The Extraordinary Tale of Gloria Minoprio (part i)
In the first of three parts, Sunday Times sports correspondent Nick Pitt unravels the enduring mystery of this lady golfer.
The opening episode in the weirdest and most mystifying episode in the history of championship golf unfolded on a bright autumn day in 1933 when Gloria Minoprio, hitherto unknown, caused a double sensation by competing with only one club and wearing what no lady golfer had ever worn in competition – trousers.
Henry Longhurst, the legendary writer and broadcaster, was an eye-witness. He had no doubt that history was made that day at Westward Ho! “Miss Gloria Minoprio will go down to posterity with an immortality that is denied to kings and bishops, generals and statesmen, as ‘the lady who played in trousers’,” he wrote.
In fact she turned out to be a passing comet. For six years, Minoprio competed in trousers and with her single club, only playing in championships and with limited success. She said hardly a word, but left behind a whiff of her times, a host of rumours and an enduring mystery. Who was she? Why did she do it? Was she really a magician and did she perform for the princes and maharajahs in India? And what became of her?
The truth is stranger and more scandalous than anyone, even Longhurst, could have imagined.
At four minutes past noon on Tuesday 3 October 1933, a limousine thundered down the lane that runs alongside the clubhouse of the Royal North Devon Golf Club at Westward Ho!. It rattled over a cattle-grid and swerved left in front of the hump-back bridge that leads on to the flat expanse of the links and beyond to the sea, and came to a halt in a swirl of dust. The back door swung open and a tall, dark-haired, 25-year-old woman emerged. She was carrying a cleek, a long-handled club equivalent to a modern one- or two-iron.
Her name was Gloria Minoprio.
Miss Minoprio began to walk in measured strides towards the first tee some two hundred yards away. A crowd had gathered around the first tee, and in the clubhouse members moved to the big window in the bar that overlooked the course. All eyes were turned to Miss Minoprio. She was expected.
The reason for such interest was hardly the occasion, which was a second-round match in the English Women’s Golf Championship, Miss G Minoprio (Littlestone) versus Miss N Halsted (Banstead Downs), scheduled for 12.05pm. Rather, it was curiosity. Before the championship, nobody had heard of Miss Minoprio. Yet mystery and notoriety had already attached themselves to her exotic name. A ridiculous rumour following the practice rounds had drawn the crowd: Miss Minoprio intended to attempt the perverse and near-impossible – she would compete using only a cleek for all her shots.
It was no wonder that Minoprio was unknown. She had never before played any golf competition, let alone a championship, and had only taken up the game three years earlier. But quite apart from her lack of competitive play and the madness of using only one club, she was about to administer an even greater shock. On the first tee, the next realisation began with a murmur. As Minoprio drew closer, this realisation took hold. Never mind trying to compete with one club; this was an absolute affront: the woman was wearing trousers.
So shocking was this trouser-realisation that nobody managed speech. Communication was mostly by elbow. Minoprio wore make-up, thick white powder and bright-red lipstick. As well as her trousers, she wore a scarlet, waist-length jacket, which she removed, handing it to her caddie.
Minoprio approached her opponent. She held out her gloved right hand and said, “How do you do?” Her caddie, a local fellow named Shangle Taylor, carried her jacket, and held a spare cleek (for use if the other one broke), a bag of balls, a yellow duster to polish Minoprio’s cleek between strokes, and a cone-shaped rubber contrivance on which her ball was to be teed up. This accessory was attached to a red silk tassel, to facilitate its retrieval.
It was Minoprio’s honour. She stepped forward and touched a spot on the ground with the blade of her cleek to indicate where she wanted the ball teed up for her opening drive. Her caddie set down the rubber contrivance and placed on it a new Silver King ball.
Now Minoprio had to swing her cleek and strike the ball well, and do it, for the first time, in public. Anything other than a good shot would bring ridicule. A stream ran across the first fairway some fifty yards from the tee. If she topped the ball, a watery humiliation was certain. Instead of a practice swing, Minoprio took her stance and waved her cleek back and forth in a swishing motion, fixing her eyes on the ball as if imparting a spell. At last she was satisfied. She then held the blade of the cleek still, just off the ground, behind the ball. Minoprio swung the cleek. If she had silently prayed for a good one, the prayer was answered. She held her position in perfect balance at the conclusion of her stroke, her head high as if looking out to sea, and watched the ball fly straight and far, well beyond the stream, to the centre of the fairway.
Thus with a triumphant stroke did Gloria Minoprio conclude her entrance at Westward Ho! and initiate her enduring mystery.
Before describing the rest of her round and her subsequent golfing career, let us immediately shine some light on some elements of the mystery. Dorothy Minoprio (‘Gloria’ was a later addition) was born into a family of Italian origin who were wealthy Liverpool merchants. Her father died from TB when she was a baby, her mother suffered a mental breakdown and she and her sister were brought up by a grandmother and two aunts near Hampton Court. It was an all-female household, which might be significant, for none of the men in her life were exactly suitable.
The first and most influential was William Gavin, a gentleman chancer and West End confidence trickster who employed Minoprio as a secretary when she completed finishing school in Paris. Gavin presented himself as Minoprio’s uncle. In fact, they were married in Paris in 1929, when she was 21 and he was 64.
Unravelling Gavin’s chequered business and affairs is close to impossible. Perhaps the best summary is provided by his entry in Who’s Who?. Submitted by himself, it was lengthy, impressive and almost entirely fictitious. Like many such rogues, Gavin had a powerful, winning personality and members of Minoprio’s family believed he exerted a Svengali-like control over her.
Gavin’s primary scam in the late 1920s involved the building of cheap housing for the masses using concrete. His chief backer – and dupe – was Herbert Weld, a member of one of England’s oldest and wealthiest Roman Catholic families. Very few houses were built, but over several years a fortune was transferred from Weld to Gavin and Minoprio.
Weld, who was the second substitute father-figure in Minoprio’s life, was the owner of Lulworth Castle, a magnificent 17th Century edifice in Dorset. An amiable but gullible man in his late seventies, Weld suffered two terrible blows as the 1920s came to a close. First, in December 1928, his wife, Theodora, died at the age of 27. Secondly, the following August, the castle was destroyed by fire. After his wife died, Weld employed Minoprio as his private secretary. She was staying at the castle when the fire broke out and made a dramatic escape from the flames. By that time, Weld had become besotted with Minoprio. He took her to the best London restaurants such as Quaglino’s and to dancing clubs; he even escorted her on a cruise and tour of Spain and France. And kept ignorant of the fact that she was already married to Gavin, he proposed to her.
Minoprio refused Weld’s hand in marriage but she did not decline his generosity. This included two gifts of shares in a Manchester brewery, which Minoprio and Gavin soon sold. The proceeds, in today’s values, were well in excess of £2 million and were used to fund Minoprio’s adventures in golf and magic and a lavish lifestyle for Gavin and Minoprio.
It was at this juncture, with Minoprio, aged 22, married to an old man pretending to be her uncle, and with a fortune donated by an even older admirer, that she took up golf.