It was a pleasant family secret what Constance Tomkinson really was doing in Paris. Then she wrote a book about it
The preacher’s daughter who joined...Les Girls
It was a pleasant family secret what Constance Tomkinson really was doing in Paris. Then she wrote a book about it
IF YOU come right down to it, one of the most persistent bits of Puritan folklore in Canada is the convention that the theatre is wicked, and no fit place for anyone's daughter. The convention is outraged seriously enough if a girl from a respectable family merely goes on the stage. But what if she were a clergyman's daughter? What if she were to become not just an actress but a chorus girl? What if she were to kick up her legs in that most naughty, notorious and brazen of Parisian showcases, the Folies-Bergère? What indeed!
Constance Tomkinson, the Canadian daughter of a United Church minister, did just that.
Almost twenty years ago, when the convention was two decades stronger and she a mere slip of a girl, she scampered off from a St. John's. Newfoundland, manse and became a hoofer. Constance. who had dutifully sung in the choir all her life, now traded Wesleyan hymns for lyrics like "We'd like to join you as you dine . . . ,” sung to the tune of Cocktails for T wo. Brought up to understand that a bare knee in the street was a scandal in the parish, she now flaunted considerably more of her anatomy right in the patrons’ faces. She w'ore costumes consisting of a flurry of feathers or a fluff of rabbit fur. though back in St. John's she’d once been criticized for calling at Government House without her gloves. Fresh from a community where women were expected to keep their eyes demurely downcast, she learned to flirt with the audience, throw' them kisses and generally project indiscriminate friendliness across the footlights. Her star turn was the jumping splits in the can-can. a dance that even the dictionary describes as "accompanied by extravagant and often indecent postures."
Tradition associates such goings-on with an inevitable lowering of the moral tone, frequently leading to liquor, gold digging, dope, casinos, white slavery, gambling and the fate worse than death. It is generally accepted that females faced
with these diversions will, sooner or later, fall.
The minister’s daughter turned chorus girl was exposed to them all. But the rest of her story flouts all the righteous superstitions.
For instance, her family didn’t turn her picture to the wall, disinherit her or vow never to speak her name again. In fact they'd financed the escapade in the first place, and her father had to be restrained from basing his sermons on texts extracted from her frequent—and frank—letters home. Her mother made a trip abroad to inspect herdaughter's chorus mates, but she briskly pronounced them “very nice girls" and came home again quite quiet in her mind. Out of respect to parish sensibilities, though, the family kept the whole thing quiet. The congregation was given to understand that what Constance was doing in Europe was “studying.” There was no fear of being found out. As Constance pointed out recently, “Our congregations weren't the sort that w'ent to the Folies." And they couldn't have admitted it if they had.
Furthermore, Constance has been so tactless as to come to an extremely good end. At fortyone she is Mrs. Hugh Weeks, wife of one of Britain’s leading economists. Weeks, a Cambridge graduate, was until recently Britain's deputy economic planner and then co-controller of the Colonial Development C'orp. He is now deputy chairman of the Trussed Concrete .Steel Co. and an officer of several other industrial enterprises.
With the secret out Beaverbrook dined her and the char winked. “I fancy you were a bit of a one”
And finally, far from guarding her secret to the grave, Constance has produced an impenitent book called Les Girls — the time-honored title of the Folies-Bergère line. Already a best-seller in England, it was brought out in Canada a few weeks ago. The film rights have been sold and a musical based on Tes Girls is to be released next summer.
Because of crippling U. K. income taxes, the wages of syntax is negligible: Constance claims her proceeds can be totted up in shillings and pence. But the other wages are not as advertised either.
Her husband is not, for example, horrified. He boasts about her. In fact he cited her to illustrate an economic point in a speech on inflation in Edinburgh last October. "At the price of some pulp and paper and a bottle of champagne to celebrate,” he said fondly, "my wife is now earning dollars for the U. K."
The Weeks' sophisticated London circle is equally beguiled. As soon as he'd read Les Girls, Lord Beaverbrook threw a champagne dinner in honor of his compatriot. The Weeks' charlady "adored” the book. "1 laughed and 1 laughed,” she said admiringly, adding with a wink, “I fanoy you were a bit of a one.”
In New York late last fall to launch the North American edition of her book, Constance explained why her adventures embarrassed her family no more than they do her husband. "We were a most unconventional minister's family." she said. Her father, the Rev. Harold Tomkinson. belonged by turns to the Presbyterian Church, the Congregationalists, the Methodists and the United Church of Canada. The whole family liked traveling, so Tomkinson accepted every call that came; he was popular, so they moved often.
"We never purposely shocked people, hut we were always finding we shocked them." Constance recalled, seated in her mother’s New York apartment. She is a slender vivacious woman with a pleasant contralto and a debonair smile. Her threeyear-old daughter Jane was asleep in the bedroom. Her younger sister Joan, an office manager and spare-time poet, brought in tinned beer and glasses.
In one parish. Constance recalled, an aged neighbor had been outraged because the minister’s two daughters smuggled paper dolls into church for diversion during the sermon. And M,rs. Tomkinson was criticized for wearing ankle socks in midsummer. “Our flighty ma,” said Constance fondly, smiling at the memory.
Besides St. John’s — and a short interlude in Iowa — the Tomkinsons lived in Canso, Sydney, Halifax, Springhill, McAdam, Yarmouth and Moncton before the pastor’s death during the war. A Moncton churchgoer still remembers Mrs. Tomkinson; “She was fond of ice skating. She spent a lot of time on the public rinks . . . even” — she pursed her lips — “on prayer-meeting nights.”
Mrs. Tomkinson is a slim woman with a cap of white curls, a merry round face and a manner as lively as a brandysnap. She admitted she’d been the black sheep of her own family. "They were solidly ministers,” she said cheerfully. "1 was a member of the Canadian Authors’ Association until recently.”
Constance sipped her glass of beer. “Yes, you’re the one who’s the real writer in this family.” Mrs. Tomkinson has written scholarly articles for the Dalhousie Review and the New Outlook, predecessor of the United Church Observer; poetry for tourist booklets and newspapers, and two Canadian novels. One of them, Her Own People, was considered for a Governor-General’s Award. “It didn’t get it, though,” Constance added. “T hey probably couldn't stomach the seduction in the sleigh.” Her second book, Welcome Wilderness, is on the supplementary reading list of the University of New Brunswick.
T wo performances every Sunday
“My aunt and my cousin,” said Mrs. Tomkinson reflectively, “thought my books were a little sexy.” She turned to Constance. “I’m glad some of my darling old relatives aren’t still alive. They’d certainly have been shocked by your book.”
“Do ’em good,” said Constance. The three Tomkinson women smiled. “We were a solid unit,” Constance explained. “As soon as we were about ten we backed mother up. Father encouraged us in it. He didn’t care what we did on Sunday as long as the whole congregation wasn’t right outside the door. Church? We did two performances on Sunday, and Sunday school. I taught Sunday school and sang in the choir.”
Tomkinson let the children bury dead pets in sacred ground and then offered up appropriate prayers for “lost friends” while the girls sobbed in the front pew. He adored his family, though he occasionally locked himself for long periods in the serenity of his study. He also locked himself in if he wanted to smoke. "When visitors came,” said Constance, "we’d rush in and flap the smoke out the window before they smelled it.”
Constance loved dancing; she wanted to be an actress too; and someday, she declared, she would be a writer like her mother. Her parents encouraged her. They took her to see Gladys George in The “Ruined” Lady in Chicago when she was four. At nine she was taken to Europe, with Joan, to get her mind broadened.
When Constance decided she wanted to go to dramatic school in New York, the family scraped up the tuition fee and Mrs. Tomkinson took her down (and seized the chance to do research for a novel in the New York Public Library). The current congregation understood she was studying music; actually Constance was enrolled in the Neighborhood Playhouse drama school and the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance.
Schooled in eurythmies and the Boleslavsky method of acting, she went to England and advanced on London’s West End. When she couldn't get a job in a play she picked up the time-step — the basis of all music-hall routines—and join-
ed a tatty little touring show as a hoofer. After being stranded in Sweden, she headed for Paris, landed a job at the FoliesBergère, and by and by wangled a place in an elite troupe of peripatetic English show girls socially comparable to the Gaiety Girls of the Nineties, the Ziegfeld Girls of the Twenties and present-day fashion models.
"As a chorus girl,” Constance recalled, “I went from the bottom to the top in just under two years. 1 never did get anywhere as an actress.”
She demonstrated that she could still do a time-step and confirmed the fact that her measurements are still the same: 34-21-35. She is five foot six. “I'm still a Canadian,” she announced. “If you’re a Canadian you have a streak of Puritanism in you.” She explained that, while most chorus girls don’t worry about being broke, it bothered her to be down to her last ten shillings, as she occasionally was.
A sporadic romance with a German sculptor named Karl was terminated by Munich; Constance left the chorus line to try her luck once more in London’s West End, failed, and accepted a job as secretary-interpreter to a restless cement magnate who wanted to go around the world. She routed him via Canada, so her mother could inspect and okay him. War broke out when they were in Manila; and shortly afterward her father died. She hot-footed it back to Canada and then joined the British Purchasing Commission in New York.
Back in England after the war she became, in succession, secretary of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, a play reader with the I-ondon Mask Theatre and finally secretary-assistant to Tyrone Guthrie, then director of the Old Vic Theatre.
She took a morning off from theatre in 1949 to get married to Hugh Weeks, whom she had met in New York during the war. He had come over on several missions with Churchill and L.ord Keynes. She left the Old Vic permanently in 1952 to have a baby and write plays fulltime. The plays remain unpublished.
Dejected over the string of rejection slips, she tried her hand at an article about her sojourn at the Folies, shipped off the result to the Atlantic monthly in Boston and began another play.
One day while she was bathing Jane the phone rang. A man named Edward Weeks announced himself. He said he had just arrived from America. She tried to think which cousin of her husband Edward Weeks might be. He told her he was the editor of the Atlantic. He was excited about her article and was not related to her husband. “We think we’ve discovered a new humorous writer,” he said. "Could you expand the article? Do a second one? A third one? Do a book?”
She steadied the slippery wriggling baby on her lap and started to shake. The next morning she began Chapter I.
She showed it to her mother. ‘'Fine for a first draft,” said her mentor crisply. "Now polish it." The chapter on the Folies-Bergère appeared in the Atlantic while she was still polishing the book draft. She was in Brittany, repolishing, when film offers for the Folies chapter started arriving. She was in London, still polishing, when Sol Siegel purchased the book as the basis for a musical to be produced in co-operation with MOM. Siegel is the independent producer of such films as High Society.
The exact purchase price is a secret, but whatever the sum. Constance, as an English taxpayer, w'on't see much of it. She is, however, determined to see that the book gets treated with dignity. "Cole Porter’s doing the music,” she says. "I'm glad. He'll keep it from getting sloppy.” George Cukor will direct the film and John Patrick, who adapted Teahouse of the August Moon for the screen, will do the screen play.
At one point Siegel considered Gina Lollobrigida, the petulant Italian beauty, for the lead. When Gina was finally out of the running, Constance, who doesn’t pretend to be a beauty, confided her relief to a newspaper reporter. "I'd have died if she’d got the part,” she announced.
If Lollobrigida would have been miscast as Constance, Constance in turn seems miscast, to most of her acquaintances, as a sometime chorus girl. Her mousy English bob is combed into a soft roll; laughter and a generous smile have left lines on her thin alert face; she favors tartan suits and low-heeled suede walking shoes for daytime wear, collects old-fashioned jewelry and hates hats and gloves. In England she spends a lot of time entertaining her husband’s business associates.
In fact, until the book came out. none of his friends and associates guessed that Weeks' slim, quiet-voiced Canadian wife had ever danced in public for anyone, let alone for the bald-headed row at the Folies. "1 never thought to mention it.” she explained.
She crossed a slim elegant ankle over a slim silken leg and contemplated it. "People have always thought I was an absolute razzier." she said reflectively (razzier is a private Tomkinson noun formed from razzle-dazzle). "1 love to pretend I'm a razzier . . . but, of course, in a Canadian there’s always the Puritan streak.”
The ex-chorus girl leaned forward and added seriously, "Mother and I were talking it over and really, y’know . . . I've always been a bit of a bluestocking." ★
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