Carleton, Billie [real name Florence Leonora Stewart]
(18961918), actress and singer
, was born on 4 September 1896 at Bernard Street, off Russell Square, Bloomsbury, London, the daughter of Margaret Stewart, chorus singer; her father is unknown. She was claimed to have both French and Irish antecedents.
There was something of a fairy quality about Carleton, who was often described by contemporaries as being hardly of this world. Such an incarnation emphasized the brevity of her existence, and provided a stark contrast to her sordid end. Like her fellow actress Meggie Albanesi (who died of a botched abortion in 1923, aged twenty-four), Carleton was seen as an innocent victim of a desperate time. However, witnesses were divided over whether nature or nurture was to blame for her apparently addictive persona. The impresario C. B. Cochran claimed in his memoirs, Secrets of a Showman
(1925), that her childhood had given her a positive fear of alcohol … Billie Carleton never had a chance against heredity (Cochran, 210).
Carleton was brought up by her aunt Catherine Joliffe, who claimed that both of her parents were dead. According to Cochran, Carleton was well read, she spoke French and German, and was an excellent pianist (Cochran, 210). But at fifteen she left home for the stage. Cochran gave Carleton her first major role in his 1914 Empire Theatre revue Watch your Step
, promoting her from the chorus. Despite her inexperience and her tiny voice, she pleased the audiences. A more beautiful creature has never fluttered upon a stage. She seemed scarcely human, so fragile was she (ibid., 209). Carleton's little girl lost looks were counterpointed by her evident glamour, and she quickly took to the hectic life of the theatre during wartime. But the dizzying gloss of fashion, celebrity, and a certain adoration encouraged transitory pleasures. During the run of Watch your Step
Cochran was told that Carleton was being influenced by some undesirable people and was going to opium parties (ibid.). The impresario fired her.
John Marsh, Carleton's patron and her senior by twenty years, had introduced her to a life of luxury. She had a flat in Savile Row, and at one point a bank balance of over £5000, although she would never earn more than £25 a week; her money was managed by Frederick Stuart, a Knightsbridge physician. The third man in Carleton's life was Reggie de Veulle, a Bond Street theatrical costumier and dress designer whose diaphanous creations she modelled. But de Veulle was also a drug useralthough Stuart claimed Carleton had been introduced to opium by Jack May, proprietor of Murray's Club, one of the 150 nightclubs to spring up in Soho during the war. There is an underlying sense that Carleton used these men as much as she was herself used.
Cochran gave Carleton a second chance in Hoop-La
at the St Martin's Theatre in November 1916, but her performance was disappointing. Andre Charlot stepped in, engaging Carleton in the revue Some (More Samples!)
, which was running at the Vaudeville Theatre. The Tatler's
critic observed on 26 September 1917: If only her singing and speaking voice were a little stronger I could see a very brilliant future for Miss Carleton in musical comedy (Kohn, 74). In The Boy
at the Adelphi in August 1917, Carleton played Joy Chatterton, a nightclub flapper, a type becoming notorious in wartime London. In May 1918 she appeared in Fair and Warmer
, a Broadway farce at the Prince of Wales's, playing a maid to Fay Compton's flapper. In August she played Phyllis Harcourt in The Freedom of the Seas
, a comic adventure at the Haymarket, making her the youngest leading lady in the West End. But her public successes were counterpointed by a tempestuous private life.
The inquest court would later hear how Carleton and de Veulle held opium parties at the latter's flat in Dover Street, disgusting orgies during which Ada Ping You, Scottish wife of their Limehouse supplier, would arrive to cook the opium:
After dinner the party … provided themselves with cushions and pillows, placed these on the floor, and sat themselves in a circle. The men divested themselves of their clothing and got into pyjamas, and the women into chiffon nightdresses … Miss Carleton arrived later at the flat from the theatre, and she, after disrobing, took her place in this circle of degenerates. (The Times, 14 Dec 1918)
For the victory ball at the Albert Hall on Saturday 27 November 1918, Carleton commissioned an outfit (representing France) from de Veulle; as it was to be a dry event, she also ordered some cocaine for the occasion. Having dined with Fay Compton, Carleton arrived at the ball escorted by Dr Stuart, and met Lionel Belcher (an actor and heroin addict who was supplying de Veulle), who had a silver box of cocaine for Carleton, given to him in the gentlemen's lavatory by de Veulle. Carleton, Belcher, and a friend returned to Carleton's flat at the Savoy Court in the early hours of Sunday morning, where Carleton changed into a kimono; having breakfasted, the friends left. At 10 a.m. she rang a friend. At 11.30 a.m. Carleton's maid arrived for work, and found her mistress snoring. At 3.30 the snoring stopped. The maid tried to wake Carleton, and called for Dr Stuart. He administered artificial respiration and an injection of brandy and strychnine, to no avail.
The inquest into Carleton's death, held through December and January, provided newspapers with thrilling details of the actress's tragic end. As supplier of the cocaine on which she overdosed, de Veulle was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to six months' imprisonment. But as Marek Kohn convincingly demonstrates in Dope Girls: the Birth of the British Drug Underground
(1992), depressants taken to calm her cocaine hangover were a more likely cause of death.
The case made drugs a contemporary issue, not only in the press (The Times
pursued an anti-drugs campaign in the wake of the affair), but in the theatre: within a year there were at least three plays with drug themes running in the West End; and in the cinema, D. W. Griffith's film Broken Blossoms
(1919) threw Lillian Gish into a Limehouse opium den. In 1924 Noël Coward, who had known both Carleton and de Veulle, acknowledged the story as inspiration for his The Vortex
, a succès de scandale
which featured a cocaine-taking protagonist. By then Billie Carleton had become a symbol of the drug-threatened and wronged female abused by older, usually foreign, men; behind her lurked the spectre of the opium den and the white slave trade. The more complicated story of her own manipulativeness was lost in the publicity that surrounded her very public demise.
The Times (30 Nov 1918) · The Times (4 Dec 1918) · The Times (14 Dec 1918) · The Times (21 Dec 1918) · M. Kohn, Dope girls: the birth of the British drug underground (1992) · C. B. Cochran, Secrets of a showman (1925) · J. P. Wearing, The London stage, 19101919: a calendar of plays and players, 2 vols. (1982) · P. Hoare, Noël Coward: a biography (1995) · P. Hoare, Wilde's last stand: decadence, conspiracy and the First World War (1997) · J. Parker, ed., Whos who in the theatre, 10th edn (1947) · S. Heppner, Cockie (1969) · T. Parssinen, Secret passions, secret remedies (1983) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1919) · b. cert. · d. cert.
photograph, NPG · photograph, Mansell Collection, London · photograph, Jerwood Library of the Performing Arts, London, Mander and Mitchenson Theatre Collection · photograph, BL; repro. in The Sketch (11 Dec 1918) · photograph, BL; repro. in The Sketch (24 Jan 1919) · photograph, ILN picture library; repro. in The Tatler (16 Feb 1915)
Wealth at death
£1374 18s. 7d.: administration, 11 Sept 1919, CGPLA Eng. & Wales