Joyce Kennedy was an actress of modest renown, who died in 1943, aged just 44, entirely unaware that an off-colour remark she had once made to a friend would inspire one of children’s literature’s greatest villains.
‘He would make a nice fur coat,’ she blithely observed of a Dalmatian puppy called Pongo, unwittingly planting the seed that would grow into the monstrous Cruella de Vil.
Pongo’s smitten (and offended) owner was the playwright Dodie Smith, who more than 20 years later, having never forgotten Joyce’s remark, wrote her first children’s book, One Hundred and One Dalmatians.
Puppy love: As the new Cruella remake proves dalmatians haven’t had their day Brian Viner looks back at the history of the well-loved children’s novel written by Dodie Smith (pictured)
In 1961 it became a hit Disney animation, which in 1996 was re-made as a live-action film starring Glenn Close as the scheming, dog-napping Cruella. A sequel followed in 2000.
Now the Dalmatians are yapping again.
Disney’s new release Cruella features Emma Stone in the title role, co-stars Emma Thompson, and has Close as executive producer. Almost 80 years after her friend Joyce’s throwaway comment, and more than three decades after her own death at the grand old age of 94, the characters Dodie created are still going strong.
Her own favourite of all the plays and books she wrote was her charming debut novel, the 1948 classic I Capture The Castle.
JK Rowling and Joanna Trollope are among the many writers who have cited it as a direct influence on their own work and another, Lady Antonia Fraser, has described one passage as among ‘the most erotic in all literature’.
One to watch: Cruella is the latest Disney venture inspired by One Hundred and One Dalmatians and stars Emma Stone in the titular role
Yet it is One Hundred and One Dalmatians that best reflected one of the constants of Dodie’s life, her adoration of animals, as well as her visceral dislike for anyone who so much as hinted at treating them badly.
Once, in a taxi, the celebrated novelist Graham Greene made the mistake of asking her how he could kill some cats whose howling was disturbing him at night. He was not forgiven.
During Dodie’s genteelly impoverished middle-class childhood in Manchester, her family had a dog called Good Old Rover and a cat named Kit Kennedy, a characterful tabby which, when the young Dodie had her tonsils out, promptly ate them.
But the most significant pet in her long life was the one given to her in 1934 as a tiny puppy, in a hat box.
Inspirational: Dodie’s actress friend Joyce Kennedy (pictured in 1930) made an off-colour remark that a dalmatian would ‘make a nice fur coat,’ inspiring the monstrous Cruella de Vil
Pongo was a 38th birthday present and a complete surprise, devised jointly by her lover Alec Beesley and her best friend Phyllis Morris (whose Devon family had made its fortune in Ambrosia rice pudding).
Pongo’s death from lifelong kidney trouble just seven years later caused Dodie more grief than anything had since her teens, when her mother died.
Still, he had at least made his presence felt during his short but singular life, barking furiously at any human-being wearing headgear; the man behind the cold cuts buffet at the swanky London restaurant Le Caprice always had to take off his chef’s hat when Pongo came in. Unlike most dogs, he also got to travel across the United States in the back of a pale grey Rolls-Royce.
In 1939, having sailed from England with their beloved Rolls and even more beloved dog, Dodie and Alec, by now married, were heading for California where her amusing plays had attracted Hollywood’s attention.
Iconic: Playwright Dodie, who more than 20 years later, having never forgotten Joyce’s remark, wrote her first children’s book, One Hundred and One Dalmatians (pictured with her dog Pongo and husband Alec in the Fifties)
She was asked to work on the script of Rebecca, Alfred Hitchcock’s first American production, but declined because she hadn’t cared for Daphne du Maurier’s novel, and there was no scope for humour.
According to Valerie Grove’s absorbing 1996 biography, Dear Dodie, the couple’s early impressions of America were not especially happy. In New York, where her most successful play Dear Octopus was running on Broadway, Dodie could not find a ‘single satisfactory teapot’.
Worse still, restaurant menus were disconcertingly literal, offering ‘fresh-killed baby lamb’ and ‘boiled-alive baby lobster’.
Though not a vegetarian, Dodie was horrified, and noted wryly that at one place ‘they brought the live lobster to the table, as if to give one a chance of making a pet of it first’.
When eventually they turned up in California, they considered it to be terrible dog-walking country.
Iconic: The Hundred and One Dalmatians was written by Dodie in 1956 and In 1961 it became a hit Disney animation
But they made the best of it and after Pongo’s devastating death, were relieved to find several Dalmatian breeders in Beverly Hills. Dodie and Alec duly acquired two more puppies, one male, one female, naming them Buzz and Folly.
They were an exuberant pair, to say the least. ‘I’d like to take them down to the shore but I’m afraid they might damage the sea,’ Dodie wrote.
In 1943 she decided they should mate. Folly produced 15 pups, of which the 13th appeared stillborn until Alec tenderly massaged it back to life, an episode beautifully captured in both the book and the film of One Hundred and One Dalmatians.
A period of domestic tumult followed, as the dogs wrought destruction on their house (which was rented from the movie star Loretta Young).
With a foster mother brought in because Folly couldn’t produce enough milk, Dodie and Alec were outnumbered 18 to two. Eventually, new homes were found for all the pups but one, which they called Dandy.
Dodie and Alec were living in England again by the time Buzz died, aged 14.
The happy memories of Pongo notwithstanding, Buzz was, as Dear Dodie records, ‘Dodie’s dog of dogs, the dog of her lifetime’. Without him she was ‘demented’ with misery.
But at least she could draw some comfort from the success of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, a wonderful story for children written by a woman who never wanted children of her own.
It was published to great acclaim in November 1956. A few months later, the Walt Disney studio paid $25,000 for the film rights, which helped Alec settle a huge US tax bill.
He dealt with all the bills, entering the amount due in tax after Dodie signed the cheques because, he said, she couldn’t ‘stand the sight of her own blood’.
Wow: After the animated film it was re-made as a live-action film in 1996 starring Glenn Close as the scheming, dog-napping Cruella. A sequel followed in 2000
The film took three years and $4 million to make. Walt Disney himself was so enamoured of the project that he visited Dodie and Alec in England, at their home in the pretty Essex village of Finchingfield.
They both liked Disney (and his money) so much that years later they named yet another Dalmatian after him – although Dodie was not averse to teasing him, saying ‘Yours’ every time a plane from the nearby US air base roared overhead.
When the film was finally completed, Dodie attended a preview at which a perfectly-mannered Dalmatian sat in the front row, never taking its eyes off the screen. Human audiences were similarly entranced. One Hundred and One Dalmatians was an instant and enduring hit.
Dodie’s own last Dalmatian, not her 101st but her seventh, was a rambunctious character called Charley. In her frail old age, according to her biographer, Charley ‘took care of her like JM Barrie’s Nana’.
She in turn bequeathed £2,000 expressly for his care and protection, but he died just three weeks after her, ‘having bitten the postman as a final angry gesture’.
One imagines that the postman already approached the Finchingfield house somewhat tentatively, for Dodie’s passion for animals didn’t stop at dogs.
She had two donkeys called Sugar and Spice, and kept 35 pigeons, some of them in the dining-room. When rats started turning up to eat the bird food, she fed them too.
They multiplied until, as Valerie Grove describes, the lawn was ‘alive’ with rats of all types, car after car turning up outside the house for people to gawp, ‘on a sort of rat safari’.
Eventually, to appease the neighbours, Dodie very reluctantly agreed to have them poisoned. But indoors she was still surrounded by hordes of mice, which she cheerfully fed with biscuits and allowed to run over her face at night. Her favourite was one she called Teapot Tail.
If Dodie’s eccentric interractions with animals had been all there was to her life, it would still be a story worth telling.
Yet there was so much more, starting of course with her hugely entertaining plays and books, but also encompassing her friendships, her sex life, and some decidedly unpredictable enthusiasms, such as The Beatles.
Animal lover: One Hundred and One Dalmatians reflected one of the constants of Dodie’s life, her adoration of animals, as well as her dislike for anyone who hinted at treating them badly
There can’t have been many women born in 1896 who were ‘bowled over flat’ by the sound of the Fab Four, indeed she refused to be a guest on Desert Island Discs because the BBC wouldn’t play A Day in the Life, judged to contain unacceptable references to LSD. Eventually she did go on, in 1974, aged 78, and instead chose Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite.
Her fascinating life is chronicled not just in Dear Dodie but in masses of correspondence (she was an obsessive letter-writer) and no fewer than four volumes of autobiography.
In the first of them, Look Back with Love, she records that the first motor-car she ever saw was in Blackpool, an electric brougham belonging to the famed Edwardian beauty Lillie Langtry: ‘Crowds surged around it and an enormous commissionaire with a sepulchral voice kept mumbling ‘Mind your toes’.’
Dodie was no beauty herself. She was never more than 5ft tall, had a squeaky voice and was at best described as plain. But she was witty, charismatic and stylish, and men fell for her.
Pooch perfect: Almost 80 years after her friend Joyce’s throwaway comment, and more than three decades after her own death at the grand old age of 94, the characters Dodie created are still going strong
Among them was her boss at the fashionable London department store Heal’s, where she worked in the 1920s to supplement her meagre earnings as an actress.
Ambrose Heal was married, much older than her, and already had a long-standing mistress, but, aged 30, Dodie decided that he needed to be ‘collected’, and plotted her seduction like a battle plan. Their affair lasted years.
It was also at Heal’s that she met Alec, who was seven years younger than her and so handsome that when they arrived in Hollywood he was encouraged to take a screen test. Yet he remained devoted to Dodie until he died in 1987 (she was furious with him for going first).
She inspired similar devotion among her many friends, not least because of her loyalty to them. For instance, she was close to John Gielgud, and stuck steadfastly by him when in 1953 the great actor was arrested for ‘importuning male persons for immoral purposes’.
While many others dropped him like a brick, Dodie wrote immediately, saying ‘We think the world of you and always shall’.
An even greater friend was another gay man, the writer Christopher Isherwood, who only got royalties from the musical Cabaret – adapted from his semi-autobiographical 1939 novel Goodbye To Berlin – because Dodie intervened to ensure that he did.
‘I send you a vibration of gratitude,’ he once wrote to her, ‘every time I collect my weekly cheque.’
As her own lovely writing again inspires a major film, plenty of us owe Dodie Smith a vibration or two of gratitude, including, if not above all, the organisation that in November 1990 sent a wreath to her funeral.
For all she had done to popularise the breed, it was from the British Dalmatian Society, with love.
Cruella is in cinemas on Friday.
One to watch: Disney’s new release Cruella features Emma Stone in the title role, co-stars Emma Thompson, and has Close as executive producer