Nina Katorza – Brenda Wooton’s remarkable French penpal…

Categories Articles, Memoirs, Music, dance and art

Sue Ellery-Hill brings us the extraordinary tale of Nina Katorza, a Cornish model, dancer, singer, artist and raconteur who, in her later years became a penpal and dear friend to Sue’s mother – Brenda Wootton. 

Thirty years ago, an 85-year old Cornish woman living near Nice in the South of France got in touch with my mother – Cornish singer Brenda Wootton. They became penfriends and mutual admirers –  the story that emerged from Nina over the next 3-4 years of her unique and eventful life was so remarkable, I could not pass it by… Her wide-ranging tale includes some fascinating insights into Penzance in the 19th and 20th centuries, into the private lives of some of the most famous Newlyn School artists, and into ‘la vie Parisienne’ of Montparnasse in the 1920s… it’s a story of celebrity, tenacity, audacity, and bravery…

Nina initially wrote to Brenda after seeing her on French television, and hearing that she was from Penzance in Cornwall – they struck up a firm friendship, and kept up a regular correspondence for a few years in the mid-1980s. All of the quotes in italic below are taken directly from Nina’s letters to Brenda.

​She was born Evelyn Constance Nina Thorne in Penzance on January 8th 1900, going on to star as a singer in Paris in the 1920s and 30s. At the time of writing her letters to Brenda, she lived at the Villa Tip-Top, Montee du Perousin, Haut-de-Cagne, in Cagne-sur-Mer in the south of France, together with 5 cats, 19 birds (including parrots, budgies, and canaries), and a Pekinese dog.

Her father, Joseph Alan Thorne taught piano and violin, was the organist at St Marys Church in Chapel Street, and also “had the choral society” in Penzance. Her parents had lived at The Hollies in Alverton (where Nina was born, as well as 3 horsey aunts, and two uncles), and then at some point moved to 45 Morrab Road (where her brother was born – next to Penlee Park main entrance) presumably for financial reasons; her Grandmother, Isabella Trembath Thorne, lived at 2 Morrab Terrace.

Nina with her pekinese in Haute-de-Cagne in 1986. (photo: Sue Ellery-Hill)

The extract below is taken from Paul Mason’s website which explores historical Alverton, the only discrepancy being that it seems Nina was still living at the Hollies within her memory, and she was born there in 1900:

“Some little way further out of Penzance, on the North side of Alverton Road, is Chycelin (a Cornish name derived from chy = house and celin = holly). Fronted with grounds sporting magnificent Magnolia trees, Chycelin is set back from the street. The house was formerly called The Hollies, and before that, The Hollies Academy, a Gentlemen’s Boarding School, opened in 1883 and owned by Joseph Alan Thorne. J A Thorne was later listed in The Edinburgh Gazette of December 1893 as involved in bankruptcy proceedings. Henceforth, The Hollies became a private residence, dwelt in by the family of a Prussian merchant called David Bischofswerder. Further, there is an 1893 Kelly’s directory entry of a Sylvanus Hanley (probably the famous shell collector), living at The Hollies.”

All of the following information is gleaned from Nina’s letters to Brenda written between 1983-88.

“I used to sing in my cot, and was bribed by my Nanny with chocolate to shut up… Then there were the luncheon parties and I was always asked to sing – 8-9 years old – I would only sing under the table amidst the feet… ‘Come birdie, come and sing to me!’… I hated being put on a table with all these people eating even then, and later when I did cabaret in Monte Carlo it was a torture… but I was also a child pianist and played two pianos with Pa (who, so they say, was playing Rachmaninov’s 3rd on two pianos with his girlfriend when I was arriving in an upstairs room in The Hollies)…”

She remembers Stanhope Forbes also had an ‘installè’ somewhere in Morrab Road, and she thinks maybe Lamorna Birch… before the 1st World War, her parents used to hold Musical Soirees and Open House every week,

“There were 2 grand pianos (and one for my grandma, Isa), and I often played duets with Daddy, and Mother sang German Lieder [the setting of romantic German poems to classical music]… Gran did her zither turn, and I loved it all, as I was allowed to stay up late those evenings, and there was all the booze set on a long table on the veranda, and sandwiches, and the maid of all work, Edith, having a ball… lovely memories… I think [Stanhope] Forbes played the violin, one of them played cello and flute, and Mme Garstin [Mrs Norman Garstin] sang in a piercing soprano, but would sing ‘My Little Grey Home in the West’ by Herman Löhr, who was a friend – he later married a Florence Daly, a folklore singer from Ireland… “

She describes her father as:

“a sex-pot – god’s gift to women… black hair, green eyes and a 6 footer or more. He taught piano and violin to all the beautiful ladies around… and by the way, he discovered Dame Clare Butt’s voice – she had a booming contralto – and also a pretty child called Dora Labbette, who had a lovely soprano… she used used to sell papers in Penzance, and became the girlfriend of Sir Henry Wood.” (Nina has that wrong – Labbette actually had a 13-year affair with Sir Thomas Beecham, and bore a child by him.)

She continues:

“God! That is all so far away, and they are all dead! I feel rather like the Last of the Mohicans…”  Her mother, she says, “cashed out, and went travelling with Mrs O’Neill, the woman who got into Tibet (ma didn’t)…”

“By the way, dad had two singing pupils from Hayle, one, a Miss Eddy with a beautiful contralto… they used to come in together on the bus – Miss Eddy used to send him poems and he used to leave them around… when I was 8 I knew the ‘Poems of Passion’ by Ella Wheeler Wilcox by heart! I remember when very young seeing one of Dad’s violin pupils, a Miss Brind, daughter of General Brind [British Army Officer, Commander of the 4th Division]… well, she was so mad about Dad that she gave me presents and used to comb her quite lovely hair in the lobby while she waited her turn… she was years after found murdered in the Foret de Fontainebleau – no wonder, poor thing… Dad couldn’t bear her, for once…”

Her Uncle Frank went to Manitoba to live on an Indian reserve, and died and was buried there, she says. But it was Penzance she hankered for… she had many happy memories of her home town…

​“I’m told I would no longer know Penzance, it has changed so much, but I presume the Prom is always there, and the Mount… my Nanny used to take me over to the Mount at low tide to have tea with the St Levan kids (Lord St Levan’s family) who were my age – and then at Plymouth to Mount Edgecombe, for tea with that lot (presumably the children of the Earl of Mount Edgecombe).I did not enjoy it except when we were allowed to ride the Shetland ponies – sweet animals!” 

Of The Hollies she recalled:

“I wonder if the field with the trout stream is still there behind the house, where we allowed two horse caravans to stay in permanence – Manouche [French Romani] or Romani, I forget – but they were called Smith and Taylor, and were basket makers, and did the Thursday market on Market Jew Street – Leah Smith was my wet nurse! My grandma Isa used to make music with the gypsies – 

She sat for artist Stanhope Forbes…

“I never sat, but had to stand, and show as much leg as possible. He would come to the Hollies as he and my dad were buddies… then he would sketch me by the dozen.” She said she posed for Forbes “as a shrimp-girl with a shrimp-net on shoulder, and loved posing this, 1910-11!” She says in those days she was known as Eve or Evelyn Thorne.

She also says she posed for Norman Garstin, and modelled for an artist called Langley, “who became quite famous – he had a son called John – a horrid little boy, a bottom-pincher aged 10!  (Walter Langley married Madron-born Ethel Pengelly, and, in 1901, they and their son, John, were living at Alexandra Road, Madron) …and someone – rather vague – called Harris… with a beautiful child called Queenie and a lovely mother?

Alverton Street in Penzance c1905, around the time that Nina would have been living there. (photo: Sue Ellery-Hill)

Nina asked if St Mary’s Church in Chapel Street was still standing…

“I had my first ‘mystique crise’ there when I was 12 and wept before the crucifix draped in purple… my other ‘crise’ was Russian and in Paris, when I was singing in the Russian Church, rue Daru… I lived with Russian ballet dancers for a time, until one of them tried to kill me! So Russian, and they never told me (7 of them) that Sonia was a morphino [morphine addict] and had les crises! Yes, even in 1923 people drugged…”

“My grandmother lived a lot in Newlyn and Lamorna – she was a beautiful woman called Isabella Trembath Thorne, and she was a painter – she had one taken by the Academy – ‘The Pied Piper of Hamlyn’, with all those dear rats! She had a jingle [pony and cart] and dressed in Spanish shawls – made a hole in the middle and that was that… jades hung around her neck, and she was smothered in Liberty, amber and things… she never paid a bill and ruined poor Grandpa Thorne who fled to live on the Isle of Man after paying Gran’s debts… she played the piano beautifully, also the zither, and taught me my first piece, Arabesques de Schumann. A real numero [one-off].… a haunted woman who seemed only happy when she used to have 7 gypsies round after supper to make music. She spoke their language, Romani – often when there was the marché in Penzance in Market Jew Street there would be side shows with acrobats etc… well, Gran would take the jingle and go down at 12 hrs and bring back 7 circus people (always 7) to lunch, and they would still be there at 6pm.”

“She [Isabella] was born before her time, and her brother Harry Trembath was a pianist who went to live and had a school of music in a dreadful place called Isleworth… he married and had 4 beautiful sons, all who were Doctors and who were killed in the 1914 war, except Thomas Trembath, also a pianist. Old Harry Trembath was mad, wore an oriental smoking cap and was a great womaniser… very colourful gent, and he and Gran together!!! And terribly gifted but as I say, they lived too soon… Dad used to tell me that he toured all England when he was 8, playing the 48 Fugues and Preludes of Jean S Bach, by heart of course. He swore it was true, and he was dressed in a velvet suit and lace collar and cuffs, poor kid. I used to try and tap Gran on all this as even at 11 years old I was curious, and she used to reply, ‘Your dad is a genius, but, god, so lazy…’ I think Gran Isabella and old Harry were Celtic throwbacks! Both had auburn hair and green eyes, like Dad and me!” [Not sure whether Great-Uncle Harry and her Father became conflated there…]

“I often wonder what would have happened if the damned 1914 war had not come… it quite shattered my musical career… and the chaos of having to leave Penzance… our windows were broken because we made music with the Kettners and Kerdas [local German families] – a German doctor and an antiquary, but surely spies – and I had a German Governess (who rolled in the hay with Daddy, as they all did) called Lisa Hoeck, who with the other Boche, disappeared overnight!” 

Her father was offered a post teaching ‘Master Classes’ in piano, violin and cello in St John’s Wood in London, and fearing persecution, they fled Penzance in 1914. Her mother was travelling abroad and could not be traced, but she did turn up later.

“Anyway, everyone seemed to sing, and no-one took me seriously except for piano playing – my first love. The two flats where we settled in St Johns Wood were more or less full from morn till night with three pianos and violins and late at night my Father got in his poker playing musician friends and played… you wouldn’t remember the Hambourg brothers, pianists – they, poor boys, were thrown into camp with the composer Herman Löhr (who wrote ‘Little Grey Home in the West’)… and there was a man in uniform, red tabs and all, and handsome – when I was 17 I dropped everything and ran away with him. He was in an Indian Regiment and doing hush hush work, but had race horses – (I adore horses and rode from age of 4 in Cornwall, but no hunting or killing of little animals – horrible, and so cowardly)… but three years of an impossible life – no music! – I ran away three times, but he always found me… I did circus, music hall, etc, and was in a tearoom in Burlington Street when I read in The Times he’d died in Hove… free, dear my life!! I contacted the family lawyer who was in the know and he said I had to get out of the country, as my husband had put all in my name, and had died bankrupt and I was responsible – so my lawyers lent me a few hundred £ and put me on a boat at Dover to come over to France – with a fur coat and two bracelets, and that’s all… I had divine jewellery in the bank, but it was too late to get it…”

“And that is how I became a model for the second time, in Montparnasse for the Grande Chaumiere etc, and fell right into the most wonderful period of artists and writers ever… the Lunts [Alfred Lunt, American director on Broadway, and actress Lynn Fontanne], Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, Gertrude Stein… I had a ball as I was the youngest of all… and after the [art] schools they passed around the bowler hat at 12 o’clock for the models, and for private work to all these lovely people…”

So by 1922-23 she was posing nude for the artists in Montparnasse, “and I had lots of work because I never ‘broke’ a pose… Augustus John was the most popular – oh! What a lovely time we all had, with very little money…”

She was modelling in the legendary Montparnasse school, La Grande Chaumiere – goodness knows the artists she must have modelled for… or what the ‘private work’ entailed…

“Later when I left the schools, those who had not gone back to the States came to hear me sing…I studied with Mme Blanche Marchesi who was the teacher at that moment (1923-25), and I worked with Josephine [Baker] at the Casino de Paris and the Folies Berger, to eat… Marchesi took me for nothing, bless her… a hard school – her mother, old Mathilde Marchesi, brought out Dame Nellie Melba, and Emma Eames. I sang in churches and private dinners, and concerts, as I was really a Leider singer, in all languages, but German is the best language, with of course Italian to bring out the voice…”

​With her friend, Josephine Baker, Nina was one of the first to have her hair styled by Antoine de Paris, the most famous French hairdresser of the period, in the ‘Eton Crop’, the very short and severe mannish hairstyle he perfected. How ironic that Brenda should end up singing (and performing the very final concert) in Josephine Baker’s Bobino Theatre in Montparnasse some 60 years later.

In the 1930s, Nina had a role as the goat girl Zenzi in the White Horse Inn musical in Paris, as a dancer/claquetier (clapper) with the tenor Richard Tauber, second only to Caruso in fame. She had to sing a little song on stage with a real goat called Charlotte, who, she says, always, always, peed on centre stage, much to the outrage of the boss, Zola.

​From 1941-1945 she was held in a concentration camp near Marseille (Natzweiler-Struthof at Isle Sur La Sorgue)… “They took the best years of my singing life! How I escaped the ovens I shall never know…”. From my research, it seems that the Struthof, as it was known, was not a camp for Jews, but was reserved mainly for French insurgents and Resistance workers. It was described by a former inmate as “one of the most terrible, and one of the most radically exterminating ones”. With her attitudes and background, for her to work for the French Resistance would have been entirely in character. Nina would have been 40 when she was imprisoned, and I’m sure there would have been a story to tell there, although she never told it to Brenda.

“If it interests you I’ll write it sometime… when I feel strong with a good whisky and soda at hand… we had an awful time, dear, with the German boot… anyway, to say I lost five of my best years – my voice after was never the same. Something had gone, and I closed down in 1959…”

“When I had come out of the war and the camp (four years – fatal for the voice!), and got back to Paris and my flat – I found the Boche had taken all, including my piano, and all my money out of Lloyds. So what, most of my friends had gone into the ovens – so I came down to Cagne, which before the war was known as Little Montparnasse – Soutine, Jules Pascin, and Renoir all lived there, and lots of others. Then I had to go back to Paris for my swan song – the Pie Jesu, Gabriel Faure’s Requiem – one of the most lovely things ever written, and would suit you marvellously, Brenda! Anyway, I sang that at Les Invalides (some military do, I forget what), then Nadia Boulanger wanted me in her group to go to Monte Carlo to sing for the Rainier coming into his own [the wedding of Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly in 1956]. We had 15 days paid, and 3 days concert at the Palace, and had a lovely time… that was my second swan song, as my voice was not as it had been… went through too much in those ghastly years… too numb… emotion – oh! I was happy when I said goodbye to dear Paris and came down here to the sun, and heat and laziness…”

In the 1950s, unable to pursue a singing career, she turned to art, and describes herself as a ‘Naïf’ painter – an activity she kept up for the rest of her life, as long as her painful arthritis allowed it.

Sketch of Nina’s house in Haute-de-Cagne in 1959. (courtesy of Sue Ellery-Hill)

In 1960, Nina’s friend, the famous French singer and actress, Suzy Solidor, opened her Paris Cabaret Club in Cagnes-sur-Mer. Suzy is another fascinating character – in the 1920s and 30s she ran ‘La Vie Parisienne’ which became one of the trendiest night spots in Paris. One of her most famous publicity stunts was to become known as the “most painted woman in the world”. She posed for some of the most celebrated artists of the day: Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Raoul Dufy and Tamara de Lempicka, and many others. Her stipulation for sitting was that she would be given the paintings to hang in her Parisian nightclub, and by the time she opened the Cabaret at Cagnes-sur-Mer, she had over 100 portraits of herself.

She had been a friend of Nina’s since 1928, when Nina had been dancing in the Folies Bergere and the Casino de Paris. In 1960, Nina joined her and started up an English Pub in the garden of Suzy’s Paris Cabaret Club in Cagne-sur-Mer, she combined the pub with an antique shop and served behind the bar for all her old friends from Paris when they came down south.

 

Suzy Solidor’s Cabaret in Cagne-sur-Mer, where Nina worked with her, running the bar in the 1960s. Suzy is standing at the back. (photo: Sue Ellery-Hill)

Nina says it was “great fun – the night life began again, and it was a riot, for ten years!” Among the friends who regularly appeared were Jean Cocteau, ‘Flo’ Gould (Florence Gould, wife of American billionaire Frank Jay Gould), Aristotle Onassis, Cecil Beaton, and Greta Garbo, and of course, Josephine Baker. “…in fact, everyone who was, or had been someone – and the shekels flowed in… Suzy died 2 years ago… we were friends for 55 years, and I have never been up to the Village since… They are nearly all dead, my friends, and it hurts – but what ‘souvenirs’… [memories]

Responding to Brenda’s comment that she did some Cabaret work, Nina replied:

“Cabaret! Poor you – I loathe working cabaret and did it in Monte Carlo in 1928, and didn’t know that singers and dancers had to go to the Hotel de Paris between acts, and ordered champagne galore (I used to pour mine in the bucket) – anyway, I didn’t stay long – Today I presume it is different (or is it!!)… In my day no one (all the great names, Evelyn Laye, Jessie Matthews etc etc), ALL had to bed with Cocky (I mean Cochrane) – [English theatrical impresario Charles B Cochrane] – or stay in the chorus… I presume it is the same – but WHAT a bore!”

I have a strong suspicion that Nina never married again, and that her surname Katorza was chosen on her arrival onto the French avant garde scene in Montparnasse in the early 1920s. Fleeing Britain after inheriting her estranged husband’s debts, she would very likely have chosen a new identity – she became part of an illustrious circle of notorious celebrities living ‘la vie Parisienne’, and maybe selected the name Katorza herself.

There is evidence that she may have known the couturier designers Mouna or Dora Katorza, whose willowy models can be seen on postcards from the mid-1920s onwards wearing exotic long-fringed Spanish shawls. Or maybe she was herself Mouna, or Dora, or both… the Spanish shawls provide a very strong echo of the elaborate garments worn by her beloved grandmother.

And, she was close friends with the American Gertrude Stein, whose obscure piece ‘Are There Arithmetics’ (1925) – more difficult to read than James Joyce, and even more impenetrable – randomly references the name ‘Dora Katorza’, with no context whatsoever. Katorza as a surname is almost unheard of in France, and I think she chose that cathartic escape from England to later rebrand herself as Nina, her own given middle name, together with Stein’s Katorza…

At the time of her correspondence with Brenda, Nina was in her mid-80s, and had been put on a strict diet by her doctors – no eggs, salt, sugar, butter or fried stuff, but she recalled her mother – born Linda West Anthony in Plymouth, “who had a lovely mezzo [soprano] and studied in Rome with Battistini…” – telling her that all the family had their last meal at 9 at night, a hot one, ending with cheese and biscuits and a whisky and soda, and they all died in their 80s and never required diets. She also describes herself as…

…“a compulsive gambler… inherited from the Trembaths who gambled everything away at poker! But you see, Brenda – I am a dreadful dilettante and want to do everything, and I had to be 68 to stick to painting! I won a little competition for a painting of Haut de Cagnes, bought by Americans, and my dear that was in ’68, and I’ve never stopped… never believed it would go on, so never had a catalogue, never even did a one-man show, as I always had an order… amazing… of course I show in the galleries around here, and up in the Chateau and at the Musée Cantini in Marseille… so I find it is a very nice ending Brenda, and I feel I am being protected… After all, I’m nearing the end of a very long road – not yet gaga – love life, have a curiosity for everything and can spend my last years with my beloved cats and birds – all God’s creatures for whom I am responsible…”

Nina & a friend with her beloved animals. (photo: Sue Ellery-Hill)

​She adored Brenda, and praised her voice above all else… she loved the Cornish songs on the records Brenda sent her, and several times expressed a longing to learn the Cornish language. She was also a great fan of Dynasty, Dallas, tennis championships on TV, Barbara Cartland, and Boy George. She suffered terribly from ‘cervical arthrose’ and was finding painting increasingly difficult with the pain in her hands, but awarded herself a glass or two of whisky and soda every day at 6 o’clock as a tonic. She still made Cornish pasties, and longed for a taste of saffron cake again…

​Nina asked Brenda if she wrote, and was encouraging her to collaborate on producing a book with Nina’s memories… Sadly, Brenda and Nina never met, and it never happened – but I hope I have done her some justice.

Sue’s biography of Brenda Wootton is being launched at the Acorn Theatre in Penzance on Friday November 16th at 7.30pm, entry is free with donations… The book will be available for sale, and signings will be taking place. Those who helped with the Crowdfunding can also collect their copy. There will be entertainment such as live music, a short film of Brenda and readings from the book.

For more information please visit www.brendawootton.org or contact Sue directly at sueellery@hotmail.com.

 

Sue Ellery-Hill
Sue Ellery-Hill was born in Penzance in Cornwall to Brenda and John Wootton, and grew up with strong Cornish roots and influences. In her teenage years she had a poem published in Denys Val Baker's 'Cornish Review', and after a life spent mostly involved with children's charities, she has only returned to creative writing in recent years. In 1994 she published a book of her mother Brenda’s poetry, ‘Pantomime Stew’, and then another containing probably the largest ever collection of Collective Nouns, ‘Gallimaufry’. In 2018 she was awarded two medals for Creative Writing in English by the Esedhvos at the Gorsedh Kernow, for a poem and a short story. She has two very grown-up sons, six grandchildren, and is loving living in St Just with husband Chris.

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