I suffer from a condition called Google-itis, the irresistible urge to track down every passing reference and find out more about it. I can’t see the name of a place without wanting to look it up on a map, and every reference to something unknown sets my fingers twitching. It is a habit I try and break during the working day, not always with success.
What I can’t resist, however, are those things which really are questions – someone puts a photograph of a place or a thing on Twitter and asks for help in identifying it. There is, for example, a tweeter called @TideLineArt who is forever finding things by the Thames and wants to identify them. @viewthisside finds boxes of old colour slides and seeks help in identifying their settings. That sort of thing sets my fingers twitching.
There is one which came my way today courtesy of a tweeter called @cheekymunki
He knows who Jymp is, he says, but who is the letter from? he asks.
Working from the top, some things are easy. 34 Gordon Square WC1 is part of that area of London known as Bloomsbury which, in 1937, was still occupied by many of the group of friends who “lived in squares and and loved in triangles” as Dorothy Parker put it.
“Darwins and Huxleys and Stephens and Stracheys, all living in one another’s pockets and marrying each other” according the Headmaster in Alan Bennett’s 40 years On.
Gordon Square was badly bombed in the war and the north side is now occupied by a rather unprepossessing building belonging to University College London. In 1937 it was a terrace of Georgian houses including No 34.
The addressee of the letter is easily identified – Jympson Harman had been film critic at the London Evening News since 1921 – but that does not help us much to identify the writer of the letter save, perhaps, to narrow the field to someone involved in the film industry.
There is a reference to “Elsa” and a signature which could begin with a C or a G. The second letter looks like “h” so it might well be Charles.
Unlike some other Bloomsbury addresses, a search for “34 Gordon Square” got me nowhere save for multiple references to UCL, the present occupier of the site.
Although it wasn’t clear from the letter that “Elsa” had anything to do with 34 Gordon Square, I had a go in Google anyway, and turned up some kind of planning document showing the client as “Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton”.
Charles Laughton was the English actor, born in 1899, most famous for The Private Life of Henry VIII, Mutiny on the Bounty and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He married actress Elsa Lanchester in 1929 and they were still married when he died in 1962.
That tied in with the signature which looked like “Charles” and answered the original question. I was rather disappointed, on returning to the tweet, to find that somebody else had already identified Laughton from his signature. She raised a further question, however: what were the “scandalous but kindly untruths” which Elsa had been writing about Laughton for the Sunday Express? It seems a bit odd for wives to be writing such things about someone who was still her husband and remained so for many years.
A bit of digging around revealed that Charles Laughton had a secret; he was homosexual. His wife found out, apparently, when she came home one night in 1931 to find a policeman at the door with a young man who was hoping to get money from Laughton after an encounter in Hyde Park. She did not tell anyone about that until her autobiography written after Laughton’s death, and it seems unlikely that she would be writing about it in the Sunday Express.
Perhaps that autobiography, Elsa Lanchester Herself, or Simon Callow’s biography of Laughton A Difficult Actor, would throw some light on those “scandalous but kindly untruths”. I have used enough time following this hare and am content with what I have learned. I doubt that any of it will be of any practical use, but that is not the point of Google-itis.