I came across an interesting article on Jessie Matthews from the Jewish point of view
. But in amongst its depiction of her as a tragic figure it includes a few odd statements and factual inconsistencies.
The writer is little unfair on the men in her life, I feel: the biography cited rather casts doubt on the oft-made claim that Ferrara's only interest in Jessie Matthews was to get her into bed, and that he lost interest immediately he had achieved this in New York. Thornton points out that Ferrara was supposed to be returning to his family in South America, and that he overstayed for more than a year on account of his affair with Jessie, indicating that it was more than a casual dalliance; that the relationship continued not only after its consummation but after the abortion; suggests that the final trigger for the break-up was Jessie's repeated refusal to introduce him to her parents despite his desire to meet her family (perhaps to formalise the relationship?) -- because, understandably, she was ashamed at just how deprived her background was compared to his, and was afraid that he would be repelled by the squalor of East End life; and proposes Ferrara as a would-be Pygmalion figure who was fascinated by the girl's social as well as sexual innocence, and took pleasure in educating her into the refinements of society life as well as initiating her into his bed. Not entirely an admirable figure (one is reminded of the relationship between Errol Flynn and his young 'Woodsie') but not the single-minded rapacious rapist of legend. Jessie's future career in show-business aristocracy may have owed more to the sophistication she learned from her Argentinian playboy than she realised or acknowledged; like most of us, she did have a tendency to rewrite history in retrospect. And the fact that she was -- no thanks to Ferrara -- not the complete sexual innocent that Sonnie Hale's wife had been, but knew very explicitly what she wanted and could offer to her supportive co-star, probably contributed directly to the break-up of that particular young marriage as well...
I wouldn't quarrel with the description of Harry Lytton as idle, spoiled and heavily in debt (when Jessie paid off his gambling debts with her savings he soon ran up more), but it was he who had the weakness for chorus girls, not second husband Sonnie Hale. (Hale married her the first week that he was free, after the screaming-headlines 1930 divorce that was his, not hers; her divorce from the unfaithful Lytton had gone through more or less on the nod in 1929, but it was her adultery with Sonnie and his wife's consequent divorce suit against him, citing Jessie very publicly by name, that caused the tabloid scandal.)
The Hale relationship lasted for thirteen years (from the beginning of their affair to separation in 1942) and broke down for reasons that had nothing to do with chorus girls -- there is no suggestion that Sonnie Hale looked elsewhere before the end, although gossip has him intervening to ward off his wife's attentions towards her male co-stars. It's possible that this was one reason for his presence on set in some capacity during all her later films, but she was also increasingly mentally fragile, and Thornton mentions in passing a number of occasions (from 'hovering' anxiously around the cabin of a collapsed Jessie with bowls of soup in the early 1930s, during what was supposed to be a well-earned holiday cruise for both of them to -- according to the theatre staff -- being the one to support her and keep her going during their 1940 pantomime season, where she played the principal boy in 'Aladdin') during which one may gather that Sonnie had to take on the weight of his wife's vulnerabilities. Coupled with quarrels that stemmed from his basic insecurity in the face of Jessie's apparent ability to translate stage success into film stardom, while his own stage success was forgotten in the role of Jessie Matthews' celebrity consort and his long-running desire to direct received harsh verdicts from the critics, the marriage grew unsurprisingly strained.
The 'adopted daughter's nanny', far from being the glamorous teenage au pair of middle-class fantasies, was apparently a staid woman in her thirties with no particular looks and no talents beyond the domestic. But when Jessie left England during the war (with Sonnie's encouragement) to take up the offer of a starring role on Broadway, Miss Kelsey calmly expanded her duties from looking after the child to running the father's domestic life as well, even moving up to Newcastle when pantomime rehearsals took the whole family away from home. With hindsight, one can only assume that the experience of being the one looked after for a change, combined with being deferred to as an employer and the head of the household -- doubtless balm to a battered male ego -- brought it home to Sonnie that he had finally fallen out of love with his glittering, enchanting, unstable wife. Cossetting and sturdy domesticity apparently had their charms; and Mary Kelsey, in addition, could (and subsequently did) give him children. Jessie's professional schedule left little time for child-bearing -- it was assumed at the time that stars would retire in order to reproduce -- and on the one occasion she managed to negotiate a year off so that they could try for a baby, the resulting miscarriage had flung her into a state of virtual catatonia that had Sonnie seriously alarmed.
As for Brian Lewis, he was a starry-eyed young fan from Jessie's war-time concerts, whose uncomplicated adoration doubtless did wonders for her own badly-wounded ego after Sonnie's defection. (For all their quarrelling -- and despite the fact that by her own account she had recently considered walking out on Sonnie herself while conducting an affair with the young director who had, to add insult to injury, replaced her husband on production of her latest film -- she seems to have genuinely loved him; and given that they had been together for almost the entirety of her fraught rise to frame and virtually her whole adult life, it is unsurprising that his absence left her devastated.)
With hindsight, the age gap in her new marriage was probably not a good idea, for as her young husband grew up and developed interests and ambitions of his own (at one point, he trained to become a publican and purchased his own pub, where Jessie, not allowed to pull pints for the customers, found herself increasingly marooned upstairs alone), they grew apart. There was also the strain, as in her previous ventures into matrimony, of her notoriety; she was the big story in the newspapers, even now that her film career had faded and she was finding it harder and harder to get stage work, and he, like his predecessors, inevitably found himself relegated to the status of sidekick to the star. But I have come across no suggestion that Brian Lewis was "far too attached to his mother" or that this affected his relationship with Jessie; they differed over various things, including, ultimately, apartheid (she would leave him in South Africa) but not because he was a mummy's boy.
These issues aside (Thornton also states explicitly that the large Matthews family, though they lived in cramped conditions which would nowadays be considered squalid and often went short of other things, never went hungry) -- an interesting article, especially on the Jewish connection!