Blaney and Farrar: Pathbreaking Lesbian Duo of the Jazz Age

July 16 was the natal day of Norah Blaney (Nora Cordwell, 1893-1983); July 14 the birthday of her stage (and romantic) partner Gwendoline “Gwen” Farrar (1897-1944). The pair were major stars of the British theatre, records, and radio during the Jazz Age.

London born Blaney was a second generation musician, trained at The Royal Academy of Music and The Royal College of Music. Farrar was the daughter of a South African millionaire and politician; she was trained on the cello. The pair met as classical entertainers performing for troops in France during World War One. As a duo, they sang and performed popular ragtime and jazz, sometimes songs written by Blaney herself. They were fresh and comical (hear them for yourself, there are many clips of their recordings on youtube).  In 1917, they returned to the UK and began performing in major music halls, cohabitating, as well. This, though Blaney had been married since 1914; her first husband was fellow pianist Albert Charles Lyne, who died in battle in 1918. The pair lived together through 1922 when Blaney married her second husband Philip Barron Bruce Durham.

In addition to music halls, Blaney and Farrar appeared in Charlot revues like Pot Luck! (1921) with Beatrice Lillie; Rats (1923), with Gertrude Lawrence; and Yes! (1923) on the West End. Andrew Charlot’s Revue of 1924 brought Blaney’s songs to Broadway. In 1925 the pair toured American vaudeville, nightclubs, and resorts like Palm Beach.

In 1926 the team broke up, although they reunited numerous times afterwards. In London, Farrar appeared in White Birds (1927), with Maurice Chevalier and José Collins. Then the team got together again for The House that Jack Built with Cicely Courtneidge (1929-30).

In 1931, Blaney injured her foot while performing. In 1932 she divorced Durham in order to marry her surgeon Basil Hughes, her third and last husband, and she retired from performing for a time. Meanwhile Farrar starred in the West End show After Dinner (1932) and the films She Shall Have Music (1935), with Jack Hylton; Beloved Imposter (1936); and Take a Chance (1937), with Harry Tate. She had an affair with Tallulah Bankhead during this period. Farrar died in 1944 at the age of 47.

In 1956, Blaney emerged from retirement to act on British television. She appeared on the small screen nearly two dozen times through 1981.

In 2014, Alison Child and Rosie Wakley brought Blaney and Farrar’s story to the stage in the show All the Nice Girls. Five years later Child’s book Tell Me I’m Forgiven: The Story of Forgotten Stars Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney was published.

To learn more about vaudeville and music hall, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.