At one time he was the highest paid entertainer in Britain who could count the Prince of Wales among his biggest fans. Yet cabaret star Leslie Hutchinson would die a virtually forgotten figure after becoming embroiled in one of the biggest scandals of the day.
This was his affair with Edwina Mountbatten, wife of Lord Mountbatten, the great grandson of Queen Victoria, which became the subject of a sensational newspaper libel trial in 1932.
Afterwards high society closed ranks against him. He was never asked to perform at a Royal Command Performance, the BBC dropped him from radio shows, a number of theatres refused to book him and Lord Beaverbrook banned any mention of his name in his newspapers.
In later years ‘Hutch’, as he was popularly known, was reduced to appearing in provincial theatres and holiday camp shows and is nowadays remembered more for his womanising and fathering several children outside of his marriage than his gifted piano playing and singing.
But a new play, A National Scandal by Eddie Lewisohn, attempts to give him his proper place in history, suggesting that the real scandal lies in how he has been overlooked in the roll call of musical greats.
“Hutch’s musical talent is too often overshadowed by his private life and I wrote my play in order to set the record straight,” asserts Lewisohn, who is also a jazz songwriter.
“I feel Hutch has been very badly treated. He should be a national treasure rather like Josephine Baker is in France.”
The play, which has just finished its debut run at Upstairs At The Gatehouse in north London, opens with Hutch when he is the hottest ticket in town, having displayed his virtuoso talents first as a boy in Grenada, where he was born in 1900, and taken them to Harlem and Paris before storming London in 1927 with his intimate rendition of songs by the likes of Cole Porter and the Gershwin brothers.
Handsome, flamboyant and charming, and speaking with the cultivated upper crust accent of a social climber, we see him entertaining his lover Edwina, whom he affectionately accuses of acting too much like his wife when she chides him for drinking too much.
But snooping around is a reporter from The People who eventually writes how “one of the leading hostesses in the country – a woman highly connected and immensely rich”– had been caught in “compromising circumstances” with a “coloured man”.
In order to remove any suggestion that Edwina has a black lover, the Palace orders her to sue for libel, described by her lawyer Norman Birkett QC as the “most monstrous and most atrocious” that he has ever heard. Edwina wins the case and the two resume their relationship, though Hutch with rather less enthusiasm than before.
The play goes on to describe the singer’s fortuitous encounter three years later with the BBC’s head of varieties, Eric Maschwitz, whom he is hoping to persuade to have him on one of his shows. Just as Hutch is leaving disappointed he notices the manuscript of a song Maschwitz has written, These Foolish Things. Singing it there and then, he asks if he can record it and it becomes a runaway hit.
Written by a minnow in the song-writing world, Foolish Things had hitherto gone unnoticed. Its spectacular success lifted Hutch’s flagging fortunes and he went on to record another Maschwitz song, A Nightingale Sings In Berkley Square, which joined a signature repertoire that included Porter’s Begin the Beguine and Let’s Do It. Altogether he made some 400 records.
“Hutch managed to turn his career around by recording an unknown song and making it into a massive hit and the timeless standard it is still today,” explains Lewisohn. “That is Hutch’s lasting legacy. It’s a story that no else has told, so I did.”
Although he remained popular during World War II, when he volunteered to entertain the troops, and became briefly sought after by a new generation of bright young things in the early ‘50s, among them Princess Margaret, Hutch continued to feel the cold blast of establishment disapproval and would never receive any honour for his contributions to music or formal recognition for his war effort.
Changing musical tastes saw his popularity decline and in 1967 the one-time millionaire was forced to sell his house in London’s Belsize Park to pay off his debts. When he died two years later, only 40 people turned up for his funeral.
But A National Scandal ends with the young Hutch, played by Paul Hazel, triumphantly singing These Foolish Things. Despite the racial intolerance of the times, he had managed to become a star twice over. “That’s why my play ends on a high note to demonstrate talent overcoming adversity,” says Lewisohn.
This article first appeared in the Camden New Journal, October 25