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The Dodie Smith Information Site

About Dorothy "Dodie" Smith (1896-1990)

  * A Manchester Childhood * Actress, "Shopgirl", Playwright * Love, Marriage, and the Draft * Dalmatians * American Friendships * Novels and Memoirs *

 

 

Dodie: age 24

Dodie and friend

Alec, Dodie, and the dogs

A Manchester Childhood
Dorothy Gladys Smith was born in Lancashire, England on May 3,1896. Her father, Ernest Smith, died eighteen months later of cancer. Dodie's mother, Ella Furber Smith, returned with the child to the Furber family home in a suburb of Manchester. The household consisted of Ella's parents, two of her sisters, three brothers, and two maids, in addition to Ella and Dodie. All of the ten adults adored Dodie and entertained her continually. Dodie's uncle Harold was an actor in amateur theatricals, and in 1904 he became president of the Manchester dramatic club known as the Athenaeum. Dodie first attended one of his performances when she was four, and by the time she was thirteen she was on stage, playing boy's parts. She writes a hilarious and touching account of her childhood in her 1974 memoir Look Back With Love. (Back to Top)

Actress, "Shopgirl", Playwright
In 1910, Dodie's mother remarried, and the trio of mother, daughter, and stepfather moved to London. In 1914, Dodie entered the Academy (later Royal Academy) of Dramatic Art. That year, Ella died after years of suffering from breast cancer. Dodie remained in London and pursued a career on the stage, while living at a club for women actresses, musicians, and dancers, called the Three Arts Club. Her time at the club provided a setting for a later novel, The Town in Bloom.

Dodie proved to be unsuccessful as an actress. She wrote and sold a movie script, Schoolgirl Rebels (under the pseudonym Charles Henry Percy), and wrote a play called Pirate Ships which she was unable to sell. Finally, in 1923, she gave up acting and took a job in a furniture store called Heal's in London, where she managed a department and became the toy buyer. In 1929, she traveled to Germany for the Leipzig toy fair on business, and spent some time with her friend Phyllis at an inn in a small German village. Phyllis was an actress and playwright, and upon their return to London, Dodie suggested a play set in the inn. She already had a plot and all the characters in mind. Phyllis did not feel it was quite her thing, and other friends encouraged Dodie to write it herself. The play, Autumn Crocus, was purchased for production and became a success, prompting newspaper headlines such as "Shopgirl Writes Play". (Journalists who flocked to Heal's to photograph Dodie were dismayed to find she did not work behind a counter, but at a desk as the department head). Although she used the pseudonym C.L. Anthony for this play and the next two, journalists quickly uncovered her real identity and ignored the pseudonym. The "girl playwright", as the newspapers called her, had five successful plays in a row on the London stage, over the next seven years. (Back to Top)

Love, Marriage, and the Draft
Dodie had several affairs of the heart, but the lasting one was with Alec Beesley, who had worked at Heal's at the same time she did. When she met Alec, Dodie was involved in a love affair with a married man (according to biographer Valerie Grove, this was Ambrose Heal, owner of Heal's). Alec was devoted to her, and they became close friends. Several years later, Dodie finally decided that she loved Alec, and broke off her affair. She and Alec lived in neighboring flats, and shared a weekend cottage in the country with their pet Dalmatians. They moved to America in 1938, as war was imminent. Alec was a confirmed pacifist and, although Dodie would have preferred to stay in England and be part of the wartime experience, she thought things might be difficult for Alec if they stayed. They also decided at this time to get married, after having been in Dodie's words "married for seven years in every way but legally". They were married in Philadelphia on February 21st, 1939 (in her autobiography, Dodie attributes forty-five years of happy married life in part to their habit of maintaining separate bedrooms).

America ceased to be a pacifist refuge in 1941. America was at war and Alec (age 39) was now eligible for the American draft. The situation for conscientious objectors turned out to be more complicated than in England. Without belonging to an established pacifist religion such as the Quakers, Alec was not accepted as a C.O. However, he found recourse by legally appealing the draft. Draft laws were so convoluted that the local draft board admitted they didn't know whether he was right, and the appeals could take years. Eventually, Alec did receive genuine conscientious objector status, which meant that if men his age were called up, he would be drafted to serve as an American forest-fighter. In the interim, he spent his time counseling other would-be conscientious objectors, as well as his usual job of managing Dodie's contracts. He and Dodie also devoted an entire room of the house to the business of making packages of various goods to send to friends and family in war-torn England. They also visited internment camps where Japanese-Americans were imprisoned during the war years, and brought supplies to the people there. (Back to Top)

Dalmatians
Sadly, in 1940, the Beesleys' beloved Dalmatian Pongo died (his health had been indifferent since an illness of the kidneys early in life). Knowing that only another dog could help them get over the loss, they acquired two more Dalmations, Folly and Buzz. In 1943, Folly and Buzz became the proud parents of 15 pups, one of which appeared to be stillborn but was revived by Alec...a scene that would feature in The Hundred and One Dalmatians (1956). The war ended, but the Beesleys remained in America, for returning to England would mean subjecting the dogs to a six-months' quarantine in a kennel as required by English law. The thought of putting the dogs through that experience was intolerable to Dodie. She returned to England alone in 1951 while Alec remained behind with the dogs. It was Dodie's first separation from Alec for more than a few days in the 13 years they had been in America. Her career required her presence in England, to oversee preparations for a production of her play Letter from Paris and attempt to make arrangements for other plays. She was asked many times why she had stayed away from England for so long, and found that people did not seem to believe the reason was her reluctance to quarantine the dogs! (Back to Top)

American Friendships
In 1953, Dodie, Alec, and the dogs returned to England for good, much to Dodie's joy. However, she paused to reflect on the things for which she had to thank America, including "three great friendships with Christopher Isherwood, Charles Brackett, and John van Druten."

Screenwriter Charles Brackett was Dodie's colleague and ally when she began working at Paramount in 1941. With Billy Wilder, he had co-written Ninotchka and the Academy-Award-winning The Lost Weekend (he would go on to work on Sunset Boulevard and Niagara). Brackett helped acclimate Dodie to the world of Hollywood screenwriting, in which it was typical for her work to be praised, then sent to another writer for re-writing. Brackett obtained many jobs for her over the years, sometimes hiring her simply to give him advice on a screenplay.

Playwright John van Druten was both a rival and a friend. He would go on to author such plays as I Remember Mama, and Bell Book and Candle. He and Dodie often read each other's work, and they kept up a voluminous correspondence over the years. And, one day in the early 1940's, he brought Christopher Isherwood to meet Dodie and Alec.

In an attempt to initiate a project that would bring in some money for Isherwood, who was struggling financially, Alec had the idea that van Druten should make a play out of "the Sally Bowles story" in Chris's Goodbye to Berlin. Dodie's belief was that the story could not be made into a satisfactory play, but she encouraged Alec to make the suggestion. She added that van Druten would hate the idea if she suggested it, but if Alec suggested it and Dodie stated that it couldn't be done, this would pique van Druten's interest. The ploy worked. Van Druten wrote the play, titled I Am A Camera, over the next ten days. In 1952, as the first performances of the play were running in Philadelphia, Isherwood told Dodie he did not have high hopes for the royalty income from the play. How wrong he was. The play was a success; it was made into a movie; and eventually it became the basis for the musical Cabaret. (Back to Top)

Novels and Memoirs
In 1948, while living in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Dodie had completed her first novel, I Capture the Castle, a masterpiece that was originally inspired by her homesickness for England. The book was an enormous success, and reviewers rarely failed to quote its riveting opening line, "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink." [See my comments on the recent movie version, on the Related Material page]. In 1956, Dodie had another success in the genre of the novel, with The Hundred and One Dalmatians. She continued to write books for adults and children through the 1980's, including her four volumes of autobiography (sources for this web site): Look Back With Love, Look Back With Mixed Feelings, Look Back With Astonishment, and Look Back With Gratitude (she also wrote a fifth volume, which was never published--unlucky us). She died in November 1990, at age 94. (Back to Top)

This page last updated on: Oct. 30, 2003

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