Story: Luxford, Nola

Page 1 - Luxford, Nola

Luxford, Nola

1895–1994

Actress, radio broadcaster, journalist, hostess

This biography was written by Carole van Grondelle and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Nola Luxford was a New Zealand-born actress, writer, pioneer broadcaster and founder of the Anzac Club in New York City during the Second World War. Born Adelaide Minola Pratt on 23 December 1895 at Hunterville, she was the eldest of three children of Adelaide Agnes McGonagle, a schoolteacher, and her husband, Ernest Augustus Pratt, a draper. The family eventually settled in Hastings where her parents owned a bookstore. Nola was an attractive, popular and spirited child. She learned the piano and played in local repertory productions. After leaving school she worked as a ledger keeper at the Union Bank of Australia. In April 1919 Ernest Pratt eloped with the young assistant in his shop, causing a local scandal.

On 12 August 1919, at Hastings, Nola married Maurice George Luxford, a returned serviceman. She was distraught to discover after their marriage that her new husband was penniless. To escape the twin shames of their penury and her parents' divorce, the Luxfords borrowed money and set sail for America. Nola's most vivid memory of her early days there was sitting with Maurie in Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles, surrounded by drunks, and wondering how to buy their next meal.

Nola Luxford's life was marred by considerable pain and adversity. She suffered through two unhappy, childless marriages and almost relentless poverty, particularly during the depression. She was divorced from Maurie Luxford in April 1927. On 8 June 1927 at Baltimore, Maryland, she married William Bauernschmidt, a member of a wealthy Baltimore brewing family who intermittently disowned him. In 1934 he inherited approximately US$100,000 on the death of his uncle, and he and Nola built a house in Bel Air, Los Angeles. They were divorced in 1939 after nearly four years of conflict over the terms of the settlement, which made international headlines. Nola was awarded the house and its contents, plus a lump sum of $25,000.

Feeling herself a failure in her personal life, Nola Luxford strove harder to prove herself a success in the public realm. Throughout much of the 1920s she had tried to break into the Hollywood film industry. Although never a star, she was an accomplished actress with an elegant, intelligent beauty. Her cameo role in Girl shy, the 1924 Harold Lloyd comedy, was described as 'perfect'. She is credited in 11 silent films and 5 'talkies', was a female lead in 8 and worked as an extra in at least another 27.

In 1925 Luxford met American author Zane Grey several months before he travelled on the first of his fishing trips to New Zealand. Grey became enamoured of his 'Hollywood waif'. He admired her beauty, courage and virtue and helped to secure her a part in the 1926 film based on his book, Forlorn river. Grey also claimed she was his inspiration for some of his fictional heroines. When Luxford declined to be his 'secretary' on his second trip to New Zealand in 1927, their friendship lapsed.

In the 1930s she was one of the relatively few silent actors to make the transition to talkies, albeit in small roles. She worked with Katharine Hepburn, Basil Rathbone, Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery, and George Arliss and Mary Astor. She also starred in a theatre group that toured the west coast of America and Canada.

Nola Luxford had an attractive speaking voice, and in 1932 she persuaded the executives at KFI, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) radio affiliate in Los Angeles, that she should commentate at the Los Angeles Olympic Games for New Zealanders and Australians. This was little short of heresy. 'Who ever heard of a girl broadcasting sports events?' the KFI manager scoffed. Luxford convinced him she could do the job, and for the 16 days of the Olympics she broadcast an hour-long report of that day's events to the South Pacific. Her signature farewell was 'Goodnight, Mother Dear'. Her reports were also heard throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico. KFI was inundated with 50,000 letters and telegrams praising her efforts.

Throughout the 1930s Luxford maintained her involvement with radio. She wrote, produced and compèred 20 special international broadcasts to commemorate Christmas, Easter and Armistice Day. Some were used by the NBC network, including a farewell broadcast she produced for the American explorer Admiral R. E. Byrd on his journey through New Zealand to Antarctica. Ironically her radio persona gave her a higher public profile in Hollywood than her film career ever did, and she was regularly featured in the Los Angeles society pages. She also wrote a column for the popular pictorial weekly magazine the New Zealand Free Lance, from 1929 to 1955.

In 1939 Nola was hired by NBC as one of the first women network news announcers on the 'Four Star News' broadcast from New York. On 3 September she was one of the first news announcers to tell the American public that England was at war with Germany. Sadly, her contract was cut short (war reporting was considered men's business) and Luxford turned to war relief and fund-raising. She worked principally with the British American Ambulance Corps, which raised money to equip medical and dental ambulances for the front lines. She raised tens of thousands of dollars by producing patriotic fabric designs and a recording of ballads starring British theatre stars Gertrude Lawrence and Edmund Gwenn.

In 1940, at her own initiative, Luxford sought permission from the Rockefeller family to establish an Anzac garden on top of the British building in the Rockefeller Center to commemorate the Australian and New Zealand war dead. The garden was formally opened by New Zealand's prime minister, Peter Fraser, in 1941. (Memorial services continue to be held there each Anzac Day.)

By now, hundreds of young Australians and New Zealanders were training as pilots and navigators in Canada under the Empire Air Training Scheme. When given final leave, they headed straight for New York and Nola's apartment. When the trickle of young men turned into hundreds each week, she decided to set up a club. Within a few months she had organised the free lease of a room in the Phi Gamma Delta Clubhouse, a gentlemen's club at 106 West 56th Street, and rounded up a group of volunteer helpers. This was the start of the Anzac Club. By the end of the war some 35,000 men had enjoyed its hospitality.

For four years Nola Luxford and her 100 mainly women volunteers worked 15-hour days to ensure each man registered at the club had a memorable visit to the city. Five hundred families in the greater New York area hosted the Anzacs for dinner or a weekend's stay. Luxford arranged cheap accommodation and meals, concerts, parties, theatre tickets, tours of the city and weekend picnics. She did all her own fund-raising.

The club became so well known that people like Eleanor Roosevelt, Gertrude Lawrence, Gracie Fields, Vera Lynn and Tallulah Bankhead dropped by. Among its patrons were prominent lawyers, bankers, doctors and philanthropists. The New York news media lionised Nola, calling her the 'Angel of the Anzacs'. She was appointed an honorary OBE and awarded the American Award of Merit (both in 1947), as well as many lesser awards and citations. In 1989 she was awarded the Queen's Service Medal by the New Zealand government.

After the war, Nola Luxford became fashion director for the exclusive Hotel Pierre in New York. Here she organised international society fashion events and raised considerable funds for charity. She published a children's book, Kerry Kangaroo, and in the 1950s lectured widely throughout the United States on peace and the islands of the South Pacific.

On 1 August 1959, in Nevada, Nola Luxford married Glenn Russell Dolberg, the KFI manager who hired her to broadcast the 1932 Olympics. They retired to a large home and garden in the Los Angeles hills where they became active in local community affairs. Nola died on 10 October 1994, Glenn Dolberg having predeceased her in 1977.