Wise Tomorrow, the play that brought Esmond Knight and Nora Swinburne together, was not a success and did not run for long in the West End. This wasn't so much a reflection of the play, rather an indication of poor theatre attendance generally in 1937. It was Coronation year and possibly attention was focussed elsewhere. A strike by London bus drivers didn't help matters. Whatever the reasons, plays did not run for long and in her unpublished autobiography Nora notes that nearly all the plays in Shaftesbury Avenue failed, and most of them came off. However, Wise Tomorrow ran long enough for Esmond and Nora to realise they had very strong feelings for each other. Immediately afterwards they appeared together in African Dawn at Daly's Theatre in Leicester Square, a play about South Africa written, ironically, by Esmond's mother-in-law, Isobel Ohmead. Esmond's wife, Frances Clare, was also in the cast. On the opening night, Esmond gave Nora a bible inscribed 'African Dawn 1937, Many waters cannot quench love.' This was the first time Esmond had declared his love for her.
Nora and Esmond (left) on stage in the play which brought them together - Wise Tomorrow.
On the right are Emma Trechman and Archibald Batty.
Nora's next project was to put on a play as well as perform in it - a new piece called Lot's Wife by Peter Blackmore. It was financed partially by Nora herself and by a mixture of friends and contacts and opened at the Whitehall Theatre to excellent reviews and enjoyed a successful run, transferring to the Aldwych and later the Savoy Theatre. Meanwhile Nora saw as much of Esmond as she could whenever work commitments and personal circumstances allowed, and their love affair flourished, albeit in secret. In August 1939 Nora was rehearsing a new play by Lord Vansittart called On The Run, a spy story also featuring Basil Sydney and Athene Sayler. But as soon as war was declared on 3rd September the play was cancelled and she left London to stay with her parents in Stoke Poges, where her son Francis was also living. After the initial panic and when the feared air raids on London didn't happen, Nora went back to work, opening in Married For Money at the Aldwych Theatre. For a while it was the only play on in London.
When her parents bought a house in Farnham Royal she rented a room in the house next door and used it as a base when the blitz meant that living in London was too dangerous. She picked up work as and when she could during difficult times, and when Esmond was called up into the Royal Navy she joined the cast of Dear Brutus with John Gielgud, initially at the Globe Theatre in London (despite the air raids) and subsequently on tour for ENSA, visiting some of the bigger military camps. As they toured she received telegrams and letters from Esmond, usually sent to her mother at Farnham Royal and forwarded on as the tour progressed. The following letter was written by Esmond shortly before his ship, HMS Prince of Wales, engaged in battle with the Bismarck (NB - Esmond sometimes called Nora by her second name - Mary):
HMS Prince of Wales, c/o G.P.O., London May 24th/41.
My beloved Mary
Tonight we have received a report from another ship operating considerably to the North that she has spotted Bismarck and a hipper class cruiser. The Captain has just addressed the ship's company and we are going flat out in an attempt to intercept. The ship is vibrating like a mad thing and we, in company with Hood and escorting destroyer, are going 'everything wide open in the proper direction' as the Captain put it! Everyone is very calm but there is a terrific intensity in the air. It is our first time on a real trip after working up so we are inevitably lucky! There seems every possibility that we shall meet! And that is going to be some party I think! As is customary before action stationed, people have retired to wash and change into clean underclothes - we expect to be in action in about 2 hours - we shall see. Must away, my dear, and put myself straight. I shall hope to finish this later!!
All my love to thee, ever thine, E.K.
By this time the Dear Brutus tour had reached Llandudno in North Wales and it was there that she received a telegram informing her that Esmond had been wounded in the battle with Bismarck, he had lost an eye, the other was impaired and he was in hospital in Iceland. After the initial shock had worn off she sent a cable to the matron of the hospital in Reykjavik who kindly sent a reply: "Progressing satisfactorily, general condition good."
The Dear Brutus tour took her to Edinburgh where she was invited to a luncheon party given by a group of young people called The Oxford Group - subsequently renamed Moral Re-Armament, or M.R.A. She was very taken with their beliefs and lifestyle, how they shared everything, money, work, and how they took guidance from God. The next day she knelt and prayed for a message and wrote on a piece of paper: "Esmond shall see as beautifully with one eye as with two, don't worry, be kinder to your brother." Soon afterwards she went for a walk in the countryside and knelt down to pray: "Oh God, let everything be alright for him, let all be well. Give me a little sign of hope." She opened her eyes and, staring at her was a four-leaf clover. It was the beginning of a lifelong interest in Moral Re-Armamanet and the first of many four-leaf clovers.
Nora with Cecil Parker in The Colonel's Lady from Quartet (1948).
On El Alemain night at Earls Court, Esmond was asked to recite a patriotic poem written for the occasion. He had to mount a dais and stand in the full glare of the spotlights. Nora was hidden behind the curtains at the back with a small torch in case he forgot his lines; but he didn't need her. He went blank for a moment but remembered the opening line eventually. Afterwards they met Lord Montgomery who complimented Esmond on his recital. As they left they heard him remark loudly to his A.D.C.: "Blind in one eye, you know!"
Nora and Esmond's affair lasted almost ten years. Eventually things came to a head when Esmond decided to leave home and move in with Nora. It was short-lived and within weeks Esmond's sense of guilt forced him to return to his wife and daughter. For months he and Nora saw nothing of each other and Nora started to see an old friend, Roy Falkener, who proposed to her. When Esmond heard the news he panicked and begged Nora to meet him in Hyde Park. Nora told Roy about their meeting. As a result they called off the engagement and in fact it was Roy who ultimately sealed their union. He met with and spoke seriously to Esmond, telling him he couldn't keep changing his mind and must face up to leaving his wife, getting a divorce and marrying Nora. They were eventually married at Chelsea Register Office on 4th October 1946. As chance would have it, in the same year Nora starred in a film called They Knew Mr Knight!
They began their married life living in a town house in Bywater Street, off the Kings Road in Chelsea, and there they remained until the 1970s. They were happy times with both working continuously on stage and screen. In 1948, while Esmond was doing a season at Stratford with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Nora flew off to Italy to film My Daughter Joy with Edward G Robinson which turned out to be a delightful experience, although dampened at one point by the news that her father had died. Most of it was filmed in a villa outside Nordighera and she was still there when Esmond's season finished. While filming she had told the company about Esmond and how clever and how handsome he was. Then one afternoon they were sitting around the pool when Esmond appeared at the top of the steps - grubby, with a huge shaggy beard and windblown, having flown from Nice in an open plane!
Back in London Nora appeared in Red Letter Day at the Garrick Theatre with Fay Compton, Hugh Williams and a young Donald Sinden. Soon afterwards Jean Renoir approached her to play the mother in his film The River based on Rumer Godden's novel. Not wanting to be parted from her husband she persuaded Renoir to consider Esmond for the role of the father, and they were soon on their way to India to start filming. Once back home she was offered a part in the epic Quo Vadis? and she was off to Rome to play Deborah Kerr's mother and to speak the immortal line: "These gentleman will wish to wash." Esmond, meanwhile, had been appearing in Monserrat with Richard Burton at the Lyric, Hammersmith, and again flew out to join her when the run ended.
In the early 1950s Nora worked a lot in television - live in those days, very demanding and often nerve racking with very quick changes of scenery and costume. In her autobiography she recalls: "I remember one dear man acting with me saying it was very selfish to think only of your own fears. As the star, you should be an example to the other smaller part actors who were just as frightened as you were. It was up to me to give them courage and help them through. How right he was and I always tried to remember this. It's a tremendous help and takes your mind off your own difficulties. You certainly had to be on your toes in those early days of live television."
Nora Swinburne and Claire Bloom in The Blind Goddess (1948)