The chorus girl who married two of Hollywood's biggest stars and ended her life as a princess

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Monday, May 27, 2024

The chorus girl who married two of Hollywood's biggest stars and ended her life as a princess
Cecil Beaton’s (1904-1980) pen and ink portrait sketch of Lady Sylvia Ashley, 30 x 20cm, for sale at Ewbank’s. The estimate is £500-800.

LONDON.- Cecil Beaton's sketch of Sylvia Ashley comes to auction, recalling the doorman’s daughter who captured Douglas Fairbanks Snr and Clark Gable.

She was a lingerie model and dancer born to the wife of a London porter and doorman. But by the time she died of cancer in her seventies, she had married into the English peerage, been the widow of Douglas Fairbanks, divorced Clark Gable and become a princess after marrying a Georgian nobleman.

Now the largely forgotten socialite Sylvia Ashley has stepped back into the limelight as Cecil Beaton’s sketch of her comes to auction in Ewbank’s Contemporary Art & Editions sale on January 25.

Born Edith Louisa Hawkes, the self-styled Sylvia (1904-77) had been a chorus girl and actress when she and her paramour, the heir to the Earldom of Shaftesbury, had married in February 1927.

The wedding shocked London Society, as did the divorce seven years later when Douglas Fairbanks Sr, whom she went on to marry in 1936, was named as co-respondent. Their affair caused the break-up of Hollywood’s pre-eminent married couple, Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

After Fairbanks died of a heart attack, aged just 56, in 1939, Sylvia turned her attention to war work, setting up the British Distressed Areas Fund in 1941 with her sister Vera, the actress Constance Bennett, and Hollywood producer Darryl Zanuck’s wife Virginia Fox as co-directors. The aim was to provide financial support, food, clothing and medical aid for refugees.

Within three years she had married into the English peerage once more, this time to Edward Stanley, 6th Baron Stanley of Alderley, but it did not last, and they divorced in 1948, Stanley gradually losing his fortune through four such divorces.

Despite Hollywood heartthrob Clark Gable’s very public romance with the actress Paulette Goddard in the late 1940s, it was Sylvia whom he married soon after in 1949 – a serious mistake both quickly lived to regret, and they divorced three years later.

Another two years on from that, she finally met the man with whom she would spend the rest of her life: Prince Dimitri Jorjadze, a Georgian nobleman, hotelier and racing driver.

Cecil Beaton designed fashion items for Ashley in the 1930s, drawings of those creations coming up for auction from her estate more than a decade ago.

And a February 1, 1937, society report notes Ashley and Fairbanks at a cocktail party thrown by the Redfern Gallery in Cork Street, London to view Beaton’s collection of designs for costume, stage décor and pastiches.

Beaton also included Ashley in his first published book of photographs, The Book of Beauty, alongside luminaries from Lillie Langtry and Virginia Woolf to Greta Garbo and Nancy Cunard.

The inscribed drawing on offer at Ewbank’s has a provenance to The Beaton Studio Sale in 1978.

“Sylvia Ashley is one of The Bright Young Things straight out of a novel by Evelyn Waugh,” said Senior Partner Andrew Ewbank. “Her astonishing rollercoaster of a life would make a fascinating film, peppered as it was with some of the most celebrated figures of the 20th century. The appearance of this drawing by her confidant and friend Cecil Beaton has created a poignant moment to look back at this force of nature.”

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