Susan Thomas Davidson
I was born June 6, 1942, at the Beeches, in Tettenhall.
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My father, Basil Thomas, who was born in 1912 in Birmingham, attended King Edward’s School. My mother, Hedi Liebermann Thomas, was born in 1916 in Frydek, which was then in Austria but is now part of the Czech Republic. Not long after Hedi arrived in Wolverhampton she met Basil at the Rendezvous restaurant on Berry Street, near the Grand Theatre, which he ran. They married June 30, 1939. I had the privilege of seeing Shooting Star, a play written by my father, in Chester in 1998. The Washington Post published a piece I wrote about the experience.
Our semi-detached house at 56 Wells Road, Penn, where we lived until 1954, had a lounge, dining room, kitchen (without any of the modern appliances that make life easier today), and three bedrooms, the smallest of which was mine. The front garden was surrounded by a hedge with a lovely laburnum tree in the corner. The back garden was long and narrow, with an apple tree in the centre and a wishing well at the end. Coal was stored along the side of the garage, which was not attached to the house. The best raspberries I have ever tasted — even to this day — grew along that fence. Bottles of milk (with cream at the top) were delivered by horse and cart during the war and later by a little van.
World War II was not far from home. Wolverhampton escaped the devastating bombing of nearby cities, Birmingham and Coventry. On the road between Wolverhampton and Birmingham, where my grandparents lived, I remember seeing an altar, which was all that was left of what had been (so I am told) a very beautiful church.
Although all normalcy was upended during the war, there was a sense of order to our lives: wash on Monday, iron on Tuesday. It is to my parents’ credit that I have nothing but fond memories of my childhood, especially since we were Jewish. I have no recollection of the war being discussed at home, possibly because my parents did not want to envelop me in their grief over the deaths of my mother’s parents in concentration camps.
Because my father had had tuberculosis as a young man — before the war he spent a year recuperating in Switzerland — he was not permitted to fight with the Allies. Instead, he served in the Home Guard, as did our dog Robbie, a Scottie, who went to meetings, whether invited or not.
My mother arrived in Wolverhampton in July, 1938, as a refugee. Her first job was as an au pair, a job she hated, for the family of a doctor whose wife had died. After leaving that job she became a seamstress at Beattie’s (which was then a department store) and lived in a room, presumably given to her rent-free as she had very little money, by Mr D. Goodman, a jeweller who lived over his shop at 64 Snow Hill. A good man, indeed. I remember as a child descending some steps to enter his shop. I still have two brooches my father purchased there for my mother.
Wells Road, a steep hill, ended in a ditch that separated it from a field on which there was nothing but an air-raid shelter where my friends and I played. My best friend, Heather Morris, lived at Number 66, the last house on the street. Her father, Wilf, was a chemist who collected butterflies; her mother, Enid, was a homemaker who taught me how to knit. Sam and Doris Mathews lived next door. Doris was a kind lady who cultivated pansies. Their daughters emigrated to Canada when I was about 7. A few houses up the road was the home of the Marsdens. We often listened through opened windows to daughter Rosemary, a piano student.
Across from Number 66 was an unfinished path (now Linton Road) often filled with puddles. We walked there en route to Number 44 Lytton Avenue, where my Uncle John, my mother’s brother, and his wife, Auntie Marian, both refugees from Vienna, Austria, lived. Their daughter, Carol, was born in 1943, followed in 1945, by another daughter, Frances Jane (Frankie). We visited often but one memory sticks out.
Before my cousins were born, while my mother and aunt were out, Uncle John and I played “horsey,” which meant I “rode” on his back. Unfortunately for both of us, I fell off, hit my head on a sharp knob on the sideboard, and proceeded to bleed profusely. With my head wrapped in a nappy, Uncle John strapped me onto the back of his bicycle and off we went to the emergency clinic. I still have the scar.
For most of the war, our car was unused. We walked or biked or took a bus. Petrol and many foods were rationed or just not available. The arrival of a parcel of Jaffa oranges from Israel, where my mother’s great uncle, great aunt and two cousins lived after they left Vienna, was cause for much celebration. I had never seen an orange before.
Many families grew their own vegetables, some in allotments. My mother, always resourceful and nostalgic for a staple of her youth, purchased imported salami from a Polish woman who specialized in contraband. As we returned from her home by bicycle, I held my mother’s back tightly while the salami was carefully placed in the basket in front.
For weeks I saved my pocket money in anticipation of the end of the rationing of sugar. When that day finally came, April 24, 1949, I went to the chemist on Penn Road, handed over my life’s savings, and purchased as much lemon/sugar concentrate as I could afford. It took only a few hours to consume all of it, which led to hyperglycemia and another visit to the emergency clinic.
Hobbies such as stamp collecting were important. Because we had friends and relatives displaced by the war, letters and postcards arrived from different parts of the world. Phone calls were infrequent due to their expense. Everybody gardened.
My earliest political recollection is of Enoch Powell, who was canvassing to become Conservative MP for Wolverhampton. He rode down Wells Road in an open car shouting through a bullhorn. (This was long before Powell’s odious “Rivers of Blood” anti-immigration speech.) My father, who went into the street to ask him some questions, voted Labour.
Luckier than most in many ways, I was able to visit the Grand Theatre often because my father was the manager. He also wrote plays and pantomimes, some of which were performed at the Grand and, later in his career, in the West End. You can read the program note I wrote for the pantomime performed at the Folger Theatre here in Washington in 1984.
I had to be carried to my first visit to the Grand, a dress rehearsal, as I was ten months old at the time. Somewhat older, I was allowed to see almost any play except for an Agatha Christie, which my parents thought was too violent for a child. Backstage was always fun, as was my father’s office. Actors were good company, particularly Shaun O’Riordan, who went on to a distinguished career as a director for television. Both he and I had our portraits done in chalk by Betty Twentyman.
My dolls were clothed by the theatre’s costumer, who had infinite patience as I tried on hats she made or re-made. But my very favourite memories are of making red paper flowers for a production of Ring Round the Moon and Christmas. Because many of the actors could not get home for Christmas and be back in time for Boxing Day performances, they would come to our house. My mother cooked a delicious meal and, inevitably, someone would play the piano and we’d sing not just carols but Bea Lillie songs (some of which my father had written).
Then, as now, many theatre people loved cricket. My father was no exception. He founded a cricket team of repertory actors, known as the Reptiles. I was their mascot and scorekeeper. There were lots of jokes about his hiring actors because of their ability to bowl or bat well. An annual visit to Datchet was the high point of summer when the Reptiles competed on the playing fields of Eton, no less, against other teams made up of actors.
For entertainment, going to the Gaumont Cinema was a big deal. That’s where I was so entranced by the film Bambi I fell out of my seat. A trip to the Dudley Zoo was a special Day Out. Because we were the first people in Wells Road to get a television — a great novelty in those days — neighbours would come to stare at the test patterns from Sutton Coldfield. Programming was limited, but I always enjoyed the black-and-white shows featuring cowboys and Indians (as they were then called), which were captioned for the deaf. With empathy for those afflicted, I stuck my fingers in my ears, avoiding all possibilities of hearing any dialogue or music.
Guy Fawkes was an autumn highlight. The children of Wells Road stacked twigs in a large conical pile, for a night of celebration, eating chestnuts and potatoes that we roasted in the bonfire.
I never went to a Wolves game, but my father was an avid fan. “Posting your pools, (the sports-betting method at the time) Billy?” he teased Billy Wright, whom he knew well, as the famous soccer player was putting an envelope into a red post box,
We had plenty of books around the house, as well as vinyl records. My father, an expert on American jazz, was asked to go on the radio program Twenty Questions. But that never happened. I don’t know why. And I don’t know where the books came from — possibly Beattie’s, or a local library.
School did not start well for me. The report from my first term at The Hawthornes, later re-named Greenhaven, read as follows: “Behaves well in school but does not respond to instruction; she prefers to play while other children work.” I was 4 years and 1 month old when that was written.
My next school was Red Hill, all girls in those days, in Stourbridge. I got there by double-decker bus, seated in the first row upstairs whenever possible. The bus stop nearest home was in front of the Rose & Crown pub. I distinctly remember a day when school had to close early due to smog. Because no public transportation was running, the father of one of my classmates had to fetch us in his car, a pre-war Citroen with bouncy seats, which he drove very, very slowly.
Another recollection I have of terrible smog is a car ride back from Leeds where my father had held auditions for the coming year’s pantomime. For part of the journey, I walked alongside the car with my hand outstretched to make sure we did not bump into anyone or anything. That’s how bad pollution was in the Midlands in the 1940s.
What I remember of Red Hill is that the toilets stank and there was a well-stocked sweet shop en route to the bus stop. Unfortunately, the school did not prepare me well for the 11+ exam, which I took when I was ten. My failure to get into the Wolverhampton Girls’ High School meant that I was shipped off to a boarding school in Cheshire, Goudhurst College — all female, students, teachers, and staff. That didn’t go well, either. Founded in the 1850s, with parts of the uniform unchanged since then, we were trained to sew on buttons, paint watercolors, walk in a crocodile, and recite passages from A Midsummer Night’s Dream ad nauseam. It was there that I had tuberculosis, made a friend for life — Vanessa — and learned when taking morning tea to the music teacher — who was under the sports teacher at the time — that relationships are not always what one might expect. Four terms and I was out.
We left Wolverhampton and the Grand Theatre for Little Chalfont, Bucks, in 1954. My father wanted to have more time to write and to be nearer London. I was sent as a boarder to Pipers Corner School for Girls, where instruction was poor and no direction towards a career was given. You were supposed to marry well and learn to type, just in case. I later discovered that the agency that advised parents on which schools would be suitable for their offspring characterized Pipers as a school for eccentrics. I loved it.
After my father died in February, 1957, my mother and I moved to Columbus, Ohio, USA, so that we could be near the Liebermanns - my mother’s brother John, his wife Marian, and daughters Carol and Frankie.
I went to the local high school (which I hated), the local university (which I hated) and as soon as I had taken the last course required for my degree, I took a bus to New York City, where I lived and worked in television news and documentaries from 1963 to 1966.
I was at the point I never wanted to leave New York City when I met Dan Davidson, a native New Yorker. The week that we got engaged, he mentioned that he had accepted a job in Washington and that I should join him there which I agreed to, providing it was for one year only. We married in March, 1966, and never went back to New York City.
Brief bio of Susan Thomas Davidson
Susan Davidson was born in a trunk — not literally, but her father, who was English ran a theatre and wrote plays. Her mother, who did things in fashion, was a refugee from Vienna, Austria. They met, married and had Susan in England. As Arts Editor of Washingtonian print magazine, from 1977 to 2009, Susan wrote a 5- to 7-page column monthly on theatre, museums, music and dance as well as online theatre reviews for the magazine’s website, Washingtonian.com. Most of her theatre reviews, written between 1990 to 2020 were for curtainup.com. Her freelance features and book reviews were published in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Jewish Week, Preservation Magazine, National Geographic Traveler, Savvy Traveler, Stagebill and O the Oprah Magazine. One of her travel articles "Chewton Glen," was a finalist for VisitBritain's 2006 Annual Travel Journalism Award and another piece," Cezanne's Big Show,” which appeared in Washingtonian magazine was a Dateline Award finalist.
Since retiring, Susan, who is now 80, widowed and still living in Washington, DC, USA, has travelled, tended her garden and tutored immigrants in English. Her daughter, Jill, lives two miles down the road.
Susan Thomas Davidson
Washington, DC, USA
December 13, 2022
All words and photos © Susan Thomas Davidson