Requiem for Mignon - 5

Gay Harris remembered Mignon as "Aunty Mickey".

By the time of the 1945/6 Coventry show in which Gay appeared as on one of the "Betty Fox Babes" Mignon was no longer able to dance. She was "hunched," as Gay said, in agony.

The girls thought she had terrible verrucas. She had to go to the hospital every week for treatment. Betty Fox, who had known her as a close friend for several years, was employing her to look after the girls who slept on the top floor in a dormitory. "Aunty Mickey", according to Gay, was treated like a servant by Betty and "put upon. She made them toast and porridge. Gays memory of Betty and Mignon suggests that their relationship had changed. The impression I have been given by people I have spoken to is that Betty seems to have been a hard and unsympathetic woman. She kept the girls in order with a stick. Discipline was, of course, very important, especially considering the high quality of performance that was expected of them.

Though Betty may have been a strict teacher who did not inspire much affection Gay insisted that all the girls loved "Aunty Mickey." She was, Gay told me, very dark. She wore masculine clothes, loose slacks, though "everyone did in those days. I asked Gay if Mignon had seemed affected as her Tiller Girl colleagues thought. No, Gay said, not affected but lady-like and beautifully spoken. Gay worked for Betty after the 1945/6 show and she was aware what had happened to Mignon.

On 23rd June 1946 Mignon committed suicide.

The death certificate gives the cause of death as "Asphyxia due to inhalation of coal gas. Suicide whilst the balance of her mind was disturbed". She had put her head in the gas oven. Her occupation is given as "housekeeper/companion". No other particulars known. Her name is given as "Mignon Denise Harman," the only reference I have found to the middle name. The death certificate notes that she was "also known as Mickie Nelson. Mignon certainly used Harman professionally, as her autograph in Gay Harris's book shows.

Phyl Blakeston heard about Mignon's death later that year while working on one of Emile Littler's shows. She heard the news from one of the other dancers.

"The frightening thing was as far as the news reached me(one) of the girls had heard it. Did I know that Mignon had killed herself by putting her head in the gas oven, after all those years going to do it(she would???) get over it you would have thought." (Phyl Blakeston)

Doremy Vernon felt Phyl had a very cruel attitude to Mignon. It is unclear exactly what it was that Mignon should have "got over" since her previous suicide attempt over ten years earlier.

There is a hint of some resentment which might have had its root in the connections between Mignon, Betty, Phyl and Emile Littler. It is impossible to be certain what had driven Mignon to suicide. The fact that her career, which had lasted almost twenty years, had ended through her physical state, was probably enough. There may have been other things which had lain dormant since the Tiller Girls days. Her Hammersmith roof attempt may be linked to the position of her mother and William Nelson. There may have been long lasting anxieties about her upbringing.

Another factor may have been her sexual orientation. This may be nothing, but some of her Tiller colleagues suspected that she was gay because of her excessive interest in other girls. This may have due to other causes in her family and childhood. There was, in possible contradiction, a rumour of a "rich Jewish boyfriend". There is, though, a possibility that Mignon had unreciprocated feelings towards Betty. Betty married less than three months after Mignon's suicide, on September 9th 1946. It is very likely that she was already engaged to Joseph Coulson in June.

What was the impact of this suicide of a friend she had lived and worked with for most of the war years coming so soon before her marriage? What was the effect of Betty's relationship with Joe on Mignon? Would there have been a very practical effect? Where would Mignon have lived? Would she have had a job? Betty's marriage was, it appears, not very satisfactory. "Uncle Joe" surprised Gay by his candid comments about his marriage. Joseph Coulson died on March 16th 1953. Betty was still only 33.

Another tragic aspect of this story is that Betty, and Mignon's other friends, did not appear to know anything about her mother. They believed she was an orphan and yet Mignon had been in touch with her mother at the time of the ENSA application. The reference to Coventry in Lilian’s letter suggests Mignon was already involved with Betty. If no next of kin were believed to exist no attempt would have been made to trace any. There is no sign of Mignon in The London Gazette where appeals for next of kin are posted.

A strong possibility, though, is that Lilian herself had died before this. Perhaps her mother’s death had been a cause of Mignon’s depression and one she was unable to talk about or explain. Could one of the small number of Lilian Nelsons, or perhaps, if she were not married to William, Lilian Nelsons, who died between the Mosleys’ release from prison and June 23rd, be Mignon’s mother? The records of the inquest cannot be published for another ten years. I have seen them and I know that there is nothing in them that contradicts or adds to information I have from other sources. The newspaper report in the Birmingham Mail for Monday June 24th 1946, an evening paper published immediately after the inquest, gives some more information: DEPRESSION CAUSES SUICIDE FORMER E.N.S.A. ARTIST GASSED A 33 year old Birmingham woman described as having been an E.N.S.A. artiste in France during the war, was stated at an inquest in Birmingham to-day to have become “a depressed and temperamental psycho-neurotic.” The City Coroner recorded a verdict of “Suicide while the balance of her mind was disturbed” on Mickie Nelson, otherwise known as Mignon Denise Harman, of 50, Bristol Road, Edgbaston, who died of coal gas poisoning on June 23rd. Miss Betty Eileen Fox, of the same address, said that Miss Nelson had been employed by her as a companion, friend and housekeeper and early on Sunday morning she found her lying with her head in the gas oven.   This confirms that Mignon had travelled with ENSA, thanks to her mother’s support and Clark’s guarantee on her passport application.

The report gives Mignon’s age as 33, whereas the death certificate gave 38. There is no mention of ENSA in the records of the inquest. This report is based on notes taken at the inquest, or possibly even from information directly from Betty Fox. The younger age does need to be taken as a serious alternative. It does make sense in terms of the chronology of Mignon’s career and her first appearance in the electoral roll. It would imply that Mignon was born between June 1912 and June 1913, perhaps earlier rather than later if the dancers in “That’s a Good Girl” were 15 or 16. This would also make it possible to deduce Lilian’s age. It is impossible to judge her age from the photograph in the Daily Express in 1937 but could she be in her fifties rather than her sixties? Perhaps Lilian was born nearer to 1890 than 1880?
Was Mignon Elgar's daughter? There are only two possible answers. Either the story is true or it is false. If it is not true then it has to be the case that either Lilian and her daughter made a bizarre and false claim to Sir Kenneth Clark or that Clark himself was not telling the truth. It is very hard to imagine why Lilian should have made such a claim. It could have no practical purpose. The early forties were a period when Elgar's reputation was at a low ebb. It was not at all as if she had claimed this of a current celebrity or royalty. There is no reason to question Clark’s comments about Lilian’s theatrical career. Mignon’s ENSA work is confirmed by both Lilian’s letter and the Birmingham Mail report.

Did Clark notice a resemblance between Mignon and Elgar and, knowing or suspecting that William Nelson, at that point at home with a broken leg, could not be her father, invent the story himself? Did he create a false memory, inspired by the genuine theatrical elements, that supported his own fantasy?

Another possibility is that Walton had some part in the development of the story. Walton is known to have had a relationship with Clark's wife during the war and Clark writes in his autobiography about the support Walton gave to Jane while he was occupied in London. Could it be that it was Walton, a joker certainly, met Lilian and Mignon through Jane Clark and that he started this rumour? He had met Elgar at the premiere of his viola concerto and Elgar was rather unkind about it. Could Walton have been seeking a kind of revenge by setting this story in motion? It's also possible that Walton had come across Lilian at Lord Berners' house. Berners had been an early supporter of Walton and was the dedicatee of "Belshazzar's Feast" in return for financial support.
This scenario would, though, also depend on confusion and false memories on the parts of both Clark and Walton – and Alan Clark confirmed that the story was known to him to Ismene Brown.
What is very striking about this whole investigation is the fact that Mignon and Lilian are impossible to trace before 1925. One definite appearance in a census or a birth or marriage record could disprove this story by placing mother and daughter in impossible situations at critical times or by identifying a completely different family background. In contrast with the absence of evidence for these two is the amount of detail that can be found for Dora, the "wrong Mrs Nelson” and for the Harman family in Wimbledon.
Of course this impression could be an illusion produced by a series of accidents missing records or misinterpreted evidence. The impression remain, though, that they had something to hide, and this shady early life is in strong contrast with the extraordinarily vivid evidence of their later story. From nowhere Lilian appears as a talented and successful cook at the top of her profession and Mignon appears in a popular show which would demand very talented and reliable performers. Lilian was a strong character. She had built up a career after her mysterious beginnings. She was someone who made an impression on people. She had unusual relationships with several of her employers. She was certainly not a woman merely "in service” who kept herself in the basement area. It is surely reasonable to assume that she had been a striking woman and someone to reckon with in her earlier days.

Is the connection with Elgar actually possible? From the point of view of his character, surely the answer has to be yes. The stumbling block is the large amount of evidence about his daily life. From 1904 until January 1912 he lived in Hereford. The opportunities of a relationship, or a passing fling, with another woman were few and far between. If Mignon’s date of birth were known it would be possible to disprove that he could have been the father. In January 1912 the Elgar’s moved to Hampstead. The opportunities become wider and Lady Elgar is now in her 60s and Edward still vigorous in his fifties. 
Where was Lilian in 1912? Though it is unprovable I feel the story that she an unmarried cook by that time and that Mignon was put in an orphanage is credible and absolves both Lilian and Mignon from the charge of lying.

This is not a story about Elgar. If the suggestion that he was Mignon’s father is false, and for some reason it was a fantasy (but whose?), the puzzle of Lilian and Mignon remains. Who were they? How did this woman make her way from a theatrical life and an illegitimate daughter to such an interesting and successful career with such extraordinary employers? Perhaps these secrets should remain hidden. What would Lilian and Mignon have wanted? If they had not had that one conversation with Kenneth Clark (assuming they did), and If he had not been so prone to gossip, their story would have been forgotten.    

Thanks to Michael Kennedy, Ismene Brown, The Tate Archive for Lilians letter, Mary Gifford and Sofka Zinovieff for the material on Lilian and Lord Berners, Anne de Courcy for Diana Mosley, Gay Harris for memories of Mignon, Lynde Douglas for information about Betty Fox, Doremy Vernon for the Tiller Girl reminiscences, Philip Arnold and Liz Gardner of Staffordshire Libraries for brilliant detective work on and Google.