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Fay Compton

Family Background


Fay was born into a theatrical family on the 18th September 1894. She was the youngest daughter of Edward Compton and Virginia Bateman, actor-managers of the Compton Comedy Company and owners of numerous regional theatres. Her elder brother was the novelist Sir Compton Mackenzie (1883 – 1972) and her grandfather was Hezekiah Bateman (1812 – 1875), the American impresario who gave Sir Henry Irving his first leading role when he produced “The Bells” at the Lyceum Theatre in 1871.


All sides of the family, whether in England or America, were actors or involved in the theatre, so it was no surprise that Fay decided to act. Starting her career in The Follies was probably not what her family intended and due to Harry Pélissier’s early death, it was short-lived. As a widowed mother at 19, Fay found herself as neither a musical comedy artist nor an actress, and despite her connections was reduced to writing to managers for interviews.

It was a discouraging time. She was considered either too young, too fat or too inexperienced, until the producer Louis Meyer felt that she was probably ‘the type’ to play a young German girl in his next production. “Can you speak German?” he asked. “Speak German? Certainly, like a native.” Fay replied. “Good. I will send you your contract. Rehearsal at 10.30 tomorrow.”


©JG Pélissier

Fay Compton, 1926

French, Fay could have managed, Italian just, but of German she knew not a word. Undeterred she found a friendly fräulein to explain the meaning and pronunciation, then sat up all night to learn her lines. The next day she arrived at rehearsal word perfect. So, began a 70-year career.

The first ever biography of H.G. Pélissier, satirist, composer and bohemian – one of the most famous Edwardians before WW1. who was a visionary forerunner of The Goons and Monty Python and the first of Fay Compton's four husbands.

Recommended in The Times Writers' Favourite Books of 2022 by Quentin Letts.


©JG Pélissier

Early Career


From the start, Fay’s theatrical home was the West End, appearing in minor roles but quickly building a reputation as a natural talent with a hauntingly beautiful voice. With no stage training other than family environment and theatrical hereditary she effortlessly moved from production to production. In 1914, this included a trip to the USA to appear on Broadway in “Tonight’s the Night” as well as a role in the silent movie of “She Stoops to Conquer”.

1920s & 30s 

The 1920s and 30s, were Fay’s golden period. Becoming one of London’s leading actresses, she performed in nearly every West End theatre often appearing in productions of more than 100 performances. With stunning auburn hair, she was hardworking, beautiful and remarkably versatile and her readiness to take on anything from Shakespeare to pantomime earned her the reputation as "the actress who is never out of work." 

Fay in her 20s

The Tragic Case of Billie Carlton 

Early on a very public scandal nearly put paid to her career. Aged 24, Fay hosted a box at The Royal Albert Hall for the Victory Ball in 1918. A young Noel Coward was one of her guests as was a colourful and popular actress called Billie Carleton. Tragically, the following morning Billy was found dead in her flat from a cocaine overdose and those who’d been in Fay’s Victory Ball party were suspected of having supplied her with the drug. 

The coroner’s inquest shone a light on opium parties at 116 Dover Street, drug dealing and amoral behaviour, all of which Fay and her coterie were assumed to be a part of. The actor and costumier, Reginald de Veulle, was found guilty of supplying Billie with opium and Fay was able to distance herself from the tragedy. 

Not that Fay was ever afraid to be too close to anything considered a little risqué or controversial. Her attraction and marriage to Harry Pélissier was an early indicator and a lifetime of friendships with people such as Noel Coward, Ivor Novello, Orson Welles and Christopher Hassell reflected her preference for those who dared to think and behave differently.


J.M. Barrie’s Favourite Actress


As a young actress there was an ethereal quality to her acting, something that appealed to J. M. Barrie. Referred to as “Sir James Barrie’s favourite actress, and to England what Ethel Barrymore is to the American stage”, she was his 14th Peter Pan. In 1920, she was “Mary Rose”, the title role in a ghost story about love, loss and memory that resonated powerfully with post-WW1 audiences. It was a part Barrie wrote for her and which became his second most successful play.

©JG Pélissier


Ophelia, 1939


This etherealness she used as Ophelia with John Barrymore in his 1924 “Hamlet”. It was a performance the feared critic James Agate described as “fragrant, wistful, and had a child's importunacy unmatched in my time.” It was a role she was to reprise in 1931 with Sir Godfrey Tearle and in 1939 with Sir John Gielgud at the Lyceum Theatre. The venue where her grandfather had launched Sir Henry Irving’s career and where the curtain fell for the very last time. A landmark production in it's own right and one that was also staged at Elsinore Castle, Denmark.


Other Shakespearean roles included appearances as Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Regents Park open-air theatre and a long association with the Old Vic in the 1930s where she played Rosaline in “Love’s Labour’s Lost”, Paulina in a “Winter’s Tale” and Regan in “King Lear”.


Never one to take herself too seriously, Fay loved pantomime. The success of her parents’ company, The Compton Comedy Company, was based on touring performances of well-known plays. And her grandfather, Henry Compton (1805 – 1877), was considered one of the finest low comedians of his age. As someone with a lovely sense of the absurd, these end of year appearances as “Dick Whittington” or the Prince in “Cinderella” were never too low for the star she was.


As the youthful leads started to disappear, Fay took on more comedic roles. In 1941 she created the part of Ruth in Coward’s “Blythe Spirit” where it ran for 1,997 performances. She was Lady Bracknell in the Old Vic’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” (1959), with a very young Judi Dench as Cecily Cardew, and Mrs Malaprop in “The Rivals” (1961).

Film & TV

Although not as well known for her film work as for theatre, Fay appeared in over 50 films beginning her film career in the 1914 silent movie of “She Stoops to Conquer” and ending with Christophe Miles’ adaptation of D H Lawrence’s “The Virgin and the Gypsy” (1970).


Even if these films are not that memorable, Fay always attracted talented writers and directors. Her productions included Dodie Smiths “Autumn Crocus” (1934) with Ivor Novello, an early Alfred Hitchcock movie, “Waltzes from Vienna” (1934), the first sound screen adaptation of “Nicholas Nickleby” (1947), Orson Welles’s fabled “Othello” (1951), Antonioni’s “I Viniti” (1953) and Robert Wise’s “The Haunting” (1963).


During the making of “Othello” Fay kept a fascinating diary, a first-hand account of what it was like to work with such a formidable talent. Tellingly, there were only two men that she ever wrote about. Her first husband, Harry, in her memoire of youthful reminisces, “Rosemary” (1926) and Orson Welles; both larger than life characters with a strong creative vision and a disregard for authority and convention. Unsurprisingly, Orson’s gift of a Boxer puppy she named, ‘Orson.’


Among her final roles was Aunt Ann in “The Forsyte Saga” (1967) and Mrs Brown, a rag dealer, in “Dombey and Son” (1969).

©JG Pélissier

©JG Pélissier


Fay was married four times. In 1911, aged 17, she married Harry Pélissier who was 20 years older, only to be widowed within 18 months when he died of cirrhosis, leaving her with their infant son, Harry Anthony Compton Pélissier (1913 – 1988). He became an actor, writer and film director but always said that as a mother Fay was hopeless, being far more interested in her career than in the wellbeing of her son.


In 1914 she married the actor Lauri de Frece (1880 – 1921), who also came from a theatrical family. However, it was not a happy marriage with Frece deserting her after six years and then dying suddenly in Trouville-sur-Mer, aged 41, after a court had awarded her the restitution of her conjugal rights.


A year later, in 1922, Fay married Leon Quartermaine (1876 – 1967). They met on the production of J.M. Barrie’s “Quality Street” and were together for twenty years. As Fay’s career blossomed, they became something of a golden couple. In the 20s and 30s she as “the actress who is never out of work” and Leon regularly appearing in shows on Broadway. She had a regency town house in Regents Park and at the weekends after the Saturday show would escape to Hazel Hall, a country house in Kent. There she would garden, walk her dogs and entertain theatrical friends.

Leon divorced Fay in 1942. Later that year she married Ralph Michael (1907 – 1944). Fay was 48 and Ralph a handsome, youthful 35-year old actor and a near-contemporary of her son, Anthony. The marriage lasted only four years with Fay divorcing Ralph when he had an affair with the actress Patricia Roc. 


©JG Pélissier

Little Foxes, 1942, 

©JG Pélissier

©JG Pélissier

The first ever biography of H.G. Pélissier, satirist, composer and bohemian – one of the most famous Edwardians before WW1. who was a visionary forerunner of The Goons and Monty Python and the first of Fay Compton's four husbands.

Recommended in The Times Writers' Favourite Books of 2022 by Quentin Letts.


©JG Pélissier


Her death

Fay died in 1978, aged 84, arguably one of the most distinguished and at times colourful actresses of the 20th Century. The innocent teenage Folly grew into a romantic lead actress equally at home in comedy or classical theatre, a wicked mimic who could sing and dance and who ended her career a respected character actress.


As a lock of Fay’s hair proves, it was as auburn the day she died as it was in her youth. "Among the things I hate are people who have said all the years that my hair is dyed. It is not, and never has been."


She was appointed a CBE in 1975, an honour that many said should have been a damehood given her 70 years at the forefront of British theatre. But this was a time when multiple marriages were socially frowned upon and a Dame of the British Empire was expected to exude moral virtue. 

Fay with 'Orson'

She was part of a generation of actors who expected nothing from the state, graciously accepting the peaks and troughs of her profession. Bohemian and outspoken both in temperament and deed, Fay was never a hostage to expectation or convention. Who but Fay could be expelled in their 80s from the actors’ home, Denville Hall, for refusing to stop smoking in her bedroom? 

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