The Extraordinary Tale of Gloria Minoprio (final part)
Nick Pitt, Sports correspondent of the Sunday Times, concludes his fascinating story of Gloria Minoprio
Nothing was heard from Minoprio in public until a year later, when she entered the 1934 English championship, held at Seacroft, Lincolnshire.
This time, the press corps was even larger and several photographers had been dispatched from Fleet Street. Once again, her arrival was theatrical.
Moving silently over the dunes from the direction of the sea, a tall, solitary figure appeared in silhouette. Slowly, the figure grew larger and more distinct as it approached, walking upright, head erect, carrying a single club. Once again, on her arrival, Minoprio approached her opponent, Betty Sommerville, held out a white-gloved right hand and said “How do you do?” and once again, having the honour, she tapped the ground to indicate where her caddie should tee up, and began her strange swishing preliminaries with her eyes fixed on the ball.
“Her match was the sensation of the day,” The Star reported. “Skegness was all agog. Had she been Gloria Swanson come to shoot a scene in a film, she could not have stirred more deeply the emotions of the spectators, who all with one accord tripped after her. A large band of stewards were present — there was a battery of camera-men at the side, the eyes of the populace were focused on her. She looked as destitute of emotion as a Frigidaire.”
If Minoprio was enjoying herself, Sommerville was not. An engaging, snub-nosed girl from the Faversham club in Kent, she was making her championship debut aged nineteen, and was petrified. “When I saw the draw in the paper, I nearly had a fit,” she said. “It was like playing a supernatural being. She was not a bit friendly. She never spoke.”
Minoprio hit a fine shot and a good approach, a nice long putt and a tap-in to win the hole. Having taken an early lead, Minoprio did not relinquish it, and concluded the match on the seventeenth green to become the first person to win a championship match using one club.
In the second round, Minoprio faced Mary Johnson, an England international who had been the runner-up at Westward Ho! and would again reach the final at Seacroft. Johnson won comfortably, though The Times reported that “Miss Minoprio, with the swing one would expect from so graceful a figure, did prodigies with her one club.”
Once more, Henry Longhurst was at hand. “Crowds flocked to walk round with her, workmen dropped their tools to watch her pass, her picture was in every newspaper, her name upon every lip,” he wrote. “It is difficult to think of this lady as a golfer, and yet there is no doubt that she is a most accomplished player, handicapped only by her refusal to use those instruments which make the game most easy.”
Evidently, Longhurst had more than a professional interest in Minoprio. After the events at Westward Ho! they had exchanged letters. But when Longhurst took the plunge at Seacroft, introducing himself to Minoprio as “your correspondent” she stared vaguely over his shoulder, said “Oh yes,” and walked away.
Having established herself as a golfing exotic and eccentric, Minoprio took up magic. ‘Uncle’ Gavin and Minoprio spared no expense – they were spending Weld’s money, after all. They bought tuition from four of the most famous practitioners of the day. Minoprio practised her card tricks and sleight of hand in front of a mirror for hours at a time. Gavin hatched a plan for Minoprio to travel to India to perform for the maharajahs. A fabulous brochure advertising her skills was produced at great expense. Housed in a silk slip-case, it was limited to an edition of 100. (And is now one of the rarest items of magic memorabilia.)
Minoprio and Gavin sailed to India in November 1936 but the adventure was a disaster because Gavin fell ill. Minoprio did perform for a maharajah on the voyage and secured a donation for the Medical Research Council. They soon returned to Europe.
By endless practice, Minoprio managed to achieve an exceptional standard in magic, specialising in card tricks and sleights of hand. But she did not entirely neglect golf. She won another first-round match in the 1936 English championship at Hayling Island, watched again by Longhurst, and produced two fine stroke-play rounds to qualify for the match-play rounds of the British Open championship at Southport & Ainsdale that same year.
One last golfing achievement remained for Minoprio, at the 1938 British Ladies Championship at Burnham and Berrow, Somerset. She prepared well, qualified after the stroke-play rounds, had a first-round bye and was drawn to play Wain Winter, a member of a South African ladies team that was touring Britain. Among those who watched the match was Bernard Darwin, the leading golf writer of the day.
“Another South African, Miss Wain Winter, was beaten by Miss Gloria Minoprio, and there is something pathetic in travelling so far to be beaten by a player with one club,” Darwin wrote for The Times. “All possible praise, however, is due to Miss Minoprio. Her mono-cleek and putter juggling act has lost something of novelty and as a rule she finds her self-imposed handicap too great, but this time she gave a remarkable exhibition of strategic and skilful play.
“Miss Winter has a fine free-flowing swing. When she reached the foot of the green at the long fourth in two, it seemed that the writing was on the wall for Miss Minoprio, since these distances were beyond her. In fact, Miss Winter was two up on the fifth. But Miss Minoprio proceeded to play very well. Her adversary began to feel the strain. Miss Minoprio went on with an imperial and distracted air, playing one accurate shot after another, and keeping out of bunkers. She won by four and three.” In June 1939, Minoprio played in the last ladies championship before the outbreak of war, at Royal Portrush. She was beaten in the first round by Peggy Edwards, a young star from Lancashire, but had found a degree of friendship with the other players, who she entertained with conjuring tricks. Minoprio donated her cleek and outfit to the Ladies Golf Museum, who later donated them to the British Golf Museum in St Andrews. She never played again.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THEM…
Died in the London Clinic in 1935, aged 83. His executors discovered that much of the family fortune had ended up in the hands of Gavin and Minoprio, and threatened legal action. Counsel’s advice was that he had willingly given it all away. Weld was interred in the family vault beneath the chapel at Lulworth Castle.
Around the outset of the war, he and Minoprio separated. She later claimed that he had tried to kill her. He died in his flat in Gray’s Inn Road, London, in 1948 aged 81 with assets of less than a thousand pounds.
Once she had left Gavin and the money had run out, she spent part of the war with an elderly Hungarian named M J K Jakabos, producing cheese from sheep’s milk on a farm in Northamptonshire until Jakabos was interned. Minoprio subsequently married Stefan Godlewski, a Pole who had fought in the British Army. He changed his name to Caroll. He was a restaurant manager and she worked as a laundry mistress in hotels. All the Weld money was long gone. Minoprio contracted septicaemia and died in Nassau, Bahamas, in 1958, aged 50.
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