On stage with (and apparently about to strangle!) Evelyn Laye
at the Princes Theatre in Three Waltzes, the show that proved
Esmond was still able to play lead roles in a West End show.
Three Waltzes, a play by Diana Morgan with music by Oscar Strauss, opened at the Prince's Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, in April 1945, just as war in Europe was coming to an end. Esmond played the male lead next to Evelyn Laye; or rather he played the male leads - Richard, Dickie and Dick Wessex, three consecutive generations of the same family, with each act set in a different period (Victorian, Edwardian and finally Georgian). Fran was in the cast, as she had been in Crisis in Heaven, to help Esmond familiarise himself with the stage, guide him to and from his dressing room, and to make him up. The show was a success and a huge boost to Esmond's professional confidence. He achieved what he had always intended - a return to the West End theatre in a lead role. His career was well and truly back on track, proving wrong those who said it could not be done.
Evelyn Laye later gave an insight into what it was like to work with Esmond on the show:
"He was wonderful. He insisted that none of us should pay any attention to his blindness. He spent hours learning every corner and distance of the sets on the stage, so that he could move freely and play his part as though he had no handicap at all".
In the early 1980s, long before I developed an interest in Esmond Knight or even knew who he was, I worked for a while as a salesman in the Harrods Piano Department. One morning I answered the phone and took an enquiry from an elderly lady about finding a local piano tuner. I asked for her details and said I'd call her back. It was Evelyn Laye. The name meant nothing to me
at the time. I wish I had known then what I know now!
Unfortunately the professional satisfaction of this achievement was marred for Esmond by a crisis in his personal life. During the run of Three Waltzes he suddenly made the decision to leave Fran and live with Nora Swinburne who had been his mistress for the past eight years. They had first met in 1937 whilst appearing together in Wise Tomorrow at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith.
With Nora Swinburne in Autumn Crocus at the King's Theatre,
Hammersmith, 1939, in the early days of their relationship.
Picture courtesy of Rosalind Knight
Married to her second husband, Edward Ashley, Nora fell for Esmond, and they became lovers. She soon separated from Ashley, but Esmond found it impossible to break from his wife and daughter (Rosalind was three years old in 1937), and he remained at home. So they saw each other as much as they could, discreetly, neither wishing to cause undue unhappiness or scandal.
Even so their relationship was not entirely secret. Fran was aware of the situation and under the circumstances showed a quite remarkable understanding and sympathy towards Nora, with whom she retained a respectful friendship. Nora wrote: "In some strange way I think she thought he was safer with me than he might have been with some other woman." At times Rosalind found it hard to sympathise with her mother's degree of tolerance, but Fran would not hear a word of criticism against Esmond. In fact she went so far as to discourage any self-recrimination on Nora's part. At the time when Esmond was in Iceland recuperating from his injuries, she wrote to her saying: "Please don't ever reproach yourself, my dear. Your love for Esmond is a bond between us and personally I have always valued your friendship so much."
Nevertheless, the period after Esmond returned home was uneasy for all concerned. He resumed his relationship with Nora immediately, and she visited him while he was recuperating at St Dustan's. Yet he relied heavily on Fran most of all, especially during the two years of complete blindness. A reason for Fran's deep understanding may have been a sense that having suffered so much physically, Esmond deserved the happiness that Nora could offer him as much as that of his family.
Esmond on stage in Three Waltzes with Evelyn Laye, showing no sign of
the anguish which he was experiencing at the time in his personal life.
When Esmond moved in with Nora in 1945, Fran packed his bags for him. Naturally, Nora was delighted, but practically it put her in a very difficult position - her flat in Townsend Court was small and not really suitable for two, and she was not prepared for the speed of Esmond's decision. She felt he had not thought the decision through entirely and indeed Esmond quickly developed a strong sense of guilt about leaving Fran and Rosalind. Doodlebugs were falling on London and he feared for their safety. Furthermore there was the awkwardness of the fact that Esmond and Fran were appearing together nightly on stage in Three Waltzes. Before going on stage herself each evening in her own play, Nora took Esmond to the Prince's Theatre and handed him over to Fran who continued to help him and make him up.
After three weeks, Esmond suddenly decided he simply had to return home, feeling guilty, ashamed and utterly miserable. Nora was left feeling wretched too. "All at once he was gone. The shock came later when I realised it was all over, I simply went to pieces. I suppose I had felt guilt too. How I managed to get through the play every night for the next weeks I don't know."
For months there was no contact between them. For all intents and purposes the relationship seemed over and Nora started to see an old friend, Roy Faulkner. They had always been fond of each other and Faulkner soon proposed to her. She hesitated at first, but then one evening at the Savoy Grill Esmond came and sat at the table next to her. "He had his back to me and it was so awful to be so near and yet be complete strangers. He must have seen me. As soon as I could, without looking too obvious, I got up and left." The shock of the encounter made her feel that she must cut away from her old life, and she accepted Faulkner's proposal.
When Esmond heard the news, he immediately phoned Nora and begged her to meet him. She refused at first, but there was panic in his voice and he was very insistent. She agreed to meet briefly at the Achilles Statue in Hyde Park, and as soon as they saw each other they knew they still loved each other very deeply.
"Esmond was shattered and madly jealous, he just couldn't take it. He said he had never stopped thinking about me, was terribly unhappy and simply couldn't let me go. The idea of marrying someone else was unthinkable - and so it seemed to me sitting there after all those months of misery."
The same evening Nora told Roy Faulkner about her meeting with Esmond. He was very understanding and sympathetic, and no doubt had suspected that she still loved Esmond. The next day, Faulkner met with Esmond to discuss the situation and as a result the engagement was called off. Faulkner told him bluntly that he could not keep on changing his mind about Nora, that he should face up to separating from his wife, get a divorce and marry her.
Nora Swinburne became the second Mrs Esmond Knight in 1946.
This time Esmond made the break permanently. Nora found a house for them to live in together - 35 Bywater Street, Chelsea - not too far from Fran and Rosalind who lived at Kings Court South, also in Chelsea. Fran would not agree to a divorce immediately. She wanted to be certain that Esmond had made the right decision, that he was happy and settled and that things would work out for him with Nora. Only then did she agree. Eventually, Nora and Esmond were married at Chelsea Register Office on 4th October 1946. Ironically, the same year Nora starred in a film called They Knew Mr Knight!
Relationships between Esmond, Nora and Fran remained excellent throughout, and when Fran subsequently remarried in the 1950s, to Nigel Hogg, the two couples socialised on a regular basis. Despite the complexities under which their relationship began, Esmond and Nora's marriage was an enduring one and lasted until Esmond's death more than forty years later.