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History's Headlines: Scandalous British countess rocked Allentown in 1926

Published On: Mar 07 2014 08:42:24 PM CST
Updated On: Mar 10 2014 06:37:11 PM CDT

History's Headlines: Scandalous British countess rocked Allentown in 1926

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

Living in 2014, we like to think we’ve seen just about every kind of scandal that has ever been, but move over Lindsay Lohan!

Back in great grandma’s day, during those oh-so-roaring 20’s, Vera, Countess of Cathcart, shocked the stiff upper lips of the British Empire’s Downton Abbey-esque nobility, had U.S. immigration authorities temporarily blocking her coming to America on grounds of, gasp, “moral turpitude,” and premiered a “shocking” play, which she wrote and starred in. The play told the tale of a passionate woman who was betrayed, and it made its debut in, of all places, conservative Pennsylvania Dutch Allentown, at the Lyric Theater (now Miller Symphony Hall)!

In 1926 it seemed the American public wanted to read about nothing else in the newspapers.  But how did all this come about? Well, first of all, it had to do with the Countess herself. Born Vera Fraser in Cape Town, South Africa, her looks were plain but her charm was in her wit and intelligence. Reporters of the day all talked of her laugh and smile.

Shortly before World War I, Fraser married a British Army officer, Captain Henry de Gray Warter of the elite Fourth Dragoon Guards. She might have lived a quiet life if her husband had not been killed in the war.

Now a widow with two small children and stranded in England, she attracted the attention of the 56-year-old George, 5th Earl of Cathcart. He found he enjoyed her company very much and, on January 6, 1919, they were married. A year or so later she presented the Earl with a male heir.

All might have been bliss if the attractive, married and young Earl of Craven had not developed a “crush” on Vera. Overcome by passion, both fled to an elegant villa on the “naughty” French Rivera. When an outraged Earl Cathcart learned of this, he was furious. Fearing his legal wrath, the couple fled to Vera’s native South Africa. Much to the delight of the British press in 1922, the Earl divorced his wayward wife and denounced her lover.

But after a few years, young Lord Craven was having second thoughts. According to the sexist code of the day, it was one thing to have a mistress, it was quite another to desert your wife, carry on like a “cad,” and parade your affair in fashionable hotels, state rooms of ocean liners and on the front pages of every newspaper in the civilized world. So in 1925, Craven went back home to his wife and his aristocratic life.

Vera was now once more alone. Returning to London, she decided she had only one thing to sell: her story. In a storm of creativity she turned out “Ashes of Love” in eight days. But British government censors were aghast at the subject matter and refused to allow it to be shown in London. So she was Broadway-bound aboard the Cunard liner Carmania.

It was an uneventful voyage until the ship arrived in New York on February 10, 1926. As a result of her status as a divorced woman, immigration authorities decided that the countess violated an immigration law against admitting someone guilty of “moral turpitude.” Vera protested loudly enough to be heard by waiting reporters. Soon everyone from women’s rights groups to gossip columnists were defending Vera. And when it was discovered that her former lover Lord Craven was in New York, there were demands that, if Vera was guilty, than he was guilty and should be immediately sent to Canada.

And the irony of the country with the highest divorce rate in the world keeping out a person who had a divorce was not lost on press. “Confess your sins and there will be a check in the morning mail from a confessional magazine,” noted one editorial.                    

Finally released on $500 bond, Vera made connections with Broadway’s Earl Carroll, the producer of the popular variety show Earl Carroll’s Vanities, which featured pretty showgirls. He knew a great publicity angle when he saw one.

Carroll wanted to put on her play, which Vera told the press was “hot with plenty of sex,” but felt it needed a tryout. That is when he decided to open it in Allentown, well-known as a tryout town for shows that were Broadway bound. How Carroll was able to get the theater is unknown, but the local link may have been Donald Voorhees, then-conductor of the orchestra for Carroll’s shows.

On Saturday March 13, 1926, Carroll, the Countess and a female friend arrived in Allentown for the show. After disappointing the reporters by telling them in response to repeated questions, that he was not able to bring his Vanities show to the city, they drove into town. Crowds greeted the car as it charged up Hamilton Street as Carroll and Cathcart waved. Then it pulled up behind the theater and Vera spent the rest of the day rehearsing.

The curtain rose at 8:00pm before a fair-sized audience. What they saw was basically a thinly veiled account of Vera’s life and love affairs. Earlier that day she had expressed the fear that the public would throw rotten eggs if they did not like the play. That did not happen, but despite the promises of “hot with plenty of sex,” what the local critics saw was actually what one called a play that was “sadly lacking” in excitement.  One claimed Vera’s performance as the best thing about it.

They play moved on to Washington and then New York. It got bad reviews both places. Carroll went back to his show girl reviews and Vera went to London where the play finally appeared to better audiences but the same kind of reviews. By the summer of 1926, Queen Marie of Romania was visiting America with ticker tape parades cheering her, and Vera Countess of Cathcart was yesterday’s news.