Ivy Close – The First Miss World
With a head of blonde ringlets, sultry knowing look and porcelain skin, it’s easy to see why 18-year-old Ivy Close became the Scarlett Johansson of her day.
In 1908 the Castle Theatre on Stockton High Street was the venue for the first Miss Great Britain Beauty Contest where Ivy beat 1,500 hopefuls to win the Daily Mirror sponsored contest. Ivy was soon being hailed as the ‘Most Beautiful woman in the World’ and her picture appeared on millions of postcards around the world.
‘She was a remarkable woman and a family legend,’ says Ivy’s cousin, Robert Close, 86, who lives in Telford, Shropshire. ‘It was a proper beauty contest, not one with bathing costumes. It was about beauty and intelligence. Winning that competition was the start of everything for her.’
Born on July 15, 1890 in Durham Street (two doors away from Will Hay) , Stockton-on-Tees, Ivy’s biggest aim in life, like most girls of her age, was to find an eligible husband and produce a family but her father Jack, a jeweller and amateur photographer, believed Ivy was destined for greater things. When he spotted the Mirror’s competition, prompted by the Americans’ claim that they had found the ultimate global beauty queen on their side of the Atlantic, Jack was quick to post a photograph of his pretty daughter.
Sifting through the piles of entries, Ivy’s sparkling eyes and sweet smile stood out. She was invited to London to sit for a professional portrait by 23-year-old society photographer Elwin Neame, along with 24 other shortlisted girls. Looking through his Box Brownie, Elwin, like the judges after him, fell for Ivy’s ‘dreamy, sylph-like brand of loveliness’.
Ivy, who went on to scoop the first prize of a car and have her portrait displayed in the Royal Academy of Arts, married Elwin two years later. ‘After being a beauty queen, Ivy became an actress on the stage and in silent films,’ says her great grandson Gareth Neame, 40, who is executive producer of BBC1’s Hotel Babylon. ‘She was a girl growing up in the North East – she would never have thought of going on the stage without the Mirror’s beauty contest’.
‘She and Elwin were pioneer film-makers from 1908 to the 20s.’ Their first son Ronald, born in 1911, went on to become a distinguished cinematographer, screenwriter and director and earned Oscar nominations writing the screenplays for ‘Brief Encounter’ and ‘Great Expectations’.
But full-time motherhood wasn’t enough for fame hungry Ivy. It was Elwin’s first attempt at a short film, using his home as a set and wife as his star that led to Ivy’s 12- month acting contract with film producer Cecil Hepworth.
Her debut was “Dream Paintings” in 1912, in which she appeared as several works of art, followed by ‘The Lady Of Shallot’, ‘Mifanwy : A Tragedy’ and her first feature-length film ‘The Lure Of London’. At the end of her contract, she formed Ivy Close Productions and made ‘The Girl From The Sky’, ‘The Haunting Of Silas P. Gould’ and ‘Darkest London’.
‘Ivy’s husband wasn’t too keen on her carrying on in films,’ says Robert, who never met his cousin but grew up hearing all about her. ‘She used to do all her own stunts. In one film, she was supposed to be knocked down by a taxi and in another she was thrown into an icy river. Elwin didn’t like her doing all that.’
Outside of acting, Ivy’s other passions were golf and motorcycling – unusual hobbies for a woman in those days. She also sang in music halls and modelled for advertising campaigns. In 1913 Ivy told Picture magazine: ‘I am never idle. My favourite hobby is motorcycling. It provided my husband and I with a glorious holiday in Devonshire.’
War in Europe and a slowdown in British film production forced Ivy to accept a one-year contract in the US. Before she set sail for New York on May 13, 1916, she revealed in an interview that she was her own worst critic. ‘I love to see myself on the screen, but I am frightfully critical,’ she said, ‘I hate nearly everything I do and I try not to repeat my many faults shown up by a relentless camera.’
In New York, she appeared in the comedy ‘The Girl And The Tenor’ and hung out with the likes of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, but Ivy found it hard to settle so far from native shores. ‘It was pre-Hollywood and she didn’t stay long,’ says Robert. ‘She didn’t like the set-up over there, so she came back.’
While in America, Ivy’s eldest brother Raymond was killed serving in France. Back home, there was to be more tragedy when in 1923, her beloved Elwin was killed in a motorcycle accident leaving Ivy to look after their two young boys. The looks that had been Ivy’s meal ticket were beginning to fade, but the final blow to her career was the advent of the ‘talkies’. Her British accent was considered unsuitable for American audiences and Ivy’s star waned. By the late 1920s, Ivy was reduced to working as an extra in crowd scenes. In 1938 Ivy married Australian stuntman and make-up artist Curly Batson – this marriage lasted until his death of lung cancer in 1957.
Sadly, Ivy died in a nursing home in Goring, Oxfordshire in 1968 aged 78. A plaque now hangs on the wall of the Stockton Swallow Hotel, the only reminder of the town’s most famous woman.
Gareth remembers: ‘I went with my grandfather Ronald, who’s now 96, and my father to see a film of her playing ‘Sleeping Beauty’ which was showing in a little museum in Stockton. It was amazing to see my grandfather watch his mother as a young woman. I’ve got a picture from a magazine cutting taken at the time of female aviators like Amy Johnson, with her in flying goggles. It says ‘Ivy Close: A Woman From The Skies. It’s wonderfully evocative of its time.’
For more images on Stockton born actress Ivy Close visit Picture Stockton.