Pondero Newbury – Harlot to Heroine: disrupting the image of the Edwardian actress
Hellen Maud Holt, Lady Tree OBE was an actress who reached the height of her fame in the early 1900s before turning her attention to the new theatre of the continent to produce, choreograph and star in her own productions and to champion such avant-garde playwrights as Ibsen and Strindberg. She was also a charity worker, anti-suffrage campaigner, public speaker, theatre director and mother. Towards the end of her life while already in her seventies, she added film, radio and journalism to this impressive repertoire. Her first stage appearance was in 1883 and her last film came out in 1937, six months before her death. Critically, she restored the reputation of her profession at a time, when as one critic put it, there was difficulty in distinguishing the bone fide actress from the prostitute ‘where the so-called actress has no theatre except the thoroughfare, and no stage but the pavement.’ And yet, despite all this, she is better known as the actress wife of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree the great Victorian theatre manager, founder of RADA and His Majesty’s Theatre. His larger-than-life persona and well documented extra marital affairs (he was father to Sir Carol Reed the film director and Oliver Reed was a grandson), all but subsumed that of Maud. Friend to all – her exquisite manners and famous wit meant that she was a frequent guest to the great and the good – her correspondence reads like a who’s who of the 20th century. Hard work and heartbreak went hand in hand as she strove to create work opportunities for herself and her family.
Her enduring legacy is an ability to embrace, rather than fight change while the challenges she faced as a working mother and wife hold true today, as does the inspiration of her wit and stoicism. It is utterly typical that when Maud gave her first radio broadcast in February 1926, she should ask somewhat disingenuously: ‘Do you think anyone heard me?’ The reply was swift: ‘About a million and a half people.’
Susana Cory-Wright was born in Canada and came to Britain as a child. She has a PhD in English and her thesis was the inspiration for the biography Maud Beerbohm Tree, Lady of the Stage published by Legenda in 2018. She is the author of The Catalan House, The London Wife, the trilogy (written during lockdown) Corona Confidential, Can a Leopard? and One Flame Hour. Tolstoy’s Beard is her sixth novel. Susana has three children and lives in Hampshire with her husband and youngest son. More details can be found on Susana’s website
Pondero Newbury talks are held in the Honesty Cookery School’s fabulous barn.