She was exceptionally beautiful, with what Michael Powell
called 'a perfect mouth and slender cheekbones',
and she possessed great elegance."
Nora Swinburne was Esmond Knight's second wife. They met in 1937 whilst acting together in Wise Tomorrow, initially in Stockport and then at the Lyric Theatre in London. The mutual attraction was immediate and, although both were married at the time, they started an affair which continued for almost a decade until both divorced and were free to marry, which they eventually did in 1946. Nora was born Leonora Mary Johnson on 24th July 1902 in Weston-super-Mare, the daughter of Henry Swinburne Johnson who ran the Chad Valley toy factory. She attended Rosholme College in Weston and her dance teacher there, Mrs Blott, impressed with her obvious talent, arranged an audition with ballerina Phyllis Bedells.
Nora aged about 12 at the time of her first trip to London.
Photograph courtesy of Rosalind Knight.
With the outbreak of war in 1914, Nora's father joined the army and the rest of the family moved to London, primarily so that Nora could pursue her career on the stage. She never actually studied with Phyllis Bedells but joined the Italia Conte Dancing and Drama School. She even auditioned for the great Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, who recognised her talent but felt she was "too young for the corps de ballet".
Her first London appearance was a small dance solo as Cupid in an opera for charity at His Majesty's Theatre, followed by a part in Aladdin at the Golders Green Hippodrome, then her first real part as a child actress in Where the Rainbow Ends, touring all the big towns in England for eighteen shillings a week. In 1915 she left the Italia Conte and gained a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and in April 1916, during her second term there, appeared as The Spirit of Wild Flowers in a play called Paddly Pools by Miles Malleson. Judges at RADA (especially Irene Vanbrugh) were impressed enough to offer her a half scholarship, the only juvenile ever to be given one. But she did not take it up and soon left RADA behind as work beckoned. After a short turn on the music halls, and not yet fourteen, Nora went into her first musical, Apple Time, with Gaby Deslys and Harry Pilcer. By the end of the First World War she had appeared in four West End stage productions and become the youngest ever Gaiety Girl.
"I realised I had magnetism, the ability to hold the audience completely.
It has nothing to do with technique or even acting.
It's a gift, a sort of magic, a wave or a spell."
Nora in 1920 aged 18. Photograph courtesy of Rosalind Knight
Nora's film career began in 1920 when she was seen by British Gaumont in a Pathe Gazette newsreel modelling hats for The Tatler ("I had the sort of face hats like"). She was invited to do a screen test for them and was offered a contract to appear in three silent films - Saved From The Sea (1920), The Autumn of Pride (1921) and The Fortunes of Christina McNab (1921). In the last of these she played a Scots girl and, without the restrictions of sound, was able to add authenticity to he performance by repeating over and over the one Scottish phrase she knew - "Och Aye!"
Nora and Francis Lister on the day of their engagement,
St Louis, Missouri, 1925.
Photograph courtesy of Rosalind Knight
Miller then took Nora to America where she toured in a Sherlock Holmes play and appeared at the Henry Miller Theatre in New York in The Mountebank, which was not a success. However, she was seen by David Belasco who booked her to play in Mary, Mary Quite Contrary at the Belasco Theatre with C. Aubrey Smith. He asked if she could recommend a young actor to join the cast, and Nora mentioned her friend Francis Lister. Thus, having returned to London for a month long break, she travelled back to America with Francis. They were constantly in each other's company - nevertheless Francis ignored her on the journey, a symptom of his shyness and lack of confidence, even during a party to celebrate his 21st birthday, and it wasn't until they were on tour with their play that the ice broke. They became engaged in St Louis, Missouri, and were married in Golders Green, North London, six months later.
They had a son together, also called Francis, but the marriage was not a success. Whilst away on tour in Australia, Francis (senior) heard rumours of his wife's infidelity. They were untrue, but the suspicion created a rift between them which never healed. Nora wrote: "I had fallen from the pedestal on which he placed me and I was never to be put back while we stayed together." Francis began to drink more than he should and the fact that Nora's career was going better than his own was an additional pressure. She was in demand both on stage and in film studios, notably in Caste (1930) scripted by a young Michael Powell, and Potiphar's Wife (1931) in which she co-starred with an equally young Laurence Olivier.
With Laurence Olivier in Potiphar's Wife (1931)
Photograph courtesy of Rosalind Knight
On stage she achieved her "big moment" when chosen to play opposite Gerald Du Maurier in Fame at the St James's Theatre, a production which ran for more than 100 performances. Matters were not helped when both Nora and Francis were screen tested in New York by Warner Brothers. Nora was offered a contract and a trip to Hollywood, and Francis was not.
In the same year, 1931, Nora was on stage in The Ninth Man with Rex Harrison and a former racing driver from Australia called Edward Ashley Cooper. She fell for Edward and it was their relationship which eventually brought the marriage to an end. Francis had already agreed to their separation on friendly terms, but when he heard she was in love with somebody else his attitude hardened and a court case ensued to determine access for Nora to see her son. Ever since moving to London Nora had lived in the Golders Green area of North London, but now she moved into a flat in Chesham Mews, Belgravia, and eventually married Edward at Marylebone Register Office. Francis subsequently remarried, to another beautiful actress, Margot Grahame, and he and Nora kept in touch over the years. He went on to appear in some memorable films such as Mutiny On The Bounty (1935), Olivier's Henry V (1944) - as the Duke of Orleans - The Wicked Lady (1945), and with Nora in Christopher Columbus (1949). He died in 1951 at the age of 52. Nora attended the funeral.
Edward Ashley had something of a reputation as a playboy and invariably was cast as good looking villains on stage and screen. At the beginning of their marriage, history started to repeat itself for Nora in that her career was more successful than her husband's. However, Edward was able to diversify and became a restauranteur when he wasn't acting. Financed jointly by his father and Nora, he opened a restaurant called El Patio in Rupert Street, off Shaftesbury Avenue, in the heart of London's theatreland.
Nora and Edward Ashley on their wedding day - behind them are Nora's mother and sister, and actress Coral Browne.
Photograph courtesy of Rosalind Knight
Edward himself was the main attraction and welcomed diners wearing a white dinner jacket and a carnation. Nora often had lunch there, sitting at a window table as a means of attracting customers.
They owned it for three years, but they didn't know enough about catering or buying and made little money from the venture. Gradually the initial enthusiasm and interest waned; good chefs came and went, and Edward had to engage a manager whenever a film offer came his way. Without the main attraction, customers stayed away, and eventually they sold up. But it served its purpose, and Nora looked back on the El Patio days with fond memories.
Nora worked steadily through the thirties. In 1933 she appeared once more on screen with Laurence Olivier in Perfect Understanding, together with Gloria Swanson who also produced the film. The story and script were again by Michael Powell who had still not yet begun his directing career in earnest. On stage she appeared in Lover's Leap with matinee idol Owen Nares, and on the second night her friend Coral Browne took over when Nora came down with a high fever. Then she appeared with Ronald Squire in All Rights Reserved at the Criterion. In her autobiography she recalls that during one performance a golf ball which had been used as a prop in an earlier scene was left lying against a stage light, gradually overheating. During a tender love scene it eventually exploded and rubber oozed out like a big snake, much to the amusement of the audience. She and Squires also began to laugh which made the audience laugh even louder until all were in hysterics. Eventually they calmed down and continued the play, but not before Squire had had to smack Nora to pull her together!
By 1937 Nora was no longer in love with Edward, and when she met and fell in love with Esmond that year when they appeared together in Wise Tomorrow, she soon brought the marriage to an end. Edward Ashley went to America, remarried, gained a contract with MGM and enjoyed a successful career in both films and television. Perhaps his most famous role was as Wickham in Pride and Prejudice (1940) alongside Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson. On TV he appeared in episodes of Maverick, Bonanza, The Girl From Uncle, Bewitched and The Beverley Hillbillies. He also had a small part in Bryan Forbes' film King Rat (1965), rather appropriately playing an Australian - Prouty.