Born: Susan Couper Black. Also known as Helen D’Oyly Carte, Mrs Richard D’Oyly Carte, Mrs Stanley Boulter
In January 1880, a Scottish woman calling herself Helen Lenoir boarded a liner and set sail for New York, the first of many trips she would take across the Atlantic. At the age of just 27, she was on her way to take charge of the American productions of the D’Oyly Carte Company.
The names of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan are well-known, their fractious relationship most recently brought to life in Mike Leigh’s 1999 film ‘Topsy-Turvy’. Lovers of light opera will also be familiar with the name of Richard D’Oyly Carte. But who has heard of Helen Lenoir? Feted as one of the finest business women of her era, immortalised by James McNeill Whistler and Walter Sickert, known throughout the world of theatre, she is now the over-looked fourth member of what is more commonly seen as a triumvirate, the hidden organising force behind the D’Oyly Carte ventures.
Helen was small in stature but her influence was great and can still be felt today in all sorts of unexpected ways. If you have ever lingered in front of Monet’s fog-enshrouded Houses of Parliament or once cried in the Palace Theatre watching ‘Les Miserables’, you owe a tiny debt to Helen.
Helen was born on 12th May 1852 in Wigtown, Scotland, the second of four children. Educated at home with her sister while their two brothers went to school, she was clearly smart. In 1871 she entered the University of London and was one of four women to pass the matriculation exam with Honours. She went on to gain Special Certificates in Mathematics in 1873 and Logic and Philosophy in 1874.
She spent a short period as a teacher, then made a career swerve, taking lessons in elocution, singing and dancing before starting to audition for shows. She also changed her name and for the next twelve years was known as Helen Lenoir. After a season in panto and four months on tour in a play, Helen, now aged 25, decided she wanted to be behind the scenes rather than in them and in the summer of 1877 appeared in the office of the play’s producer, Richard D’Oyly Carte, seeking a job.
Richard’s assistant did not take much notice of Helen, dark-haired, petite and quite plain. Richard, however, was struck by Helen’s intelligence and her assurance. ‘I shall make something of her’, he commented after she left. His assessment of Helen’s potential was accurate but this was to be no Svengali relationship.
Helen initially worked as Richard’s secretary on 30 shillings a week (c.£180 equivalent) but he quickly started giving her more to do. Soon she was organising a 22-week tour of Gilbert and Sullivan’s third collaboration, ‘The Sorcerer’. Before the tour started she liaised with venues up and down the country to agree dates and negotiate contracts. She arranged the transportation of costumes and scenery and the travel and accommodation for the cast and crew, making sure all were in the right town on the right day. Once the tour started she checked nightly receipts, payed salaries, accounted for all fees and payments and organised transfers of cash back to London. The work involved ‘a great deal of responsibility and above all things, tact and good temper’. Richard was an agent for a wide range of talent and Helen also organised speaking tours for, among others, Doctor Stanley (of Livingstone fame) and the poet Matthew Arnold.
In the late 1870s there were other women working in British theatre as actor / managers but there were very few, if any, in this agent / business manager role, dealing with the organizational aspects of multiple productions. The rest of Helen’s family had emigrated to Australia and Helen was treading quite a different path from her university friends. We know little about Helen’s social life but the theatrical world was one which accommodated unconventional choices. Helen built very good relationships with the men and women working in and circling round the D’Oyly Carte company, which gave her a community where she could both work and play and put her on the fringes of the burgeoning aesthetic movement.
Crossing the pond
The next Gilbert and Sullivan production, ‘HMS Pinafore’, was such a huge success that it spawned nearly 100 copycat productions in the United States where, unlike the United Kingdom, there was no copyright law. The team decided to establish their own touring companies in the U.S. and Helen was put in charge. This was why she was on her way to New York in January 1880 and for the next four years she spent the winters on one side of the Atlantic, overseeing the American operations, and the spring and summer back in the UK managing the regional tours.
By May 1881, the American companies already rated Helen highly enough to stage a testimonial benefit for her, ‘a flattering tribute to her professional worth’. Until the Actors Benevolent Fund was established, there were no pensions for elderly performers. A benefit was one way an actor could raise a lump sum to draw on later. However, putting one on required paying up-front for the venue, publicity and cast and then taking all or some of the profits afterwards so it was normally only an option for a very established performer or an actor-manager with a theatre at their disposal. Helen was neither and this collaboration of managers and performers on her behalf was an extraordinary event.
Journalists quickly became curious and in May 1881, Helen gave her first interview, where it seems she had not put her stage career entirely behind her. She had just turned 29 but said she was 22 (and was described as looking 18). She also said she had been born in Nice. She made light of her workload and insisted she no problem switching off at the end of the day: ‘the people who wear out and break down are those who keep business on their minds all day and dream about it at night. Isn’t that true?’ She would eventually find out for herself that it was.
The journalist seemed bewitched. ‘Active, without being nervous, bright, with large dark eyes that never are quiet.. [and].. small, shapely hands..Miss Lenoir is the very incarnation of intelligent industry’, he wrote after meeting her, leaving the ‘busy, cheery, successful little French-English woman at her work’.
Expanding her remit
Gilbert and Sullivan’s next opera, ‘Patience’, satirising the aesthetic movement was another crowd-puller in the States. By January 1882, Helen was overseeing two productions in New York, two touring companies and the now-legendary lecture tour of one Oscar Wilde. She based herself in New York but made unannounced visits to the various touring companies to see for herself how the operas were being played. The London papers started to take note: ‘this is surely a new departure in women’s work’, commented The Era.
Keeping all these productions fully cast was an important and time-consuming part of her job. She ran X Factor-esque auditions, usually on Monday afternoons, for the 25-50 aspiring performers who applied each week. Their name and a brief description were recorded in a book, alongside judgements on appearance, voice and action. The record she built up of who might be available and capable was invaluable in managing the daily telegrams she received from the various productions needing a replacement for one part or another.
Helen also initiated and managed lawsuits to crack down on pirated productions, strengthening both the reputation and finances of the D’Oyly Carte company. In Richard’s view she became ‘probably one of the best living authorities’ on international copyright and dramatic rights. Well before women could practise as lawyers, Helen was applying her ‘steel-and-india rubber brain’ to the finer points of a contract or business proposal, sometimes at 1 o’clock in the morning. When a solicitor saw one of her later letters, he thought only a formally qualified professional could have written it, which meant it had to have been written by a man.
Helen’s diplomatic skills are often referenced and they were much-needed, particularly during the troubled twelve months when Gilbert and Sullivan struggled to deliver what ended up being their greatest hit, The Mikado. By now, the company was firmly settled into its home at the 1,292 seat Savoy Theatre, the first public building in the world entirely lit by electricity, funded from Richard’s share of the profits from the Gilbert and Sullivan machine.
Helen had her own office there, where she could usually be found at her desk, taking pleasure in sorting out the latest problem that had cropped up. Two secretaries helped her deal with the c. 600 letters a week she received. Some of her workload was of her own making. As well as managing the D’Oyly Carte Company’s business dealings, she was also the in-house agony aunt. Members of the touring companies, knowing her sympathetic approach, used any excuse to write to her with their concerns, professional and personal.
Helen and James McNeill Whistler
And it was here that in early 1885 that the painter James McNeill Whistler and one of his students, Walter Sickert frequently sought her out. Whistler had known Helen for some time, inviting her to one of his famous Sunday breakfasts at his house on Tite Street in Chelsea in 1881. Whistler and Oscar Wilde were neighbours and frenemies and as a long-time collector of Japanese ceramics and woodcuts, Whistler now saw the craze for all things Japanese as his chance to step up to the lecture podium. He put his proposal to Richard and Helen in December 1884.
Richard agreed to represent him and promptly turned the job over to Helen. So, in parallel with nursing ‘The Mikado’ through its last rehearsals, Helen was also busy working with Whistler to organise what became known as his ‘Ten O’Clock’ lecture. Taking place on 20th February at the Prince’s Hall Theatre in Piccadilly, it was packed and showed a profit equivalent to £14,000. She was later sucked further into his business dealings, helping him secure loans against his paintings and even arranging shipping.
In Sickert’s painting an exhausted woman in a dark dress slumps across the green sofa in her office, the lamp dimly glowing on her desk. Given the amount she had on her plate during this period, this portrayal of Helen might be accurate but it is uncharacteristic. Her energy was legendary with ‘an industry and determination…appalling to lesser mortals’.
‘The Mikado’ finally made its triumphant debut in March 1885 and as its extraordinarily successful run lengthened, Richard decided to put his share of the profits into a new commercial venture, a hotel. Work started in 1886 on empty land next to the Savoy Theatre, where by now Helen was officially Richard’s second-in-command.
He offered her a significant pay increase to a salary of £1,000 a year (roughly equivalent to £130,000 today) and an annual bonus of 10% of the business profits. ‘I could not have done the business at all, at any rate on nothing like the same scale without you,’ he told her. At first Helen declined but presumably some sort of agreement was eventually reached.
Helen and Richard
Helen and Richard were growing ever-closer. When Richard and Helen first met in 1877, Richard was seven years into his marriage to Blanche Prowse, who was a year younger than Helen, and they had two young sons, Lucas and Rupert.
However, Richard’s first love was his work and this was a passion Helen shared. The two workaholics were physically separated for a few months every year when Helen was in New York, but they were in regular correspondence with one another. Richard would time his trips to New York so that either his outward or return journey coincided with Helen’s.
At the end of 1882, he wrote to her admitting that ‘your presence here would be most desirable in fact the word ‘desirable’ is altogether ludicrously inadequate to express the situation. Your presence would be invaluable’. It was with Helen that Richard spent the evening of Christmas Day in 1883, dining at Arthur Sullivan’s. When Whistler wanted some help with his lecture a year later, his letter was addressed to Helen and Richard, jointly, at the Fielding Hotel in Covent Garden.
In August 1885, when Richard and Helen were both in New York for the U.S. premiere of ‘The Mikado’, Blanche died of pneumonia. Rumours of an imminent engagement between Richard and Helen were circulating in the US press by June 1886 but it was not until December 1887 that Richard proposed and in the meantime Helen continued travelling backwards and forward to the US where, by now, she was ‘quite a celebrity’. They kept their wedding on 12th April 1888 very quiet, with a small ceremony in the Savoy chapel (where Helen claimed to be 30 rather than 35) and when the news leaked out it seemed to surprise no-one.
The Second Mrs D’Oyly Carte
The newly-married couple moved into a house in Adelphi Terrace, a stone’s throw from the Savoy. It was the first private house to have a lift and Whistler designed the colour scheme. There was no question of marriage marking the end of Helen’s career and she and Richard soon had to cope with some unwanted business challenges. The Savoy Hotel, opened in August 1889, was losing money: Richard bought his way out of trouble, hiring Cesar Ritz as the manager and Auguste Escoffier as chef de cuisine. The investment paid off and the Savoy soon became the new place to be seen.
More serious and harder to resolve was the huge row that broke out between Richard and Gilbert in April 1890, known as the ‘Carpet Quarrel’, about whether business dealings were being conducted in a fair and open way.
At the time, Richard and Sullivan were in the middle of a high-profile collaboration. Richard dreamed of a venue for ‘grand opera’ and in 1888 Helen laid the foundation stone of his Royal English Opera House, at the junction of Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue in 1888. Now, as the building neared completion, Sullivan was racing to deliver on his side of the bargain. Sullivan took Richard’s side in the quarrel. Gilbert broke off his partnership with him in May and took Richard to court in September. As Richard battled in court, Sullivan fought with his score and as usual, did not deliver on time. Helen was at her wit’s end: ‘it is pay, pay, pay every minute of every day,’ she wrote to Sullivan in November.
‘Ivanhoe‘ finally premiered three weeks late on 31st January 1891 to good reviews and a decent run of 155 performances but the 1,400 seated auditorium was too difficult to fill and a year later Richard sold the theatre to Augustus Harris.
Richard and Helen turned their attention back to the Savoy Hotel, the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership and the touring companies, which by 1894 numbered four employing around 240 people. Remarkably, Helen was able to engineer a reconciliation between Richard and Gilbert and Sullivan. Gilbert and Sullivan who produced two final works together, in 1893 and 1896, though neither did particularly well.
In February 1896, there was another reunion, though a sadder one, when Whistler returned to London with his wife, Beatrice, after a long stay in Paris. Beatrice had cancer and was in the final months of her life. Richard and Helen offered them the use of a 6th floor suite in the Savoy for two months while their house in Hampstead was made ready. Waterloo Bridge and the Houses of Parliament can both be seen in the distance of these images Whistler sketched from his room.
A couple of years later Whistler’s friend, Claude Monet, told him of his plans to make an extended trip to London to paint and Whistler recommended the Savoy. It was here that he immortalised the Thames in 75 paintings made between 1899 and 1901, looking east to Waterloo Bridge and west to the Houses of Parliament. (Monet dated his paintings when he finished them but 1901 was his last trip to London).
The Savoy also brought challenges. In 1895 it was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, named during Oscar Wilde’s trials as one of the locations for his assignations with Bosie Douglas. In March 1898, Ritz and Escoffier were found to have been de-frauding the hotel and to avoid any more brand damage, the two men were quietly dismissed. Despite this, Richard continued to expand the hotel portfolio, adding Simpsons-in-the-Strand and Claridges.
However, alhough still only in his late 50s, Richard was not in the best of health. Helen was doing her best to shield him from any day-to-day worries, but those closest to her, like Sullivan, could see that coping with both the theatrical and hotel operations was taking its toll. In 1898, the business was reorganised with Rupert joining the Savoy Group Board leaving Helen better able to focus on the theatrical business.
By November 1900, both Sullivan and Richard were in very poor shape. Helen shuttled between Richard’s sick bed in their house on Adelphi Terrace and the Savoy Theatre. When Sullivan died later that month, it is said Richard dragged himself out of bed to see Sullivan’s coffin process past in the street below.
Three months later, on 3rd April 1901, Richard died. Some of the lengthy obituaries, unusually, explicitly recognised Helen’s importance, ‘in every respect, a most remarkable woman,’ said the Daily Telegraph. ‘Mrs Carte provided a helpmeet such as no theatrical manager ever had and it was in great measure due to her excellent judgment and wide range of idea that the deceased manager’s name became familiar..throughout the English-speaking world.’
Helen would have cared little for these generous tributes. She was broken-hearted as well physically exhausted as the rain poured down on the day of Richard’s funeral. She had lost her work partner of nearly twenty-five years and her lover for at least thirteen of those. She quickly moved out of the house they had shared and took up residence in the Savoy Hotel.
Running the show
Helen was now a very wealthy woman but as Richard’s sole executor and she was also left with overall responsibility for all the D’Oyly Carte business interests. Amidst her personal grief, she still managed to open a new Savoy Theatre production, ‘The Emerald Isle’, at the end of April. Maintaining the family legacy was her priority for the last decade of her life. Lucas had qualified as a barrister and was not interested in the business. He would die four years later aged just 34. Rupert, who was much more involved in the day-to-day operations of the hotel business, was still only 25 when his father died. It was during these final years that Helen’s profile finally started to grow in the U.K.
To the surprise of many, on 25th April 1902, Helen married again. Now nearly 50, she gave her age as 42. Her new husband, Stanley Carr Boulter was 41, a lawyer and businessman who had been involved in raising funds for the construction of the Savoy Hotel. In him Helen found someone who respected her business acumen, supported her in her work and had no problem with her continuing to use the name of Helen D’Oyly Carte professionally. Stanley was a widower and Helen also became the step-mother of seven more children aged between 12 and 26.
In 1903 Helen closed the Savoy Theatre for repairs and then leased it out. She recapitalised the business and shifted the focus of the theatrical operations entirely to the touring productions. It was not until 1906 that Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas were back in the Savoy Theatre in two eighteen-month revival seasons. At the end of the first one, she wrote a letter to The London Daily News expressing her gratitude for the support she had had from the public as she dealt with the ‘manifold intricacies’ and ‘thousand and one details’…’the disappointments, the anxieties and worries’ the season had entailed.
These anxieties included a prickly working relationship with Gilbert. Run-ins over casting decisions culminated in him airing his grievances in public in a letter The Times, where he complained that his role was effectively no bigger than ‘the ordinary duties of a stage manager. The public didn’t seem to mind: both seasons were roaring successes.
In May 1911, the 74-year old Gilbert died from a heart attack, leaving Helen the last surviving member of the famous four. Her own health started to fail at around the same time. In a photograph at a summer party for the D’Oyly Carte company that year she is a small, shrunken figure, worn down by the weight of her elaborate hat. The following year she was awarded the Order of the League of Mercy by King Edward VII in recognition of all her voluntary work which she had managed to fit in alongside her demanding business role.
When Helen died on 5th May 1913, a week short of her 61st birthday, her death was widely reported, with lengthy obituaries in many national newspapers. ‘There have, in truth, been few women who have shown a more thorough knowledge of business and financial principles than the late Mrs D’Oyly Carte’, reflected the Daily Telegraph. However, in keeping with her own wishes, there were no memorial services and her funeral was small and private.
Helen was a driving force in the D’Oyly Carte organisation for nearly 35 years. It was her life and her work. When Helen’s will was read, it included numerous bequests to loyal members of the D’Oyly Carte company including the wardrobe mistress and the piano player. She appears in many of the memoirs written by members of the company, almost uniformly in a very positive light. Helen cared deeply about protecting the D’Oyly Carte legacy, but she was less concerned about securing her own: in 1900, a group of theatre managers banded together to raise money for her portrait to be painted but she asked for the money to be donated to Great Ormond Street Hospital instead.
Perhaps this is one reason why the large engraved planter in Victoria Embankment gardens, opposite the riverside entrance to the Savoy Hotel, which was dedicated to key players in the D’Oyly Carte organisation in 1989, glosses over Helen’s contribution. Her name is there but is the only one without an official role to go with it. If a passer-by stopped to read the names, she might assume that Helen was simply there by dint of her marriage, a polite nod to the boss’s wife. But you know the real story.
Since this post was originally written, a new book has been published on Helen’s life, ‘Queen of the Savoy: The Extraordinary Life of Helen D’Oyly Carte’ by Elisabeth Kehoe (2022).
New York Times 24/04/1881; ‘Two Smart Women’s Work’ in The Philadelphia Times 16/5/1881; The Sunday Times 3/5/1885; ‘Interview with a Theatrical Manageress’ in The Adelaide Express and Telegraph 5/8/1885; The Era 26/3/1887; Pittsburgh Dispatch 16/2/1890; ‘Savoyards on Tour’ in The Sketch 13/6/1894; The Daily Telegraph 4/4/1901; The Tatler 1/7/1903; The Times 22/01/1907; The London Daily News 24/8/1907; The Daily Telegraph 6/5/1913; Editorial ‘The Late Mrs D’Oyly Carte’ The Era 10/5/1913, Illustrated London News 10/5/1913
‘The Diaries of John McConnell Black Vol 1, Diaries one to four – 1875-1886”; ‘The Life of James McNeill Whistler Vol II’ by Joseph and Elizabeth Robbins Pennell (1908); ‘The Story of the Savoy Opera’ by S J Adair Fitzgerald (1924); Secrets of a Savoyard by Henry Lytton (1927); ‘Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography’ by Michael Ainger (2002); ‘Helen D’Oyly Carte: Gilbert and Sullivan’s 4th Partner’ by Brian Jones (2011); ‘Richard D’Oyly Carte’ by Paul Seeley (2018)
‘Monet at the Savoy’ by Soraya Khan, John E Thornes, Jacob Baker, Donald W Olson and Russell L Doescher (2010) Area Vol. 42, No. 2 pp. 208-216