The Thalberg Mystery by Alex Bisset

Laurence Irving, in his fine biography of his grandfather published in 1951, includes in the illustrations a picture of Henry Irving together with a picture of “Nellie Moore” (she used the spelling Nelly) which had been found, pasted back to back in his pocket-book after his death.

Sir Henry IrvingNellie MooreWhose picture was on the reverse side of the twin photographs found in Henry Irving’s pocket book after he died at the Midland Hotel in Bradford on October 13th 1905. Photographs from the Irving family collection

 To carry a picture of an attractive young lady is one thing, but to paste it back to-back with your own indicates a special feeling for the lady concerned. Bearing in mind Irving’s old friendship with Nelly Moore, with whom he first worked at the Cambridge Theatre Royal in a summer season in 1862 – not at Manchester in 1863, as earlier believed – it was, perhaps not unreasonable for this attribution to be given to the lady’s picture. What real evidence there was for making the attribution is an unknown factor.

nelly mooreFor some forty-five years it would appear that this was undisputed. A chance comment by a fellow researcher at the Newspaper Library at Colindale brought an end to this. He notice a copy of the picture with my working papers on Nelly Moore and asked who it was. He strongly rejected the answer – he knew the face in some other context and, from the evidence of the hair-style alone, it was from a period beyond Nelly’s death in 1869.

Checking his extensive photographic archives, he established that the face was that of a singer known as Zare Thalberg, said to have been born in 1858.

I consulted other photographic evidence and acquired my own, which convinced me that an error had been made. By whom this had been done in the first place will probably never be known, but it was most certainly not by Henry Irving, who knew Nelly for some seven years and had been working with her at the Queens Theatre London up to the onset of her final illness, a matter of weeks before her untimely death, in her twenty fifth year.

Zare ThalbergWho then was Zare Thalberg? There is no direct, uncomplicated, answer. In an early edition of Grove’s Musical Dictionary prior to that now in publication – where there is a shortened version of her entry – she is said to be Ethel Western, who was born in Derbyshire on 16 April 1858 and who died in Finchley, London in 1915. She was a soprano singer who chose the name of Thalberg in honour of her teacher, the pianist Sigismund Thalberg (1812-71). After vocal study in Paris and Milan she made her debut at Covent Garden on 10 April 1875 with great success. With annual seasons at Covent Garden until that of April-July 1879, provincial and European tours, she was a success in operas by Mozart, Donizetti, Rossini, etc.

This was attributed to her youth, the unusual charm of her personality, the sweetness and purity of her voice and the grace and intelligence of her acting.

The success ended with the 1879 season. A problem with her vocal cords meant that she could no longer pursue an operatic career. and she reverted to her maiden name of Ethel Western and became a Shakespearean actress. She was engaged by Edwin Booth and went to America with him, returning only in the early 1890s. (Booth’s final performance on stage was in April 1891.).

On her return she is said – the information was apparently provided by an “intimate friend” who was her neighbour in her last years – to have married a Queen’s Messenger, John Oliver. Following his death in 1908 she remarried and became Mrs Belcher, outliving this husband also.

There are variations to this story – that she was the daughter of Sigismund Thalberg and born in New York, – but whatever the story, the facts don’t all ring true.

It is quite possible that Irving met her, for he was performing at the Lyceum when she was at Covent Garden in the summer seasons of 1875-1879. Did he see her perform, or did they meet socially? How did he acquire her photograph and why? Was it Irving who introduced her to Edwin Booth? Booth was at the Princess’s Theatre from November 1880 to March 1881 and subsequently worked with Irving at the Lyceum in May-June 1881, before returning to New York.

There is no evidence that Zare/Ethel worked with Irving or Booth in London but a programme for a performance of “Winter’s Tale” at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on September 1878 shows an actress by the name of Ethel Western playing the role of Dorcas. Zare’s operatic voice had not failed by this time and she had not yet re-adopted her own name. It was not uncommon, however, for more than one performer to have the same name and this may be the case here.

Mysteries abound concerning Zare/Ethel. A death certificate for Ethel Belcher, who died in Finchley on 17 March 1915, is the only factual evidence to hand – if the “intimate friend” of Grove is to be believed. It gives her age as 66, which suggests that her given year of birth – 1858 – is some ten years out! This would make her study in Paris and Milan, prior to her London debut more credible and would make a meeting, at the very least, with Thalberg, a possibility. His last visit to England was in 1863, shortly after which he retired to Posilipo, near Naples, where he died in 1871.

There is no record of an Ethel Western being born in Derbyshire in 1858, nor in the proceeding twelve years! There is no record of an Ethel Western marriage in this country to a Mr. John Oliver, nor of a marriage of an Ethel Oliver or Western to the Herbert Henry Belcher named as her late husband on her death certificate, within the years suggested by her “intimate friend”. This friend – a Mr. David Smart – does not feature in the will of Ethel Belcher, so it may be that he knew less than he thought and unwittingly laid what prove to be red herrings in the search for the real Ethel/Zare.

The main beneficiary in the will is a William Roach – a grocery manager. Might this be the same William J. Roach, a 29 year old actor shown to be living in Marylebone in the 1881 census. Might her real name be Roach – no Ethel Roach can be traced in the appropriate period.

Might her name even be Corbett? Is there any connection with the actor Thalberg Corbett, also known as T.B. Thalberg, who was born in Gloucestershire in 1864 and died in Cornwall in 1947.

In trying to follow up the husband John Oliver and thereby to establish Ethel/Zare’s maiden name, a check was made in the list of Queen’s Messengers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Library, without success. A further check made by Superintending Queen’s Messenger of other records was similarly fruitless. Was he perhaps not John Oliver but working under some other name also?

She is indeed a woman of mystery with a story which is fascinating, if only it could be unravelled. Did Henry Irving know any or all of the answers?

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