Irené Frances Eastwood (Anne Ziegler) was born on 22 June 1910, the youngest child of Ernest and Eliza Frances Eastwood (née Doyle) of 13 Marmion Road, Sefton Park, Liverpool. Her father was a cotton broker, and her mother, born in Bootle, was the daughter of James and Elizabeth Doyle. James was an architect, who had designed the Grand Hotel, Llandudno and other well-known buildings. Her sister, Phyllis, and brother, Cyril, were some years older than her, so Irené was almost an only child. At the time of her birth, her father was in Houston, Texas, buying cotton, so he did not see her until she was three months old.
Her father did not want her to risk the might of the Zeppelins, so she had a Scottish nursery governess to teach her reading, writing and basic arithmetic. Later she attended Belvedere School. Her sister, Phyll, had done well there, but Anne was only interested in music and dancing, so the staff at Belvedere often compared her unfavourably to her studious elder sister, who had become a pharmacist when she left school.
Anne left school at the age of sixteen and continued playing the piano up to Grade VIII of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music and began to study singing with the eminent teacher, John Tobin. In the nineteen-twenties a girl of her class had no need to work for a living. She was beautiful: tall and slim with emerald green eyes, fair hair and a fine bone structure. She became engaged – several times – to suitable young men, including a curate!
She sang in John Tobin’s female choir of twenty-four voices and took the part of the May Queen in an amateur production of Merrie England.
She won the gold medal at the Liverpool eisteddfod and sang at concerts in and around Liverpool. At this stage singing was a pleasant way of passing the time rather than a means of earning her living for a girl of her class had no need to work and earn money. Her father financed a vocal recital in Liverpool and a further recital at the Wigmore Hall under John Tobin’s tutelage. At the Wigmore Hall she sang everything from Handel’s He’ll say that for my love from Xerses to Roger Quilter’s Love’s Philosophy and Scheherzade, but neither of these recitals brought forth any professional singing engagements.
Her family’s fortune took a downturn in the early thirties with the depression and the collapse of the cotton shares. For the first time in her life, she had to think seriously about earning a living to relieve her family’s finances. She was not trained to do anything as mundane as serving in a shop or typing, but she was attractive and she could sing. She and her friend, the mezzo-soprano, Nancy Evans, went to London to audition. Nancy didn’t find any work on that occasion, but Anne got the part of top voice in the octet of a musical play, By Appointment, starring the famous singer, Maggie Teyte, changed her name to the more glamorous Anne Ziegler, was accepted on the books of the theatrical agent Robert Layton, and was determined to establish herself on the stage and not become a financial burden to her father.
By Appointment was not a success and lasted only three weeks but she found another job singing for Mr Joe Lyon’s organisation amidst the clatter of the restaurants of the Regent Palace and Cumberland Hotels, and the Trocadero. She auditioned for the part of Marguerite in a colour film version of Gounod’s Faust Fantasy. She had seen the opera as a child and was so enchanted with it that she determined she would play the role of Marguerite when she grew up.
From over two hundred other hopefuls she was chosen for the part: no doubt her blonde good looks and charming personality counted for nearly as much as her attractive lyric soprano voice. It was in the making of this film, which commenced shooting in December 1934, that she met Webster Booth, playing opposite her as Faust.
They fell in love almost at first sight, although at the time he was married to his second wife, Paddy Prior and had a son, Keith, by his first marriage. Four years later, after his divorce from Paddy in times when divorce was not as common or acceptable as it is today, Anne and Webster were eventually married on Bonfire Night in 1938.
In the intervening four years from the time Anne and Webster met and when they were free to marry, Anne was principal boy in her first pantomime, was an overnight success on radio in The Chocolate Soldier, sang in the early days of British television in 1936, and starred, under the name of Anne Booth, in the musical Virginia in New York.
Anne had made a test recording for HMV in 1935 but she made very few solo recordings for the company. It was only when she began singing duets with Webster that her recording career as a duettist was established in 1939. Here is her test recording from 1935:
The Waltz Song from Merrie England
At the end of 1935, she was principal boy in Mother Goose, her first pantomime, at the Empire Theatre, Liverpool with George Formby and George Lacey. The following year she was principal boy in Cinderella in Scotland with the popular Scottish comedian, Will Fyffe.
July 1937. Anne was invited to go to the States to appear in the musical Virginia by Schwartz. She decided to take the name of Anne Booth for her appearance there and made up a fictional life story to go with her new name! The show was presented at the Center Theater, New York, but it was not a great success, and Anne did not receive very good notices. She returned to the UK after the show ended although a film company in Hollywood had been interested in employing her.
Anne and Webster were married on 5 November 1938 and from then on their lives and careers were intertwined and in the 1940s they were to reach the top of the entertainment tree as duettists.
Jean Collen 13 September 2018.