A quick glance at its buildings leaves no room for doubt that Old Street, St Helier, is well named. It is very narrow and lies in an area marked for demolition.
When John Wesley visited Jersey in 1787, it was here, at No 15, that he stayed and it was in this same house, on 5 February 1881, that Lionel Frederick Leonard, later Frederick Lonsdale - Freddy Lonsdale, playwright and librettist - was born.
John Henry Leonard, his father, mariner and later tobacconist at 31 Beresford Street, married Susan Belford. They had three sons, James, George and Frederick. The latter attended Napier House School in Nelson Street, Principal T A Bailhache and the French and English Commercial Academy of 13 Kensington Place, Principal Edwin Saunders. Frederick was wild and certainly no scholar.
As a young man he served as a private in the Army from which he was discharged, on medical grounds. On returning from the United Kingdom to Jersey he became a clerk in the office of a railway company in Bond Street. To both occupations he was thoroughly unsuited.
While in the Army he had tried his hand, successfully, at playwritinig, a pursuit he now continued. For some time he lived in a house called Lyndhurst at 1 Havre des Pas.
He married Leslie Hoggan, daughter of Lt-Col and Mrs R A Hoggan, of Tanglin, Roseville Street, and had three daughters. His daughters included his biographer Frances Donaldson and Angela Worthington (who was born illegitimately, through his relationship with Muriel Rose Morice). His grandsons included the actors Edward Fox, James Fox, and the film producer Robert Fox. At first he retained the name of Leonard, but eventually changed it by deed poll to Lonsdale_ his nom de plume in the theatre, as he found the use of two names inconvenient. He always spoke with a cultured accent and for much of his life wore white socks, a habit which was the subject of frequent comment.
Frank Curzon produced the young Lonsdale's first work, the musical King of Cadonia (1908). His more substantial than usual dialogue for the show's Ruritanian comic opera plot won King of Cadonia fine notices and helped the musical to a long career. His next success was also for Curzon, The Balkan Princess (1910), which was little more than King of Cadonia with the sexes reversed, but it enjoyed a good London run and a long and wide provincial tour and foreign productions.
Lonsdale's next success was five years later, for George Edwardes, with Betty (1915). Following Edwardes' death, he submitted to Edwardes' executor, Robert Evett, a text that Curzon had rejected, The Maid of the Mountains (1917; revived in 1920), which became one of the phenomenally successful wartime shows in London, establishing itself as a classic of the British musical stage.
Lonsdale continued to write some musicals after the war. He adapted Booth Tarkington's Monsieur Beaucaire (1919, with music by André Messager) as a highly successful light opera and Jean Gilbert's Die Frau im Hermelin (1922, The Lady of the Rose) and Katja, die Tänzerin (1925), as well as Leo Fall's Madame Pompadour (1923). He also wrote the successful original book to the Parisian tale of The Street Singer for Phyllis Dare (1924) and Lady Mary (1928).
He also began to write straight comedies, and his plays included Aren't We All? (1923), Spring Cleaning (1925), The Last of Mrs Cheyney (1925, which ran for 514 performances at the St James Theatre, London), On Approval (1927) and Canaries Sometimes Sing (1929). His last play, The Way Things Go, was written in 1949, more than 40 years after his first stage work and five years before his death from a heart attack.
Of The Last of Mrs Cheyney in book form a reviewer in the Daily Express wrote:
- "In the first place Mr Lonsdale is a master of the dramatic form. He spent two years on this play. There is not a superfluous line in the three acts. The lightning speed of the action deprives boredom of any chance to breathe. Not one of the three acts limps or halts. There is dramatic movement and surprise in each of them. But the pace of the action does not kill the characterisation and the dialogue. The dialogue is not only witty, cynical and satirical, but it develops both the characterisation and the action".
In the case of On Approval, one of Lonsdale's most successful plays, various critics expressed themselves as follows:
- "It is the wittiest piece of writing I have listened to for many a long day".
- "Brilliantly constructed and admirably acted".
- "It sparkles with brilliant dialogue".
It was performed 469 times at the Fortune Theatre, London.
After seeing Once is Enough, Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt wrote :
- "Last night I went to see Ina Claire in Once is Enough. Sometimes we are fortunate to see plays in Washington before they are given in New York. While the first few performances of a new play are not, as a rule, the best, still I enjoyed every minute of the show last night. I thought the acting excellent and the show most entertaining. Yesterday the immaculate playwright enjoyed the signal honour of being received by President Roosevelt".
Once is Enough was produced in America only and ran at the Henry Miller Theatre in New York for 105 performances.
As a librettist Lonsdale was also very well known. The Maid of the Mountains (music by Harold Fraser Simson) saw 1,352 performances at Daly's Theatre, London. Thereafter, as a result, Lonsdale never lacked money.
In all he wrote he had only one failure — a play called Foreigners which was taken off after only seven performances at the Belasco Theatre, New York.
A critic in the New York Sun wrote:
- "The dialogue is smooth and expert and Mr Lonsdale says several wise things in jest. Now and then he turns an epigram with admirable dexterity and laughter ripples through the play, but I am afraid Foreigners is a little ineffectual in face of the problems which seem to have called it forth'.
Frederick Lonsdale provides an excellent example of a man showing no promise in his early youth eventually achieving remarkable success and it is almost certain that he was the only Jerseyman ever to have been received by a President of the United States.
He travelled extensively, lived much of his life in hotels, played golf and tennis, was a member of the Beefsteak and St James' Clubs and knew many distinguished people. On 4 April 1954, he died walking in a London street.