On this day in history : 29th May 1948 – The death of May Whitty, English stage and film actress – and one of the first women entertainers to be made a Dame for services to the Arts….

Dame May Whitty – Public domain

Born in Liverpool on the 19th of June 1865 she was christened Mary Louise Whitty but was to become known by her stage name of May Whitty…. Her father, William Alfred Whitty, was a newspaper proprietor and her grandfather was Michael James Whitty – who founded the police force and fire brigade in Liverpool and was founder of the Liverpool and Daily Post….

May made her stage debut in 1881 at the Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool – in the chorus of ‘Mountain Sylph’…. A year later she joined the Lyceum Company in London’s West End, which was then being managed by Henry Irving and Ellen Terry…. In 1895 she was to tour the USA for the first time, with Irving….

On the 3rd of August 1892 she married actor-manager Ben Webster and they had two children…. Their first, a son, sadly died at birth but their daughter, born in 1905, was also to become an actress – as well as a successful producer and director (Margaret Webster)….

For some 25 years May was known as one of the UK’s best leading stage actresses…. She made her first film appearance in 1914, a silent film ‘Enoch Arden’…. She did not care much for this form of acting and made only a few more of such films….

In 1918 May was made Dame Commander of the British Empire by King George for her service to the Arts and for entertaining the troops during World War One…. She was then to go on to have a run of successful hits on Broadway…. Back on home soil she was involved in the formation of Equity, when it was created in 1930 by a group of West End performers at her home in West London….

In 1937, at the age of 72, May made her Hollywood debut in the lead role of ‘Night Must Fall’ for which she received an Oscar nomination…. However, perhaps the highlight of her Hollywood career was as Miss Froy in Hitchcock’s 1938 film ‘The Lady Vanishes’….

Theatrical release poster, 1938 – Fair use

In 1939 May moved to the States permanently…. She was often cast in heart endearing roles – and sometimes as a cantankerous old lady…. 1942 saw her second Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress in ‘Mrs Miniver’…. When once asked about her late coming Hollywood career, she replied “I’ve got everything Betty Grable has – only I’ve had it longer”….

Theatrical release poster, 1942 – public domain

May died of cancer at the age of 82 in Beverly Hills – shortly after completing the 1948 film ‘the Sign of the Ram’….

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