Dust on the Rubber Tree - Chapter 3

Chapter 3

I remember the first night with Leo… I went for dinner and drinks… a bottle of gin I think we sank, no trouble at all. Leo found out where I worked and everything. We went off to the pub to have a drink and they both took me home to my door. Poor old Jack McNaughton, his first date and he threw me away, first and last. I never went out with him again. After a few days Leo rang up and asked if I’d like to come for dinner. He asked what I’d like so I said, “Steak, oranges and watercress.” Anyway he said to take a cab again, he promised to pay for it so I thought he had money. He never had a bean so he must have borrowed it. We had dinner. He asked, “Can I see you again tomorrow? Come round and you can have the keys. I’m on the Box. I’ll be back about 9.00 o’clock, watch me on Armchair Theatre.”

Leo didn’t rehearse his lines properly, though he wasn’t a bad actor. He was good in The Village of Shame with Jack Hawkins. He played a Frenchman speaking English in a French accent and he had a good part in Goodbye Mr. Chips… actually come to think of it, both Leo and Peter were rotten actors. Leo was always too drunk to learn his lines. He had to be photographed on a horse when he was playing General Scarlett in The Charge of the Light Brigade, they wouldn’t give him a stand-in even though he was 68. He really wanted other people to do it all for him but in the end he had to go up to Hyde Park and learn to ride. He did a few cowboy films.

So I went round and watched him on his own television and thought how good he was before going to meet him in a pub called the Bunch of Grapes.

We had a few drinks and then went back. The next night we met outside the George the IV pub in Knightsbridge. “Take a cab. I’ll be waiting for you outside.” He had lots of parcels on him, what he called his ‘presents for baby’… silly old sod. He didn’t manage to get the steak so we had lamb-chops. I remember how nicely he put them on the board… his hands were marvelous. We undid the parcels. One was a dressing gown, one was some Moon Drops face cream and the other was a brush for my hair, everything you need to stay the night. So I did and we were lovers.

This all went on for some time and then my holiday came and I’d arranged to go to Jersey to meet Bobby. He managed to get some space for me where he was staying. I told Leo I was going on holiday and he already knew about Bobby. He said, “If you go, that’s the end of us. I can’t have you going with somebody else.”

I was so confused. I felt I had to go, it was all booked. So I went off to the station and got the train. The first stop was Reading. I was getting up and getting down, staring at my suitcase on the rack. A woman sitting opposite said, “There’s something the matter isn’t there?” I thought I might get off at Reading but then there was Bobby who I’d known for about four years. But if I didn’t, I might never see Leo again. Anyway I made the decision. I said, “Please get my case down,” and I got off.

I got the next train back to London. They wouldn’t repay my fare. I think I was told they’d send it to me. I signed all the forms and things and rang Leo who said I must come round. I had my case with me, which was OK because he said he was having problems with the rent and I should just move in. Megs Jenkins the film actress owned the flat and she didn’t mind. I could give up my little attic flat in South Kensington and move straight in. That’s how I came to live with him. Even then he thought the Chelsea Set was rubbish He described them as ‘people who could not be accounted for’. Leo only wanted to mix with film stars and people of substance but he still couldn’t pay the rent, his money went on other things.

We moved to a place in Kensington Court where we lived for about a year. It was during that time that he got a part in When In Rome at the Adelphi Theatre in The Strand. I used to go and sit in the dressing room every night and became part of the whole theatre scene. One day Leo said, “Sheila, I think we’ve been together for long enough. Could you arrange to go somewhere else?” I get a lot of this ‘been together long enough’, don’t I? I got a place in Cadogan Gardens. One day I was at the hairdresser, Leo was in the pub with his friend Max and I went off to meet them. I’d had my hair done very nicely and Max just fell madly in love with me. He offered to help me take all my belongings to my new flat in the afternoon, which he did. Then he took me out to dinner. He was desperate to stay the night with me but he didn’t. Over dinner I let it slip that I thought Leo would soon find out that he couldn’t live without me. Max thought all that was over and like a gentleman he decided he couldn’t break us up, so he made his excuses and went home. I didn’t see him again until years later on a very sad day in Burberry’s.

After a few weeks I was working in the City at Hope Brothers when Leo rang up. It was Friday… Friday the 13th of May, pouring with rain. I had an awful old raincoat on. The phone rang at the office and it was Leo asking to meet up at lunchtime. I said, “I’ve got an awful old coat and scarf,” but he was quite insistent. He said to meet at the Antelope. As soon as I got there he asked me to marry him. “Goodness gracious of course I will!” We married two weeks later on June 1st, Derby Day 1960… a Wednesday as it turned out. I was the Derby Day Bride in the London Evening News. They did a full-page spread with half a page in the Standard. They had the caption, “A Kiss for the Derby Day Bride.” It was a wonderful day with a wonderful party with all the members of the cast. Fred Truman the cricketer came and Guy Middleton who I hadn’t seen for about twenty years. Guy had just moved in to a house called The End, and it was, he died there. All the champagne ran out so my sister-in-law went out and came back with bottles and bottles of gin. They had to go on stage in the evening. It was all very unprofessional behaviour. Leo had been married before in America. His ex-wife sent me a dressing gown as a wedding present. She must have been quite tall and bought it to fit herself, and Leo ended up selling it. Leo sold my wedding dress. It had been bought on account and paid for with my money. He said I wouldn’t need it again so he took it back and kept all the money. We honeymooned in Rome and didn’t think we’d ever be coming back.

Then he ended up in Family Man with Dickie Henderson… on TV every Monday or Tuesday. He did an advertisement for Mann’s Beer then got an offer of some film work in Italy. He said that when the money started coming in I should get myself some nice clothes and come over to Italy. We really thought the money would have been rolling in. What we didn’t know was that Italy had what was called the quota system, which barred foreign actors. You could only have two non-Italians playing major parts in any film. So he couldn’t do it. We got nothing for that. Leo did a bit of dubbing but didn’t get nearly enough to pay for the expensive hotel… the American Palace. But I’d rather have been with Leo than anyone, if I were in a tight spot, he always thought of a way out. So he ordered a taxi for 6 a.m. in the morning. He told a porter he would pay him now if only he would bring the bill and he gave him a dud cheque. We had to get out.

We had just enough cash for the taxi to the railway station and enough left for the cheapest tickets to the south of France where Leo was brought up, next door to Somerset Maugham. For a while we exploited Leo’s good name and were doing quite well, living well at least. I got a job as a hotel maid. When somehow they found out about the bad cheque in Italy. They must have traced us through our passports. It caught up with us. God what a terrible fuss! They insisted we left. I was allowed to take only the clothes I stood up in. On a hot day in June I grabbed a fur coat and high-heels. All my summer clothes were locked in cases. Leo put on his beautiful mohair suit. We somehow got as far as Nice where we slept on the beach, me in a winter coat and high heels. We got back to England and scrambled through the first week until I got another job. It was the week Margaret Rutherford sent us £10, Leo shared it with me and life just about went on.

We got a new flat, a tiny single studio smaller than this room, so small we had to sleep top to toe with Charlie Pye-Wacket on top. We had only just married when one day Leo told me that Charlie would be coming to stay. I had no idea who he was. I thought it was another man and Leo wouldn’t tell, he kept the secret all week. Anyway I was in the hairdressers, just round the corner under the dryer, when who should come in but Leo holding a basket. Inside was the loveliest little Siamese cat, Charlie Pye-Wacket. Leo took him off home and I told Iris the hairdresser to hurry up. I was so delighted I just had to get home to see him. I loved him and he loved me… the cat that is. He used to put his arms round my neck and Leo would say, “I don’t think I’ll ever get near you again.” The cat had taken over. I just loved him to distraction. Charlie was an odd cat, he didn’t like classical music, only modern. If anything classical came on the radio he just sat facing the wall.

After a couple of years we started to have problems. Leo wasn’t sufficient for me physically. I wanted to make love and Leo wasn’t up to it. He was older than me, and his time as a prisoner of war in Japan had left him.... well you know what I mean. I started to see the old gang and Leo just didn’t approve. It was sad but I left him to live in Pimlico with an old boyfriend, quite a rich man, an actor who played in Champagne Charlie and The Man who came to Dinner. His name was Peter DeGreeff and it was only his drinking which pulled him down. He left me after a year and went off to Spain, giving me enough money for one week’s rent, which he said was the best he could do. I went back to Chelsea but not to Leo. We divorced and he moved to Blackheath. I moved in with George King, one of the Chelsea Set… a rogue. I still went to see Leo, I cooked his meals and our friendship never diminished. Then I met David. 

I was in Finch’s and nipped out to get some cigarettes, there were about 15 of us so I was trying to light one of my pack of 20 in the shop so I wouldn’t have to hand them round. I was fiddling for my matches when a hand appeared round the corner with a lighter. It was David. I looked at him and thought, “Nice, I must remember this one.” I’d just moved in to Jubilee Road, in a flat which had been used by the Duke of Windsor and Mrs Simpson as a love nest. It still had the royal curtains from the Palace. Fully silk-lined with a lovely fringe all down one side. I arranged to meet David through an intermediary. My friend Dennis acted as a chaperone but he left us together after about ten minutes. David was a builder and architect. He knew his job inside out and everything about him appealed to me. He was quite a contrast to Leo. I felt the toast of the town on our first date. I was quite a dish and he went to show me off to his boss who promptly sacked him on the spot… jealousy! 

My friends didn’t take to him, they thought he wasn’t from the top drawer and it took quite a while before he was accepted into the group. We moved into Jubilee Mansions and I decided to give up drinking starting on Sunday. I put a roast in the oven so I’d have to come back and went for a final half pint of bitter in the pub. It was supposed to be the end of the champagne parties.

My fridge was always full of champagne. A lump of sugar, dash of bitter, brandy and a thick piece of orange. You only need one orange for the whole party. Brandy’s my favourite drink, it gets rid of the hangover.

In the pub who should I meet but Chey Blythe, the round-the-world sailor, he’d just won something or other and had covered the bar with ten-pound notes. He said, “Fancy meeting a girl like you here.” He offered to buy me a glass of champagne. I said, “Thank you but really I can’t.” I had a roast in and this really was going to be my very last drink but he persuaded me. One glass of champagne, then another and so on, he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He just didn’t seem to know what to do with his money. Dear me, I was completely intoxicato obligato. I can’t remember what we did. Somehow we ended up having dinner with a Chelsea Pensioner, one of those in the red jackets. There was a restaurant up the road and we drank so much red wine. My God! Then Chey Blythe invited me and David back to his hotel. He bought a couple of bottles of gin and we drank them in his room. Then he invited both of us to a tea dance at the Pheasantry… singing and dancing. David was dancing with Princess Margaret. She said, “So what do you do?” When he said he was a bricklayer, she said, “I don’t dance with bricklayers”, and walked off in a huff. Dreadful woman! She had no class. Tony Snowdon was so embarrassed he sent over two bottles of champagne to our table and all night they kept coming.

By the end of the night we’d had sixteen bottles, and we were still singing and dancing. I put my handbag on the bar and the plastic handle went over someone’s drink so when David picked it up it went everywhere. Her boyfriend threatened David with a broken glass, there was a bit of a fight and David cut his knee. I ran out into the street to call the police for their help and they arrested me! I ended up in court the next day and I never saw Chey Blythe again. It was a bit of a shambles and not really the best start to giving up drink. When I went back up to Swindon I was the talk of the town, a star, a very naughty star.

We got a most gorgeous little black cat. A beautiful little bundle bought for us by Leo. Leo had a lovely way with animals. She was a joy, black Siamese with yellow eyes and we christened her Princess, although we always called her Cat. When I called for her out of the window she would come running along the roofs and the garage walls up the stairs and onto the window ledge. She’d look so silly at me. Princess would come to meet me in the pub at 11 and walk me to the bus stop. I remember the conductor was amazed she said, “It’s not a cat it’s a dog.” Nobody could have had better. She was the most beautiful cat anyone could wish for. We found her dead, one day. Someone had poisoned her with weedkiller.

Percy was my third cat, also called Cat. He stayed with the flat when I moved out. David and I had quite a bohemian relationship. When my old boyfriends came over, he would sleep on the floor. It was while David was away in Scotland that I met Haigh the acid bath murderer. I only met him for a short time but I got to meet his victim, poor lady. He had no real interest in me, he only went for rich widows. He got them to sign over their wills to him, he was really quite charming, a nice man. Then he put them down the drain.

It was quite a strange mixed-up time and I fell in love with another David who had been on the edge of the set for years. He did nothing, just ponced around but he was a good lover. It was all just a silly mistake, since I had David I didn’t need him. I couldn’t leave the flat. I couldn’t leave him for a minute. He stole all my money. I think something must have snapped in my head because I ended up marrying him and I stayed married to him for about two years although we stayed together for less than two weeks. He left me broke. I moved in with a man called Michael Corfield who was the secretary to the Garter King at Arms at Windsor Palace. I lived with him for about six months up at Strawberry Hill near Richmond. He was lovely. I was invited to all the royal garden parties but he turned out to be quite a rotter. Michael lost his job and blamed me although it wasn’t really my fault. We used to meet in the city for drinks and he lost his job because he went back drunk. He threw me out into the street at midnight. It was quite dreadful. I had to phone my friend Harry up at Tulse Hill. He was o.k. He said he’d pay for the taxi but he was working nightshift so it was quite fraught. I stayed a while and he left me a set of keys but pretty soon I was back at David’s house. 

After we divorced, David and Leo became good friends. I became ill due to my hysterectomy and had to go into hospital again. There were six of us on the ward and Leo was always the first to arrive at visiting hour. He always made a theatrical entrance. He’d say, “Hello girls!” in a slightly lascivious way and the girls would all chorus, “Hello Mr Britt.”

One day the matron came in when we were dressing and said, “Hurry girls, tits under the covers. Mr Britt will soon be here.” I never once let him down.

One summer he rented a lovely old cottage called Maxi Hall with a wishing well and doors 1,2,3, in the middle. I don’t know how he got it. It had an enormous 16th century hall attached. There was no water and no light but it was good fun. He paid 15 shillings a week. Low rent from Farmer Perkins. Somehow he got the electric on credit, bought curtains and things to make it habitable. We had an acre of land just the other side of Peterborough. It had three front doors, a grand hall, and if you walked up the stairs the bedrooms were all connected so you could pass straight through.

One day the vicar called around to see us, and Leo was so rude. He said we didn’t accept visitors. When the vicar who was at the gate he said, “When, today?” Leo said, “Never!” Very rude indeed. Leo was an atheist.

He borrowed money from the bank and we paid a gardener. I planted snowdrops round the door. I wonder if they’re still there? David came up and built a fireplace and Leo got him so drunk in the Markham that he knocked all the glasses off the counter and we ended up being banned, even though the landlord had a fancy eye for me. Very disappointing. The Markham was lovely. A real country pub with polished chairs where the poachers would sit. David did a lovely job on the fireplace. He built it with empty whisky bottles built in. Anyway I received a letter saying I’d got a job in London so I had to come back. Leo had wanted me to give it up and move in but I only ever stayed weekends. Leo was so naughty he really thought of himself as the squire. Come to think of it he was a bit of a show-off, but you just had to live with it. He had such charm. He could always do so much more with the money than me. I handed my salary straight over to him. Leo always had his ways.

If I had my time over again I’d still marry Leo Britt. Leo and I wanted children so much but I was barren. I tried a special clinic where they turned my womb upside down but it turned round again, it swung back. I think all in all we would have made good parents although he was quite a bit older than myself. Leo had married before and had a son. He’d established himself as an actor in film and theatre long before I met him. He was in the original of My Fair Lady on Broadway, opening the show with Julie Andrews, as a bystander then becoming Professor Carpathy who said, “She certainly was a lady,” but he never really made the most of it, he was too kind.

Once when Leo lived in Ebury Street it was pouring with rain and freezing cold when there was a tap at the door. It was a young girl covered in dirt and ragged clothes and he took her in. She was little more than a tramp. He let her sleep in his bed while he slept on the sofa. He said he wouldn’t touch her and she wasn’t to worry. He bought her clothes and had her teeth straightened and he gave her the stage name of Sandra Downe. She went on to quite a glittering career and he never had a penny.

He worked as a theatrical agent before taking up acting himself. He discovered Margaret Rutherford who once sent us ten pounds and a lovely thankyou letter. We bought a pair of shoes each with it.

Long after we divorced I still went to see Leo in Blackheath. He’d become old and sad but I think I always loved him right to the end. He was never a truly popular man; he was far too flamboyant to be a star. Far too much the Big I Am. He played Churchill in his last film, Days of Hope, and although it was really just a cameo, the film ended with him. He went into a nursing home organized for him by Noel Coward but he wouldn’t socialize. Looking back he was a rotten actor.

I was working at Burberry’s, the Queens raincoat maker, and we were busy with the January sales when I got a phone call. One of the floor managers got quite annoyed with me as we couldn’t take personal calls but I got the message. Leo had died that morning. She got quite upset with herself for being so insensitive but she couldn’t have known. He died at the age of 71. He fell out of bed reaching for a bottle of whisky and couldn’t get up again. I went with my brother Victor to his funeral. After all the things he’d done, all the people he’d helped, three people came. He died penniless but if I had my time all over again I’d still marry Leo.

I carried on working at Burberry’s for fifteen years. It was an awful boring job but you met a few celebrities, Ginger Rodgers, Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman. I was a sales lady. Mainly I just wandered about and sat on the settees but it was considered quite posh. I haven’t seen my real friends for years.

What lessons can we learn from your story?

Be nice to people, that’s about it. Choose who you want to be with. Peter De Greeff, Bobby Brearton. He worked in the circus letting the animals in and out. He borrowed an overcoat from Bill Bray, a mean old bastard who had an antiques shop on the King’s Road. It came down to his ankles. I went out with the circus manager. One day he took me round to see the animals… the lions’ cage and I… oh dear… I tried to touch one. Terrible! I was a bit pissed of course. Patting a lion on the head. Good God! My arm! He had to pull me away. In my mind my arm is still in there with the lions.