Forget the frontline. The legendary Windmill Girls served on stage – lifting the spirits of bomb-hit london and many a serviceman, as Kate Thompson discovers.
The year is 1941 and Soho is ablaze. Piccadilly Circus is bathed in a bright orange glow as German planes roar overhead dropping more bombs into the furnace. An incendiary crashes through the roof of some stables near Great Windmill Street, engulfing horses in rubble.
Out of the choking clouds of smoke emerges a curious sight. Two beautiful young women are leading six terrified horses by their halters. By the time the girls reach Vine Street police station and deliver the horses to safety, they are also belting out a note-perfect rendition of ‘I’ve Got Sixpence’.
It takes physical strength and a dollop of chutzpah to save six horses from burning stables, but it’s nothing to girls who are used to performing five shows a day, six days a week, right through the destruction of the Blitz.
When they weren’t performing emergency rodeos, Margaret McGrath and Anne Singer were working as two of London’s most glamorous West End performers in the now legendary Windmill Theatre. Known as the ‘Windmill Girls’, Margaret and Anne, along with a cast of other ravishingly beautiful young women, delivered escapism and entertainment to a war-weary London.
When bombs and rockets rained down relentlessly on the capital, the rest of the West End went dark, but the girls and boys of this inimitable little theatre kept the Windmill turning. It earned itself the immortal slogan ‘We Never Closed’ and high-kicked its way into the history books.
As a writer, I have long been fascinated by the daring glamour associated with London’s most famous wartime theatre and longed to set a novel there. Who were these fabulous, red-lipped creatures who defied the conventions of a fiercely moralistic 20th-century society, to step outside the home and perform, often in nothing more than a whisper of chiffon? The theatre is, after all, perhaps most famous for its nude tableaux vivants who posed motionless on pedestals.
In 1940 The Lord Chamberlain (the censor for all British theatre) had decreed that nudes be allowed on stage, provided they did not move. This was strictly adhered to, otherwise the Windmill would have lost its licence and been shut down. The ‘Revudebelles’ (as they were known) certainly drew crowds flocking to the 320-seat auditorium, but the theatre also blazed a trail by offering up nonstop variety acts.
It might be easy to dismiss the wartime contributions of the Windmill Girls as fluff and organza-trimmed whimsy but, at the time, morale was pivotal. The government devoted many hours to discussing how to boost it, but they would have gained a useful insight if they’d visited the theatre’s stage door, where servicemen clamoured to meet their favourite Windmill Girl every night.
The theatre itself became a second home to Margaret, Anne and other Blitz beauties like Joan Jay, Valerie Tandy, Charmian Innes and Lesley Osmond. The heart of their world was deep in the theatre’s basement, in their dressing room. During the bombardment, it was here they bedded in their negligées, tin hats at the ready. The basement was said to be the safest place, but would have done little to protect them had the theatre taken a direct hit.
In the dressing room, it felt more like a girls’ boarding school than salacious; many of the dancers were still teenagers, and fiercely safeguarded by theatre manager and father figure Vivian Van Damm, who moved his daughter Sheila into the theatre to protect the girls. It was an insular world: nights were spent listening to 1930s dance-band records on a wind-up gramophone, with lights out at 11pm.
Under the paternalistic watch of Van Damm and twinkly-eyed owner Mrs Henderson, the dancers’ performances became part of the war effort, albeit with a little more spice than the Women’s Institute. A rota was created, with each girl taking her turn to fire watch on the theatre’s roof, scanning for signs of enemy aircraft. If German bombers were spotted while the show was on the audience would be moved to a lower level, where a surprised GI might find himself squashed against a Windmill Girl wearing not much more than a couple of rosettes and a dressing gown.
The dressing-room walls were smothered with foreign banknotes, often with messages scrawled on them. Many of the young soldiers, sailors and airman in the audience knew the evening they were enjoying might be their last. ‘My mother Joan Jay kept a five-franc banknote that had the words, “So you don’t forget me, Rudi” written in French,’ recalls her daughter Vivien Goldsmith. During the war years, the fan letters were more poignant. Boys so far from home wrote letters from mud-soaked foxholes and military bases asking for a photo.
The Americans flocked to the Windmill. They cheered and shouted ‘Shake it, sister!’ and broke the theatre’s seats by clambering over them in a race to get to the front row. They appeared brash, but sometimes their letters told a different story. One young GI fell in love with a Windmill Girl and waited patiently for her in the café opposite the theatre every night of his leave – sadly, he was never seen again after D-day.
Not only did the Windmill Girls succeed in boosting the morale of those in Soho; they also took their shows out to the troops, performing in aircraft hangars and canteens around the country. A parody quote, ‘Never was so much shown by so few to so many’, is attributed to an unknown officer following the girls’ show at an RAF base in Hornchurch.
Meanwhile, the girls faced their own share of danger. While the theatre was never hit, there were many near misses. Manager Van Damm recalled the night a flying bomb landed nearby: ‘At the moment we heard it [the flying bomb’s engine] cut out, we were in the middle of a graceful Spanish dance, the centre of which was a posing girl wearing a lovely big Spanish hat. As the V-1 detonated, everything shook and a cascade of dirt, debris and plaster came down. There was a hush after the explosion and in that moment, the posing girl slowly moved and made a long nose (five-fingered salute) towards where the bomb had been. It was a spontaneous gesture, and one which I’m sure the Lord Chamberlain would not have objected to.’
Forces’ favourite Joan Jay was pulled from the wreckage of a bomb blast after nipping to the café opposite the stage door in between raids. She had 11 shrapnel wounds, one so bad she had to stuff her fist in it to stop it bleeding. After four months of hospitalisation and painful skin grafts, she returned to dance and sing her way through the rest of the war. She worked there for 11 years, before leaving in 1947 to get married. Van Damm gave her a marble cigarette box, inscribed with a message of thanks for her years of service.
The theatre continued running after the war and by the 50s it was a celebrated hotbed of British talent, launching the careers of Peter Sellers and Bruce Forsyth. But the 60s saw it struggle to compete with private strip clubs and so the bomb-battered little theatre took a final, graceful bow.
Sadly, the wartime Windmill Girls are no longer with us either. But never has history felt so blisteringly relevant, with their own unique brand of courage and swagger, the Windmill Girls danced and sang their way through the darkest of days.
My day with the Windmill’s glam grandmas
There are only a handful of former showgirls left to continue the Windmill story and I was fortunate enough to meet two of them: Jill Millard Shapiro, 77, and Joan Bravery, 82, who worked in the theatre in the postwar years.
After getting in contact over Facebook, we arranged to rendezvous at a luxury hotel opposite the theatre’s stage door. Immaculately turned-out grandmothers, they were impossible to miss among the herds of tourists.
Jill was a 14-year-old convent schoolgirl when she had an interview that would change her life in 1958. ‘After I knocked on the door, I was shown up to see Vivian Van Damm, or The Old Man, as he was known,’ she said. ‘I remember running up flight after flight of stone steps, past a flurry of frilled and feathered Windmill Girls, impossibly glamorous with their carmined lips.
‘It smelled of perfume, sweat and greasepaint. But it was the noise that was most overwhelming. The sound of tap shoes, the humming of sewing machines from the wardrobe department and composers in the music room.’
When I asked if she knew any of the wartime performers, with a wry smile Jill told me she became good friends with Margaret. ‘Boy, was she a force to be reckoned with. But it was because of girls like Maggie, who braved the Blitz, that the Windmill achieved the status of a British institution.’
Both women were at pains to stress the hard work behind the glamour. ‘As Windmill Girls we worked longer hours than other West End performers,’ said Joan. ‘We earned our good name, or our cachet, as Richard Dimbleby once said.’
Joan and Jill also told me about the theatrical discipline and stamina involved in their training and about the infamous fan dances. The only nude performer the censorship law permitted to move on the Windmill stage was the principal fan dancer. Staying within the law required considerable skill on the part of the dancer, as she had to remain covered while manipulating the huge ostrich-feather fans.
‘Have you tried lifting one of those?’ Jill asked me. ‘They’re heavy!’
Joan was a Windmill Girl from 1959 to 1961, choosing marriage and motherhood when she was swept off her feet by handsome Larry Burns, who was one half of the Windmill’s comedy duo at the time. Jill’s five-year tenure ended in 1963 when she left to marry her first husband and have a daughter. In 1972 she married the American author and journalist Milton J Shapiro.
Neither of them will ever forget those remarkable postwar years when they did their bit to keep the Windmill sails turning. The final curtain may have come down but thanks to these custodians of the past, the impossible glamour of those times continues to shimmer.
Kate Thompson’s latest novel, Secrets of the Lavender Girls, is published by Hodder & Stoughton, price £6.99. To order a copy for £6.15 until 11 April, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free p&p on orders over £20.