From pit boy to the glitz of Hollywood

John Edwards

Last updated at 16:05 04 May 2004

The writing took two years. Then Jackie Toaduff put his pen down and started counting the words. This seemed to take for ever. It came to 93,700.

Once you start, it's hard to stop. 'That's it,' he said in the bar of his small hotel in the hills, The Chantry in Dronfield, outside Chesterfield and just before The Peak District.

'That's my life story.' Most people have a life story so exciting half a page is enough. Jackie Toaduff, eyes shining and still handsome at 70, picked up this huge lump of A4 sheets and said that even then he had left things out.

Three times this word count and you are up to Winston Churchill.

'Ah yes,' Jackie said, 'but some very interesting things have happened to me, too.' How about two of Hollywood's biggest stars squabbling over him? Or Princess Margaret sending her lady in waiting across one night to say HRH wanted to dance? And him, just a young miner looking after pit ponies half a mile underground.

'In the morning I had come off my shift in the colliery, washed down in the pit-head baths, got myself to London and at night Princess Margaret asked me to dance. Can you believe it?

'I was back down the pit the next day. The lads asked how London went. I said it was fine, I'd danced with Princess Margaret.

'I took some stick, I'll tell you.' She asked him a few other times. Lady Iris Peake had said to watch out because the Princess was beginning to flirt with him.

And all this happened to you? He went over and stood next to a wall covered with framed shots of himself and nearly everybody famous.

'That's only half of it,' he said. So he wrote his book.

'I was a kid, 15 or 16, looking after Dash, one of the pit ponies in the Louisa colliery in Stanley, Co Durham.

'At night I walked to the Tivoli Cinema to watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.' He was full of wonderful dreams watching Fred and Ginger on the screen.

They were only dreams then. But the dreams came true, because this mining kid was going to get swirled around in the glamour and glitz of Hollywood and be a friend to its most dazzling stars.

He was going to be Ginger's boyfriend and she had to scream at another big star, Ruby Keeler - Al Jolson's young widow - to lay off him because he was spoken for.

'Ginger asked me to marry her,' he said. There were many pictures of them together on the wall.

This is going too fast, Jackie was told. First, how did you get to dance with Margaret? 'I liked dancing.

There wasn't much in a mining village in Durham. Secretly I took up clog dancing.' Why secretly? 'You kidding?

Nobody took up dancing in a mining town.' Right, now scenes out of Billy Elliot began floating through space. It was the same for him.

When his mother found out, she belted him. 'I became a champion clog dancer and I was in London one night giving an exhibition. 'There was a ball afterwards.

The Princess was there and asked me to dance. That was 1955 and I was 22, I think, I had no idea what was happening to me.' The picture of them was on the wall. He changed clogs for dance pumps. That was the start of becoming a song and dance man.

'I teamed up with a partner, Roy. We were a double act for 45 years. Now we have this hotel together. We were booked on the QE2, a two-week engagement.

We stayed 22 years.' Ginger took a cruise. That's how they met. 'We became very close. We danced. Me and Ginger Rogers, dancing.' The dream love of his life on the Tivoli screen was now in his arms.

Was there an affair? 'There was kissing and cuddling. I'll say no more.'

Ginger lived at the Thunderbird Country Club in Palm Springs, California.

Ruby Keeler was almost next door.

'One night I was having cocktails in Ruby's house.

'Ginger rang and asked me to walk the dog with her. Ruby was furious.

She yelled, "how dare she?" There was a dreadful row between them.' This was after Ginger had asked him to marry her. Marrying her was not part of Jackie's plan, though.

Friendship was better.

Sounds like Ruby fancied you, too?

'She was a wonderful, fabulous person. I adored her. She came to stay at the hotel six times and loved it.' A picture of the hotel was put in her coffin when she was buried.

It seems like the Queens of Hollywood and a Royal Princess just fell at your feet. What have you got?

'I don't know. Maybe it was just being able to get on with them.' Hollywood was a lot better than going down the pit. When he was there he usually stayed at Mary Martin's apartment in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. This was another one who fell for him.

'Tell me the truth,' Jackie said. 'Is all this worth a book or not?' 'It's a great book,' he was told. 'I thought Coaldust To Stardust was a nice title.'

Fred Astaire's daughter, Ava, was at the hotel last week. She read it and he was waiting for her opinion.

'Did I tell you about how I found myself sitting on Veronica Lake's ashes or about me and Marlene Dietrich and zipping up Jane Russell or when Jimmy Cagney asked me to play him in a movie?' Not yet, you told him. Save it for next time.

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