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Sparkle, Spirit and the Silver Screen

It was on a drizzly September afternoon in 2015 that I first met Joan Frost. She was soon to turn one hundred years old and I had agreed to write her profile to celebrate that achievement. I didn’t know anything about Joan and I certainly wasn’t expecting the vibrant story that filled the hours on that dreary afternoon. For little did I know, as we settled down for tea and biscuits, that I was about to be plunged into the glamorous world of the 1930’s British film industry and then into the strife of London during the Second World War.

But to begin at the beginning, Joan was born in Hampshire, England in 1915 in the middle of the First World War. She was the second of two children and the only daughter in her family. Her mother came from a family that had owned a printing business. Both beautiful and highly musical, she had once harboured dreams of being a professional singer but had stayed off the stage because of her marriage and children. Joan’s father had been a local newspaper reporter before he went into the Royal Engineers at the start of the First World War. Though the background influence of print and media on both sides of the family later played a huge part in Joan’s life, as a very young child what made the biggest impression was her family’s move across the English Channel. In 1919 her father was posted to France to help deal with the aftermath of the First World War. From the age of four until eight Joan and her family lived in the little village of Audrique near Calais. It was the wonderful beginning of her great life-long love affair with all things French.

When the family returned to England they settled in South London and Joan’s father, who had a strong instinct for trends and business, became the editor of the Kinematograph Weekly. This trade paper for the London film industry covered everything directly and indirectly related to film including actors, theatre, managers, writers and directors. His position was an enviable one since the film scene was exploding in popularity. Vibrant and exciting, film was the hottest form of entertainment happening at that moment.

While her father’s career in publishing was flourishing, Joan’s own career as a schoolgirl was a dismal disappointment - at least to her. It wasn’t that she didn’t do well academically. She was a scholarship girl and she excelled in the subjects of English, French and History. Her teachers considered her very bright and promising but she wasn’t happy. Joan was useless at the team sports of field hockey and net ball that were the keys to schoolgirl popularity. Insecure and short on self-confidence, she thought herself lucky to have even a single friend. After seemingly never-ending years of befuddlement and bewilderment, Joan was relieved to finally graduate and leave. She never looked back.

Graduation from high school at the age of eighteen coincided with the family’s momentous move from the south of London to the swish north London area of Hampstead. With more millionaires within its boundaries than any other area of the United Kingdom, the “village” of Hampstead was (and still is) also known for its remarkable intellectual and artistic associations. In an earlier era the writer Henry James lived there and used Hampstead as a location in his class conscious novels. Elizabeth Taylor was born there and in Joan’s era families such as the du Mauriers, prominent in literature and theatre, resided there. For Joan’s father, a man with his thumb on the pulse of film society, Hampstead was a very suitable milieu.

With school thankfully behind her, Joan was launched into the world with the help of her father who used his connections to get her into a job as an office girl working for a friend of his who was a publicity manager in London for Universal pictures. The first film Joan helped publicize was the American-made 1935 Bride of Frankenstein destined to become a gothic horror classic. Joan’s job covered a gamut of duties and one of them was to go around to all the newspapers on Fleet Street with the “stills”. At first she found it difficult having to meet new people but her old shyness that had so plagued her in her school days soon vanished. As her confidence flourished awkward reserve was replaced with a new sparkling vivacity. Combined with her fetching brunette good-looks, it’s likely that once met, Joan wasn’t easily forgotten. She enjoyed making the rounds and enjoyed people. Joan knew how to type but she never learned shorthand and whether this glaring deficiency in her office skills was by accident or design, it meant that Joan couldn’t really be a proper secretary and therefore would never find herself confined to the office. As it was, Joan was in the swim of things and loving every minute of it, running errands all over London, meeting people and learning the film business. When she wasn’t actually on the job, Joan wrote her own stories about the stars she was publicizing at Universal. She proudly sent her efforts to her father who was only too delighted to publish them in the Kinematograph.

In such a sizzling business it didn’t take too long for an intelligent and energetic girl like Joan to move up the food-chain. She interviewed for a position as an assistant publicity manager at Associated British Pictures at Elstree and got the job. Then she had a lucky break. Her boss got sacked for stupidly insulting the head of the studio. Joan was promoted into his position. Suddenly she was the one who called the shots, she was the one who had to wine and dine actors, executives and journalists.

One of the first men she had to take to lunch was the actor George Sanders. It was still early in his career so he wasn’t yet known for his trademark characters, the handsome, cynical, sophisticated and vaguely villainous men from such classics as Rebecca, All About Eve, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Nevertheless his suave, unsettling personality was already in full force. George trained his dangerous charm on this very young, very new and very lovely publicity manager with merciless effect. When a film critic passed by their restaurant table and tried to interrupt their lunch to catch a few words with Sanders he smoothly waved him off until another time with the words, “Oh no, I can’t talk to you, I’m so in love with her”. Joan, on the other side of the table was reduced to a blushing dither.

Of course Joan was in equal parts embarrassed and flattered by George Sanders. She knew he was just playing with her. For her part, she was interested in a George but a completely different George. She had her eye on an assistant director named George Hambley Brown. Joan traveled by bus from her Hampstead home to Elstree every day and it so happened that this George took the same bus. After weeks of bus chit-chat, she was certain that he was on the verge of asking her out when disaster struck and ruined everything. This particular disaster came in the form of a stunningly beautiful eighteen year old actress named Maureen O’Hara who had just arrived from Ireland. The actor Charles Laughton had spotted her on the stage in Dublin and brought her to London. Soon she would play Esmerelda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. To Joan’s everlasting chagrin, George took one look at Maureen and fell hopelessly in love. He married her. Maureen’s parents were horrified. They had big, big plans for their talented daughter and this nobody assistant director seemed little better than an errand boy in their eyes. He wasn’t good enough. They moved heaven and earth to get the marriage annulled.

To his credit, George Hambley Brown went on to become very successful in his own right. He had never needed to hitch his wagon to Maureen’s star. Over the course of his career he was involved in producing, among other things, the first Agatha Christie Miss Marple films starring Margaret Rutherford. What’s more, his daughter, Tina Brown, was a big success years later. She became the high-octane editor of Vanity Fair magazine. All that was still to come in the distant future. Unfortunately, as far as Joan was concerned, her moment of opportunity was lost forever. It took years for George to notice her again. When he finally did he wasted no time asking her out – and she turned him down. By then she was married. The wheel had turned full circle. Such are the hazards of romance.

Joan’s career in the film business came to an abrupt halt in 1939. That August she was happily on holiday in Switzerland when Germany and the USSR signed their Treaty of Non-Aggression. The spectre of war that had been hovering for many months now seemed a flesh-and-blood certainty. Joan wanted to fly back to England but all flights in Europe had been suspended. The Swiss complacent lack of concern did nothing to ease Joan’s anxiety. She took a train across France and along the way could already see soldiers on the march, military machinery on the move. She reached Dunkirk to find it crowded with people whose only thought was to cross the English Channel. She stayed overnight sharing a room with three Jewish girls who were fleeing. When Joan finally reached London she was met at the train station by her frantic parents who had almost camped out on the platform awaiting the arrival of every train, praying that Joan would make it back and not be trapped in Europe.

Germany invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939. Britain declared war on Germany two days later and life as Joan had known it was changed forever. The studio at Elstree closed and Joan joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, the WAAF. When asked what she might be fit to do, Joan, in the fervour of patriotism, humbly declared that she would love to be a cook. On closer questioning it was revealed that Joan could barely manage to make an omelette! Since she obviously had no idea what cooking in the armed forces actually entailed, her recruiting officer made her a clerk.

Joan was put to work under a Flight Engineer and was immediately unhappy. This Flight Engineer was a pest. Though he was married he kept asking Joan out and wouldn’t give up no matter how many times she refused him. Joan sought advice and managed to extricate herself from this miserable situation by being made a sergeant of entertainments. She was moved to Gloucester where she was thrilled to be back in her element organizing film nights and dances.

Eventually as the war progressed, Joan was posted to Ruislip just northwest of London and by the end she was working in the Film Branch of the Air Ministry. All along the way Joan’s talent for publicity somehow found expression and was put to good use. She dreamt up all kinds of inventive media stunts and had a morale lifting front page story every week. One involved the WAAF parachute packers. Every time an airman was saved by his parachute, Joan would get a photo of him bringing flowers to the girl who had packed it. Another story involved an opera singer at one of the fighter stations who used her voice to guide landing pilots.

As much as Joan was finding a gratifying appreciation of her publicity talents so she was also finding appreciation as a person. The magnetic personality that had emerged during her time at Elstree was only enhanced by the circumstances of the war. Every second of life seemed like a precious gift. Nobody ever knew what tomorrow would bring or even if you would be granted a tomorrow at all. It didn’t pay to think about the future. People lived in the moment. They valued companionship and laughter. Joan’s sparkle was like gold dust in the air. Bubbly and talkative, she had lots of boyfriends, fell in and out of love repeatedly and was engaged to be married at least twice. None of this was unusual during the war. The constant stress and uncertainty heightened emotions, people turned to one another for comfort. But the confusion and lack of communication meant that often romances were cut short in full flow and girls were left dangling. To not hear word from a boyfriend could mean any number of things. Perhaps he had found someone new, perhaps he was married, perhaps he was two-timing. Or perhaps he was dead, wounded, lost in battle, taken prisoner. There were many tragic love stories, many romantic dilemmas with no happy solution. A person could drive herself mad if she thought about it too much. It was better not to think at all. It was better to be happy. And Joan resolved to be just that.

Joan met the man she would ultimately marry when she agreed to be the necessary fourth quarter of a double date in what was a rather awkward situation. Joan’s good friend desperately needed a date for her ex-fiancé. Odd though it appeared, there was a good explanation for why this girl felt obliged to supply a date for the man she had once intended to marry. Although the engagement had been broken and the two were free to go their separate ways, they couldn’t because they owned a car together. A car was a very desirable and difficult to obtain luxury in war-time England and neither was prepared to relinquish possession. When Saturday night came they had to share it. Hence the girl set up her ex-fiancé with Joan so that she herself could have a date with a Canadian surgeon serving in the Navy.

Naturally, Joan, having been instructed to restrict her attention to the ex-fiancé, wasn’t the least bit interested in her dear friend’s cast-off man and only wanted the one thing she couldn’t have: the dishy Canadian. The two couples went to a dance together and Joan took the first opportunity that presented itself. There was a popular dance called the “Paul Jones” in which the men circled around the girls and when the music stopped each man danced with whoever was standing in front of him. It was a little like musical chairs. That night the men circled and the suspense for Joan was unbearable. She crossed her fingers and held her breath. When the music stopped she pushed two girls out of the way and there she was – right in front of the Canadian, ready to be swept off her feet. The rest was history. It was a long time before her friend forgave her.

The Canadian’s name was John Frost. He was the only Canadian naval officer to join the Navy in England. Joan was captivated not only by his handsome looks but by his especially kind nature and his quiet courteousness. The fact that he came from Canada, that distant land of snow and ice, seemed utterly mysterious and exotic to Joan. Moreover, John was a surgeon and Joan had always had a thing for doctors. Nothing seemed more glamorous to her though in truth she had little idea of what a doctor’s life entailed. Joan had only ever been to see a doctor once and that was as a child.

Joan’s parents were far less enamored with John than she was. They hoped the romance would fade as had so many before it. To Joan’s mother John was merely a “colonial”, the implication being that he wasn’t quite good enough for her. The prejudice was simply a disguise for what really worried her parents: that if the relationship progressed their beloved only daughter would one day live far away on the other side of the world. Joan herself never stopped to think about that. She lived only from day to day and never thought that far ahead. She never thought about when the war would end, if it would end or what would happen when it did.

On April 10th, 1943 Joan married John. The wedding took place at St. Jude-on-the-Hill, an Anglican church in Hampstead. The war still raged. London was being bombed. Air raids, fear, food shortages, death and destruction were a way of life and yet in the midst of this relentless barrage Joan had the wedding of her dreams, a perfect radiant fairy tale in suspended reality. At a time of desperate shortage it took the generosity, resourcefulness and imagination of many to make the magic happen. The groom was resplendent in his naval uniform. At the reception, which took place in Joan’s family home, he used his sword to cut an exquisitely decorated two-tiered cake. Joan’s mother had made the cake herself with precious ingredients contributed by friends and family who had saved all their ration cards.

The only thing that could possibly outdo the extravagance of the wedding cake was Joan’s wedding dress which was a designer masterpiece of snow-white silk satin with lavishly puffed sleeves. How was such luxury possible during a period of severe fabric rationing, at a time when there were strict laws regarding women’s fashion, when frills and other ornamentation were forbidden? The answer was that this dress had been created long before the war began. It was owned not by Joan but by her friend and matron-of-honour Diana MacDonald. Diana came from an aristocratic family and on making her debut in society in the ‘30’s had been presented at court in this dress. As were all the debutante dresses, of course it was white. And, as were almost all the debutante dresses, it was made by the esteemed designer Norman Hartnell, official dressmaker to the Queen. Diana herself had been married in this dress and in turn was glad to be able to lend it to Joan. The “something borrowed” was more gorgeous than Joan had ever imagined.

After the wedding John and Joan had a honeymoon on the coast of Cornwell. A single precious week together was all they were allowed. Once the honeymoon was over the two were parted. Personal life took a backseat to duty during the war. There was no question of John and Joan living together as husband and wife. John was required to return to Greenoak, Scotland and Joan to Ruislip. The most they were permitted were occasional “Passionate Posting” weekends in London. For a young couple in love it was very hard. It became even harder when Joan discovered she was pregnant. But then Joan was caught in an air raid and a few days later she lost the baby. Though she wasn’t hurt in the air raid, which was just one of many, and though she always insisted that she was never afraid, the continual attacks and the stress obviously took a toll. Through the hardship and terror of it all Joan never lost faith. Never for one second did she ever doubt that eventually England would win this war.

Then came the news that John was being sent back to Canada. Naturally Joan wanted to go with her husband but she couldn’t. She was an officer in the armed forces in the middle of a war that was far from over. Quitting was not an option. Joan was informed that the only way a woman could leave the Air Force was if she was pregnant. For Joan, who had miscarried not long before, it was like rubbing salt in the wound. She’d been in the service for five and a half years, ever since the very beginning of the war. It all seemed terribly unfair. It seemed unreasonable to her superiors too and after some special efforts on Joan’s behalf they got her out.

Joan and John sailed to Halifax on the Mauritania, took the train to Montreal, then Ottawa and at last on to Vancouver. John was still in the Navy and he was posted to Victoria to examine the men who were leaving service and entering civilian life. Fortunately, Joan immediately loved Canada. She was delighted to have an abundance of the simple pleasures like sugar that were in short supply in England and she enjoyed trying new novelties like avocado. She was touched by the warmth with which John’s family welcomed her and she soon became pregnant again. The best news of all was that the war was coming to an end. Life had taken a wonderful upswing. Still, every time she listened to the BBC Radio Joan cried her heart out, overwhelmed by homesickness for England.

After a year in Victoria, John and Joan moved to Vancouver. Joan very quickly had three more babies, one after another, until the couple had four beautiful children, two boys and two girls. Soon enough they bought an enormous house on Laurier Avenue. The house was perfect for entertaining and since Joan, so vivacious and extroverted, was born to entertain she hosted big parties for friends and family and used every possible holiday from every country she had ever heard of as an excuse to have a celebration. No longer was Joan the girl who had no idea how to make an omelette. Now she put all her heart and soul into becoming a fabulous cook.

There’s no question Joan was making up for lost time, making up for the war years. Not only did she entertain at every conceivable opportunity, she also got involved in absolutely everything. She was Godmother for the Brownies, she was president of the PTA, vice president of the women’s auxiliary for the hospital, she taught Sunday school, coached drama club, hosted arts and literature ‘salons’ and was a member of a French language book club.

One day a friend asked for help. She was teaching a night course called ‘How to be Amazing’ and wanted Joan to do a lecture on entertaining. Joan’s lecture went so well that she was asked if she would consider teaching an entire course. By then it was 1970. Joan was in her fifties and the children had all left the nest. Joan had the time so she agreed to do it. She called her course ‘The Happy Hostess’. It included etiquette, table setting and decoration, food, wine, music, flower arranging and party games. On the first night three hundred women turned up! The class had to be split and suddenly Joan found herself teaching four nights a week. Along with a great many French dishes the course also included two full menus, one casual and one formal. Unexpectedly, rather than choosing French cuisine, Joan made the formal menu Viennese, a choice inspired by a trip she had taken with John to Vienna. She had been enchanted by this old world city and its history, the stories of Franz Joseph, his doomed Habsburg Empire and his beautiful but troubled Empress Elizabeth. Joan’s Viennese night was a fantasy of schnitzel, chocolate Sacher torte, candlelight and Strauss waltzes.

The runaway success of her course led to an invitation to write a society column for the newspaper. Joan called it Roundabout and in her breezy, butterfly style she covered charity auctions, receptions and other events. Unfortunately, the writers’ union objected. They said Joan wasn’t a professional writer, she was a socialite. The newspaper was regretfully forced to fire her. The idea that she wasn’t a ‘real’ writer stung. Afterall, she’d been writing for magazines (and being paid for it too) since she was sixteen years old! Deeply offended but undeterred, Joan switched over to another newspaper. Even though she couldn’t be paid for her work there either Joan went on to write a cooking column that ran for years.

How time flew. So much had happened between that quarrel with the newspaper and now. Almost another fifty years! But the biscuits had been eaten, the last of the tea was cold and Joan had grown tired. Ah, the past… It was such fun to remember the highlights – especially the time in the movie business. Those were truly the good old days. Now she enjoyed introducing youngsters to the great films of her era. Love Story starring Margaret Lockwood was one of her favourites.

Looking back at her younger self, Joan felt that one of her greatest strengths was her good nature. She never lost her temper. Her main weakness was a tendency to gloss over unpleasantness. She was not one to dwell on problems. Hiding them, ignoring them or forgetting them was more her style. Yes, she was a superficial person, she cheerfully admitted, but that was more a gift than a fault. It’s what got her through the war. In life the only things that truly counted were love, laughter and honesty.