My Grandmother, Freda Rawlinson, certainly taught me one or two things about glamour. Even at 96 she was never without a knitted skirt suit, co-ordinating heels and bag, coiffed hair and make-up. She was, as was said at her funeral, ‘the only person I know who looked as though she was always ready to meet the Queen’.
My sister Olivia and I with Grandma in 2005 when I was 19 (and still wearing jeans)
Born Freda Clark in Sunderland in 1914 she, along with her two sisters Xena and Sally, were the locally famous ‘Three Smart Clark Girls’ who were fashion trailblazers of their day.
Grandma second from right, her life long best friend Gertie and then Grandpa Cecil second from right (1950s)
It was only in the past few years that I really appreciated Grandma’s style. When I was younger – having an also equally glamorous maternal Grandmother I thought that all Grandma’s looked like her. I remember my delight when she told me she used to get her hair cut in London by Vidal Sassoon himself! She was the first in Sunderland to get the then daring ‘bob-cut’ in the 60s and she was copied all over town. Grandma certainly knew how to make herself stand out in the crowd.
Spot Grandma at the back sporting some serious ‘do
Sometimes I did forget how old she was and how much change she had seen, when I asked her what her favourite decade was for fashion she replied ‘Ummm the 30s!’. Looking at her beautiful wedding picture it’s hard to believe that someone who was living then in 1938, such a different age, was with us until so very recently.
Look at that dress!
My Dad sent me these pictures when I said I wanted to write a piece about her. She was the last one left of her generation and circle of friends. While I can pick out her, Grandpa Cecil and her best friend Gertie the other laughing faces remain nameless without her here to tell. Looking at these pictures I can feel time drawing back like a retreating wave, leaving only driftwood, stopped only from being an anonymous by the tales they have told to the living. So I’m going to tell you some stories about Freda, Cecil and Gertie so they too won’t be forgotten.
Grandma, Gertie and Cecil on one of their many holidays in the 50s and early 60s
Once on holiday Grandma was having a bath – Grandpa came in to shave and found the light broken. Annoyed he called the concierge who arrived 5 minutes later. Grandpa took him straight to the bathroom ‘This way it’s this one that’s broken!’ ignoring the fact that the Grandma was still naked in the bath giving the concierge an eyeful! Grandma shrieked and Grandpa simply said ‘Be quiet Freda he probably didn’t even notice you!’ If nothing else this explains why they probably got such great service there.
Grandma and Grandpa were both the 1st generation children of Lithuanian Émigrés they were the product of ‘pull yourselves up from the bootstraps’ success of their fathers who arrived in the North East with nothing and sent money back home for the rest of their lives. The joke always was that they got off in Sunderland docks thinking it was New York-unlucky! As children Grandma and her sisters were spoiled by their proud mother who after coming from humble beginnings wanted to make sure her daughters were the best dressed around (hiding new purchases from their father-some things I guess never change) and they became locally famous as the ‘Three Smart Clark Girls’.
Grandma had what you could say a charmed life in the early 1960s after having two children Elaine and Nicholas (my Dad) she and Grandpa built their ‘dream house’ in Sunderland that took I think something like 6 years to build!
Grandma with my Dad on her knee in the garden of her dream house
I only wish I could have appreciated the time warp more then. There was a red gravel drive ( the same type as the Queen) with gateposts (that Grandpa crashed the Bentley into on his infamous last driving expedition in the late 80s) and a sweeping powder blue carpeted staircase with underfloor heating (which when it failed was impossible to fix). I remember the sounds and smells so well- all the gilt ticking clocks in the hall, the stale cigar smoke and leather smell in the monolithic ‘TV Room’ complete with 70s hessian walls. Grandma giving us ‘fizzy pop’ and magic paint books in the yellow kitchen which wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of ‘Mad Men’. The spare room with its dressing table pots filled with multicoloured cotton wool and the terrible abstract pictures my Dad painted in the 70s hanging in the dining room (much to his latter chagrin) where we would eat melon balls during school holidays.
There was also a classic ‘Chinoiserie’ reception room complete with embroidered friezes, fancy gold bells that linked to the kitchen where she would serve us afternoon tea brought in on a fancy trolley. At tea we would feast on her secret recipe ‘stuffie’ cakes, salmon sandwiches and Florentine biscuits and she would hand us cups and saucers of tea with an endearingly increasingly shaky hand. I remember there was a very tiny woman who used to come visit who when she stood behind the sofa all you could see were two tiny feet-Ethel? At Grandma’s funeral I heard a very funny story about Grandma’s sister whose last words from her hospital bed were ‘They didn’t put any lemon on the salmon sandwiches!’. They were from another era of hostessing.
Grandpa Cecil-late 50s
Grandpa Cecil was a very successful business man himself, managing properties and clothing store called The Strand until the 90s. In his younger days he wooed Grandma by ‘tricking’ her into a date, after she first refused, by saying they were going out in a ‘group’- it was in fact a double-date and not a party of people at all. But Grandma did forgive him eventually and they married in 1938. Grandpa Cecil was always equally as well turned out – I’m sure due entirely to Grandma’s endeavours. His uniform of later years was a wide tie complete with gold clip, large 1970s style glasses, centre pressed trousers and with a cigar in hand. He was less of a talker than Grandma although anything relating to old business contacts he would snap back into focus with the most surprising vivid recall of detail. He was even known to crack the odd joke. A particular gem was he exhibited a previously unknown distaste for Barry Manilow who after 15 minutes of silence chipped in that he ‘wouldn’t go down in a lift to see him!’ Although the most memorable (unintentional) joke came from Grandma who announced shrilly over dinner ‘Oh Cecil is a terrible masticator!’ as he struggled with his roast beef.
Go Grandma Go!
When I was growing up every Sunday her and Grandpa used to go to the Gosforth Park Hotel for Sunday lunch where we would join them there every couple of months. We would meet them in the ‘club’ first for bloody mary’s, go on to lunch and then afternoon tea in the lounge. Epic afternoons where my sisters would escape intermittently to run down the corridors and try and get coins into the mouth of the fish in the fountain. Grandma’s best friend was Aunty Gertie was always there too. Aunty Gertie, now passed away, does deserve a style tribute of her own. Even when I knew her in her 80s you could tell that Gertie was one sexy lady with her velvet voice, big hair and all year round tan. She even had a gold monocle that she used to wear to inspect everyone’s jewellery.
Check out Gertie’s glasses and sweetheart dress!
Grandma spent her the last few years of her life at Philip Cussins House a predominantly Jewish care home (with as Grandma used to say some ‘Goy’ too) – which after Grandpa Cecil’s death kept her occupied and jolly. I visited her many times there and I think it gave her a new lease of life being around so much activity. Grandma was always so cheerful and she would, as she did throughout our childhood, tell my sisters and I on every visit ‘that we were each beautiful in our own special way’. Grandmotherly bias of course but she meant it every time and as being in my younger days the awkward tall one to my gorgeously petite sisters I couldn’t help feeling buoyed by her compliments. Although my dress sense didn’t always delight her: I remember her confusion when I turned up to see her as a teenager with ripped jeans but when I came in a yellow 60s Saks 5th Avenue suit and nylons on what was my last visit to her and she said I looked like ‘a lady’ but still exhibited concern of my still unmarried state a 24. ‘Don’t get left on the shelf’ she had warned me years earlier.
My Cousin Jamie told me a great anecdote about when he went to see Grandma and he went up to her room in Philip Cussins House and said ‘Grandma you should come down now or you will miss the entertainment downstairs’ but Grandma didn’t have her make-up on and she refused to come down until she was ready, even if it meant she missed the show. ‘No one minds Grandma’ Jamie added. ‘If I can’t be bothered to put my make-up on what’s the point of coming down at all?’
Admittedly by this point maybe all of Grandma’s nail polish wasn’t always wholly on her nails and her foundation was probably a tad too heavy. But her longevity and sharpness of mind at such a great age I believe was testament to her attitude that to let go of yourself physically is often to let go of your mind too. Auntie Elaine knew how important this was to Grandma and always made sure she had everything she needed to be the most glamorous nonagenarian that Philip Cussins House had ever seen.
Grandma and Grampa taking Elaine and my Dad out for dinner in late 50s
‘Dress straight, think straight’ (and hopefully some of her glamour) is something I think I have inherited. I don’t think I ever do my best work in my pyjamas, and we certainly never saw Grandma in hers.
I love you Grandma, we won’t forget you. x
Freda Rawlinson 1914-2010