British rival to Ginger Rogers and wife of Lord Oranmore

 

Actress Sally Gray, who died on September 24th aged 91, was once seen as a British rival to Ginger Rogers. She played leading roles on the West End stage and in films in the 1930s and 1940s. A buxom blonde with a deliciously throaty speaking voice, she began acting in childhood.

In Ireland, her home in the 1950s, she was best known for her real-life role as Lady Oranmore and Browne, mistress of Castle MacGarrett, Co Mayo. Her stepson Garech Browne became a powerful force in the revival of interest in Irish music.

At the Palace theatre in London, Fred Astaire, star of Gay Divorce - the title belongs to another era - spotted the talent of a young chorus girl called Constance Stevens, and gave her dancing lessons. Soon she had her first screen role in School for Scandal, an unmemorable 1930 movie. Other light roles in musicals and light comedies followed, but in 1938, known as Sally Gray, she got the part of a socialite in the film The Saint in London, opposite George Sanders who played the hero of Leslie Charteris's detective novels.

A constant in her acting life was the extended theatrical Lupino family, of which Hollywood actress and director Ida Lupino would later become the best known. Actor Stanley Lupino, father of Ida, mentored Sally from the beginning. Sally played with another Lupino, comedian Lupino Lane, in the feel-good musical Lambeth Walk (aka Me and My Girl). The story of a Cockney barrow boy who inherits an earldom and almost loses his girlfriend, it foretold Sally's future. In time she would marry her (Irish) peer, but in 1941 her old friend Stanley was dying of cancer, and this along with overwork contributed to a breakdown and temporary retirement from show business. (Me and My Girl has just been revived again - a new stage version is touring Britain, almost certainly destined for the West End.)

She returned first to the stage toward the end of the war, and played the nurse in Green for Danger, a well-crafted film thriller starring Alistair Sim. She played the lead in Carnival (1946), the story of a dancer who marries a Cornish farmer. Two good roles followed in 1947, They Made me a Fugitive and The Mark of Cain. In director Edward Dmytryk's Obsession (1949), she was an unfaithful wife whose husband Robert Newton plots revenge against her latest lover. Her film career ended with Escape Route (1952), a movie in which she played opposite George Raft, playing a gangster, an occupation of which he had personal experience, and an unpleasant man whom she disliked.

In December 1951 she married the 4th Lord Oranmore and Browne. Sally was Dominick Browne's third and last wife; her predecessor was heiress Oonagh Guinness, one of the "Golden Guinness girls" whose wealth had bankrolled her husband's impoverished estate at Castle MacGarret in Co Mayo. Sally's newly acquired stepsons included Garech Browne and Tara Browne, the golden youth whose death in 1966 when he drove his Lotus Elan sports car into a lamppost in London John Lennon remembered so poignantly in the song A Day in the Life:

He blew his mind out in a car

He didn't notice that the lights had changed

A crowd of people stood and stared

They'd seen his face before,

Nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords.

But all that was to come. Attempts to make Castle MacGarrett pay its way went from frantic to ludicrous. Her husband resorted to rearing pigs. In the 1960s Lord and Lady Oranmore and Browne quit Mayo for a flat in London. Dominick Browne distinguished himself by becoming the longest-serving member of the House of Lords (1927 to 1999, when membership was reformed) without speaking in any debate. He died in 2002, aged 100, having just put down the obituary of an acquaintance in the Daily Telegraph, and remarking "everyone seems to be dead". In her last years, Lady Oranmore and Browne maintained a cheerful exterior, lunching with friends at Simpson's and Wiltons, favourite London haunts.

Actress Sally Gray (Constance Vera Stevens): born February 14th, 1915, died September 24th, 2006