Dame Gracie Fields (9 January 1898 – 27 September 1979), born Grace Stansfield, was an English/Italian singer and comedienne who became one of the greatest stars of both cinema and music hall.
Born over a fish and chip
shop owned by her grandmother in Molesworth Street, Rochdale,
Lancashire, she made her first stage appearance as a child in 1905. Her
two sisters, Edith and Betty, and brother, Tommy, all went on to appear
on stage, but Gracie was the most successful. Her professional debut in
variety took place at the Rochdale Hippodrome theatre in 1910 and she
soon gave up her job in the local cotton mill.
She met comedian Archie Pitt and they began working together. Pitt would come to serve as her manager and the two married in 1923. Their first revue in 1915 was called Yes I think so and the two continued to tour Britain together until 1922 in the revue Mr Tower of London.
Fields came to major
public notice when Mr Tower of London came to the West End. Her career
rapidly accelerated from this point with straight dramatic performances
and the beginning of a recording career.
One of her most
successful productions was at the Alhambra Theatre in 1925. The show,
booked by Sir Oswald Stoll, was a
major success and toured for ten years. She made the first of ten
appearances in Royal Variety Performances in 1928, gaining a devoted
following with a mixture of self-deprecating jokes, comic songs and
monologues, as well as cheerful "depression-era" songs all presented in
a "no-airs-and-graces" northern, working class style. Fields had a great
rapport with her audience, which helped her become one of Britain's
highest paid performers, playing to sold out theatres across the
Her most famous song,
which became her theme, "Sally," was worked into the title of her first
cinema film, Sally in Our Alley (1931), which was a major box office
hit. She went on to make several films initially in Britain and later in
the United States (for which she was paid a record fee of US$200,000 for
four films), despite never enjoying the process of performing without a
Ironically, the final few
lines of the song 'Sally' were written by her husband's mistress, and
Gracie sang this song at nearly every performance she made from 1931
World War II was declared whilst she was recovering and Fields travelled to France to entertain the troops. In 1940, she married film director Monty Banks, following her divorce from Pitt. However, because Banks remained an Italian citizen and would have been interned in the United Kingdom, she was forced to leave Britain for North America during the war. Although she continued to spend much of her time entertaining troops and otherwise supporting the war effort outside Britain, this led to a fall-off in her popularity at home, where she was portrayed by the press as a traitor and deserter. Nevertheless, she performed many times for Allied troops, travelling as far as the islands of New Guinea, where she received an enthusiastic response from Australian personnel.
After the war, Fields
continued her career on a less active basis. She began performing in
Britain again in 1948 and starred at the 1951 Festival of Britain
celebrations. She proved popular once more, though never regaining the
status she enjoyed in the 1930s. She continued recording, but made no
more films, moving more towards light classical music as popular tastes
Although there is some
doubt that her British citizenship was ever re-granted after the war
(she lost it due to her marriage), she did a great deal of charity work,
and established a permanent home on the Isle of Capri, Italy.
Monty Banks died in 1950.
Fields married Boris Alperovici two years later. After that, she began
to work even less, but still sold out theatres even into her seventies.
In 1956, Fields played
Miss Jane Marple in a US TV production of Agatha Christie's A Murder
is Announced. The production also featured Jessica Tandy and Roger
Moore, and predates the Margaret Rutherford films by some five years.
In 1978, she opened the Gracie Fields Theatre in Rochdale, Lancashire. It is located next to Oulder Hill Community School. Her final appearance was at the Royal Variety Show at the age of 80, when she sang "Sally" in the finale. In February 1979, she was created a Dame Commander of the British Empire seven months before her death at her home on Capri, aged 81. She is buried in the non-Catholic cemetery on Capri.