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Browne, Coral Edith (1913–1991)

by Anne Rees

This article was published online in 2015

Coral Edith Browne (1913-1991), actress, was born on 23 July 1913 at Footscray, Melbourne, only child of Victorian-born parents Leslie Clarence Brown, railway clerk, and his wife Victoria Elizabeth, née Bennett. Coral was educated locally at Claremont Ladies’ College. She was a gifted student of enunciation and earned an associate diploma in elocution from the London College of Music (1928). After leaving school at the age of fifteen, she began studying commercial art.

Although Brown had appeared in amateur plays, her acting career began by accident. While she was working as a stage designer for the 1931 production of John Galsworthy’s The Roof, the lead actress fell ill and Brown was invited to join the cast. Offered a contract with the theatrical firm J. C. Williamson Ltd, she soon became known as a rising talent, appearing in plays around the country. Her mentor, the Melbourne director Gregan McMahon, believed she was ‘the most gifted of the young people that this country has produced’ (PAC 1994.095), and urged that she try her luck in London.

In May 1934 Brown left for England. She would return to Australia only twice for brief visits in 1948 and 1980. In London she began as an understudy to Nora Swinburne, but soon established a career in theatrical comedies and also worked in cinema. She appeared in a series of successful productions, including the comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941), and by the late 1940s was the third highest paid actress on the West End stage. Shrugging off her ‘colonial’ origins, she cultivated a glamorous persona and changed her surname to ‘Browne’. A sexually adventurous woman, she enjoyed affairs with a number of prominent actors, including (Sir) Douglas Fairbanks Junior, Jack Buchanan, (Sir) Cecil Beaton, and Paul Robeson, and in the 1930s had embarked upon a clandestine lesbian relationship. In the following decade, she became the long-term paramour of the producer Frederick ‘Firth’ Shephard (d. 1949).

To the surprise of their friends, Browne married the openly homosexual actor and theatrical agent Philip Westrope Pearman (d. 1964) on 26 June 1950 at St Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, Letchworth. Three years later she converted to Catholicism and remained a devout, if unorthodox, member of the faith. Taking on Shakespearean roles, in 1956 she gave an acclaimed performance of Lady Macbeth with the Old Vic in London and New York. While visiting Moscow with the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company in 1958, she met the British spy Guy Burgess, who had defected to the Soviet Union. This encounter would form the basis of Alan Bennett’s telemovie An Englishman Abroad (1983), in which Browne played herself. She also starred in a number of well-known films, including Auntie Mame (1958) and the notorious lesbian drama The Killing of Sister George (1968).

In 1972 Browne met the Hollywood star Vincent Price Junior on the set of the horror film Theatre of Blood. She moved to the United States of America and, following Price’s divorce, the couple married on 24 October 1974 at Santa Barbara. From the mid-1970s, her career went into decline. Despite earning the applause of critics and audiences, she received few official honours. Her only stage accolade was the 1977 Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Circle featured performance award for her depiction of Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. She also won the 1984 British Academy of Film and Television Arts best actress award for her performance in An Englishman Abroad. In 1985 she enjoyed a final triumph appearing as the elderly Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in the film Dreamchild. Two years later she took American citizenship. She maintained an ambivalent attitude towards her homeland; she collected Australian artworks and socialised with other expatriates, but one friend recalled that she ‘loathed’ (Collis 2007, 231) the place.

While celebrated as an actress, Browne was equally renowned for her sharp wit, elegant demeanour, passion for designer clothes, and talent for profanity. In 1961 she had been nominated as one of the world’s most beautiful women and was said to have become ‘ravishing in her middle age’ (Angell 2007, 168). Ever fearful of losing her looks, she was a plastic surgery enthusiast and an obsessive weight-watcher. Survived by her husband, after battling cancer for several years she died in Los Angeles on 29 May 1991 and was cremated. Her portrait by Don Bachardy is held by the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Advertiser and Register (Adelaide). ‘Stage Discovery.’ 19 August 1931, 6
  • Angell, Barbara. The Coral Browne Story: Theatrical Life and Times of a Lustrous Australian. Sydney: Angell Productions, 2007
  • New York Public Library, New York. Browne, Coral, Clipping File
  • Browne, Coral. Interview by Frank Van Strahan, 5 August 1980. Performing Arts Collection Research Centre, Arts Centre Melbourne
  • Collis, Rose. Coral Browne: ‘This Effing Lady’. London: Oberon Books, 2007
  • Performing Arts Collection Research Centre, Arts Centre Melbourne. 1994.095, Coral Browne Collection
  • Price, Victoria. Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography. New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 1999
  • Table Talk (Melbourne). ‘Honors Thrust Upon Her.’ 6 April 1933, 17

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Citation details

Anne Rees, 'Browne, Coral Edith (1913–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/browne-coral-edith-19293/text30772, published online 2015, accessed online 22 March 2019.

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