tour, including the Caledonian in Edinburgh and the Washington in London, while others were penned on headed paper from his California home.
The pair only met once, in 1954, when Laurel and Hardy toured Britain and he sent her tickets for their Edinburgh performance as well as a backstage visit. When Ms Hunter sent him some Tartan gifts, Laurel sent her money so she could buy herself a scarf which she had mentioned in a letter.
In February 1956, he wrote: "Thank you for your lovely letter with enclosure of the Scotch Tartan Royal Stuart Plaid pieces very sweet of you dear. You mention you would like to have a Burns Shepard Tartan I would like to get one for you dear as a remembrance of Eda [his wife] and I. Send me an airmail postcard right away, let me know the cost of the scarf and I'll forward the cash immediately."
In another exchange, Ms Hunter had apparently asked Laurel if he was intending to celebrate Burns Night, to which he replied: "No, they don't have any celebrations for Bobbie Burns night out here. I imagine that's a big day in your area."
He also wrote about the weather in Santa Monica, where he lived; how his dentures were irritating him and the pressures of moving house. One letter was barely two lines long, in which he managed to say he was experiencing eye problems and that his sight was impaired before signing off. He said: "Am still bothered with this eye trouble... if it doesn't clear up soon I'll put my eye in a marble bag! At least I'll get some use out of it!"
But in letters of a darker shade, he referred to his feelings following Hardy's illness and death. "I naturally was very upset over the death of my dear friend and partner and the reason I didn't attend the funeral services was that my doctor advised me not to go. He is afraid it might be an emotional strain on me," he wrote. "The passing of dear Oliver was a sad blow to us all – a great loss and we shall all miss him terribly. However, it was a blessing that he was taken out of his suffering and pain. A bad cancer condition had developed."
Laurel suffered a nervous breakdown soon afterwards, and confided in one letter: "I don't visit the studios anymore because I don't know anyone there and would feel like a stranger."
Alex Dove, from Lyon and Turnbull auctioneers, said the correspondence between them showed genuine signs of intimacy and illuminated the more troubled side of the comedian's personality. "He discusses everything from his illness to his trips around America, moving house, his partnership with Oliver Hardy and the gifts that he and Mrs Hunter sent backwards and forwards to each other.
"Quite a friendship was built up and that was reflected in the content of the letters. He made a lot of time to sit down and write to her wherever he was," said Ms Dove. Their correspondence ended in April 1962, three years before Laurel's death. By that time, Ms Hunter is believed to have been in her 80s.
Laurel was born in Ulverston, then in Lancashire, but now part of Cumbria. He spent part of his childhood and early career in Glasgow, and he sometimes wrote wistfully of visiting Scotland again. He spent his final years living in a small apartment in the Oceana Hotel, California. After Hardy's death, Laurel decided he would never act again but he continued to write sketches for fellow comedians.
Their partnership stemmed from an accident – Laurel had joined the Hal Roach studio and began directing films, when in 1927, Hardy, an actor at the studio, was injured in a kitchen mishap and Laurel was asked to temporarily cover for him in front of the cameras. Soon, Laurel and Hardy began sharing screen time together and their film career blossomed after it became obvious the men had an incredible on-screen chemistry.
The private thoughts of Stan Laurel
Laurel writing about his comedy partner Oliver Hardy's illness in February 1957 after he hears of his stroke:
"I have been very upset over Mister Hardy's illness. It was such a surprise to me when I heard on the television news that he was in the hospital suffering a stroke. I'm sorry to say he is still in bad shape and does not seem to making any improvement poor fellow. He's been confined to bed since last September unable to move or talk."
Writing about the end of his career in 1962:
"I never visit the studios any more as most of the people I knew are not there now so I would feel like a stranger. The Hal Roach studio where we made most of our films is closed and finished... I feel very sad about this, having spent so many happy years there."
A letter to Ms Hunter in Oct 1957 after she met them when they performed in the city:
"We shall always remember the great pleasure that we had in meeting you at the Empire at Edinboro (sic)... We all admired you very much and considered you a staunch and true friend, one of our very few."