Tuesday, 23 October 2012

‘If you don’t take care you may serve an entire meal pinkish mauve.’

Having been inspired at the Big Gay Lifestyle Show on the weekend by Rose Collis and her tales of "trouser-wearing character" Nancy Spain, I felt it was appropriate to do a little more research into this remarkable woman.

Ms Spain was a Roedean girl from a respectable middle-class family (related to none other than the "housewife's friend" Mrs Beeton), who broke new ground as a journalist (an unusual career for a woman in the 1950s) for the Daily Express and the News of the World. When she met the woman who was to be her life partner Joan Werner Laurie, together they launched the women's magazine She (which is still around today). Nancy also forged a bit of a career as a crime writer, and appeared on radio (especially Woman's Hour) and on TV in light entertainment shows like Juke Box Jury and What's My Line? - and all this while maintaining a radically "mannish" demeanour in her butch clothes and short hair.

Joan Werner Laurie

"There are people whom one loves immediately and forever. Even to know they are alive in the world with one is quite enough." - Nancy Spain

The couple became society hostesses and friends of the famous; regular house guests included Noel Coward and Nancy's supposed lovers Marlene Dietrich and Lena Horne. Nancy's death (alongside Joan) in a light aeroplane crash on her way to the Grand National seemed almost an appropriate end to a flamboyant and high-profile career.

Of her death, Noel Coward said: "It is cruel that all that gaiety, intelligence and vitality should be snuffed out when so many bores and horrors are left living."

Apart from her in-your-face dykiness (despite having a child via an affair with the husband of fellow crime writer Margery Allingham), one of her campest legacies is The Nancy Spain All Colour Cookery Book - a copy of which I have no doubt my erstwhile other half Madam Arcati will be seeking out as we speak. We have never read this inspirational tome, but a rather marvellous blogger called "Katyboo" has, and she provided me with some gems of quotes from it:
  • "Since the age of five, when a dish cloth (honestly) used to be attached to my skirt, it has been almost impossible to keep me out of the kitchen. This was the age at which I discovered I had Mrs. Beeton dangling in my family tree, hanging over my head like a small (she died when she was 28, was very pretty and an expert pianist 5 foot 2 inches in height) crinoline shaped cloud."
  • "The Duchess of Windsor once told me that colour was all-important in presenting food. She was dead right: ‘Watch out,’ she said. ‘If you don’t take care you may serve an entire meal pinkish mauve.’"
  • "Without guests there is no party, so take a lot of trouble with your guest list. For each star you invite (and it’s a good thing to have stars at a party, so people can have a look at them) remember you will need about five nice, ordinary cosy people to act as audience to the illustrious ones. Usually stars find it very hard to talk to one another, and they top each other’s gags and are inclined to jealousy if someone is getting more attention than they are. So watch it: and provide an audience."
  • "For some reason in my house I always think I’m cheating if I light the oven. (Elisabeth Welch, the singer, used to keep her fur coat in her oven, to spite the burglars. Incidentally, she’s one of the best cooks I know and has never yet served faintly frizzled Persian lamb as a main dish.) So long as I have a gas-ring going on top of the stove, or I am bent double over a little bonfire in the countryside with potatoes roasting in the embers (or a very rare recipe I got from a gypsy, Hedgehog in Clay) I feel that I am honestly and truly cooking."

Nancy Brooker Spain (13th September 1917 – 21st March 1964)

More gems from the Nancy Spain All Colour Cookery Book

Rose Collis's A Trouser-Wearing Character: The Life and Times of Nancy Spain


  1. Fur coat in the oven?

    Like Marilyn Monroe, I keep my undies in the icebox.

    1. Unlike Marilyn, you are still wearing them when you do it. Jx

  2. What a public service you provide. Thank you for reintroducing this gem of a girl.

    1. You are more than welcome - we all need a little Nancy in our lives! Jx

  3. Loved the cookery book quotes! I just want to point out that the portrait you've used above is of Joan's older half sister Jean Werner Laurie.

    1. That's the beauty of sourcing portraits via the web! I am sure Joan was just as enchanting... Jx


Please leave a message - I value your comments!