From an ordinary middle-class upbringing to international stardom, “Pepito” songstress Yvonne Carré-Valdor’s autobiography Ice Cream, Cognac & “You” is a compelling tale of dreams, adversity, and strength of will.
Has an embryo in the womb the power to think and sing? I imagine you, your family doctor, and most gynecologists in the world would answer adamantly “No way!” I’d have to go along with you, but if I could have sung at that stage – as I did a few years later – it surely would have been “Nothing’s gonna stop me now!”
When I came into this world it was before the doctor could arrive – apparently, he got held up by the heavy sea mist often prevalent in Bermuda at that time of the year. It didn’t bother me. I came in feet first and have had my two flat feet firmly planted on the ground ever since.
Mum, who had had a very bad birth on her third child, was told to stop producing if she wanted to live – but Dad was a temperamental Oriental, and Mum didn’t have a clue…so, some years later, a fourth offspring arrived. However, with me it was years later, and Mum was already in her mid-forties and quite sure and slap happy that “All Her Trials,” like the Bahaman folk song, “would soon be over.” No more worries of using brand new bed sheets, or worst of all, bottles of hot cooked gin (known in those days as “Mother’s Ruin” because it was believed it could give such a jolt to the entire system that it could bring on a period, and so ruin the chance of a further pregnancy. The Pill as we know it today only arrived in the 60s.)
I was more or less born on a beach, and when my father first set eyes on me in Mum’s arms, he asked, “What is it, a boy or a girl?”
“A little girl,” was the answer, whereupon Dad quipped, “Oh, it’s covered with so much dark hair I thought it was a Pussycat!”
From then onward I got the nickname “Pussyface.” I have no thick hair all over me now, but the name struck to me like glue. I do have a deep affinity for little furry felines with pretty faces – who to this day often have to fight for their rights to be completely independent.
Many years later, when Mum and I were sitting comfortably installed in the kitchen having a good cup of English tea, she confessed to me how hard she had tried to get rid of that fifth pregnancy. I asked casually, “Did you not know about the safe period?” Whereupon she answered:
“Oh yes, the middle of the month – but it still didn’t help.” No wonder!
I had to smile. “Oh heavens, Mum, be happy I was number five and not number fifteen – you certainly were naïve!”
In the 30s women were still often in the dark ages, and knew very little of birth control, births, or anything about sex, except trying to please their husbands, who were the bread winners. However, they still had dreams and very often, because they had no alternative, they said to themselves, “You’ve got to grin and bear it.” We used to say “You’ve got to bear and grin it – innit?” just for fun. Anyway, the weather in Bermuda was much better than the weather in London.
The first thing I can remember at all is lots of eyes peering at me in my pink and white cradle. They all seemed to want to see the new baby and take photos. My Mother said proudly:
“Here she is, I think we’ll call her Yvonne.”
Cameras started to click, whereupon I was so nervous and disgusted at this intrusion into my privacy, I did a big business which seemed to stretch right up to my arm (I must have been tiny!). Mum was so shocked at my ruining her big moment of pride that she shouted to my nurse, “Bertha, Bertha, take her away immediately! … oh, the little stinker!”
Maybe that is why there are no baby pictures of me at all. Being born philosophic I am quite sure a little voice inside me said, “Not everything in life goes the way you want it to Mum, but don’t worry, one day I will make you proud of me.”
Even before I could walk Dad would take me on the beach and into the ocean saying, “Don’t be afraid, the sea is your bed, just lay back and enjoy it.”
I did, floating happily on my back with him holding my head up. I think I could swim before I could walk. I know I could think before I could talk. I stuttered as a small kid and was a slow talker. I think my husband Frank and my family and friends would agree I certainly made up for this later.
Bye Bye, Bermuda – Hey Hey, U.K.
As Hitler started progressing across Europe, my father decided it was time to get back to the older members of our family (my older brothers and sisters) and get re-settled in the U.K. As I was only a two-year-old, the only recollections I have of Paget Beach are the rosy sands, that even when you fell over didn’t hurt too much, then of course “my bed,” as Dad had told me to call the sea, which I loved so much, and my mother’s high soprano voice, when she would sing me a sweet spiritual lullaby at bed time. To be in her soft arms, pressed against her ample bosom was something like paradise. She called me “Piccaninny,” the island name for a little black one – maybe I was? As far as I know, she had taken it from the black population in Bermuda. The Lullaby went like this:
Lula lula lula lula bye bye
Does ye want the moon to play with?
Or the stars to run away with?
They’ll come if you don’t cry
So lula lula lula lula bye bye
Into Mami’s arms acreepin’
And soon you’ll be asleepin’
With a lula lula lula lula bye bye.
It was also bye bye to the lovely nest life of Bermuda, of lazy hazy days and peaceful nights. It was Hey Hey U.K.: Wow!
London life, after sublime Bermuda, was like a bolt from the blue. No sun, no sand, no sea; everybody busy busy, and people everywhere. Many men walked along the streets whistling the latest tunes, and everyone seemed to be in a hurry.
For me the best thing about London was the men who rode about on tricycles selling Wall’s Ice Cream. Their slogan was “Stop me & buy one!” You could stop him in the street and have an ice cream whenever you fancied one. If you did not have enough pennies to pay, he would take a vanilla “brick” and halve it. I discovered ice cream very early in life, and it has remained my favorite food ever since.
At age 4 it was decided I should join this busy throng of Londoners. Bertha, my nurse, who was white as snow with red hair – Dad had chosen her, as she was big and burly and he thought no one would notice the little, rather dark baby, as she almost enveloped me under her blue and white starched nurse’s uniform – had come to London with us and had now found another job. Mum had gone to the Salvation Army, which her committee supported, and came back with a lovely jolly house maid called Maude. Soon she was joined by an older charwoman, Mrs. Dale, who came in three times a week to help out. There were five children of all ages – the three oldest were grown – but it was a big house on three floors. It was situated in a new, fine area, and from Mum’s bay window one could watch world tennis tournaments. This was before the Oval and Wimbledon took tennis to the other side of the Thames.
Mum decided I should join my older sister Roxie and have piano lessons with Mrs. Wand. Perhaps she thought with such a name she could do magic and turn us both into concert pianists. For little me, with my tiny hands that could never stretch an octave (8 notes), it was a struggle; I loathed the left hand base notes and wished I could just concentrate on the happy right hand treble clef. The nicest part of these Wednesday piano lessons was that I was allowed to go into the drawing room, with its grand Steinway piano and beautiful baroque furniture, with the dark mauve and gold cushions, and polished parquet flooring. This was barred to me til now. As I had to practice at least 30 minutes daily, apart from my Wednesday piano lesson with Mrs. Wand, I could play and look at the beautiful painting from Monet in its heavy gold frame, and the delightful Dresden China ballet dancer figurines displayed on the mantle piece above the fireplace. These represented the much-adored London Ballerina with the Russian name – Anna Pavlova.
Both my parents loved music and they would very often walk about the house singing to themselves: Mum more classical and operettas, and Dad more the latest pop. Mum’s best friend was related to Mischa Ellman the famous violinist; she also knew the violinist virtuoso Yasha Chaivitz and the Yehudi Menhuin family. Mrs. Chaivitz was once asked by a journalist, “How did you make a virtuoso of your son?”
“Our children are like a beautiful brass plates, it is up to us elders to beat it til it is an outstanding piece.”
If she had known then the word ‘strategy’ she probably would have used it!
Mum and Dad were mad about music. They often sang in duets, like Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald in those beautiful old movies. They liked to copy Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth, who were England’s operetta duo of the day. All my parents’ musicality was used for raising money at various charity concerts. Dad was always donating to this and that, and Mum belonged to various ladies’ guilds who held teas etc. to raise money to help poor refugees thrown out of their countries by Hitler and his hordes, so I was raised on music and charities. We kids supported a nearby orphanage.
My eldest sister Frances was herself a ballerina and an excellent tap dancer – a real showbiz person – who worshipped Anna Pavlova, and later Margot Fonteyn. When she wasn’t in a show she would help out in a dance studio, giving tap dance lessons to little ones. For my sister Rox and I she had arranged a special song and dance routine:
“You call me Sugar Plum, Sugar Plum means yum yum yum
It’s yum yum yum, cos you’re the one for me”
“I call you Lollipop, Lollipop means you’re the top
And you’re the top, cos you’re the one for me”
All sweet, simple kids’ stuff. Dad loved the trumpeter Harry James and his famous rendering of “The Flight of the Bumble Bee,” top of the charts at that time. The fact that he was also married to the blonde pin up girl Betty Grable, the No. 1 Film Star, certainly helped matters. Mum was a fan of Bing Crosby and his top hit “Far Away Places”… “with the strange sounding names are calling me.” This song haunted me and was to have an impact on my future goals for life.
Happy Childhood Memories
In spite of Dad’s dislike of babies – even with five offspring – he really enjoyed playing with us and teaching us to be competitive. On a rainy Sunday afternoon, he would get us altogether, and we were quite a bunch as we had always a sort of open house to all our friends, owing to Mum’s terrific generosity and big heartedness. Dad would put on the gramophone and shout out in his special “teacher’s voice”:
“The first one to get right the name of the song and the soloist gets a sixpenny bit.” This was a lot of money in those days! He’d put on a record and the first one to recognize the introduction and the vocalist got the silver sixpence. I loved this game, and even though I was the youngest, I beat a lot of the older kids because of my now famous sharp musical hearing and memory of songs. In time I got to sharing a red money box resembling a London public letter box with my sister Roxie…she agreed as she noticed how full it became once we joined forces.
If the weather was good on the weekend, Dad would shout out:
“Hurry up, all of you, we are going to the beach at West Cliff!” And here again who ever saw the sea first got a threepenny bit. In those days there were no safety belts or police making sure of law and order. Our car was invariably crammed with kids. I sat on Mum’s lap up front, Roxie sat between Mum & Dad, and the other kids plus pals were all squashed in at the back. As I was up front and on high, I often saw the sea first, and did well til the others complained. I was duly put into the boot, which opened at the top. Although I felt like the cat’s whiskers with that place to myself, and sharing it with all the goodies for the picnic, I never managed to see the sea first again.
We always had a picnic on the beach, and for me this meant FUN. Mum was a master at making succulent chicken sandwiches for us all, and Dad would buy a couple of bottles of Tizer, an orange-coloured fizzy drink with an indefinable taste and a terrible amount of fizz which invariably came down my nose – a kid’s delight. Pepsi and Coke were still unheard of. We small ones were only allowed water, milk, or cocoa.
When the weather was only so-so, as it so often is in England, Dad would tell us,
“We are all going to Whitewebbs Park.”
This was a sort of woods with lots of trees, bushes and ditches, and little overgrown paths, ideal for Hide and Seek. We generally played Cowboys and Indians. The boys were often the Cowboys and Dad and us girls Indians. Once hidden we had to give the famous Indian whooping call, and the Cowboys had to find us each separately. Dad would give them a certain amount of time and if they had not rounded up all of us, we would win. If they got us all, then the Cowboys were the winners. I generally made a mess up, as I would stand by a big tree and cover my face with my hands – so I could see nothing. I guess I believed no one could see me. I let the side down completely! The best part of these outings for me was that the moment we all got into the car, and it started moving, Dad would get us singing all the Olde Tyme Songs of his youth. His favorite seemed to be:
“My wife’s gone to the country, hooray hooray!
She thought it best to take a rest, so she went away.
She’s taken the kiddies with her, hooray hooray!
So girls don’t miss a chance like this, my wife’s gone away!”
Number two was something like this:
“All the girls are lovely by the seaside,
They’re all lovely by the sea.
Some are small, some are long, some are big, some are strong,
Pick where you like you can’t go wrong
They’re all lovely by the sea”
Looking back, I would say my infant days, after Bertha, who seemed to have a sadistic streak for hitting my bottom with the back of a big hard brush, had gone, were a very happy and funny time. My older brothers and sisters taught me to read, and as I was longing to be as good as they were, I learnt quickly. “Brrr Rabbit” was my favorite. Every week Maude, our maid, used to get “The Red Letter”, a very spicy weekly about passion and having babies out of wedlock.
We were allowed Mickey Mouse, and my eldest brother Ray got the juiciest of all, with pictures of half naked women and terrible stories from the famous (at that time) James Hadley Chase, like “No Orchids for Miss Blandish” and worse still, “Lady Don’t Turn Over”. These paperbacks he would hide under a big brown cushion on an armchair and sit down innocently when anyone came into the lounge. No one else seemed to notice – but I did! And would secretly read all this illicit stuff, looking up words in the dictionary. Not quite the thing for little girls, though I am quite sure this particular episode happened a few years later, when I was on to regular visits to our local library and had turned into an avid reader. I would read just anything I could lay my hands on. The fact that war was just around the corner never entered my head. School came first, and after the tearful goodbye to Mummy, I went into the hall with our infants’ class for role call and noticed some very nice-looking boys. One of them was taller than the rest and very good looking. Later I learnt his name was Michael Robbins. We little infants did not have desks but little chairs and tables. When we were told we could be seated he took my chair away and I fell on the floor at his feet. I knew all these boyish pranks from my brother Theo and his pals. I would have been angry, but as I picked myself up, he winked at me and gave me such an encouragingly nice smile that even then I knew that he fancied me, and to my little mind he was the pick of the bunch, so I began to like going to school even from day one.
It is very interesting - live and adventure - 24.03.2022
A look in an earlier World of entertainment. I have also helped with some translation for a german issue.
Big praise - 26.02.2022
I read Yvonne Carré's book with much interest and pleasure. It gives a detailed and captivating insight into the life of an artist, her environment, her family history and her attitude towards life. The journeys through the world to her performances or to her vacation destinations are described in an entertaining and informative way. Many well-known and famous names are mentioned for a variety of reasons. Seriousness, humor, and life wisdom run throughout the book. I highly recommend "Ice Cream, Cognac and "You".