Hermione Gingold Dies; Acting Career Spanned 70 Years

Times Staff Writer

British-born actress Hermione Gingold, whose 70-year career in theater and films took her from the English music hall circuit to a memorable duet with Maurice Chevalier in the classic screen musical “Gigi,” died Sunday at a New York hospital.

Miss Gingold was 89. Sophie Perrini, an administrator at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, said she had been a patient since April 30, suffering from cardiac problems complicated by pneumonia.

A veteran comedienne and character actress, Miss Gingold often described herself as one of the last of a dying generation of British theater eccentrics. Well into her 70s, she played grand, flinty dowagers in stage revivals and on television drama and comedy shows and was always in demand on talk shows for her prickly repartee.

“We’ve lost one of our greatest talkers,” said Merv Griffin, who often invited Miss Gingold to appear on his long-running talk show. “She was one of a kind, a fun lady with a unique personality.”


She once explained her elaborate bouffant hair styles by saying: “I pop my head out of the window each morning, and everyone knows my hair style depends on which way the wind is blowing.”

Miss Gingold described her early forays into films as “English stinkers which occasionally pop up on TV.” She cherished her stage performances, saying: “To hear an audience laugh is the greatest thrill in the theater.”

Born Hermione Ferdinands Gingold on Dec. 9, 1897, she debuted on the London stage at 11. “As a child, I was a big showoff and most precocious. I made my debut in a minstrel show . . . and howled me head off until they gave me first prize.”

Playing comic characters as well as Shakespeare at the Old Vic, Miss Gingold drew raves from American soldiers stationed in England during World War II. That success inspired her to go to the United States, where she appeared in a musical revue in Cambridge, Mass. in 1951.

Broadway and film roles followed, leading to a part as a retired French courtesan in “Gigi.” Her duet with Chevalier, who played her one-time lover, singing Lerner and Lowe’s “Ah Yes, I Remember It Well,” is one of the film’s most enduring sequences.

Miss Gingold also appeared in film versions of “Around the World in 80 Days,” “The Music Man” and “Bell, Book and Candle.” On television, she starred in episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and the “Hallmark Hall of Fame.”

In her early days as an actress in London, Miss Gingold’s romances were grist for newspapers and show business magazines. In 1971, at age 74 and married twice, she announced her engagement to a 33-year-old London antique dealer.

The engagement did not result in marriage. “I’ve known him for 16 years, and all this time he’s been asking me to marry him,” she said. “Finally I said, ‘All right, I’ll become engaged, but I won’t marry you.’ All this talk of age is disgusting. Women’s lib should come in on this.”

Miss Gingold was married to songwriter Eric Maschwitz and to Michael Joseph, the father of her two sons, director Stephen Joseph and businessman Leslie Joseph.