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“WE NEVER CLOSED”

Jill Millard Shapiro meets Margaret McGrath

The Windmill Theatre’s Blonde Bombshell of the Blitz

A 1942 American press photograph of the Windmill Theatre, never published in the UK - Courtesy Jill Millard Shapiro

Above - A 1942 American press photograph of the Windmill Theatre, never published in the UK - Courtesy Jill Millard Shapiro.

Life magazine of March 16th 1942 'In the Windmill dressing room Sonia Stackpole puts on a slipper, while behind her sits Windmill's No.1 glamour girl, Margaret McGrath' - Courtesy Jill Millard Shapiro.The Blonde Bombshell of the Blitz. The 1940s official Windmill portrait of  Margaret McGrath - Courtesy Jill Millard Shapiro.In 1942 LIFE magazine called her the Windmill’s No.1 glamour girl. Her friend Elizabeth Taylor affectionately called her Old Bag. Her son calls her Mags, Shopkeepers local to her London home call her Trouble. To everyone else she is just Maggie and that’s the way she likes it. She is Margaret McGrath a.k.a. Maggie Rennie who at ninety-two-years of age says, “I honestly think that the war years at the Windmill were the best years of my life. If I could go back and have that time again I would do so like a shot.”

In 1947 Margaret married the film star Michael Rennie. “My husband was a handsome man, don’t you think?” She points to his framed photograph and her eyes twinkle. The couple lived in Hollywood so names such us Humphrey Bogart, James Mason, Tyrone Power, Elizabeth Taylor and countless others slip easily off her tongue. But Hollywood was ‘too false’ for the down-to-earth Windmill Girl.

Right - Life magazine of March 16th 1942 'In the Windmill dressing room Sonia Stackpole puts on a slipper, while behind her sits Windmill's No.1 glamour girl, Margaret McGrath' - Courtesy Jill Millard Shapiro.

“At the Windmill we worked hard and played hard but we were always realistic. Vivian Van Damm saw to that. He was a disciplinarian.” (He had to be if he was to counter Mrs Henderson’s more frivolous approach to her ‘lovelies’.)

LIFE magazine of March 16th 1942 'Backstage During The Blitz, Windmill girls Valerie Tandy and Margaret McGrath relax in their dressing room with helmets at the ready.' - Courtesy Jill Millard Shapiro.“He kept an eye on us all,” Maggie explains. And never more so than during the Blitz when he enforced the following rule: When a girl left the theatre she had to take her tin hat and report where she was going. In the event of her failing to return, he would know where to dig.

Left - LIFE magazine of March 16th 1942 'Backstage During The Blitz, Windmill girls Valerie Tandy and Margaret McGrath relax in their dressing room with helmets at the ready.' - Courtesy Jill Millard Shapiro.

Nevertheless, when Vivian Van Damm’s watchful eye was diverted Margaret McGrath had her moments. “I loved it when the Free French forces arrived,” she confesses and mentioning the name of one particular Frenchman she dramatically rolls her eyes and lets out an enthusiastic “Ooh la la!” And what of entertaining the troops on Sundays when the Windmill took the show on the road? “Oh that was sexy!” she says. “All those heroic young men in uniform!” The Windmill Girls put on 207 shows in aircraft hangars, drill halls and canteens. They performed on make-shift stages at remote gun sites, and in huge hangars at the larger R.A.F. and U.S.A.A.F. stations. Maggie remembers performing in the open on a table at one outpost with the headlights of army lorries as improvised spotlights. The show, of course, must always go on, no matter what the circumstances, although some stations were more prestigious: Fighter Command at Bentley Priory, Biggin Hill and the Spitfire Station at R.A.F. Hornchurch where Windmill concerts were given for Battle of Britain pilots ‘Sailor’ Malan and Douglas Bader. A parody quote “Never was so much shown by so few to so many” is attributed to an unknown officer of R.A.F. Hornchurch in 1942 commenting on a performance by the Windmill Girls.

Margaret McGrath with a change of hair colour in the 1940s, and WINDY II, the Windmill Theatre's six seater twin engined Rapide aircraft. Piloted that day by Mrs Zita Irwin ex A.T.A. - With kind permission Margaret McGrath.

Above - Margaret McGrath with a change of hair colour in the 1940s, and WINDY II, the Windmill Theatre's six seater twin engined Rapide aircraft. Piloted that day by Mrs Zita Irwin ex A.T.A. - With kind permission Margaret McGrath.

When Nazi bombs, rockets and V1s rained down relentlessly on London and shook the little theatre to its very foundations the rest of theatreland went dark but the girls and boys of Soho’s diminutive venue courageously kept the Windmill turning. The Windmill alone stayed open throughout the Blitz and the immortal slogan “WE NEVER CLOSED” was born.

"Those were the days Believe me" 1940. Margaret McGrath and Nugent Marshall. 92 year old Margaret signed this picture on the 6th of April 2011. Windmill Boy Nugent was injured in the bomb incident on 19th October 1940. He made a full recovery and stayed at the Windmill for over twenty years. - Courtesy Jill Millard Shapiro.Margaret McGrath and Vivian Van Damm both took their turns fire-watching on the Windmill’s flat roof. They were armed only with buckets, a hose and a stirrup pump. Maggie doesn't think of herself as heroic. She is casually dismissive of the obvious guts she displayed when given the gruesome task of searching the dead bodies in Great Windmill Street after the bomb had hit. She was looking for the Windmill’s apprentice electrician, seventeen-year-old Peter Rock. Peter was the younger brother of Windmill Girl Joan Rock. He had been killed outright. On that same day in 1940 Joan Jay was very seriously injured and Nugent Marshall sustained shrapnel wounds to his neck. Maggie is self-effacing on the subject. “In a war, faced with a situation, you just get on with it. Something inside you takes over and you find an inner strength to do what you have to do.”

Right - "Those were the days Believe me" 1940. Margaret McGrath and Nugent Marshall. 92 year old Margaret signed this picture on the 6th of April 2011. Windmill Boy Nugent was injured in the bomb incident on 19th October 1940. He made a full recovery and stayed at the Windmill for over twenty years. - Courtesy Jill Millard Shapiro.

On the night that two fire-bombs landed on stables near the theatre and set them ablaze, Margaret and fellow Windmill Girl Anne Singer needed more than just inner strength to enter the burning stables and rescue six terrified, panicking horses. They needed all the physical strength they could muster. The girls grabbed three horses each and led them by their halters, and as Margaret explained in a BBC radio broadcast at the time, “We set off with our little rodeo around Piccadilly Circus where we had quite a few offers of assistance from people in the street. We were feeling very courageous by then and, I remember, we started singing I’ve Got Sixpence. But suddenly there was a terrific whizz and a bomb burst very near. We lost not only our offers of assistance but our horses as well. Eventually we found the horses again - they hadn’t gone far- and in about half an hour we had rounded them all up from Regent Street and Burlington Street.

Mrs Henderson Presents [2005]  - Click to buy the DVD at Amazon.co.ukWe marched them off triumphantly to Vine Street Police Station where the police were rather surprised to see us.” Not half as surprised as Van Damm was when he received a late night phone call from the constabulary saying, “Mr Van Damm we’ve got two of your Windmill Girls here.” “Why? What have they done?” was his reply.

A 1940's Happy holiday snap shot. Vivian Van Damm the family man with his daughter Nona and Margaret McGrath - With kind permission Margaret McGrath.Van Damm’s tongue in cheek remark shows he jokingly implied the girls might have been up to no good. But Maggie is quick to rush to his defence 71 years later when she feels the subject of his good character might be brought into question. In reference to the film Mrs Henderson Presents she says, “I want to put the record straight about one thing. The scene where Bob Hoskins takes his clothes off made me very angry. It never happened. Vivian Van Damm would never ever have done that.”

Left - A 1940's Happy holiday snap shot. Vivian Van Damm the family man with his daughter Nona and Margaret McGrath - With kind permission Margaret McGrath.

Joan Jay, Desiree Cooper, Margaret McGrath and Margot Harris in a Windmill photograph from 1942. Joan Jay was seriously injured in the bomb blast in October 1940. After several skin grafts she returned to the Windmill. The wardrobe department made special knickers for her to hide the scars. Margot Harris was engaged to a flight-lieutenant. He was shot down over Germany and held as a P.O.W. until the end of the war - With kind permission Margaret McGrath.Her genuine fondness for Van Damm and his family is obvious when she talks of time spent with them at their Baker Street flat. “He was very much a family man. I often went to Baker Street for Sunday lunch. His wife Natalie was lovely and I was great friends with his daughter Nona. She was a land girl during the war and she had a wonderful sense of humour. She made me laugh. But it was his daughter Sheila who was the apple of his eye.” Sheila Van Damm described Margaret McGrath as “a blue-eyed, husky-voiced blonde with more than a dash of the Irish in her.” At the age of ninety-two that description still stands.

Right - Joan Jay, Desiree Cooper, Margaret McGrath and Margot Harris in a Windmill photograph from 1942. Joan Jay was seriously injured in the bomb blast in October 1940. After several skin grafts she returned to the Windmill. The wardrobe department made special knickers for her to hide the scars. Margot Harris was engaged to a flight-lieutenant. He was shot down over Germany and held as a P.O.W. until the end of the war - With kind permission Margaret McGrath.

On the 11th of February 2011 Maggie received a 92nd birthday greeting from her friend of more than half a century. With a touching reference to the Windmill Theatre, Elizabeth Taylor concluded her message thus:

I’ll love you always. Happy Birthday and many more. You will never “close” dear one.
Elizabeth.

Margaret McGrath and Elizabeth Taylor in a photograph taken in London in 2010, and signed by Taylor with a personal message to her friend 'My darling Maggie, I love you with all my heart, Love forever, Elizabeth.' - Courtesy Margaret McGrath.

Above - Margaret McGrath and Elizabeth Taylor in a photograph taken in London in 2010, and signed by Taylor with a personal message to her friend 'My darling Maggie, I love you with all my heart, Love forever, Elizabeth.' - Courtesy Margaret McGrath.

The article on this page was written exclusively for www.arthurlloyd.co.uk by Jill Millard Shapiro and is Copyright © Jill Millard Shapiro 2011. Images are Courtesy Jill Millard Shapiro and Margaret McGrath except where otherwise credited. No part of this article or its accompanying images may be reproduced anywhere without the prior consent of Jill Millard Shapiro and Matthew Lloyd.

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