The grandson of the Baron Chelmsford, Thesiger was born in London, England and was the first cousin once removed of the explorer and author Wilfred Thesiger (1910–2003), and the nephew of General Frederic Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford, who, exactly a week after Ernest's birth, famously led his troops in battle against — and defeat at the hands of — a Zulu army at the Battle of Isandlwana.
Thesiger attended Marlborough College and the Slade School of Art with aspirations of becoming a painter, but quickly switched to drama, making his professional debut in a production of Colonel Smith in 1909. He enlisted in the armed forces at the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, allegedly hoping to be assigned to a Scottish regiment because he wanted to wear a kilt, but was wounded in the field and sent home. (At a dinner party shortly after his return, someone asked him what it had been like in France, to which he is supposed to have responded "Oh, my dear, the noise! and the people!") In 1917, he married Janette Mary Fernie Ranken (1877-1970), sister of his close friend and fellow Slade graduate William Bruce Ellis Ranken. In her biography of Thesiger's friend, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Hilary Spurling suggests that Thesiger and Janette wed largely out of their mutual adoration of William, who shaved his head when he learned of the engagement. Another source states more explicitly that Thesiger made no secret of his homosexuality.
Thesiger moved in several artistic, literary and theatrical circles. At various times, he frequented the studio of John Singer Sargent, befriended Mrs. Patrick Campbell, visited and corresponded with Percy Grainger and worked closely with George Bernard Shaw, who wrote the role of the Dauphin in Saint Joan for him. Somerset Maugham, on the other hand, responded to Thesiger's inquiry as to why he wrote no parts for him with the quip, "But I am always writing parts for you, Ernest. The trouble is that somebody called Gladys Cooper will insist on playing them."
Thesiger's film debut was in 1916 in The Real Thing at Last, a spoof presenting Macbeth as it might be done by an American company, in which he did a drag turn as one of the Witches. Thesiger also played the First Witch in a 1941 production of Macbeth directed by John Gielgud. He performed more small roles in films during the silent era, but worked mainly on the stage.
In 1925, Thesiger appeared in Noël Coward's On with the Dance, again in drag, and later played the Dauphin in Shaw's Saint Joan. He wrote an autobiography Practically True, published in 1927, which covers his stage career. An unpublished memoir written near the end of his life is housed in the Ernest Thesiger Collection at the University of Bristol.
When he appeared in a Christmas production of The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1919, Thesiger met and befriended James Whale. After Whale had moved to Hollywood and found success with the films Journey's End (1930) and Frankenstein (1931), the director was commissioned to direct the screen adaptation of J. B. Priestley's Benighted as The Old Dark House (1932), starring Charles Laughton in his first American film, together with Boris Karloff and Raymond Massey. Whale immediately cast Thesiger in the film as Horace Femm, launching his Hollywood career. The following year Thesiger appeared (as a Scottish butler) with Karloff in a British film The Ghoul.
When Whale agreed to direct Bride of Frankenstein in 1935, he insisted on casting Thesiger as Dr. Septimus Pretorius, instead of the studio's choice of Claude Rains. Partly inspired by Mary Shelley's friend John Polidori and largely based on the Renaissance physician and botanist Paracelsus, it became Thesiger's most famous role, in which he gives a fey, flamboyant performance as Baron Frankenstein's mentor.
Arriving in the United States for the filming of Bride of Frankenstein, Thesiger immediately set up a display in his hotel suite of all his needlework, each with a price tag, and during the making of the film he would work on needlework, one of his hobbies.
Originally cast to play the luddite sculptor Theotocopolous in H.G. Wells's Things to Come (1936), Thesiger's performance was deemed unsuitable by the author, and so was replaced by Cedric Hardwicke, although he was retained on the parallel production of Wells's The Man Who Could Work Miracles. Around this same time Thesiger published a book, Adventures in Embroidery, about needlework, which was his expert hobby.
The remainder of Thesiger's career was centred on the theatre but he did appear in supporting roles in films produced in Britain, prominent among which is The Man in the White Suit (1951), starring Alec Guinness. He plays "Sir John," the most powerful, the richest, and the oldest of the industrialists (jointly with the trade unions) trying to suppress Guinness's invention of a fabric that never wears out and never gets dirty.
Thesiger made several appearances on Broadway, notably as Jacques to Katharine Hepburn's Rosalind in the longest-running production of As You Like It ever produced on Broadway. Later films included The Horse's Mouth (1958) with Alec Guinness, Sons and Lovers (1960), and The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, with Vivien Leigh and Warren Beatty (1961). That same year he made his final stage appearance—a mere week before his death—in The Last Joke, with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson.
In 1960, Thesiger was awarded the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). His last film appearance was a small role in Invitation to Murder (1962). He died in his sleep shortly after completing it, from natural causes, on the eve of his 82nd birthday, and is buried in Brompton Cemetery, London.
In the fictionalised James Whale biopic Gods and Monsters (1998), Thesiger was portrayed by Arthur Dignam. And the real Thesiger is seen in the film when Brendan Fraser, as Whale's gardener, sits at a bar watching televised repeats of the original 1935 Bride of Frankenstein.
Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time by Elisa Rolle
Paperback: 760 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1 edition (July 1, 2014)
CreateSpace Store: https://www.createspace.com/4910282
Amazon (Paperback): http://www.amazon.com/dp/1500563323/?tag=elimyrevandra-20
Amazon (Kindle): http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00MZG0VHY/?tag=elimyrevandra-20
Days of Love chronicles more than 700 LGBT couples throughout history, spanning 2000 years from Alexander the Great to the most recent winner of a Lambda Literary Award. Many of the contemporary couples share their stories on how they met and fell in love, as well as photos from when they married or of their families. Included are professional portraits by Robert Giard and Stathis Orphanos, paintings by John Singer Sargent and Giovanni Boldini, and photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnson, Arnold Genthe, and Carl Van Vechten among others. “It's wonderful. Laying it out chronologically is inspired, offering a solid GLBT history. I kept learning things. I love the decision to include couples broken by death. It makes clear how important love is, as well as showing what people have been through. The layout and photos look terrific.” Christopher Bram “I couldn’t resist clicking through every page. I never realized the scope of the book would cover centuries! I know that it will be hugely validating to young, newly-emerging LGBT kids and be reassured that they really can have a secure, respected place in the world as their futures unfold.” Howard Cruse “This international history-and-photo book, featuring 100s of detailed bios of some of the most forward-moving gay persons in history, is sure to be one of those bestsellers that gay folk will enjoy for years to come as reference and research that is filled with facts and fun.” Jack Fritscher
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