Ross Jean

Jean Ross

It has been asserted by some that Jean Ross was born in Alexandria in 1911 but a similarly dated record of a Jean Ross being born in Aberdeen has also been recovered, currently leaving the issue open at this point. 

Jean was immortalised by a caractiture of herself in Christopher Isherwood’s book `Goodbye to Berlin’; first published by the Hogarth Press in 1937. Being set in early 1930s Berlin, the backdrop is the rise to power of the Nazi party and, accordingly, Isherwood's novel captures the excesses of Weimar Germany. "Divine decadence" is the self-proclaimed lifestyle of his unforgettable character, Sally Bowles, "one of those individuals whom respectable society shuns in horror".

Only after her death in 1973 was Isherwood prepared to reveal that the inspiration for Sally came from Jean Ross, who in 1931 as a nineteen year old nightclub singer, who shared a lodging house with him. Jean gave him permission to use her experiences in Berlin, but she went to considerable lengths in her life to avoid public identification with Sally Bowles. According to the testimony of the sister of a later housemate from the 1950s, Jean was pretty upset that Isherwood made the character of Sally seem unconcerned about the rise of fascism and even a bit anti-semitic.

The character has now assumed a self-dynamic, being transformed by each successive representation on stage or screen. The novel was the basis for a 1951 stage play, "I Am A Camera" and a hit Broadway musical in the 1960's. In 1972, Bob Fosse directed and choreographed the now highly famous film version, "Cabaret", winner of eight Academy Awards.

Jean was also far more talented than the Sally Bowles character, having worked as a serious actress in her youth before going to Berlin and then writing for a living for a time. Alexander Cockburn, in his on-line site providing his musings, `Counterpunch’, recalls that she was “not only very beautiful, Jean was gentle, highly intelligent and cultured, as well as being very elegant in behaviour and dress.” Jean Ross was thus “not a bit like the vulgar vamp displayed by Lisa Minnelli”!!

It may be wondered how this could be the case. Jean's sense of self-esteem and lack of sexual and other inhibitions as a woman was attractive to Isherwood but, since he was then hiding his homosexuality, he turned his observation of this extraordinary woman into a narrower one, being unable to countenance a woman as liberated and talented as Jean. Hollywood merely honed the stereotype he had created into a grotesque. Even so, the blindingly attractive personality in epic times that was felt about Jean by those that knew her still came through.   

Maintaining her unconventionality, around 1935-6, she shared digs with Bill Carritt when she was `Peter Porcupine’, the Daily Worker’s film critic. No doubt this is where she met the previously mentioned Alexander Cockburn’s father, Claud Cockburn [see separate entry], when he was famous as Frank Pitcairn of the Daily Worker. Although no record of her actually ever legally marrying can be found, it is clear that the two lived as man and wife and were known as such and even at this distance in time Alexander considers Jean his step-mother. Claud Cockburn had already been married, to American Communist, Hope Hale Davis in February 1932 but he left her in July that same year, leaving her pregnant with a daughter, Claudia, who was born on 11th February 1933.

The relationship between Jean and Claud also later foundered, perhaps partly because Cockburn both left the Daily Worker and then moved, in 1947, to Ireland to write creatively and properly marry, but to yet another woman. He and Jean had produced a daughter, Sarah Caudwell Cockburn and Jean settled in Aberdeen to bring her up and Isherwood even visited her there in the 1950s  a photo of them in her garden once existed. Jean was an active member of the Communist Party whilst in Aberdeen, by the evidence of Ms Henderson, whose sister, as a Communist Party student, lived with Jean for a period.)

Jean’s daughter, as Sarah Caudwell (a pen surname to conjure with!) became a respected writer of quality detective novels in the 1970s. (`The Shortest Way to Hades’, `The Sirens Sang of Murder’, `Thus Was Adonis Murdered’ and, posthumously, `The Sibyl in Her Grave’.) Before she turned to crime writing Sarah was a successful barrister, with the extraordinary habit for a woman of being an enthusiastic pipe smoker.

Alexander Cockburn, recalls that his half-sister had felt so strongly about Isherwood's portrayal of her mother that she wrote a piece about it in the New Statesman.  Jean, she wrote, never liked `Goodbye to Berlin’, nor felt a sense of identity with the character of Sally Bowles, which in many respects she thought more closely modelled on one of Isherwood's male friends!  Sarah's thought Isherwood so wedded to convention that he “follows it loyally. There is nothing in his portrait of Sally to suggest that she might have had any genuine ability as an actress, still less as a writer”.  

Jean had been talented enough an actress to be cast as Anitra in Max Reinhardt's production of Henrik Ibsen’s `Peer Gynt’, with incidental music composed by Edvard Grieg. Anitra is the daughter of a Bedouin chief and this is a difficult dance and acting role. Sarah also points out that her mother was able to “earn her living, not long afterwards, as a scenario-writer and journalist”.

More damagingly, Sarah saw that Isherwood viewed a woman as either virtuous or a tart. “So Sally, who is plainly not virtuous, must be a tart. To depend for a living on providing sexual pleasure, whether or not in the context of marriage, seemed to [Jean] the ultimate denial of freedom and emancipation. The idea so deeply repelled her that she simply could not, I think, have been attracted to a man who was rich, or allied herself permanently to anyone less incorrigibly impecunious than my father. She did not see the question as one of personal morality, but as a political one."

Not only did Sarah truly understand her mother, she was herself quite unconventional. As Alexander Cockburn recalls, “she'd light up her pipe, then when waiters rushed up to protest, fling the thing into her handbag, from which smoke would soon begin to wreathe our table…. The pipe smoking may even have done for Sarah in the end, for she died of cancer of the oesophagus at the age of 60 in 2000.

Jean was neither a tart nor a merely a talented review artist, actor and writer. The reality is even more electrifying than Isherwood’s half-rendered pastiche of Jean Ross’s powerful personality. It is strongly believed that her presence in Berlin was occasioned by her being an agent of the Comintern and that her musical theatre occupation was by way of being a sort of cover story.

Of course, in the 1930s, the Comintern had already discovered that a British passport gained you almost certain access to almost anywhere really. Brits were used a lot in Germany, since appeasement meant that it was expected that the UK would eventually ally itself to Nazism.  Women, intellectuals with a ruling class background and workers with a trade or relevant reason for travelling (such as a seaman) were commonly used by the Comintern as couriers who took money, false documentation and political instructions in to underground Party workers and brought out samples of leaflets.   

Jean spent some time in Spain with Cockburn, when he himself was providing coverage as a diplomatic and foreign correspondent for the Daily Worker and it cannot be discounted that she was still playing a role as an agent of influence for the Comintern. (Cockburn’s first wife, Hope Hale Davis had also been a Communist.)

Her magnetism continued to influence the cultural world.  Some have even suggested that Jean was the inspiration for the lyrics of the song "These foolish things", written by Eric Maschwitz, who also wrote under the pen name Holt Marvell, and was "bewitched" by her!  But there are those who contest this and there is also a story that Maschwitz was inspired by Anna May Wong. Whatever the case, and the nature of these things are often unprovable and even multi-layered, providing the words here is irresistible, for – since there are those who knew her who believe the words fit her exactly – it must at least inform our understanding of her:

A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces

An airline ticket to romantic places

And still my heart has wings

These foolish things remind me of you.

A tinkling piano in the next apartment

Those stumblin’ words that told you what my heart meant

A fairground’s painted swings

These foolish things remind me of you.

You came, you saw, you conquered me

When you did that to me

I knew somehow this had to be.

The winds of March that make my heart a dancer

A telephone that rings but who’s to answer?

Oh, how the ghost of you clings

These foolish things remind me of you.

The song originated in 1930s British revue and was a staple of the performances of Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.  Maschwitz wrote the screenplays of several successful films in the 1930s and 40s, but is best remembered for his lyrics to popular songs such as A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.

In the post war period, Jean was close to leading Communist, Joe Bent (see separate entry). At one point, she lived off the Walworth Rd in Southwark and it is clear that she remained a life-long Communist.

Jean’s late life has become clouded by obscurity. It has been suggested that she may have been resident in the "Jack Jones’" house in Peckham. This was at the time a new residential home for the elderly named after Jack and opened by him. Whether this reflected an old link with Evelyn Taylor (later Jones), Jack’s wife, who has also been linked with the Comintern as a courier from 1934 is pure speculation. Certainly, Evelyn had been heavily involved in Communist Party activities, such as the Kinder Scout mass trespass of 1932, before she had met her future husband.

Jean is possibly the Jean Iris Cockburn who is registered as having died in Richmond in 1973 aged 62, a date confirmed by other sources as the year of her death, and she may be the Jean Ross registered as being born in Cardiff 1911 but confirmation is still uncertain.

Special thanks to Dick Maunders for initiating the line of enquiry and producing much information about Jean Ross.

Sources: Dick Mauders; Ms Margaret Henderson of Lanarkshire;  

Counterpunch Feb 22 2001




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