Growing up Redgrave: An Excerpt From Donald Spoto’s Latest Biography

Donald Spoto is the author of twenty-five books, including bestselling biographies of Alfred Hitchcock, Tennessee Williams, Laurence Olivier, Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman, and Audrey Hepburn. Most recently, Spoto turned his attention toward the luminary Redgrave family. Their indelible name has been synonymous with film and theater for generations, and last month, for the first time, their story was made available to the public in Spoto's deeply personal account of their epic lives and contributions. 

Below is an excerpt from Spoto's 2012 biography, 'The Redgraves: A Family Epic."

The Redgraves: A Family Epic


Their Wedding Days

( 1824–1921  )

During the cold afternoon of Friday, March 20, 1908—in a modest, poorly heated room above a newspaper shop on Horfield Road, in Bristol, England—a twenty-three-year-old actress named Daisy Scudamore Redgrave gave birth to a plump, blond-haired boy. After the newborn’s first cries, a woman who had helped during the delivery asked if Daisy had chosen a name for the baby. “Mother looked across the street and saw St. Michael’s Church,” said Michael Redgrave years later. Daisy’s notebook confirms the choice of name she had made without consulting her husband, an actor who was then in London, a hundred miles away. Recently, he had been absent much of the time.

For the previous three months, obeying her doctor’s instructions, Daisy had accepted no roles in the provincial tours that frequently kept her busy but brought neither wealth nor fame. During her confinement, instead of traveling and meeting with theater managers, she paid her rent by working a few hours each day in the shop beneath her rented room. She had met Roy Redgrave the previous summer, when they began a passionate romance that almost at once resulted in her pregnancy. Roy at first hesitated but then proposed marriage, six months before the child’s birth. Daisy accepted, but the sequence of surprises was just beginning.

Daisy Bertha Mary Scudamore was born on November 13, 1884, in Portsmouth, an island-town on the southern coast of England and a major naval port. She was the last of five children born to George Scudamore, who worked for a shipbuilding company, and Clara Linington, who was forty-five at the time of Daisy’s birth. The girl’s school record was unremarkable, but she had a flair for song, dance and recitation—aptitudes her staid Victorian parents did not encourage.

During a family holiday in Aberdeen at Christmas 1898, fourteen-year-old Daisy appeared in Aladdin, a musical pageant for children. She soaked up the applause and clutched the small bouquets friends offered after the performance; with that, the theatrical die was cast. Already a tall, pretty, vivacious teenager with expressive blue eyes, she had (so she was convinced) a fund of talents that guaranteed a successful career.

The following year, Daisy announced that she wanted to work on the stage—news her parents received in mute shock, as if the girl had proclaimed her intention to work on the streets.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the acting profession was only just beginning to enjoy widespread respectability. Since Elizabethan times, most actors were regarded as little more than rogues and vagabonds. The daughter of the actor-manager Samuel Phelps, for example, was expelled from school in the 1850s when it was learned that her father was an actor, and the wife of the great actor Henry Irving ridiculed him about the shame of his profession, and eventually left him for that reason. As recently as 1889, when she was on the verge of international fame, the actress known as Mrs. Patrick Campbell received a letter from her aunt Kate, pitying her as “a poor unfortunate child . . . yet to learn the shame, the humiliation of seeing yourself despised by decent people” precisely because she was of the theater.

Early in her reign, Queen Victoria had begun to reverse this prevalent contemptuous attitude. An avid playgoer, she invited actors to Windsor Castle, to present scenes from respectable dramatic works. Although she denied herself this pleasure for twenty years after the death of her husband, Prince Albert, Victoria later attended command performances and received leading players in her homes. This appreciation was symbolized in 1895, when Victoria bestowed a knighthood on Henry Irving, the first such honor for an actor. Six more actor-managers received the same honor between 1897 and 1913, first from Victoria and then from her son and grandson, Edward VII and George V.

The national census of 1881 had counted 4,565 actors in Britain. Their number had grown to 18,247 by 1911, and during those three decades, twenty-one new theaters were opened in London’s West End. At the same time, more actors were coming from respectable backgrounds. An actor’s status continued to improve in the public’s estimation: higher classes of society were now depicted onstage; amateur theatricals expanded everywhere; and repertory companies multiplied. For the first time since the Middle Ages, the Church also took an eager and sustaining interest in the theater, and actors were no longer regarded as undesirable companions. In London, the founding of the Academy of Dramatic Art in 1904 (granted royal status in 1920 and henceforth known familiarly as RADA) and of the Central School of Speech and Drama (in 1906) also helped to erase the stigma attached to acting by associating it with education.

In light of the loud parental disapproval of her career plans, Daisy bided her time. But then, around the time of her fifteenth birthday, she packed a small bag, slipped away from home without so much as a farewell, and sought out a London theatrical agent whose name she spotted in a newspaper. When she said her name was Scudamore, the agent presumed that she was somehow related to the noted actor-manager-playwright Fortunatus Augustus Scudamore, and he forthwith suggested that she visit that man’s home in Barnes, a riverside London suburb.

F. A. Scudamore was actually no Scudamore. Born Frank Davis, he had assumed the classical moniker Fortunatus and the venerable surname of a family that could be traced back before the Norman Conquest and included many nobles and landed gentry on various branches of its tree. When he opened the door to the clear-eyed, ambitious Daisy that afternoon late in 1899—and so met someone he thought was an authentic Scudamore—he improvised a little scene that could have been straight from one of his own sentimental plays. “If you are not my daughter,” he cried, welcoming her with a throb in his voice, “then I don’t know whose daughter you may be!” He did not investigate, and she did not elaborate.