Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney: Forgotten stars and lovers
Forgotten in time, singers and later lovers Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney were once a famous double act of the music hall from the 1920s to the 1930s.
Farrar and Blaney, who met during the First World War, were also known as the earliest openly lesbian entertainers.
Who were Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney?
Gwendoline Farrar, born on 14 July 1897 in London, was a cellist and actress.
Meanwhile, Norah Mignon Cordwell, born on 16 July 1893 in London as well, was a pianist and composer. She took up the name of Blaney as her stage name in 1910 after her maternal grandmother.
The two were introduced to each other by the English tenor, Gervase Elwes, when they were performing at concert parties in Northern France during the First World War .
Both were working as wartime entertainers for Lena Ashwell’s pioneering concert parties. They toured behind the lines in Northern France during the war before British officers and nurses.
Farrar and Blaney were quite different due to their class. Farrar came from a South African millionaire’s family while Blaney’s family was lower-middle class.
But they became good friends. They worked well together and their act also featured singing and joking with the audience.
Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney’s life together
After the war, the couple went back to England and spent much of their time in Chelsea. They went on to top the bill at London’s iconic venues like the Palladium and the Coliseum.
In a March 1924 issue of Popular Music and Dancing Weekly, Blaney said: “Gwen and I took an immediate liking to one another and we chummed up from the moment we first met.”
“Later on we came back to England and Gwen and I were such good pals by this time that the thought of parting from each other was almost unbearable,” she added.
She described Gwen as “the girl with the most delicious sense of humour I have ever known.”
The couple was open about their lesbian relationship as they lived together at the time. Aside from music, they also worked with Lady Audrey Waterhouse on the Chelsea Art Gallery.
The couple end their relationship in work and love
They were pretty busy, performing six nights a week as well as three matinees, such that it became rather repetitive.
Because Farrar had received a huge inheritance with her parents dead, she took to partying a lot. However, Blaney kept working as she appeared in regional pantomime.
Farrar had an affair with Jo Carstairs, the motorboat driving adventurer, as well as with Tallullah Bankhead and Dolly Wilde.
The two ended their professional partnership in 1932 though they still remained acquainted and performed occasionally during the Second World War.
Blaney married a Bradford surgeon and retired from the stage. Before her wedding, the two gave a farewell performance at the London Palladium on 15 February 1932.
The couple’s relationship with both work and love
Farrar continued on the variety stage on her own, having already established a partnership with pianist and entertainer Billy Mayerl.
Around that time, the backlash against “mannish women” that started with the obscenity trial against Radclyffe Hall’s latest novel, The Well of Loneliness had driven visible lesbians into retreat.
Farrar’s drinking increased and her professional work decreased. She died on Christmas Day in 1944 at the age of 45.
Meanwhile, Blaney lived for a while in Cornwall with her husband. But when her husband died in the early 1950s, she went back to performing. She died in 1983 at the age of 90.
In 2014, a play about the pair, All The Nice Girls, by Alison Child and Rosie Wakley was performed. Child also wrote, Tell Me I’m Forgiven: The Story of Forgotten Stars Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney.