The men Noele loved

Proposals and Romances

Noele with Anthony Waters

Millions of my fans have been wondering for years why I have never married.  It’s not that I haven’t had any proposals.  There was one broken engagement and four other serious proposals. I turned these down because they came at a time when I was involved with the big love of my life.  A romance that lasted for 20 years, but until last week had only existed as a rumour, except among a few intimate friends.

It seems useless to deny or pretend anymore.  There need no longer be any mystery about my not being married. I’ve done nothing of which I’m ashamed and I want my fans to know the truth. My secret love for 20 years was the man who launched me into commercial television and a new career. That was when it all started – in the mid-fifties. He was Mr Television himself, ATV’s first chief executive and Lew Grade’s old boss … London Palladium star-maker and super show-man Val Parnell.

My association with Val was plain and simple – we were lovers, although we never lived together.  We were in love.  This I can’t deny, nor would I wish to … I’m proud to have been head over heels in love with a most marvellous man, a true friend. I’m happy to have given him 20 years of my life.  And if it was to happen all over again tomorrow I would do the same. I don’t need to make any excuses.

But first, a little about my unsuccessful suitors. There was New York stockbroker Sumner Walters who fell madly in love with me – or so he said – after meeting me at a cocktail party.  He wanted to marry me and live on Long Island.  He was a millionaire and expected me to give up my career. I wouldn’t have minded that, but the trouble was he wanted to turn me into someone else.  He wasn’t prepared to accept me as I am.  So I turned him down.

There was also a Hollywood agent.  I’ve forgotten his surname but I’ll always remember him as Ben – the man who proposed to me on Broadway one summer’s evening beneath the neon lights of Times Square. When I returned to London he used to phone me every night from California.  It must have cost him thousands in phone calls.  Every call was a proposal.  I never said ‘yes.’  I just didn’t love him.

There there was Frederick Loewe, the American composer.  I had just auditioned for him for Brigadoon, singing a couple of songs on stage. When I’d finished, Mr Loewe stood up in the stalls and said: “Will you marry me?” I asked if he was married, “Yes, but I’m not working at it.” I asked why he wanted to marry me,  “So that you will always be there to sing my songs.”

“In that case,” I told him, “you’d better see my agents.”

Val Parnel, ATV

Anyway, none of those suitors had a chance while I was obsessed with Mr Television. [The only serious marriage proposal was offered and accepted before Val.]

I was just 18 and had fallen in love with a 25-year old Army captain whom I’d met at a party on the Black Velvet tour.  [John Robertson Dunn Crichton] made a great fuss of me and came to see me whenever he could. During the time we were playing Liverpool, I was staying at the Adelphi Hotel. One night there was an air raid after the show, and [John] came with me and the other hotel guests and staff into the cellar.

As we crouched there in semi-darkness he held my hand – more to calm my fears, I thought, than to be romantic. But love can hit you at any time and at any place – even in a Liverpool cellar. Before I realised what was happening this Army captain, boyishly handsome in his khaki uniform, was telling me how much he loved me.

“Please Noele,” he pleaded. “Forget about the war – forget about the bombs … marry me.”

At first, I thought he had just been carried away by the romanticism of the moment but when I looked at his face I knew he was quite serious. “If you really want me then, of course, I will,” I replied. He kissed me and it was only at that moment I realised I had accepted him. Before joining the Army, John had been studying to become a solicitor.  He came from a family of lawyers and there was no doubt he had a great legal career ahead of him.  We made all sorts of plans.  We were young and in love.

As it was wartime we planned a quiet register office ceremony.  Everything was set.  The invitations had gone out.  The honeymoon was arranged.  Then, just six days before the wedding I had a letter from [John] breaking the whole thing off.  He didn’t give any reason except that he just couldn’t go through with it. I never saw him again. Of course, I cried. I cried a lot. Months later, mutual friends told me his family had put pressure on him not to marry me.  They had nothing against me personally but they didn’t want him to marry an actress.  John, by the way, finished up as a High Court Judge.

Val brought stardom to many of today’s headline performers; Norman Wisdom, Max Bygraves, Julie Andrews and lots more. He also brought over from the USA such top entertainers as Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Judy Garland. Val was The Guv’nor in all the acts he booked; first for the Palladium and Moss Empires’ circuit and later, for his Sunday Night at the London Palladium TV shows.

As you can imagine my backstage romance with Val plunged me into one long whirl of exciting parties, first nights and holidays in the South of France.  I was his companion on business trips to Madrid, Paris, Las Vegas, New York, Hollywood … you name it. But I was never a kept woman.  Sometimes, in our early days together, I was earning more than he was.  He was a great, larger-than-life, character with tremendous charm.  A blond giant in his youth and still a tall, handsome man in middle age.

Our years together were the happiest I’ve ever known.  Of course, we had rows – blazing ones sometimes.  He was always madly jealous but it wasn’t a tempestuous relationship.  He introduced me to a life of fun and laughter.

When I first met Val I didn’t know who he was.  It was at Henley, Stoke-on-Trent, touring with comedian Ted Ray in Black Velvet, that I decided to quit showbusiness for marriage. He saw me leaving the theatre one Saturday night with my bags packed and asked me where I was going.  I told him I was walking out on showbusiness to get married and he gave me a smile.

“You’ll be back in six months,” he said.  “Marriage isn’t for you.  You’re not the type.”

I went off in a huff, leaving the pessimistic stranger standing at the stage door.  His prophecy came true.  Within a few months, I was back in showbusiness – I’d been jilted. (see John Robertson Dunn Crichton above).

Six months later I was back in the show I’d quit and touring in Black Velvet again. Years later Val and I often laughed about his stage door prediction. But it was no joke to me at the time. From Black Velvet, I secured a part in the West End production of Let’s Face It, an American musical in which Danny Kaye had starred on Broadway.  Although I was still a teenager I played a middle-aged woman in the London Hippodrome production.

Early in the run there was a charity gala at Grosvenor House and all the cast were invited.  It was there and I saw Val again, for the second time.  Recognising me as the girl who’d walked out on showbusiness just a few months previously, he came over and asked me to dance.

“I see you’re back,” he said. “I told you so.”

We spent most of the evening together.  He was slim, elegant, he was a marvellous dancer.  For me, it was an evening of pure magic.  I knew there was no holding back.  All my girlish dreams had come true.  This had to be my Great Romance.

We sipped champagne.  He looked into my eyes and at that moment I knew I’d met Mr Right.  Nothing special was said.  He didn’t flirt with me.  He didn’t have to.  But at that moment we both knew our love story had begun.

At the end of the evening, he told me he had a home in Buckinghamshire and that each morning he took the train to London’s Marylebone station.  At that time I was living with my parents in a flat in nearby Bryanston Square.  I told him this and he asked if he could look in for coffee the following day on his way to the office.

“Yes, of course,” I told him.  Sure enough, the next morning soon after 10 o’clock he was ringing the doorbell.  In his arms, he carried a bunch of cabbages and lettuces from his country garden. I introduced him to my mother, who rejoiced in the nickname of Jockey.  She liked him at once – in fact, she adored him almost as much as I did.

Soon we were meeting every day for lunch.  We usually went to the old Trocadero in Shaftesbury Avenue, close to his Cranbourne Mansions offices in Leicester Square.  I was rather prim and virginal in those days and it was some months before I succumbed to his overtures that we should become lovers in the full sense of the word. The more I saw of him, the more I loved him.  He was such an entertaining, thoughtful and considerate companion.  He made me laugh.  He was lots of fun.  He was the most attractive man I’d ever met.

As well as having a home in the country he had a London flat in Westminster Gardens.  One night we went out to dinner, returned to his flat and, over a glass of champagne, our love affair started.

We were always discreet. For 20 years we never spent the night together.  We even travelled in separate planes.  I didn’t want to damage his position as an international show business executive nor hurt his private life with his wife Helen.  And Val, on his side, never wanted to compromise me. When Mother realised what was happening she took me to see Barbara Stanwyck in Back Street, the tragedy of a betrayed mistress.  It was her way of warning me what became of girls who formed a liaison with a married man.

But all the films in the world, and all the warnings, couldn’t have stopped me. I couldn’t help myself. I was head over heels in love. From then on we saw as much of each other as we could.  But we never lived together in today’s accepted meaning. It was always separate rooms in whatever cities we were visiting, whether in England or abroad. I was deliriously happy and I know Val felt the same.  Even so, there was never any question of using my association with him as a means of advancing my own career.  On the contrary, the fact that I was Val Parnell’s girlfriend actually hindered my career and worked against me.

Val Parnel, ATV

Most people would think that my romance with one of the world’s most powerful impresarios would open every door for me in the theatrical profession; that I would get starring roles at the drop of a hat, tour the world and finish up a major international star.  It didn’t happen that way.  Work wasn’t any easier to come by.

Our first trip abroad was to Paris, my first visit to the world’s most romantic city.  We stayed at the swish Georges V hotel – in separate suites.  We never signed into any hotel as Mr and Mrs Parnell, Smith, or any other name.  We may have been madly in love, but we were always circumspect. Soon after Paris, we went to Madrid.  This time Lew Grade was with us as we were on a talent-spotting expedition.  Lew and Val shared a splendid suite in a huge hotel overlooking the park.  I was there too, in my own room as usual, for appearance’s sake.

One evening we went to judge a Spanish ballet.  After the performance, the leading dancer made something of a pass at me. We had an interpreter, and when he explained to Val that the dancer had paid a compliment to my blue eyes, Val was livid, displaying acute jealousy. He broke up the meeting and led me away. The Spanish ballet was never booked for London.

At first, all our close friends had thought my involvement with Val was merely a flirtation that would not last for more than a few months. But, by now, they had to accept that we were plunged into a deep, sincere, permanent love match.  Instead of burning itself out, our love became stronger each day. When I signed on at the labour exchange I used to get some funny looks from the other Equity girls who knew my boyfriend.

[While studying commercial television in New York,] Val’s letters continued to arrive and he mentioned casually that he’d met a very charming girl singer, Aileen Cochran, and her husband Frank.  I didn’t pay much attention to his remark and waited in eager anticipation for his next visit.

By now, Val, Lew and their associates had won their commercial TV franchise and Val was busying himself buying up American TV shows for the British screen.  Then the bombshell dropped.  He arrived in New York on one of his business trips and came along in the evening to my studio flat at the Hotel Schuyler.

I’d expected to be taken out to dinner and had bought a new dress, had a hair-do, drenched myself in my favourite perfume which Val had bought me in Paris, and taken extra care with my make-up.  I needn’t have bothered. There was no greeting kiss.

My darling Pussy just sat down and said:  “It’s all over Baby, I’m sorry.  I’ve fallen in love with someone else.” He carried on talking but it was as if the voice came from another world.  To this day I’ve no idea what he was saying.  I was numbed.  Everything around me became a total haze.  I just kept hearing those first few words,  “It’s all over, Baby,” going round and round in my head like a long-playing record.

I stared at him; stunned, confused, in utter disbelief.  I was completely shattered.  But I had to face it.  If he didn’t want me in his life anymore there was no use shouting or screaming. That would have gotten me nowhere. Much better to walk away from the whole situation.

“Well, that’s that,” I said. “I’m afraid it is,” he replied. I remained very calm – how, I don’t know.  He stayed a little longer and then left. When he’d gone I fell to pieces.  The next few days were a nightmare of sorrow.  I looked ghastly and felt even worse.

But I had two very good friends in Eddie Elkort and his wife Lillian. Eddie was the Grades’ representative in New York and had looked after me from the day I arrived.  They packed my clothes and arranged their despatch by sea.

I did what every girl does under the same circumstances.  I went home to mother.

Notes: Noele had a romance with Tony Waters (pictured top) in the early to mid-1970s, she called him ‘Her Viking’ but eventually they drifted apart.

From the NofTW, July 1981.