To my surprise and delight, I came out of an antiques market yesterday with a copy of Play Pictorial magazine that had been waiting who knows how many years for me to happen upon it. The featured play is Freedom of the Seas, in which Billie Carleton appeared the night before her death in November 1918 from what the ensuing inquest ruled to be a cocaine overdose. She was the female lead, but the cast’s other actress had the livelier part.
Carleton played an old-fashioned kind of young woman – as she seems to have done in her life offstage. ‘I fancied somehow that a woman could only find happiness with the love of a strong man who dominated her,’ her character says, and eventually does.
The other woman on the stage presents a much more modern image of womanhood – dressed for action in oilskins, trained as a wireless operator and serving, it turns out, as a Secret Service agent. She was played by Marion Lorne (who was married to the play’s author Walter Hackett).
Lorne achieved her greatest fame much later in her career with a character who also possessed special and secret abilities – Aunt Clara in the 1960s TV series Bewitched. But although the show was subversive in its own fluffy way, Clara’s enchanting niece Samantha being the real power in her suburban dream-home marriage, empowerment wasn’t extended to the older woman. As far as the scriptwriters were concerned, old meant confused, and that was comedy in those days.
On the other hand, Lorne’s career trajectory defied the obstacles that the entertainment industry puts in older women’s way. It started before the first world war and peaked more than twenty years after the second.