Nancy Spain

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Nancy Brooker Spain (13 September 1917 – 21 March 1964) was a prominent English broadcaster and journalist. She was a columnist for the Daily Express, She magazine, and the News of the World in the 1950s and 1960s. She also appeared on many radio broadcasts, particularly on Woman's Hour and My Word!, and later as a panellist on the television programmes What's My Line? and Juke Box Jury. Spain died in a plane crash near Aintree racecourse while travelling to commentate on the 1964 Grand National.

Early life[edit]

Spain was born in Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne, the younger of the two daughters of Lieutenant-Colonel George Spain, a freeman of the city and a prominent figure in local military and antiquarian affairs. Her father was a writer himself and appeared in a number of radio plays as well as broadcasting commentaries on Newcastle United games. Her mother, Norah Smiles, was the daughter of Lucy Dorling (a sister of Isabella Beeton) and William Holmes Smiles (son of Samuel Smiles).[1]

As a child, Spain remembered pushing the future eminent journalist William Hardcastle into the Bull Park Lake on the Town Moor, where she used to learn to ride at five shillings an hour "with other little bourgeois tots".

Spain went to Roedean School (a family tradition) from 1931 to 1935, where she began wearing "mannish" clothes, and developed the speaking voice which stood her in such good stead in her eventual media career. She played lacrosse for Northumberland and Durham, and hockey for the North of England, as well as playing tennis and cricket. She also acted on BBC radio, where she took over the star parts vacated by Esther McCracken. She was a sports reporter for the Newcastle Journal, and had a love affair with local sportswoman Winifrid Sargeant. During the war, Spain served in the WRNS on Tyneside, a period covered in her book Thank you, Nelson (1945). She served as a driver and was then commissioned, and worked in the WRNS press office in London.

Post-war career[edit]

After the war, Spain published several books, including a series of detective novels set at a girls school, Radcliffe Hall (based on Roedean, the title an obvious allusion to Radclyffe Hall). This helped her become a star columnist for the Daily Express, She, and the News of the World in the 1950s and 1960s, and made many radio broadcasts, particularly on Woman's Hour and My Word! She later appeared as a panellist on BBC TV's record review programme Juke Box Jury and the panel game What's My Line? In 1962 she performed "The Blaydon Races", the Victorian Tyneside song, at London's Marquee Club with Alexis Korner and Blues Incorporated. A recording of the latter was published on the album R&B from the Marquee.

Spain's scatty style of column-writing caused the Daily Express to be sued successfully for libel - twice - by Evelyn Waugh.[2]

As well as Spain's books of memoirs, including Why I'm Not a Millionaire (1956), Nancy wrote a biography of her great aunt, Isabella Beeton (author of one of the first cookery books, Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management), and a series of detective novels.[3] Rose Collis wrote a posthumous biography of the broadcaster and journalist in 1997.

Private life[edit]

Often in the news and tempted to marry to seem respectable - Spain's name was linked with that of Gilbert Harding - she lived openly with the editor of She, Joan Werner Laurie (Jonny), and was a friend of the famous, including Noël Coward and Marlene Dietrich. She and Laurie were regulars at the Gateways club in Chelsea, London, and were widely known to be lesbians.[4] Spain and Laurie lived in an extended household with the rally driver Sheila van Damm, and their sons Nicholas (born 1946) and Thomas (born in 1952). Nicholas was Laurie's son; Thomas was also described as Laurie's youngest son, but may have been Spain's son after an affair with Philip Youngman Carter, husband of Margery Allingham.

Spain died, with Laurie and four others, when their Piper Apache aeroplane crashed near Aintree racecourse on her way to commentate on the 1964 Grand National. She was cremated with Laurie at Golders Green Crematorium, London, and her ashes were put in the family grave in Horsley, Northumberland.

Coward summed up in his diary: "It is cruel that all that gaiety, intelligence and vitality should be snuffed out when so many bores and horrors are left living."

Bibliography[edit]

Novels[5]
  • Death Before Wicket (1946)
  • Poison in Play (1945)
  • Murder, Bless It (1948)
  • Death Goes On Skis (1949)
  • Poison for Teacher (1949)
  • Cinderella Goes to the Morque (Minutes to Murder) (1950)
  • R in the Month (1950)
  • Not Wanted On Voyage (1951)
  • Out, Damned Tot (1952)
  • The Cat Strikes (1955)
Non-fiction
  • Thank You, Nelson (1945)
  • Mrs Beeton and Her Husband (1948)
  • Teach Tennant: The Story of Eleanor Tennant, the Greatest Tennis Coach in the World (1953)
  • Why I'm Not A Millionaire (1956)
  • A Funny Thing Happened to the Way (1964)
  • The Nancy Spain All Colour Cookery Book (1967)

References[edit]

  1. ^ Rose Collis, ‘Spain, Nancy Brooker (1917–1964)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011 accessed 26 March 2013
  2. ^ Sykes, Christopher. Evelyn Waugh: a biography. Collins, 1975. ISBN 0-00-211202-7
  3. ^ Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan, The Lady Investigates, Oxford (1981) ISBN 0-19-281938-0 p.109
  4. ^ Gardiner, Jill (2003), From The Closet to the Screen: Women of the Gateways 1945-85, London: Pandora, ISBN 0-86358-427-6 
  5. ^ http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/s/nancy-spain/
  • Collis, Rose (1997), A Trouser-Wearing Character: The Life and Times of Nancy Spain, London: Cassell, ISBN 0-304-32879-0