Lawrence was born Gertrude Alice Dagmar Klasen, of English and Danish extraction, in the Newington area of London Borough of Southwark. Her father was a basso profundo who performed under the name Arthur Lawrence. His heavy drinking led her mother Alice to leave him soon after Gertrude's birth.
In 1904, her stepfather took the family to Bognor on the Sussex coast for the August bank holiday. While there, they attended a concert where audience members were invited to entertain. At her mother's urging, young Gertrude sang a song and was rewarded with a gold sovereign for her effort. It was her first public performance.
In 1908, in order to augment the family's meager income, Alice accepted a job in the chorus of the Christmas pantomime at Brixton Theatre. A child who could sing and dance was needed to round out the troupe, and Alice volunteered her daughter. While working in the production Alice heard of Italia Conti, who taught dance, elocution and the rudiments of acting. Gertrude auditioned for Conti, who thought the child was talented enough to warrant free lessons.
Her training led to appearances in Max Reinhardt's The Miracle in London and Fifinella, directed by Basil Dean, for the Liverpool Repertory Theatre. At some point during this period, the child decided to adopt her father's professional surname as her own. Dean then cast her in his next production, Gerhart Hauptmann's Hannele, where she first met Noël Coward. Their meeting was the start of a close and sometimes tempestuous friendship and the most important professional relationship in both their lives.
Early stage career
Following Hannele, Lawrence reconnected with her father, who was living with a chorus girl. They agreed to let her tour with them in two successive revues, after which Arthur announced he had signed a year-long contract with a variety show in South Africa, leaving the two young women to fend for themselves. Lawrence, now aged sixteen, opted to live at the Theatrical Girls' Club in Soho rather than return to her mother and stepfather. She worked steadily with various touring companies until 1916, when she was hired by famed impresario André Charlot to understudy Beatrice Lillie and appear in the chorus of his latest production in London's West End. When it closed, she assumed Lillie's role on tour, then returned to London once again to understudy the star in another Charlot production, where she met dance director Francis Gordon-Howley. Although he was twenty years her senior, the two wed and soon after had a daughter Pamela, Lawrence's only child. The marriage was not a success, and Lawrence took Pamela with her to her mother's home in Clapham. The couple remained separated but did not divorce until ten years later.
In 1918, Lawrence contracted lumbago and was given a fortnight to recuperate by Charlot, who then saw her at an opening night party at Ivor Novello's invitation two days before she was cleared to return to work by her doctor, and immediately sacked her. When the apparent reason for her dismissal became common knowledge among other West End producers, she was unable to find work, and in early 1919 she accepted a job singing in the show at Murray's, a popular London nightclub, where she remained for the better part of the next two years. While performing there she met Captain Philip Astley, a member of the Household Cavalry. He became her friend, escort, and ultimately lover, and taught her how to dress and behave in high society. When Lawrence became involved with Wall Street banker Bert Taylor in 1927, Astley proposed marriage, an offer Lawrence refused because she knew Astley would expect her to leave the stage and settle in rural England. The two remained close until he married actress Madeleine Carroll in 1931. When Lawrence divorced Gordon-Howley, she and Taylor became engaged and remained so for two years, with each free to enjoy a social life separate from the other.
At the end of 1920, Lawrence left Murray's and began to ease her way back into legitimate theatre while touring in a music hall act as the partner of popular singer Walter Williams. In October 1921, Charlot asked her to replace an ailing Beatrice Lillie as star of his latest production, A to Z, opposite Jack Buchanan. In it the two introduced the song "Limehouse Blues," which went on to become one of Lawrence's signature tunes.
In 1923, Noël Coward developed his first musical revue, London Calling!, specifically for Lawrence. Charlot agreed to produce it, but brought in more experienced writers and composers to work on the book and score. One of Coward's surviving songs was "Parisian Pierrot", a tune that would be identified closely with Lawrence throughout her career. The show's success led its producer to create André Charlot's London Revue of 1924, which he took to Broadway with Lawrence, Lillie, Buchanan and Constance Carpenter. It was so successful it moved to a larger theatre to accommodate the demand for tickets and extended its run. After it closed, the show toured the US and Canada, although Lawrence was forced to leave the cast when she contracted double pneumonia and pleurisy and was forced to spend fourteen weeks in a Toronto hospital recuperating.
Charlot's Revue of 1926, starring Lawrence, Lillie, and Buchanan, opened on Broadway in late 1925. In his review, Alexander Woollcott singled out Lawrence, calling her "the personification of style and sophistication" and "the ideal star." Like its predecessor, it toured following the Broadway run. It proved to be Lawrence's last project with Charlot. In November 1926, she became the first British performer to star in an American musical on Broadway when she opened in Oh, Kay!, with music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, and a book by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse. Following a run of 256 performances, the musical opened in the West End, where it ran for 213 performances.
In 1928, Lawrence returned to Broadway opposite Clifton Webb in Treasure Girl, a Gershwin work she was confident would be a huge hit. Anticipating a long run, she arrived in New York with her daughter Pamela, a personal maid and two cars, and settled into a flat onPark Avenue. Her instincts about the musical were wrong; audiences had difficulty accepting her as an avaricious woman who double-crosses her lover, and it ran for only 68 performances. She starred opposite Leslie Howard in Candle Light, an Austrian play adapted by Wodehouse, in 1929, and in 1931 she and Noël Coward triumphed in his play Private Lives, first in the UK, and later on Broadway.
Later stage career
In 1936, Lawrence and Coward starred in Tonight at 8:30, a cycle of ten one-act plays he had written specifically for the two of them. In 1937, she appeared in the Rachel Crothersdrama Susan and God, and in 1939 starred in Skylark, a comedy by Samson Raphaelson. Lawrence felt the play needed work prior to opening on Broadway, and a run at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts was arranged. The theatre was run by Harvard University graduate Richard Aldrich, and he and the actress became involved in a romantic relationship. The two wed on her birthday in 1940 and remained married until her death in 1952. They had homes in Dennis and in Turtle Bay. Manhattan.
In 1941 Lawrence's daughter Pamela married a New York doctor named Bill Cahan. Lawrence was friendly with her son-in-law but lost contact with him after he and Pamela divorced. Lawrence did not have any grandchildren during her lifetime.
Lawrence returned to the musical stage in Lady in the Dark in 1941. It originally had been planned as a play with recurrent musical themes for Katharine Cornell by Moss Hart, Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin, but by the time the first act was completed it was clear it was very much a musical Cornell agreed was beyond her capability as a performer. Soon after Hart met Lawrence at a rehearsal for a revue designed to raise funds for British War Relief, and he offered her the role of Liza Elliott, a magazine editor undergoing psychoanalysis to better understand why both her professional and personal lives are filled with indecision. The show was very ambitious and stretched the star's talents for singing, dancing and acting. Her performance prompted Richard Watts of the New York Herald Tribune to call her "the greatest feminine performer in the American theatre," and Brooks Atkinson described her as "a goddess" in his review in the New York Times. She remained with the show throughout its Broadway run and its subsequent national tour over the next three years.
Decades later, Ira Gershwin told American songwriting historian Sheila Davis about a contribution Lawrence made to honing the lyrics of the song "My Ship" in Lady in the Dark. "During a Lady in the Dark rehearsal," Davis wrote, "Gertrude Lawrence suddenly stopped singing midline and called out to Gershwin, who was monitoring from the orchestra, 'Why does she say 'I could wait four years' – why not five or six?' Of course, the line was 'I could wait for years.' The painstaking lyricist immediately substituted the to clarify the aural ambiguity."
In 1945, Lawrence starred as Eliza Doolittle opposite Raymond Massey as Henry Higgins in a revival of Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, who initially resisted the idea of Lawrence playing the role. Following the Broadway run, she toured the United States (including a stint in Washington, D.C.) and Canada in the play until May 1947.
Over the course of twenty-one years, Lawrence appeared in only nine films. She made her screen debut in 1929 in The Battle of Paris, which featured two songs by Cole Porter.Paramount Pictures offered her the film shortly after the Broadway production of Treasure Girl unexpectedly closed and, with no prospects of stage work in the immediate future, she accepted the offer. The film, co-starring Arthur Treacher and Charles Ruggles, was shot in Paramount's Astoria Studio complex in Astoria, Queens. Lawrence was cast as Georgie, an artist living in pre-World War I Paris, who becomes a cabaret singer and falls in love with an American soldier. Publicity for the film emphasised Lawrence's songs and costumes rather than the story, which was so weak that director Robert Florey had threatened to resign midway through filming. Described by one critic as a "floperetta," it was not a success.
In 1932, she appeared in three features: an adaptation of the Frederick Lonsdale play Aren't We All? directed by Harry Lachman; Lord Camber's Ladies, produced by Alfred Hitchcock, directed by Benn W. Levy, and co-starring Gerald du Maurier; and No Funny Business with Laurence Olivier. In 1935, she appeared in Mimi, based on La Vie de Bohème. The following year she was cast opposite Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester in Rembrandt and co-starred with Rex Harrison in Men are Not Gods, both produced by Alexander Korda. In 1943, she filmed a short musical number for Stage Door Canteen, a wartime film featuring dozens of stars entertaining Allied soldiers on leave.
Lawrence's best-known American film role was that of Amanda Wingfield, the overbearing mother in The Glass Menagerie (1950), which both Bette Davis and Tallulah Bankhead had sought. The role required her to wear padding and affect a Southern American accent and friends and critics questioned her decision to accept it. Tennessee Williams, who had written the play, thought casting Lawrence was "a dismal error" and, after the film's release, called it the worst adaptation of his work he had seen thus far. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called her Amanda "a farcically exaggerated shrew with the zeal of a burlesque comedienne" and "a perfect imitation of a nervous Mama in domestic comedy". Writing about her performance in Saturday Review, Richard Griffith was generous in his praise, saying "Not since Garbo has there been anything like the naked eloquence of her face, with its amazing play of thought and emotion."
Television and radio
In 1938, Lawrence took a night off from Susan and God to perform the play for NBC's emerging television audience, which then consisted mostly of customers at bars, hotels, pedestrians in other public places in New York City and NBC employees. Probably less than 100 – 200 receivers could pick up the telecast. Photos of the 1938 live broadcast are featured in a major article in Life (magazine) published a week later, as it was one of the first full-length plays done on live television. In 1943, Lawrence hosted a weekly series of American radio shows, some of them featuring discussions with guests and others adaptations of Hollywood hit films. In 1947, she returned to NBC for a production of the 1913 Shaw play The Great Catherine. In order to promote The King and I, she appeared on various television programmes, including the Ed Sullivan-hosted Toast of the Town, with Rodgers and Hammerstein joining her to perform selections from the show. Additionally, she appeared on several BBC Radio interview and variety shows before and after World War II.
Death and funeral
On August 16, 1952, Lawrence fainted backstage immediately after finishing a Saturday matinee of The King and I. After "a few days at home," wrote Aldrich, she was admitted to New York-Presbyterian Hospital for tests. Doctors said she was suffering from hepatitis, and she was admitted to a room on the 16th floor. Her former son-in-law, Dr. Bill Cahan, suspected liver cancer might be a more accurate diagnosis, and early on the morning of September 6, doctors performed a biopsy of her liver. Lawrence slipped into a coma, and her husband phoned Cahan, who rushed to the hospital. Lawrence, who had not seen Cahan in years, briefly opened her eyes, seemed puzzled by his presence, and then died. A subsequent autopsy confirmed that she did have cancer. Doctors performing the autopsy did not agree on whether the cancer had originated in the liver, but they did determine that she had cancer, not hepatitis.
According to the New York Times, 5,000 people crowded the intersection of East 55th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, while 1,800 others, including Yul Brynner, Connecticut Governor John Davis Lodge, Marlene Dietrich, Phil Silvers, Luise Rainer, Moss Hart and his wife Kitty Carlisle filled Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church for Lawrence's funeral. In his eulogy, Oscar Hammerstein II quoted from an essay on death written by poet and novelist Rabindranath Tagore. Lawrence was buried in the champagne-coloured gown worn for the "Shall We Dance?" number in the second act of The King and I, and she was interred in the Aldrich family plot in Lakeview Cemetery in Upton, Massachusetts.