Sir John Gielgud (1904 – 2000)

Actor, Director and Former Surrey Schoolboy

Sheridan Morley cover

Morley, Sheridan, John Gielgud: the Authorised Biography (2002)

Born Arthur John Gielgud to Frank Gielgud and Kate Terry-Lewis Gielgud in April 1904, Sir John is considered one of the greatest actors Britain has ever produced. Being the grandnephew of the famous stage actress Ellen Terry, Gielgud made the most of his acting ancestry. By the mid-1920s he had already become a well-known leading man on the West End stage. In the 1929-30 season he played Hamlet, the first time an English actor under 40 had played the part.

Early Life and Hollywood Sucess
Gielgud spent his early days at Hillside, where he developed his interest in theatre. The school’s celebrated pupils have also included authors Aldous Huxley and Tyrone Guthrie.

A rare example of a document from Hillside Preparatory School in Godalming.

A rare example of a document from Hillside Preparatory School in Godalming.

From Hillside he went to Westminster School, where he gained a King’s Scholarship and trained briefly at RADA. He understudied Noel Coward in The Vortex at the Everyman Theatre in Hampstead and began a long association with the Royal Shakespeare Company, both as an actor and director.

Gielgud also had a notable film career that spanned seven decades. Many people will remember him for some of his later film roles, including Dudley Moore’s butler in Arthur.

Highs and Lows of Being Gay
Biographer Sheridan Morley writes that while Gielgud never denied being gay, he always tried to be discreet about it. However, Gielgud lived and worked in an era when male homosexuality was illegal and public opinion harsh and in 1953, he experienced the highs and lows of being a public figure. He received a knighthood for his work for services to the theatre, but was arrested for ‘cottaging’ in the same year. Gielgud avoided Hollywood for over a decade for fear of being denied entry because of the arrest and felt humiliated by the ordeal. Some believe that his case helped the campaign to decriminalise homosexuality in England and Wales.

One thing was clear, the public loved Gielgud the actor, and did not care about his private life. He received a standing ovation at his next stage performance with Sybil Thorndike. Understandably, the arrest left a mark on Gielgud: he would never give public support to gay campaigns but after his death it emerged he had frequently given to homosexual charities.

Personal Life and Legacy

Photograph of John Gielgud by Godfrey Argent, 1969, (Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery under license).

Photograph of John Gielgud
by Godfrey Argent, 1969,
(Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery under license).

Gielgud’s first significant lover, playwright John Perry, left Gielgud for Hugh ‘Binkie’ Beaumont, a theatre manager with whom Gieulgud had a long-standing professional relationship. Beaumont continued to support Gielgud during the scandal. Gielgud had a long-term relationship with Martin Hensler and publicly acknowledged him as his lover in 1988, in the programme notes for The Best of Friends, his final stage performance. A true professional, he carried on working almost up to his death, aged 96, on 21 May 2000. He once commented to Ian McKellen:

‘When I die, all they will say about me is that I was the first queer actor to be knighted.’

However, he is remembered as one of the greatest Shakespearean actors all of time.

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