Sally Douglas

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Today, (10th August 2005)  writes an unknown male blogger, would have been my mother's 80th birthday. She died just four months shy of her 75th birthday, on April 13th, 2000, a bare six months after she had been diagnosed with the early stages of lung cancer during a vacation here in Boston.

Every year on her birthday I like to visit one of the places here in the Boston area that she loved. She and my father would typically stay in a cottage in Ipswich, with a (slight) view of the Ocean. As a Briton, an Islander, my mother loved the Ocean. I grew up with her telling me that you are never more than 50 miles away from the Sea, no matter where you go in Britain. Today we went to Concord, to a place called the Colonial Inn. It's a beautiful old rambling building, some parts Colonial, some Victorian, some of a sadly much more recent vintage. The food is nothing to write home about - though it runs to the kind of "comfort food" that my mother enjoyed: things like pot-roast and "mashed puddies" - but one of her best days in the last months was spent there. She was undergoing rehabilitation after surgery to install a shunt (she had had trouble walking for some time and an MRI showed she suffered from Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus or NPH: they discovered the lung cancer while vetting her for the surgery), and it was really starting to look like the shunt was improving her gate and her ability to get around without falling. We took her from the rehab clinic for an afternoon outing, had lunch and then spent an absolutely delightful time in a lovely sitting room they have there, with a secretary, big comfy armchairs and a sofa, and a roaring fire. Today of course there was no fire, but it was nice to remember that day at that place she enjoyed so much.

My mother was very proud of being a Scot, even though alone of her family she was not born in Scotland but in London, and certainly she had no trace of Scots in her accent. She was proud of her heritage as a "Black Douglas" and that her mother, a Burns, was descended from Robert Burns himself. (No doubt everyone in Scotland with the surname of Burns says so: and I gather from the story of his life that a great many people in Scotland probably are descended from him, though the majority of those definitely would not have Burns as a surname).

My mother had an extraordinary life, and a whole career, all before I was born and even before she met and married my father. The youngest in her family - 10 years younger than the next youngest, her sister Peggy - she managed to steal out of the house in secret one evening to audition for a singing job, at the age of 15. She got the job, but only because she looked older than she was. Once they did learn her age, she was able to keep the job only on condition that her older sister accompany her as a chaperone: something I gather my aunt Peggy was very happy to do.

I'm not sure of all the jobs my mother had during her career. I think that the longest-running one was as one of the singers with Geraldo and his Orchestra - a Big Band ensemble that I have heard described as the "British answer to Glenn Miller". Actually, I know that she also sang on occasion with Glenn Miller as well, performed in many BBC broadcasts and even had a show on the BBC called "Songs for Sally"when she was only 16. And during the war, she was a performer for ENSA (the British equivalent of the USO) and on one occasion was with a group of performers who barely managed to avoid getting caught in the Battle of the Bulge, by only 5 miles. She had engagements at the Palladium, performed with Noel Coward, Petula Clark and many others, and dated Peter Sellers for quite some time - in fact he proposed to her.

Her first husband was Jimmy Young(1). In his autobiography, a used copy of which I managed to find after she had died, he refers to her as "tall and Junoesque", a very apt description, I think. Especially when she was wearing the cats-eye glasses with edges like cut-out lightning-bolts that she designed and had made for herself.

It is strange to read about one's mother in a book, especially one written by someone who is to you a total stranger. I didn't even find out that my mother had been married before until I was already in college, though I had known about her former singing career from childhood. But some of the stories in Jimmy's autobiography did seem to tally with some of the stories my mother had told me of their time together: stories about their first apartment, and how they met because he was competing with her for a gig. Jimm even includes the fact that my mother was behind the glass in the Studio when he recorded his first #1 hit, and that she was the one who picked the Take that was used. His version of the story makes it clear that she was not the "official" producer (one imagines something of a Yoko Ono situation), but he does seem to credit her with a good professional ear. By his own admission, their marriage ended due to his countless adulteries with various "groupies" over the years. Unfortunately, I don't think my mother got much support from their other show-business friends, whom I gather rather felt that it was "unsporting" of my mother to make such a big deal about it all. Britain is still considerably more sexist than the United States, especially in the older generations, and it was much worse in the 1950s.

She gave up her singing career upon marrying Jimmy Young, I think, since his was so successful and the taste in music had changed from the Big Band Standards she had made her career on. Growing up, I never heard any recordings from her professional career, but she did keep some reel-to-reel tapes through all the years and moves between England, Urbana, and Columbia that she had made at her and Jimmy's apartment in the mid 50s - an attempt perhaps to try her hand at the sorts of songs that were popular at the time. Songs like "Fire Down Below" (where she gives Rita Hayworth more than a run for her money) and "Our Love is Here to Stay", and an incomperable rendition of "If I Ever Fall in Love".

Before she died, these amateur home-made tapes were the only recordings I had ever heard of her voice. It wasn't until later that I discovered that many of her recordings were in fact readily available on CD. Not that she ever got a penny of royalties. Some are still available: Dance Band Years for instance, and Best Sellers. We contacted the BBC and they made us some CDs from their copious archives, including several CDs from her "Songs for Sally" show, and we also got some recordings from the Imperial War Museum from her time with ENSA. It was a shame I hadn't heard all of these professional recordings before she died: it had never occurred to me, growing up, that there would be recordings one could actually buy of her singing.

Jimmy Young went on to a long and lucrative career, with his own Radio programme that seems to have been something like a cross between Casey Kasem and Paul Harvey. A coworker of mine who had recently immigrated from England sent me a tape he had recorded off the air during one of his visits home for Christmas, so I could get the flavor of the show. I gathered he had moved towards the conservative side of the political spectrum, while my mother, if anything, became more and more Socialist as the years went on. I gather that Jimmy Young was made Order of the British Empire some years ago. For all I know, he may have been Knighted by now.

After leaving Jimmy, I guess my mother tried to forget everything about the Show Business world. She met my father through his sister: they both came from what my mother considered to be the thoroughly "provincial" town of Coventry (famous for the ride of the legendary Lady Godiva, and a city that was firebombed almost out of existence: people seem to forget that the bombings of Dresden were in retaliation for the near-destruction of Coventry; my father watched his school burn down during that Blitz). I think she wanted a quiet and conventional life, after her life with Jimmy had fallen apart. My father was getting his PhD in molecular biology at Cambridge; she helped him type his dissertation. After she died, when I flew back to Urbana, Illinois to pack up my mother's things, I came across a beautiful, sad and passionate love letter to him from those days. It is very strange to be able to see one's parents as young and foolish and romantic when they were young.

I don't think my mother expected quite so much conventionality. A cosmopolitan Londoner, she found herself in the midwestern United States during the McCarthy era. My father enjoys telling a story about how she caused a total and stunned silence at a cocktail party on Long Island the night they arrived, by actually uttering during a conversation the phrase "What's wrong with Socialism?"

She never really got over the culture shock of moving to the United States, and never enjoyed living in small town America, even in the University Towns I grew up in - which were in a way oases of intellectual and cultural enlightenment in oceans of Bible Belt conventionality. Certainly she enjoyed visiting me in Boston - which I think reminded her of England more than other parts of the country, and which of course is near the Ocean, as Illinois and Missouri are most emphatically not.

So, here's to my mother. Here's to memories of the good times you had, feeding goslings by the Charles, fussing with Argus, being with people you loved.

Sally Douglas

1. Sir Leslie Ronald "Jimmy" Young CBE (born 21 September 1921) is a British singer, disc jockey and radio interviewer.

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