The Tragedy of May Vivian
May Vivian (1903-1924) was a vivacious actress and dancer who had just made a name for herself in London cabaret and was destined for bright things, but her life was cut short when, with all the dramatic intensity of a film tragedy, she was shot dead in the Spring of 1924 by a jealous suitor in the South of France.
May Vivian’s story was poignant and much was written about her at the time with lurid headlines, sensational detail and an expose of the tragic and secret circumstances leading up to her demise. She was described as a beautiful and innocent English butterfly who danced too near the flame of love. It was agreed that this was the kind of story that skilful novelists took for plots of their fiction. Only in this case the book did not close upon the heroine’s wedding and she doesn’t love happily ever after. Instead she has an untimely grave.
May Vivian was in fact Mary Francis Smith born in 1903. She was a happy schoolgirl with a panache for dancing. Her pretty face, her trim figure and her gracefulness all helped to make her an entrancing picture. The family lived in High Lever Road, St Quinton Park, (London W10 – Kensington & Chelsea) and her father was a successful London riding master based at Ossington Street, Bayswater and Petersham Road, Petersham near Richmond. He was not anxious for his daughter to take up a professional career but Mary persisted and he finally gave in.
May Vivian’s first appearance was in the Gaby Deslys vehicle, Suzette, a musical comedy presented by Andre Charlot that opened 29th March 1917. She may have appeared in other shows and, for example, she was credited as being in the chorus of Alfred Butt’s Irene at the Empire (7/4/20-12/2/21). However, in the summer of 1921 she joined Henry de Bray as his dancing partner. De Bray was a popular dancer who had been on the circuit for some time appearing in various stage shows and as an exhibition dancer in restaurants and variety halls with several different partners. With May Vivian he presumably carried on varied engagements as before but at some point left England for a tour of South Africa and Australia. In the spring of 1922 they were part of a celebrity vaudeville entertainment at Tivoli Theatre, Melbourne. Later de Bray described her as ‘short, slim, dark little thing, wonderfully pretty with a sweet though rather small voice.’
By the autumn of 1922 they were back in London where cabaret was taking hold as a new form of entertainment. The Queen’s Hall Roof had introduced a cabaret in the spring of 1922 and in September 1922 a new show was produced by Jack Buchanan under the direction of Jack Hylton. May Vivian and Henry de Bray were two of the six principals along with the Trix Sisters, Tim O’Connor and Flora Lea and a beauty chorus of sixteen ‘eves’ who appeared in eight different numbers. The Cabaret Follies ran twice nightly through several different editions into 1923. By late 1923 De Bray and Vivian were appearing in Carl Hyson’s show called the One O’Clock Revue at Rector’s night club on Tottenham Court Road.
When May Vivian was appearing in the Queen’s Hall Roof cabaret, a young English Lord took notice of her and in the stereotypical way began sending her flowers, bonbons and gifts. Then he asked her for tea. But being the son of one the most powerful and richest members of the English court, he took good care to keep his friendship with the little dancer on the quiet side of things fearing scandal and publicity. Needless to say, over a period of over a year, a romance blossomed and both became madly in love with each other.
May Vivian’s uncle Henry Smith of Bloomfield Street, Harrow Road, affirmed that the young peer was madly in love with her and she reciprocated his affection. He even asked her father for permission to become engaged. Mary was nineteen and he refused on the grounds that she was not old enough to know her own mind. In the meantime the father of the young man discovered the relationship and like all English noblemen when they learn that their sons are in love with an actress or a dancer he put his foot down and told him it must end. He won his battle and within a short time his son deserted May Vivian and was swiftly married off to an heiress, bringing more money and more influence into the family.
The poor dancer was seemingly devastated and considered that her life was broken. However, she kept writing to him telling him how miserable she was. Her letters became more supplicating as time passed. She begged him to keep a place for her in his home, even if it only as a chambermaid. ‘You need never look at me if you don’t wish to’ she wrote ‘but I should be so happy just to live with you.’ She received no response and as a result became more distraught. She longed for death but her religious scruples were too strong to permit her to commit suicide and she considered she had no right to take her own life.
May Vivian was expected to become the central star of a new cabaret show in west End but just before Christmas 1923 she changed her plans and decided to do what many other dancers did – spend the winter season on the Riviera. Of course the reason for her decision to go abroad may well have been to escape her pain and try and forget what had happened.
She went on a three-day try out at a Richmond hotel with Michael Rinder, a Russian teacher of dance who was well known in London and got the job as his partner to fulfil an engagement at the Riviera Palace Hotel in the Beausoleil area of Monte Carlo. Her father only allowed her to leave the country with a chaperone called Mme Curton. This was Rinder’s second season at the same palatial and well-known hotel perched high above the principality and he arranged all nightly dances and the luxurious fetes that were given weekly.
Beausoleil.was established in the early 1900s at the same time as Monaco was becoming popular and like its neighbour became a luxurious and exclusive resort frequented by the elite of Europe’s aristocracy. The man responsible for its development was Camille Blanc, a successful business man, mayor and president of the company responsible for much of Monaco’s prestige buildings, including the Monte Carlo casino. He also owned a string of international prestige hotels and the Orient Express and was responsible for the concept of the Riviera Palace hotel.
The architect was Georges Paul Chedanne who had created the grand hotels on the Champs-Elysées in Paris. Gustave Eiffel, of the tower fame, designed the glass arboritum to protect clients from the occasional downside of winter weather. Built 180 metres above sea level the Riviera Palace hotel had exceptional and panoramic views and was very grand.
Monte Carlo had the reputation of attracting all the world’s rich moneyed aristocracies, who were seeking new amusements. As a result skilful dancers at the gilded hotel places made good money. Rinder had chosen well and with his new partner they became one of the hotest ‘sights’ on the Riviera.
May Vivian had rooms at the Riviera Palace hotel and besides regularly dancing in the evening, appeared at tea dances in the afternoon and sometimes during the day gave private lessons. In the course of her work she made the acquaintance of a young Italian called Vincenzo (Vincent) Sirello. He was about nineteen and a fine looking young man and had dancing engagements at various other hotels under the name of Resley but was also floor dancer under Mr Rinder at the Riviera Palace.
Sirello courted the dancer and and became infatuated with her charm and beauty. At first she did not resent his admiration as she was seen having supper with him but quarrels were frequent because of her many other admirers. According to friends later, he fell in love with her and begged her to marry him. She told him he was silly and would always turn the conversation away from such talk. Interestingly, she wrote to her parents and made reference to an Italian suitor who was pressing his attentions upon her to her annoyance.
She was also warned by friends or Rinder himself ‘be very careful with these Italians. They are fiery tempered, jealous and cruel. When they love a girl they are blind. It is in their latin disposition to be that way. When you pick up an Italian paper you will always find that there is at least one case a day where a man has killed his wife or girl our of jealousy. And you also find that their courts acquit these crimes on the basis that ‘passion’ is the motive.’
As her success became more pronounced Sirello lost his gaiety and he became jealous when Rinder danced with her and on occassions became aggressive and lost control. He made some violent scenes and accused her of being in love with her partner. It was impossible for her to calm him down.
Rinder told Vivian to steer clear of him. She allegedly said ‘I am mistress of my own soul. I am not going to say I shall not see him again. I am not in love but only sorry for him.’ For a while Sirello kept out of the way and she thought things were over and done with. Then one night May Vivian found him outside the lift gates on the top floor of her hotel as she was going to her room. He clutched her throat and forced her back over some narrow iron banisters with a 250 ft drop to the bottom of the lift shaft. She screamed and fortunately an attendant hearing her cries dashed up, caught hold of her and dragged her back to safety as Sirello fled.
The next day after this violent scene she met with Sirello and told him that their friendship must end. She told him coolly that she would never be able to love him or care for him and that from then on his advances were no longer to be endured.
It became torture for Sirello to have to dance wit her during day and be unable even to kiss her after the dance. One night while the smart crowd that formed the clientele of Riviera Hotel were anxiously waiting for the professionals to appear on the floor, the Italian entered the girls dressing room and told her ‘you will come back to me.’
WIthout turning around she said she did not have time to see him and asked him to kindly leave until she had finished dressing. But Sirello leapt across the room and seized her by the throat again and tried to strangle her and then to throw her out of the window. In the dance hall the drum roll announced their appearance and seeing they were not in sight the manager went to the room and was just in time to stop Sirello’s murderous designs. May Vivian was unconscious. She could not dance. The manager and Rinder discharged Sirello and May Vivian made no complaint.
The next day Sirello had not left the town and followed May Vivian everywhere she went. She took things casually not at all alarmed to the surprise of friends.
In her last letter home May VIvian wrote ‘I have met some very charming people. Lord and lady Weir left last week and I miss them very much. I have had one two very nice presents – wonderful perfumes and a very sweet little bag in red marble and enamel. Michael and I are trying to get fixed for coming back to London. It will be sometime in April.’
The following day (sometime in mid March) there was a gala dinner event at the Riviera Palace in the midst of which May Vivian appeared with Rinder. Afterward she went for dinner with Rinder and two other friends the famous dancing duo Marjorie Moss and Georges Fontana (performing at the salubrious Hotel Metropole) at the Carlton Hotel in Monte Carlo. While they were sitting having supper and having drinks Sirello came in and watched May Vivian intently but eventually left.
‘I am afraid for you’ one of them said
‘I cannot understand the look in his eyes’ said the other.
May Vivian was extraordinary gay and happy throughout, despite her friends concern and fear.
In the early morning sometime between 3- 4am the party decided to go for a drive and then back to their respective hotels with the Riviera Palace the first stop. It was a beautiful morning and the air was full with the perfume of mimosa and roses. And they enjoyed the wonderful scenary and the sunrise during their drive. The conversation was jolly.
Suddenly about a hundred years away from the gates of the Riviera Palace Hotel, Sirello appeared out of nowhere and jumped on the foot board of the car. The driver of the car presumably stopped the car and through the open window Sirello said he wanted to talk to May Vivian but before anything was said he quickly pulled out a revolver and shot May Vivian at almost point blank range three times in he head. There were screams and she fell to the floor of the cab covered with blood. One bullet had entered her temple on one side coming out under her ear to enter Rinders nose below the eye.
Sirello immediately fled immediately and disappeared in the dark. May Vivian was attended to at once by the occupants of the car and the driver sped to the nearby hotel, where she was gently lifted out of the car and carried into the hotel lounge but died one hour later without recovering consciousness. Rinder’s wound, that had first appeared serious was later seen to be mild.
Sirello in the meantime called into a friend’s house to say he had killed the girl he loved so much and said he was going to commit suicide. The friend told him to surrender to the police but he fled. He was later caught and arrested.
As news of her murder travelled the globe at first the bare facts were released and there was no hint of the quite extraordinary tragic romance which lay hidden behind the pistol shot which ended May Vivian’s life and career. Then, as her friends and family were interviewed, letters unearthed and more detail was revealed, further stories appeared digging a little deeper into her life and the full significance of her death. The most important revelation of course was of her earlier romance with the unnamed heir to a peerage and his cruel and dismissive treatment of her.
But of course not all of the coverage was good or well balanced. Rather nastily, the scurillously tabloid American Weekly decided that May Vivian had in fact planned her own murder. ‘Heartbroken, eager to die but forbidden by her conscience to commit suicide, May Vivian lures a jealous lover to shoot her’ was their provocative headline. The gist of their assessment was that she deliberately entranced Sirello to become mad with passion because she could see that it needed only the spark of jealousy to kindle his infatuation into a flame of murder. Thus in a roundabout way she could end her life. ‘Had she figured out what the outcome of this Riviera romance would be? Her friends now feel sure she did. True enough she did not seem to be afraid of him despite the warnings. True enough she had often said and repeated that there was nothing more for her in the world.’ As far as I can see there is no substance to this whatsoever and just a lurid attempt to grab headlines and sell papers.
On the other hand The Illustrated Sunday Herald was rather hysterical with a headline that shouted ‘Dangers that beset pretty dancers.’ It thought that the Beausoliel district of Monte Carlo was what Montmartre was to Paris: the centre of seamy night life and after dark its network of hilly streets, honeycombed with low-class bars, restaurants and cafes, was the resort of undesirables and shady characters, many of whom have been expelled from Monte Carlo itself. They believed that despite the hectic spirit of flashy gaiety, Monte Carlo was unreal and vulgar and the atmosphere as unscrupulous as it was decadent. In the Casino millions of francs are lost and won and money has ceased to have any sense of value. Morals follow suit and cease to have any value either and thus the place was full of people with no scruples.
With regard May Vivian’s murder, they were of the opinion that if a young girl found themselves on the nasty Riviera and being chased by a foreigner whose affections they do not want to reciprocate, she should get out of his way as quickly as possible. ‘Certain foreigners look on all pretty woman as their lawful prey and a rebuff is regarded as an insult. Who has not seen that unmistakable leer in the eyes of dark haired, well dressed southerners in the lounges and palm courts of first class foreign hotels when a pretty girl passes them? And fair haired English girls they seem to find peculiarly attractive. The attitude towards the female sex is in this case something wholly different from the vulgar, comparatively harmless girl chasing manoeuvres at a British seaside resort. It can be very grim, very loathsome. There is intrigue and adventure in the relation of the sexes in England, but murder as the result of frustrated passion is a very rare. On the continent it is not so, because the Continent and in particular that unhealthy part of it where this poor girl was done to death is hopelessly over-sexed. Sex mania flourishes like a foul miasma over a swamp. It should not be so easy for our young countrywomen to lay themselves open to the infection.’ The feature was remarkable since it completely denegrated ‘foreigners’ and Monte Carlo in general, providing a very interesting view of English snobbery and xenophobia at the time.
May Vivian was buried in Nice, a large attendance gathered at the funeral and it took three carriages to carry the flowers. Presumably Vincent Sirello was apprehended and imprisoned. The identity of her English suitor, and heir to a peerage was never revealed or hinted at.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
There were glaring differences in the account of the murder from the numerous newspaper reports. For example, The People said that May Vivian had told her parents by letter about an Italian suitor who was pressing his attentions, In contrast, the News of the World stated categorically that her parents had never been told by her about an Italian or that there was any problem which I find hard to believe. The American Weekly referred to the taxi cab as a horse carriage whereas all the other reports refer to a motor car. Equally, there are divergent accounts of who was in the taxi and where the taxi actually had been and going to. There were also discrepancies in the time line and what May Vivian had been doing on the Riviera. I have therefore sifted through the accounts to arrive at, what I think, is a more logical summary of the unfortunate circumstances. The first newspaper report was in the Daily Mail dated Wednesday 12th March, so one must presume the murder was committed on the morning of Tuesday 11th March or earlier.
Who was the mysterious son of a peer who was in love with May Vivian and was forced to abandon her?