27 – Balls – Obviously The Answer To Everything

Arthur Shields’s house on Sandymount Road has gone. It was bulldozed to the ground to be replaced by a squat, red-brick family home, (I’m guessing) sometime in the 1950s. I thought about taking a photograph of a nearby house, more fitting to the time; it felt too much like deceit. But then …

Coming through Sandymount Green yesterday as the daylight died, I saw two women. One, staring disconsolately into the bare branches of an ash tree. The other, perched on the edge of a damp park bench, watching her friend. And I thought, ‘Christ. I’ve actually brought them back to life.’ I took a step backwards. ‘Except it’s October,’ I caught myself. ‘Winter is coming. The light is dying, not stretching.’

Now if it was spring 1937 …

Bazie Magee: tall and dark, straight-backed, frowning. She has left eight-year-old Adam behind in the house on Sandymount Road, building one of his model planes in the garden. There’s every chance he’ll trample all over Boss’s vegetable garden; she secretly hopes so. The neighbour will come if he starts caterwauling, but they’ll be back before he gets hungry.

Shelah Richards: leonine, mind racing, fury building. All set to steer and direct this situation as she does her own car, accelerating at full speed. The bottle of whiskey is still on the front seat of her car, but Ryan’s Pub on the corner is open and has a cozy snug. She has plenty to say, but is not quite sure where to start and how much of it Bazie is ready to hear. She has in her blue-tinged fingers ‘the letter’. Scorched on one side, where Bazie tried to put it in the fire and then realized she needed to keep the evidence.

At the end of January 1937 Shelah Richards sat beside Joseph Holloway at a performance of Shadow and Substance in the Abbey. Shelah, blonde and perfectly groomed as ever, came on a Saturday night with a female friend. Both ladies were wrapped up warmly and had wet feet from the slush on the pavements outside.

Her husband Denis Johnston was in Belfast. Johnston had a wife (Shelah) and two children in Dublin. His second ‘partner’, actress Betty Chancellor, was in London, hoping that she was pregnant with the son that she had already named. (The much-wanted child, Jeremy, arrived in 1939). In Belfast, Denis worked for the BBC during the day and spent his evenings writing or with his third lover, Nancy. If anybody knew the covert signs of marital infidelity, it was Shelah.

After the curtain fell that January evening, Shelah told Holloway that she was ‘very moved by what she saw’. Aideen played Thomasina in Shadow and Substance. She was the fast, loose, lipstick-wearing, novel-reading girl that the priests kept warning against. Arthur Shields played the philosophical Canon Skerritt, being urged by his family to use his power to get Thomasina, his niece and namesake, a teaching post. Thomasina teases the Canon relentlessly and he is torn between adoring her and being infuriated by her.

By that time, Shelah had two children and was worn out from mothering, acting, having a half-hearted fling with actor Jack Irwin and fighting with her husband. Yet she vacillated still, unable to extricate herself from the tangled web of her relationship with Denis and demand a divorce. Back living with her parents in Greystones, she wrote to him to say:

My heart and mind and pocket won’t stand the present strain.

This is Shelah being polite and eloquent, as she could be. We perhaps hear more of her own voice when she tries to reason with him; she suggests some kind of reunion and then exclaims:

–Fidelity? — Balls obviously the answer to that!

It was all driving her insane. Denis continued to write her letters that made her ‘melt’ and convinced her that he really needed her. Yet, much of the time they simply loathed each other. Both came and went between Dublin and London; sometimes with lovers and sometimes alone. In London, they stayed and entertained friends aboard Hermione, a houseboat moored in Chiswick (on the Thames) that Denis had bought for £400 on Shelah’s urging.

Shelah’s insanity was rather different from Bazie Magee’s. Her demons were real. She continued to act in The Abbey throughout 1936.  Frequently, she appears in cast lists alongside Aideen. Aideen could hold her own; she was opinionated and volatile. But faced with the forceful nature of this old, intimate friend of Mac’s she must have been cowed. When Bazie Magee appeared backstage to slap Aideen’s face, Shelah’s sympathies lay firmly with Bazie.

Boss Shields kept pocket diaries for all of his life, noting in his scrawny hand rehearsal times, appointments and the details of his vegetable growing. On April 6th, 1937 he recorded the fact: ‘Marriage 16 Years’. Over the page, on April 12th, is noted: ‘Aideen home’.

Aideen had gone to London after the whole debacle of the affair coming to light. Some auditions, some shopping and some reprieve from the consternation at home. But she failed to get a part and, penniless, came home. Or, ‘defiantly’ she came home, may be the better description. Tossing her blonde hair, her neat feet clipping along the path, she carried a bulging suitcase up Hollybank Avenue. Later, she took a tram to the Abbey and had a drink in the Green Room with Frolie, simply to make sure everyone knew that she was back. Shelah watched from a corner, disgusted and seething. I’ve heard her lambaste her husband as ‘a pig a brute a hound’, and there may have been many choice adjectives she used to apply to Aideen.

There is a reason that I’m transfixed by these women in Sandymount Green, trying to communicate and failing to find the words to console or support each other. And Shelah is interesting to me not simply because she’s a hell of a lot of fun (although she is) but because Shelah is the link between Kay Swift (in New York) and Aideen; the connection that I’ve been trying to find.

When Shelah was on Broadway in the late 1920s, she knew all about the ‘grand nigger play’ Porgy and Bess. After meeting Paul Robeson, the star of Showboat, she determined to call them ‘black people’. By 1939, she was formally separated from her husband and performing in Spring Meeting. (See earlier blog entry!) She was performing again with Aideen. Oh, how I wish I could listen in on the girlie chats in that dressing room!

And she must have introduced her to Kay Swift.

Had it all been forgotten? I suspect that women never forget such betrayals, deception and pain. The question then becomes: When Shelah introduced Aideen to Kay Swift, was Aideen the fast young hussey who had stolen her friend’s husband? Or, was she a poor deluded Irish girl who had shamed herself at home?  Either way, Kay Swift was generous and helpful and a lasting friendship was formed.

Aideen may have known something that I didn’t. My plans to be in New York this week were scuppered. And now thankfully so, given the visit of Hurricane Sandy. But my flights are booked and come the spring, I’ll be sauntering along Broadway wishing Kay and Aideen were there to meet me. Perhaps it would be best if Hurricane Shelah stays away …

3 comments on “27 – Balls – Obviously The Answer To Everything

  1. These two are forever cast in a frozen pose on Sandymount Green, shadowy and mysterious; no busy shoppers touch them, they are from another world altogether. Was there really a little boy left home alone? One can feel the turmoil in poor Bazie when her suspicions are confirmed. When one suspects – intuition is so strong! – but cannot prove, and the man disproves so assertively, so continuously, then self-doubt comes and maybe madness, unless there is a friend to tell the truth and then comes the relief and the heartbreak.

  2. love the elusiveness of this story

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