Famous People

Lady of the House

By Ken Tracey

In 2019 we said goodbye to our second female Prime Minster, the year also marks the centenary of the first woman MP to take her seat in the British parliament. On the 1 December 1919, Nancy Astor MP for Plymouth Sutton, entered parliament. She was not the first woman to be elected an MP, that was Constance Markievicz, a member of Sinn Fein, who, as was the convention, refused to enter parliament.

Remarkably, Nancy Wilcher Longhorne Astor was an American, born into a poor Virginian family on 19 May 1879. She was fortunate in as much that, had she remained in her own country she would not have even had the vote! It was 1920, when the 19th Amendment gave the women of America the vote.

She was the eighth child of Chiswell and Nancy senior, and her father’s success in construction and railways made them a wealthy family by the time the children were teenagers. Financial success did not influence her father’s prejudice against the education of women. Nancy loved books, but was discouraged from educating herself and was sent with her sister Irene, to a New York finishing school.

It was here at the age of 18 that she met and married, Robert Gould Shaw II, a wealthy landowner and international Polo player with a passion for alcohol and women. They soon had a son, Robert Gould Shaw III, but the unhappy marriage lasted less than 6 years, ending in divorce.

Nancy sailed for England with her son and sister Phyllis, a decision that would propel her into the British aristocracy and give her worldwide fame. Aboard ship she met Waldorf Astor, son of the wealthy Viscount Astor. Six months later they were married and moved to the prestigious Cliveden estate in Buckinghamshire, a gift from the Viscount. Nancy became popular in British society.

Waldorf had an interest in politics and in 1910 became MP for Plymouth, (later Plymouth Sutton) a post he held until 1919 when his father died. He then inherited the title and moved up to the House of Lords, and the girl from Virginia became Viscountess Astor.

The ambitious Nancy decided to trade on her husband’s popularity and stood for parliament in Plymouth Sutton. She was successful and in 1919, won her seat as a Conservative MP, a position she held for 26 years.
While canvassing door to door with a naval officer as her escort, the Viscountess was introduced to the reality of life in the Sutton Harbour district. A young girl answered a door and announced that her mother was out, but if a lady came with a sailor, she’d been told that, they were to use the room upstairs, and leave ten bob!

Her political achievements were minor and she did not hold ministerial office. Her passions were for women’s rights, support for children and eliminating the consumption of alcohol. She supported lowering the voting age of women to 21 and raising the age for purchasing alcohol from 14 to 18. Both these Bills became law.

Controversy dogged the outspoken Lady, fuelled by her open loathing of Catholics, Jews and communists. Despite being anti-Catholic, she was a friend, and shared the anti-Semitic and anti-communist views of the US Ambassador to Britain, Joseph P Kennedy. Together they hoped that the rise of Hitler would somehow alleviate their concerns.

It is recorded that face to face with Stalin, she asked ‘Why did you slaughter so many Russians?’ General opinion is that a crisis was avoided due to the diplomacy of the interpreter.

Nancy and Waldorf resented the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, but conscious of the horrors of the Great War, they did not want another conflict. They supported the appeasement policy of Neville Chamberlain, along with their followers who became known as the ‘Cliveden Set.’ It was an unpopular stance to take and their critics cast them as Nazi sympathisers.

In the early years she was a lone woman in a hostile parliament, insulted or ignored by members. Churchill later told her that they had hoped to ‘freeze her out.’ Through her wit and resolve she was able to hit back. Once, Churchill, famous for his insults and habitual drinking, asked a group what guise he should use to attend a forthcoming masquerade ball. Nancy quipped, ‘Why don’t you come sober, Prime Minister?’

Nancy’s political behaviour became erratic, she accused government departments of being infiltrated by the groups she despised. She became a liability to her party and Waldorf withdrew his support for her political career, so she did not stand for re-election in 1945.

Nancy and Waldorf separated for a number of years, but were reunited by the time of his death in 1952. Alone, Nancy lost contact with most of her children, and many of her closest friends died. She died on 2 May 1964 at the age of 84, at Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire.

Nancy and Waldorf had four sons and a daughter. She was the Aunt of the talented comedian, singer and actress, Joyce Grenfell, her sister Nora’s daughter.

The people of Plymouth have not forgotten Nancy, a statue is being prepared for erection on Plymouth Hoe in the autumn of 2019, the centenary of her entering parliament. Even her statue has caused controversy, some say the Hoe is not an accessible place for the elderly and disabled to visit, and another site would be preferable.

Copyright © Ken Tracey 2019

The Last Man on the Moon

by Ken Tracey

Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, may not be the first astronaut to come to mind when lunar landings are recalled, but he has several impressive firsts to his credit.
Like all the astronauts, his intelligence level was that of a genius. He is not a tolerant man, but he was determined to succeed, a quality necessary to travel to the moon and return safely. Now 81 years old, he insists that he is not the last man to walk on the moon, but only the present holder of the title.

Cernan was born in Chicago on 14 March 1934 to a Czech mother and a Slovak father. The bright boy loved the outdoors and began a lifelong passion for horses.
In 1956 he gained a degree in Electrical Engineering from Purdue University, an establishment whose graduates include both the first and last men to walk on the moon – at least for the time being.
Keen to pursue his ambition to fly, in 1963 he became a Naval Aviator, and continued his education by gaining an MSc in aeronautical engineering. In this busy year, his wife Barbara gave birth to their daughter Teresa Dawn and he was selected by NASA to take part in the Gemini and Apollo programmes.

By 1966 he’d been selected as back-up pilot for Gemini 9. Then through a tragic event he got his first space flight. The two prime pilots were killed flying to inspect their space craft at a plant in St Louis.
Cernan joined Command Pilot, Thomas Stafford on Gemini 9A, as it was renamed, to test docking manoeuvres and carry out space walks.

The mission was dogged with problems making the docking practice impossible and while Cernan was on a space walk, he became exhausted due to the shortage of hand holds on the exterior of the craft and had to abandon tests of a ‘rocket pack,’ which would give space walkers independent propulsion. It was his strength and determination that got him safely back on board.

Cernan gained a first in 1969, when he flew to the moon on Apollo 10. It was the rehearsal for the moon landings and Cernan with Tom Stafford in the lunar module went within eight nautical miles of the moon’s surface. When preparing to return to the command module, they had a terrifying experience when the navigation system sent the module into a spin. The expert crew wrestled with the failure and were able to bring the craft under control.

Cernan demonstrated his tenacity to get his own way when he later turned down an opportunity to walk on the moon as Lunar Module Pilot of Apollo16. He gambled on missing the chance altogether in the hope of commanding his own mission later.

Meanwhile at home in the Houston neighbourhood dubbed, ‘Togethersville,’ his wife Barbara had become a leader in the, ‘Astronaut’s Wives Club;’ a group formed to help them through the trials of marriage to the space celebs, which included backing their husbands at a multitude of social and publicity events. All this on top of the trauma of seeing them strapped aboard craft loaded with explosive fuel and shot into space. She is quoted as saying, ‘If you think going to the moon is hard, try staying at home.’

Eight months later Cernan’s gamble paid off, he was selected as Commander of Apollo 17. He became one of only three humans ever to travel to the moon on two different occasions.
He landed with crew mate and scientist, Harrison ‘Jack’ Schmitt on 11 December 1972.

Cernan and Schmitt did three moon walks; the first one alone was three times longer than the time spent outside by Armstrong and Aldrin. Cernan was to notch up another record; while driving the Lunar Rover he reached a speed of 11.2 mph, gaining him the lunar land speed record. An unofficial record he holds to this day.

Cernan’s last job outside the craft was to position the Lunar Rover to video their take off. With a stroke of genius, he gave his nine-year-old daughter an amazing Christmas gift that will last forever. While walking the mile back to the Lunar Module he knelt and wrote her initials, ‘TDC,’ in the moon dust.

On 19 December 1972 the Apollo 17 crew; Harrison Schmitt, Eugene Cernan and Ron Evans returned safely to Earth. Typically, Cernan had criticised NASA’s choice of Schmitt, a scientist and the first astronaut not to be a member of the armed forces, but back home he complimented Jack for doing a good job.

In 1976, Cernan retired from both the Navy and from NASA, and went into private business. Later he set up his own consultancy providing management services to industries including aerospace.

Not many of the astronaut’s marriages survived the pressure brought on by celebrity and politics, likewise the Cernans divorced in 1981. It was six years later that Eugene married Jan Nanna. They have two daughters.

Update- Eugene Cernan died on 16 January 2017 at the age of 82. His footprints and daughter’s initials remain on the moon forever.

Copyright © 2016 by Ken Tracey

Peter and Gordon

By Ken Tracey

Before the Beatles invasion of the US music charts, no British star had reached Number One in the States. Hot on the heels of the Fab Four were harmony duo, Peter and Gordon who’s first single topped the US Charts. The Americans were drawn to the two British toffs strumming guitars and singing like the Everly Brothers. Their popularity spanned from 1964 until they split up in 68, although they did reunite for come-back tours later.
Peter Asher and Gordon Waller, the sons of a doctor and a surgeon, met at the Westminster School for Boys in London where they started singing together at parties.

They were later given a recording contract with EMI when playing at the Pickwick Club, Great Newport Street, London.
Peter had experience in show biz having appeared in the film, ‘The Planter’s Wife,’ as the son of Claudette Colbert and Jack Hawkins and other film and TV productions. He also performed with his sister, the actress Jane Asher, in the TV series, ‘Robin Hood’ in 1955 when Peter was 11 years old.

The Duo’s mentor in the music business was none other than Paul McCartney who had a long romance with Jane, Peter’s sister. Paul wrote their first hit, ‘World Without Love,’ which unsurprisingly had the harmony and poignancy of a Beatles song. It made No1 in the UK and the USA selling over a million copies.

The boys went on to record a cover version of Buddy Holly’s ‘True Love Ways,’ and Phil Spector’s, ‘To Know you is to Love You.’ Both became hits with ‘True Love Ways,’ going gold. Then their music switched emphasis to novelty numbers; ‘Knight in Rusty Armour’ and ‘Lady Godiva,’ which was branded, obscene by the Mayor of Coventry, ensuring its success as a million seller. This was to be their last hit.

Peter stayed in the business as an A& R man initially with Apple Records, and produced the work of; Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Cher, Diana Ross and many other stars. He married Wendy in 1983 and they have a daughter, Victoria, who became the vocalist and ‘keytarist,’ – (don’t ask me, I’m from the 60s!)  With the band, Cobra Starship. She later went solo as ‘Vicky T.’

After the split, Gordon Waller became a solo performer recording a few songs with little success. He then became a landscape gardener and in 1971 turned to the stage to play ‘Pharaoh,’ in the Webber and Rice musical, ‘Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.’

Throughout the 1980s and 90s he worked as a music publisher in the USA.
He was married to Gay for 22 years and they had two daughters. In 2008 he married his second wife Jen and died the following year after a heart attack on 17 July 2009.

Copyright © 2017 by Ken Tracey

Gene Vincent – Rock and Roll Pioneer

By Ken Tracey

The 1950s kids had barely put down their Enid Blyton books, before rock and roll shot into their lives like a thunderbolt. The raw music grabbed them, and helped blot out the pain and suffering of growing up. From both rich and poor backgrounds, in the US and UK, the rebels sliced through the establishment with music that made limbs dance without a thought. The Pioneers’ success was hard won, their enthusiasm without bounds, their personal problems vast, and their lives short.

The life of one rock and roller ticks all these boxes, Vincent Eugene Craddock, born 11 February 1935, in Norfolk Virginia. Known as, Gene Vincent, the ‘Wild Cat’, to the rest of the world that he toured extensively.

A friend, who’d grown weary of his sister’s calamitous attempts to pluck a guitar, passed it over to the 12 year old Gene. Even then, his renditions of blues and gospel songs, were good enough to draw the Cradock’s neighbours to listen in the front yard. So rousing was his music, that it would later inspire the more enduring rock giants such as, Eric Clapton, the Beatles and Ian Drury. The DJ and champion of niche musical talent, John Peel, was also a lifelong fan.

Aged seventeen, Gene shelved his studies and left the family general store in Norfolk, to sail off with the US Navy. The life suited the wild boy, on trips ashore he could be a troublemaker, but he was also a good sailor. He even sailed into Korean waters during the war, but never saw combat.
He was content to make the Navy his career, and re-enlisted for a further term. Ironically, this action changed his destiny, caused suffering, and changed his life.
He bought a Triumph motorbike with the bounty paid for re-enlisting. Out riding on a summer weekend, he was hit by a car at traffic lights, seriously damaging his left leg. The doctors advised that the limb be amputated. The five foot nine tall, ten stone something, curly haired 20 year old, refused the operation. A leg brace was fitted, and he was discharged from the Navy. He never walked again without a limp. While recovering, he had to focus on the more passive distractions, of twanging his guitar, and writing lyrics.

A year later in 1956 he changed his name to Gene Vincent, and formed a band – Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps. US sailors below officer rank were known as ‘Blue Caps’.

In the same year he wrote the life changing song, ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’. The riveting vocals and eyrie sound, from the pale-faced rocker with the wild eyes, captivated the young generation. Some credit is due to the Capitol sound engineer, who added the echo. This was around the time that a rocker called Elvis Presley, entered the Charts with his first hit single, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, also heavy on echo. Gene was up there with the greats in 1956 recording the modern sound.

‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’ was the ‘B’ side of the first single with the erotic ‘Woman Love’ on the ‘A’ side but the fans chose differently. ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’ became the hit and went ‘Gold’ with 2 million sales. In the UK, it entered the New Musical Express chart, at number 30, on 13 July, 1956. It re-entered the chart twice more in 1956 reaching number 16. Gene Vincent was established as a rock and roll star, and Capitol Records new rival to RCA’s, Elvis Presley.

Gene’s second single, ‘Race with the Devil’, kept him out of the charts completely , because reference to the ‘devil’ was not acceptable in the US ‘bible belt,’ at that time. The seeds for persecuting Rock and Rollers, had been sown.

The third single ‘Blue Jean Bop’, went ‘Gold’, and was also the title of his first album. It did well, but as the UK album charts didn’t start until 1958, we have no record of its success here. Gene’s talent was so widely appreciated, that his success, in 1956, was topped with performances at the Sands Hotel, Las Vegas.
Even at the top, Gene was dogged with misfortune. The line up of his band was constantly changing. So when he got the chance to perform in the classic rock film, ‘The Girl Can’t Help It,’ starring the ravishing Jayne Mansfield, some of the Blue Caps had already become road-weary and quit.

Management disputes, gunplay, four marriages, and continual pain, numbed with drink and pills, eroded Gene’s success and stole the enduring career he deserved. While touring the UK in 1960, fate dealt another cruel blow. Travelling in a taxi with Eddie Cochran, and songwriter Sharon Sheely, they were involved in an accident. Gene broke his ribs and collarbone; his left leg took further damage. Sharon was injured but Eddie Cochran was thrown from the car. Gene helped Eddie to an ambulance, he would say, ‘Eddie died two days later, on Easter Sunday, somehow I didn’t’. Gene would never fully recover from his friend’s death. Eddie did vocal backing on Gene’s recordings; ‘Get It’, ‘Piece of Mind’, ‘The Wayward Wind’ and ‘Now is the Hour’.

There was a special bond between Gene and the UK; he toured here a lot, that was partly to avoid the US tax authorities, and the witch-hunt against the new ‘evil’ music. He recorded the 1960 hit ‘Pistol Packin Mama’ at EMIs Abbey Road Studios with Georgie Fame.

It was a subdued performance that I saw in 1962, at the Liverpool Odeon. Gene was touring with Brenda Lee, billed as the ‘King and Queen of Rock’. He was leather clad, but a wooden figure clutching the mike with both hands, his leg clearly restricting movement. The voice was weak. The ‘Wild Cat’ had been tamed, along the accident littered way.

He’d fought hard for success; his enthusiasm for touring had damaged his health, his problems with marriage and business were overwhelming and his life ended when a stomach ulcer burst on 12 October 1971, he was just 36 years old.

Copyright © 2014 by Ken Tracey

The Rise of a Comedy Writer

by Ken Tracey

David Nobbs the creator of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and A Bit of a Do, once delivered the Christmas mail to homes in Orpington. He was then a classics student at Cambridge balancing study with the urge to write comedy.
He was born in a Petts Wood maternity home on 13 March 1935 and lived in the family home in Sevenoaks Road. His father was Deputy Head of the City of London School and instilled in his only child a sense of fun and fair play. He would not tutor David himself because he considered that it would give him an unfair advantage over other boys. His mother taught maths and this close family strove to give him a good education.
At school age he would plod up The Avenue, then a dirt road, to take the train from Orpington to Chislehurst where he attended Bickley Hall Prep School. The building blocks of his early education now lay beneath the housing estates between Bickley and Chislehurst. He watched the commuters in pin striped suits and bowler hats, armed with rolled umbrellas going to their London offices. This daily pageant could well have influenced his later creation of the bizarre, Reginald Perrin.
A shy boy, he developed an interest in books consuming all things Biggles by Captain WE Johns and the Arthur Ransome Swallows and Amazons series. He also liked listening to the radio, his favourite comedians were Kenneth Horne and Richard Murdoch in Much Binding in the Marsh and Tommy Handley in ITMA (It’s That Man Again). Good grounding for a future comedy writer.
His father’s sense of fairness required that his son did not attend the school where he taught, so David went to Marlborough College. Following school, National Service called him to the Royal Corps of Signals where he became a Morse code receiver. He was posted to Denbury Camp in Devon where curious situations occurred which were worthy of a sit-com. An officer explained that there were more bods. on camp than was allowed. So David was ordered to take a group to the beach at Torquay every day to avoid detection. During a glorious summer he carried out his duty with devotion.
Amidst the military chaos David made decisions about his future. He deliberately failed his exams to be an officer and remained a Signalman. He also decided to become a writer and enrolled on a journalism course.
On demob. he continued his studies and read classics at Cambridge. His resolve to be a writer hardened and he submitted humorous articles to magazines with some success. His sketches were performed at a ‘Footlights Drama Club Smoking Concert,’ and the ‘Footlights Revue at the Arts Theatre.’ Peter Cook later told him that he had been his hero at Cambridge: true recognition of his talent. Torn between his studies and the need to be a writer, he decided to learn how to write and switched his studies to an easier English course. He appreciated his parent’s efforts to educate him, so he secured a second class degree rather than drop out.
Setting aside his ambition to write in a Viennese garret, he became a trainee reporter on the Sheffield Star. Dragging around hospitals and courts for stories didn’t satisfy him so he used the evenings in his digs, to write his first novel, The Itinerant Lodger about a man who lived in digs and moved from digs to digs.
There were often bizarre situations in court. A magistrate would misunderstand the charges quoting a case of theft as a motoring offence or summing up with gobbledegook. David’s sense of fair play demanded that he reported the exact wording but to his dismay the copy was always edited to protect the face of authority.
The urge to write now consumed him so he made the decision to leave the Star and journalism behind. The popular TV satire, That Was The Week, That Was, reflected David’s sense of humour so he telephoned the BBC with a sketch. This proved to be his breakthrough and he became a regular contributor. Then he was given opportunities to write for, The Frost Report and The Two Ronnie’s and many comedians including; Les Dawson, Ken Dodd, Jimmy Tarbuck and Dick Emery.
His first book was eventually published in 1965. He wrote three further novels and in 1975, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, brought him success and he adapted it for the TV series. He followed the same procedure with his later writing; a novel first and then the TV adaptation.
David married Mary, a divorced woman with three children and moved to Herefordshire. When their marriage broke up in 1992, he moved to Harrogate to live with Susan, who had one daughter. He married Susan in 1998.
As well as his television successes, he had over twenty books to his credit and was the president of the Writers Guild of Great Britain for four years. He was affected so deeply by the death of his mother, that he wrote the moving novel, Going Gently. The experience also inspired him to become a humanist. David died in Ripon, Yorkshire on 9 August 2015. His family number, four step-children, eight step-grandchildren and two step grand-grand children. He always marvelled at his good fortune to be paid for what he enjoyed doing, comedy writing.

Copyright © Ken Tracey 2015