Part 1 of 5 (Part 2 here)
Editor’s Note: The following text is an unpublished “curriculum vitae” by Muriel Gantry (1913–2000), which she prepared in 1995 for Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, who was then writing a biography of her friend Savitri Devi. Goodrick-Clarke also recorded an audio interview with Gantry that has been published at The Savitri Devi Archive. The cover page of this text reads “Curriculum Vitae of Muriel Gantry: All You Ever Wanted to Know and a Great Deal You Probably Didn’t,” and is dated April 19, 1995. The text has been kept as it was apart from the correction of a few minor typos and adjusting it to American spelling in keeping with Counter-Currents house style.
I have intended writing something like this for a long time, and am going to do so now in perhaps more than the detail at present needed; but I assure you will be able to select what you find of interest. I will try not to digress too much.
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I was born on the 24th November, 1913 — which I like to think makes me almost an Edwardian! — at Prestwich, a suburb of Manchester; in what was, and probably still is a rather dull street of respectable houses. I have excellent recall of my extreme youth — sometimes good enough to be – erroneously — disbelieved, but I remember nothing of this first home, for when I was eighteen months old we moved to Cheadle Hulme in Cheshire, which was a pleasant place then and still was when I last saw it in 1957. We lived at 85 Ladybridge Road, one of a row of attractive semidetached houses known respectfully to the nearby cottagers as The Villas — built about 1904 with all the pleasant little details of the period, probably pre-nostalgically destroyed by now.
My first clear memory is of Mother and Father hanging a picture in the dining-room, over a bookcase, with myself watching, just tall enough to see over the table. They were probably arguing, for they generally did. As pictures and books have played such a large part in my life this first memory seems appropriate.
I remember Mother reading Beatrix Potter’s Tom Kitten, Peter Rabbit, et al. as I sat on her knee, indicating the words with her finger. One day I was discovered by the next-door neighbor lying on the Manchester Guardian (as it was in those days) reading — of course aloud — and though I could scarcely have understood what I read, I could certainly make out the words; and soon achieved a wobbly but legible script. I believe I must thank the Potter books with their beautiful type-face, and Mother’s guiding finger, for the fact that I could read and print at four years old. When I was five I could read anything, and took Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of poems to bed with me because I loved it so. As for spelling, it simply came naturally. My father painted pretty well, and saw to it that I had paper to scribble on. I drew also, with rather more imagination than skill, but a lot of imagination.
I never hankered after other children’s company — I was sufficient unto myself and had no time to be a “Lonely Only.”
After my sixth birthday I went to a delightful school kept by the retired mistress of the local high school, who had found she could not exist without teaching children and opened a small school in her large flat. It really amounted to sharing a governess, for we were never more than about seven or eight, in a cozy little schoolroom where this old lady (old even in 1920, so her roots were Victorian) who looked like Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and wore a strange wig with a velvet bandeau, taught us excellently and often individually, in the mornings only. She made it all interesting, we adored her, and I am grateful to her to this day.
At eleven years old I hankered after a proper school — it was the golden age of schoolgirl fiction, and I got ideas — and was sent to the Convent of Mary Immaculate High School at Woods Moor on the outskirts of Stockport. We were not Catholics; my father had been brought up strictly Chapel and never shook it off, but did not inflict it on me save for frequent moral lectures, and I was spared Sunday School. Mother was vaguely Church of England and definitely anti-Chapel. I was convinced of the existence of Heaven, angels, Jesus, and everything, probably through my love of Victorian literature. I believe I looked on it all as I did on fairies, mermaids, and such, in all of which I unquestioningly believed. Nowadays I am agnostic, but not atheistic. Something pushes the plants up and looks after the solar system.
The Convent was, I suppose, as good as most other schools, and after a difficult start I settled down. My parents wanted me to stay till sixteen, but I did not relish the idea.
I got decently through the annual examinations, read and researched for myself what interested me, worked hard enough at the subjects I was good at, and wrote stories — no works of genius but properly spelt and punctuated. I never had a lesson in punctuation in my life; I just observed what was there.
One day, when I was perhaps twelve, I asked if I could give up algebra and geometry and learn Latin and Greek instead. A pity the idea was not encouraged.
I caught measles before my fourteenth birthday and realized in quarantine that now I had the chance to leave legally, and got my wish. I thought it was time I was learning other things. I still drew, but felt I wanted to write; perhaps become a reporter and one day, with luck, write a successful historical novel. I read all the popular period novels of the time and plenty of the old stuff as well; and I used to try to write in the style of the authors I most admired; which was extremely good for me, even if [the] results were not startling.
The sensible way to begin was to learn shorthand and typing, which I did. My parents fancied “the Civil Service,” which to me meant incarceration in some dull office; had I known, and had they known of other occupations which came under the heading of Civil Service work I would have felt differently. Father was head of the drawing office of the engineering firm of Wather and Platt, and thought I might be a “tracer” (of machinery plans, etc.), and we had some fine rows about that.
I discovered the small Gosling Publicity Service near my typing school and thought there might be possibilities there. We investigated; they took me on for a month with no pay and did their best to find a place for me; but simply had not the work, and probably could not afford me; so what might have been an early start to an interesting career came to nothing. They were nice, honest people.
I had a spell in an arts-and-crafts shop and studio (so many of them then) in Deansgate Arcade — “the best part of Manchester” and as such appealing to my parents; no pay for a year and later a possible partnership. Partnership — in what? No one ever came in the shop and the proprietress was a little eccentric, to say the least. After nine weeks of running errands and genteel dusting Mother put a stop to it, and I was grateful.
I was sixteen by now and — in 1929 — getting too old to be taken on as a beginner in many professions. I had acquired a few sensible ideas myself by now and suggested that I should learn millinery — I was good at making hats and with my hands generally, and there were jobs galore in that area — and go to evening art-school. This would have made sense but my mother — who owing to asthma had had hard work keeping any job as a girl — would have none of it. I should not work at sewing even as a step to other things.
These were the days of the Cotton Slump; my father was a designer of textile machinery: and in January 1930 he lost his job. We grew poorer and poorer as savings melted away.
I was tall, slim, and pretty good-looking, and fancied the idea of being a model — they were “mannequins” then, stately treasures far removed from present-day models. Some shops employed them as permanent staff, and they were decently paid — far from usual in those days. I took an eight-guinea course at the Delaroche Mannequin Academy (now it would probably be the Modelling Workshop); never really approved of by Mother and soon violently opposed by Father, whose always ready temper had worsened with unemployment. I found as much, or as little work as the many other girls in Manchester with the same idea; one saw their faces at every interview, and I was once picked out at first glance from forty-two applicants. A guinea a day was the supposed wage; most firms cut it to fifteen shillings, but many jobs paid that for one week. I loved the work and am glad I knew what it felt like to be “on the catwalk” even in the provinces.
My godmother took Mother for a holiday in London, and suggested I should come too and try for work there. I said I was not ready, but was persuaded. I missed a splendid chance in Hanover Square by a hairsbreadth and spent two weeks, and my seventeenth birthday, in a nightmare job in Clapham Junction with appalling employers; but I came home determined to work one day in London.
Father found a post as manager of a small Singer Sewing Machine shop in New Mills, Derbyshire. We left our pretty villa and led an ill-paid life among beautiful scenery; I worked in the shop for no pay and did bits of dressmaking, but at least learned to work a sewing machine.
Father’s temper grew worse; but the problems it caused are irrelevant here and I pass them over. His idea now was that I should be a door-to-door canvasser for Singers. The shop’s living accommodation was dreadful; Mother and I found a small, pretty cottage, and at least we had a pleasant place to live. All this time the theatre had not come into my life, though it always interested me and I loved the cinema from my earliest years,
During my late teens and early twenties I wrote my first novel, when and where I could, in what privacy I could command. It was set in my favorite Restoration period and included in its characters my favorite historical character, the Duke of Monmouth. I did not submit it to anyone, knowing it was not good enough, but I would certainly try again. I have it still; it could be worse, especially in the humorous passages, but I couldn’t write a love scene to save my life. I tried to write articles and criticisms, but not very well. I praised everything I criticized, which would never have done. I wrote a little poetry in secret; old-fashioned and often twee, but rhyming and scanning. Looking at it in recent years, I think it could be worse.
Since my earliest years I had been taken to museums and art galleries (I did not know I was being educated and simply enjoyed it all) and we had a good bookcase; yet somehow I never consciously encountered — or noticed — specifically theatrical design. I reveled in film magazines, but they were all about the stars. I adored them, but did not allow myself to think seriously about acting, though I could act, and did so in all the school plays. I only went three times to the live theatre — to pantomime — in my childhood, as Mother would only go in the “good” seats and Father would not pay for things like that. Mother thought the gallery was filled by “the lowest of the low” till she discovered otherwise, and we took to going regularly into the (shilling) gallery of the Manchester Palace Theatre.
Sometime in the mid-thirties I saw daylight in the middle of a performance of Julius Caesar. Someone, I said, “designs these sets, these clothes; why not me?” Mother actually approved of the idea. About the same time a dressmaker I sometimes worked for told me that “I would be a godsend being generally useful in a theatrical costumier’s.” Sense was being talked at last.
We had three costumiers in Manchester, which I and probably most other people regarded as suppliers of “fancy dress.” I loved their gilt crowns and jewels as a child, and once asked Father Christmas for a “stage crown.” Now I went job-hunting to them all; they were kind but had no vacancies. I got hold of what costume literature I could and did sketch after sketch; how much easier it would be today.
The modelling had more or less faded out; it was not a job one could do forever, anyway. I had modelled several times for a decent man named David Rivkin who had several rather flashy but attractive dress shops in Manchester; I implored his wife to give me a job in their factory, and in February 1936 she did. I became an “underpresser” — an ironer — and despite Mother’s appeals to give in my notice, worked there for sixteen months and was not unhappy. I was paid one pound a week, rising after a year to twenty-three shillings.
Fate struck at last, and it was time. Ivor Novello had been my favorite film star since schooldays, because of his glamorous looks. In April 1936 he came to Manchester Opera House in Clemence Dane’s adaptation of Max Beerbohm’s The Happy Hypocrite, and I saw him in real life for the first time; a beautiful person in a beautiful play. Admiration became adoration. It was romantic, idealistic, and delightful, and the first time I had been in love. I thought of him as I worked; in London, I thought also. I could see him often, perhaps get to know him; I could work, if needs be, as an underpresser there — I was a good one by now — and try still to break into stage designing. I had a real incentive now.
Mother and I had a frugal but enjoyable week in London in the autumn, and saw his new Drury Lane musical Careless Rapture. I caught him at the pit entrance, got his autograph, and shook hands with him. He was very satisfactory at close quarters.
1937 was the summer of George VI’s coronation. I wrote to my godmother in Nice, suggesting that we had the week in London together we had often planned, and I could try my luck among the costumiers there. She was delighted. We went after the Coronation “to see the decorations”; I got a week’s leave, with the promise of my job safe when I returned, and in July I was back in London. Sometime around now my Father became manager of my godmother’s family’s steel works, and we were back to a decent standard of living.
Through a conversation with the right person, I was pointed in the right direction — to Max Weldy of rue Saulnier, Paris, who made costumes for shows like the Folies Bergère and now had a branch in Savile Row. I was told that he always saw everybody who applied for work, in case he missed something special; he had discovered the famous designer Erté, who died not long ago. I got my appointment without trouble; when I saw the designs in his archives my small hopes died, but he did engage me; saying, as I afterwards learned, that anyone who took time after work to do so many sketches — whatever their quality — deserved a break. I was paid two pounds ten a week — a fortune to me then. I resigned by post from Rivkin’s, put my heart into designing as never before, and now had access to many helpful beaks I could not get at sooner. In Westminster Library I came upon John Pendlebury’s Archaeology of Crete. I soon saw that Minoan Crete could hold more than common interest, but put the idea of serious study aside till I had more leisure. It was the costume designing which mattered now.
The war clouds were darkening over Europe, but I did not realize it. Hitler was merely a noisy dictator in whom I felt little interest; I loathed militarism and never read politics. Business was bad at Weldy’s, and I knew I could be spared from the staff only too easily. I came back from Christmas with my parents expecting the sack, though I had said nothing to them. The showroom receptionist disliked her job and considered theatricals her social inferiors; now it was she who was sacked, and I was asked to undertake her work and carry on with my sketches, now much improved. I was delighted, and did whatever I was asked to — even a little sewing; and I saw all the interesting people who came in.
The Munich crisis finished us; Mr. Weldy went bankrupt before Christmas and we closed down. Mr. Weldy said I had done as much as anyone to keep things going, and if and when he reopened there would be a job for me.
I was terrified during the days before Chamberlain came home promising Peace in Our Time. Peace was all I wanted. I went home telling my people I had a month’s leave at my own expense while things were quiet. There was less discussion and argument that way.
I went back to London along roads snow-banked on either side; no motorways then. I set out next morning with my sketches — and got a job at once with M. Berman Limited (now Berman and Nathan). “I never sack anyone,” old Mr. Berman told me; going on to say he could not take me on till the next week, “as I have to sack the other fellow first.” I never felt safe the whole time I was there; Mr. Berman never let anyone do that in case they didn’t work hard enough.
Max Weldy reopened later in 1939, in Denman Street, Soho — rather more downmarket. He kept his word and asked me to come and help at the weekends with the work he had in hand. “I look ahead and I t’ink, good,” he said. “I t’ink one month, two month, we all together again for long time.” But, of course, the War broke out.
Mr. Berman bolted for America, taking with him six of my own personal sketches, for which he never paid me and I never saw them again.
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