Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Elliott, Leah Madeleine (Madge) (1896–1955)

by John Rickard

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

This is a shared entry with Cyril Joseph Ritchard

Leah Madeleine Elliott (1896-1955), by Maurice Seymour, 1930s

Leah Madeleine Elliott (1896-1955), by Maurice Seymour, 1930s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3392119

Leah Madeleine Elliott (1896-1955) and Cyril Joseph Ritchard (1897-1977), dancers and actors, were known affectionately by their public as Madge and Cyril. Madge was born on 12 May 1896 at Fulham, London, daughter of Nicholas Phillipps Elliott, physician and surgeon, and his wife Frances Selina Curtis, née Heighton. The family emigrated to Australia when Madge was an infant and she was educated at a grammar school at Toowoomba, Queensland. After her father moved his practice to Randwick, Sydney, Madge took dancing classes with Minnie Hooper, ballet mistress for J. C. Williamson Ltd. Hooper, herself an institution in Sydney theatre, recalled her young pupil as 'very dainty and very pretty, energetic and persevering with her work from the start'. It was said that Madge was signed up by Williamson's as a dancer at the age of 13, but, as she later lopped four years off her age, doubt must be cast on this precociousness. Her first contract was with the children's ballet of the Melba-Williamson Opera Co. in 1911. Remaining with Williamson as a member of the chorus, she was soon promoted to a group called the 'Exquisite Eight'.

Cyril was born on 1 December 1897 at Surry Hills, Sydney, son of Sydney-born parents Herbert Trimnell Ritchard, grocer, and his wife Marguerite, née Collins. Educated at St Aloysius' College, he fulfilled his family's expectations by beginning medicine at the University of Sydney. His studies soon foundered, and, initially against his family's wishes, he veered towards the stage. Cyril lacked Madge's training as a dancer, but was tall and good looking; following some experience in the chorus he was picked out as a possible partner for her. 'I don't dance with beginners', is said to have been Madge's frosty comment, but in this case she did and their partnership began in 1918 with Katinka. In 1924 they briefly went their own ways—Cyril to the United States of America and Madge to England—though when the opportunity arose to partner her in London musicals, Midnight Follies and Lady Luck, he quickly joined her. He too was to trim a couple of years off his age, yet, in doing so, he gallantly pretended that he was older than Madge.

Madge and Cyril established themselves at the Gaiety Theatre in London as a dance act, stylish, romantic and sophisticated. By the time they returned to Australia in 1932 to star in Blue Roses, they had graduated to leading roles. Neither was a gifted singer, but each acquired an appropriate vocal technique to facilitate this development of their joint career. In these years it was Madge who was regarded as the star, Cyril her partner: her contract with 'the Firm' laid down a salary of £75 per week plus 5 per cent of gross receipts in excess of £1500 a week.

The success of their partnership paved the way for their wedding on 16 September 1935, a wedding which became part of Sydney folklore. The setting was a crowded St Mary's Cathedral, but the ceremony itself took place in the Archbishop's sacristry, as Madge did not share Cyril's Catholicism. Fifty police were required to control the crowd of some five thousand outside the cathedral. In earlier years Madge had vigorously denied any romantic involvement with Cyril; they were, she insisted, 'just good companions' who danced together. Cyril himself joked that they married 'after ten years of whirlwind courtship'. At the time of their marriage Madge was 39 and Cyril almost 38, so it might well have been a marriage of theatrical convenience, particularly for Cyril who was, years later, described by (Sir) Noël Coward as being 'as queer as a coot' though unable fully to accept it. They were, however, a devoted couple, and the wedding became part of their myth, the size of the crowd escalating over the years to twenty thousand. After honeymooning in Honolulu, they returned to England where they were now resident, with a flat in London and a farmhouse, Appletrees, in Kent. In 1939 Madge had a son who died soon after birth.

During World War II Madge and Cyril played in The Merry Widow, both in London and to troops in Egypt and Europe. In 1945 they co-starred in Coward's revue, Sigh No More. The experience was not an altogether happy one. Coward at first appreciated them as 'real dyed-in-the-wool pros', but, during the Manchester try-out season, tensions developed, Coward accusing Ritchard of 'raucous vulgarity'. Madge and Cyril maintained the Coward connexion when they successfully toured Australia in Tonight at 8.30 (1946) and Private Lives (1951). In 1954-55 Cyril starred on Broadway as Captain Hook in the musical version of Peter Pan. Madge died of bone cancer on 8 August 1955 in Lenox Hill Hospital, New York. According to Cyril, they had never been separated since their marriage.

Nevertheless, their careers had significantly diverged. Even in the 1930s they had at times gone their separate ways, Madge making a name for herself as a principal boy in pantomime, and Cyril acquiring a reputation as a light comedian and straight actor. According to Cyril, 'John Gielgud made me legitimate' when he cast him as Algernon in the celebrated 1942 revival of The Importance of Being Earnest. Cyril also began to direct revues and plays, including their 1946 and 1951 tours. Thus the balance in their partnership tended to shift in the postwar years, as Cyril diversified his theatrical talents.

After Madge's death, Cyril pursued his career mainly in the U.S.A., appearing in musicals such as The Roar of the Grease Paint and Sugar, directing opera at the New York Metropolitan Opera House and plays ranging from Shakespeare to farce. In 1960 he toured Australia in the comedy, The Pleasure of His Company, by Samuel Taylor and Cornelia Otis Skinner (the latter co-starring), having earlier played it on Broadway. This was his last stage appearance in Australia. He died on 18 December 1977 at Chicago and was buried in St Mary's cemetery, Ridgefield, Connecticut.

'Madge and Cyril' were remembered as a charmed and charming couple, international stars of the popular stage who remained 'two very nice Australians'. Even as they acquired a West End sophistication, Australians were reassured that 'they are still the Madge and Cyril we used to know'. Above all, their partnership was enshrined as a 'great love story of the Australian theatre'.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Porter, Stars of Australian Stage and Screen (Adel, 1965)
  • G. Payn and S. Morley (eds), The Noel Coward Diaries (Lond, 1982)
  • Australian Women's Weekly, 22 Aug 1955
  • Woman, 22 Aug 1955
  • Star (Melbourne), 16, 18, 21, 22, 25 Mar 1935
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 14 Aug 1946
  • Herald (Melbourne), 26 Mar 1958
  • J. C. Williamson contracts, newsclippings, theatre programmes and taped interviews with Cyril Ritchard (Performing Arts Museum, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne).

Citation details

John Rickard, 'Elliott, Leah Madeleine (Madge) (1896–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/elliott-leah-madeleine-madge-10112/text17851, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 19 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Leah Madeleine Elliott (1896-1955), by Maurice Seymour, 1930s

Leah Madeleine Elliott (1896-1955), by Maurice Seymour, 1930s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3392119

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Ritchard, Leah
Birth

12 May 1896
London, England

Death

8 August 1955
New York, New York, United States of America

Cultural Heritage
Occupation