By Mark Ryan
Eileen Bennett was not a great tennis player. She is barely remembered today and when reference is made to her it is more often than not because of her physical beauty, how she looked and what she wore, rather than her achievements on a tennis court. This was even truer in Bennett’s day than it is now, when women’s tennis was often seen as a sideshow to the men’s game and when most journalists were male.
In 1931, one of her most successful years, when she reached the final of the singles at the US Nationals, “Time” magazine had this to say of Eileen Bennett (then Mrs Fearnley-Whittingstall): “Still the prettiest and best-dressed of woman tennis players, her game has improved brilliantly this year.” Such comments were commonplace at that time.
Things are somewhat different nowadays and it would be wrong to take the present time as a template and try to place it on the 1920s or 1930s, when Eileen Bennett was playing tournament tennis. Nowadays, even with her somewhat limited success on the courts, she would be a millionaire several times over and probably earning millions from clothing companies and for posing for calendars, etc.
But Bennett’s options were limited back then, as, indeed, were male tennis players’ in an era when the sport was amateur and the words “professional” and “money” went hand-in-hand and both were considered dirty. Financial assistance was required, from a player’s national tennis association, from a parent or from another legitimate sponsor of some kind. It helped if a player came from a well-to-do background, like the French player Diddie Vlasto or Lili de Alvarez of Spain. No doubt it also helped if a player’s husband or wife was rich. And here we come to another reason why Eileen Bennett is still remembered today, if at all – for her husbands, four in all.
The names of these four men have also come down to us and, in the case of the first two at least, not just in connection with Eileen Bennett. Husbands numbers three and four, whom Eileen Bennett married in 1947 and 1957 respectively, are much more obscure figures. In fact, all that this burrower has been able to find out about them is their names, and when and where they married Eileen Bennett. This information was found on the internet, a tool which ultimately provides only limited help, and even then it is usually very difficult to check and confirm sources.
Wikipedia, the “online encyclopaedia” is a good case in point. Under “Eileen Bennett” it provides her correct date of birth (16 July 1907), but does not give her place of birth (Paddington, London). It indicates, again correctly, that she died in 1979, though no specific date is given, nor is her place of death. It also describes her as “a female tennis player from the United Kingdom who won six Grand Slam doubles titles from 1927 to 1931”. Again, this is true. For the rest, it provides her most successful tennis results, in singles, doubles and mixed, and finishes by stating that, “According to Wallis Myers of ‘The Daily Telegraph’ and ‘The Daily Mail’, Whittingstall was ranked in the world top ten in 1928, 1929, 1931 and 1932, reaching a career high of World No. 3 in those rankings in 1931. She was married to Edmund Fearnley-Whittingstall, a painter. She is credited with first wearing an above-the-knee form of divided skirt for competitive tennis.”
Most of this additional information appears to be true. Certainly, she was married to Edmund (Owen) Fearnley-Whittingstall, this gentleman being her first husband. (Interestingly, the wikipedia entry has “Eileen Bennett Whittingstall” as its heading although she and he divorced in 1936.) And it is also true that Edmund Fearnley-Whittingstall was a painter, at least for an unverifiable period of time. When in August 1929 that reliable if very sarcastic source, “Time” magazine, announced Eileen Bennett’s engagement to Edmund Fearnley-Whittingstall, it described him as an “English portrait painter”. This is partly true because there is evidence that he also painted other types of works such as still lifes.
It is clear that Eileen Bennett did not marry into money, at least not where her first husband is concerned. This is not to say that Edmund Fearnley-Whittingstall came from a poor background. On the contrary, it is possible to prove that a distant relative of his, also called Edmund Fearnley-Whittingstall, was once a very rich man indeed. He made his money from a brewery and pubs business and was so rich that at one point – in 1838, in fact – he purchased Langleybury, a country house and estate in Hertfordshire, England, situated two miles north of the town of Watford, and started a bank in partnership with one William Smith. However, the bank went into bankruptcy soon after Fearnley-Whittingstall's death, forcing the sale of the estate in 1856.
The family appears never to have recovered from this initial downturn in fortune and, by the time of Edmund Owen Fearnley-Whittingstall’s birth in 1901, much of its wealth was probably lost. However, the Fearnley-Whittingstalls were still entitled to an entry in “Burke’s Peerage and Gentry”, which describes itself as “the definitive historical and genealogical guide to the major British, Irish and American families”. There is little doubt that this entitlement originally came from the late Edmund Fearnley-Whittingstall’s purchase of the aforementioned Langleybury country house and estate.
A curious reader might pose some of the following questions: Why did Eileen Bennett marry Edmund Owen Fearnley-Whittingstall? What did she see in him? Was he good-looking, or even dashing, as men could be in those days without raising eyebrows, especially men with double-barrel surnames? And how did they first meet? Unfortunately, it is not possible to answer any of these or similar questions with a large degree of certainty, but it is not very difficult to speculate based on the existing evidence, scant as it is.
They may well have met at a party in London, since both of them were living near the centre of that city in the late 1920s. Eileen Bennett appears to have been something of a “flapper”, a type which has been defined as a “new breed of young women who wore short skirts, bobbed their hair, listened to the new jazz music, and flaunted their disdain for what was then considered acceptable behaviour. Flappers were seen as brash for wearing excessive makeup, drinking, treating sex in a casual manner, smoking, driving automobiles and otherwise flouting social and sexual norms”. Some of this may indeed apply to Eileen Bennett.
She appears to have come from a relatively well-off background, her father, William, being a stockbroker. It is easy to imagine her moving in artistic circles. It has not been possible to locate any portraits of her*, but it may not be too outlandish to suggest that she may have first met Edmund Fearnley-Whittingstall by sitting for him. After all, they are likely to have first met some time in 1928, when Eileen Bennett became better known in June of that year by reaching the final of all three events open to her at the French Championships in Paris, the first to be held at the Stade Roland Garros (she won the doubles with Phoebe Watson and the mixed with Henri Cochet, but lost the singles final to Helen Wills).
In any case, Bennett appears to have had a whirlwind romance with Fearnley-Whittingstall. Their engagement was announced in August 1929 and the wedding itself took place on 19 November 1929, at the historic Saint Margaret’s Church located between Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament in London. This ancient church, first built in the eleventh century, has been the venue for many “society weddings”, including those of the diarist Samuel Pepys and Winston Churchill.
It is rather fascinating to read that the marriage service was conducted “according to the Rites and Ceremonies of the Established Church” by Herbert Fearnley-Whittingstall, Edmund’s father, who was a clerk in orders. The day in question, a Tuesday, was rainy but, according to the “New York Times”, the rain was braved by a number of onlookers, surely including a number of photographers, who would have seen the bride in a “court dress with a 6-yard train”. Eileen Bennett was just 22; Edmund Fearnley-Whittingstall was 28.
The guests probably included Edmund’s brother, William Arthur Fearnley-Whittingstall (1903-1959), who later became a distinguished barrister-at-law before his untimely death at the age of 56. Before taking very different career paths he and Edmund had grown up together in a vicarage. William was once described as being “highly sensitive and easily hurt if a decision taken was not in his opinion the right one. He could appear to be incredibly rude, though he rarely meant to be; yet behind his comments was almost always a glimmer of a smile: he was a teaser” (from the book “Execution” by John Mervyn Pugh). Did Edmund, his older brother, share any of these characteristics? Was this the sort of man Eileen Bennett was marrying?
It has not been possible to find any details of the honeymoon. Eileen Fearnley-Whittingstall, as she was then, returned to the tennis courts in 1930, but this was not one of her most successful years, partly as a result of an unspecified illness. She withdrew from the second round of the French singles and lost at the same stage at Wimbledon, where her best performance in singles was to reach the quarter-final on two occasions, in 1928 and 1932. Perhaps the pressure of carrying British hopes was too much for her, as it has been for many of her compatriots down the years. Like her fellow Briton and contemporary, Betty Nuthall, she enjoyed some success in the United States, reaching the singles final at the US Nationals in 1931 before losing to Helen Wills Moody. She won the mixed doubles at Forest Hills in 1927 with Henri Cochet and the women's doubles there in 1931 with Nuthall. (Her other wins in major tournaments were a second consecutive mixed title with Henri Cochet at the French Championships in 1929 and the women’s doubles title at the French Championships in 1931 with Nuthall.)
The next record of her first marriage was found in an American newspaper. Under the heading “Eileen Bennett has spat with husband”, the following report appeared in “The Milwaukee Journal” on 25 November 1931: “Eileen Bennett Whittingstall, England’s no. 1 and most beautiful tennis star, opposed her young artist husband Tuesday in a court case, in which counsel for the claimant, a firm of house furnishers, referred to ‘certain disagreements between them’. Miss Bennett’s wedding to Edmund Owen Fearnley-Whittingstall was one of the social events of 1929. In the courts a firm claimed £83 from Mrs Lucie Bennett – Mrs Whittingstall’s mother – for goods supplied. Mrs Bennett’s case was that the orders were given not on her own account but as the agent of her daughter and son-in-law. Edmund Fearnley-Whittingstall, giving evidence for the plaintiffs, said he did not give any orders and at the time was practically penniless. Mrs Whittingstall, on behalf of her mother, said, ‘My mother gave the orders at my request and my husband knew it.’ She received little housekeeping – the equivalent of only $15 a week, she said. Judgement was reserved.”
This is the first record of the married couple being involved in a court case, but it will not be the last. Would it be an exaggeration to state that their marriage appears to have been a “rocky” one? “My mother gave the orders at my request and my husband knew it.” This sounds like someone who was used to giving orders, while Edmund Fearnley-Whittingstall claims that he did not give any and was practically penniless at the time! Could it be that one or both of them were tiring of the marriage after only two years of matrimony? Had Eileen Fearnley-Whittingstall idealised marriage with a relatively poor artist only to find the reality was not to her liking? Had she tastes – not just in house furnishings, but also in clothes, jewellery, food, etc. – which were simply unaffordable given the couple’s financial situation?
Little is known about Edmund Fearnley-Whittingstall’s life during this period, but his wife continued to play tennis and also appears to have taken paid work at various intervals. “The Straits Times”, an English-language broadsheet based in Singapore, reported the following on 10 December 1932: “Eileen Bennett off the courts. Mrs. Fearnley-Whittingstall, the well-known tennis player, formerly Miss Eileen Bennett, has begun work in a Mayfair beauty parlour.” In May 1933, another publication reported that she had agreed to manage the women’s sportswear section of A. J. Izod, a fashionable clothing company.
In April 1935, Eileen Fearnley-Whittingstall won one of her final singles tournaments, the Surrey Hard Court event at Roehampton in England. (It is not an exaggeration to say that she preferred playing on hard courts to grass.) She was no longer the British number one and might no longer have been enjoying her tennis as much as she had in the past. Although the exact date is not known, it is likely that at or around this time she met the man who was to become her second husband and began to have an affair with him. This man, Marcus Marsh, was to be named as the co-respondent in the petition for divorce filed by Edmund Fearnley-Whittingstall on 11 September 1935.
Divorces were not as common in the 1930s as they are today, and they came with a stigma attached. It is interesting to note that around the time that Eileen Fearnley-Whittingstall must have been beginning her affair with Marcus Marsh, Edward, Prince of Wales, was beginning his affair with the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. This affair took a path similar to the Eileen Fearnley-Whittingstall-Marcus Marsh affair, though obviously with much greater repercussions because in 1936, when Edward, by then King Edward VIII, publicly declared his love for and wish to marry Wallis, this meant that he would have to abdicate.
Foreign news media reported on the affair between Edward and Mrs Simpson once it became public knowledge, but the media in the United Kingdom were much more discreet in those days. Nowadays there would more than likely be round-the-clock coverage of the scandal in all of the media, especially in the United Kingdom with its notorious tabloid press. The Fearnley-Whittingstall divorce case must also have been reported by the domestic and foreign media – the result certainly was – even though the tennis player involved was not nearly as famous as the Prince of Wales.
In retrospect it appears to have been a relatively painless process for the parties involved. After Edmund Fearnely-Whittingstall filed the initial petition for divorce on 11 September 1935, cause was set down two months later on 24 October 1935, by which time the married couple were estranged and no longer cohabiting. In those days reason – or grounds – had to be provided by the plaintiff and the reason given in this case was the following: “That the respondent has committed adultery with Mr Marcus Marsh. That on the 23rd, 24th and 25th days of August 1935 in Room no. 457 at the Grosvenor Hotel, Victoria, London, S.W.1., the respondent committed adultery with the said Marcus Marsh.”
A decree nisi granted was granted on 16 March 1936 after a justice had heard evidence from the petitioner, whose occupation by this time had changed from (portrait) painter to art dealer, and witnesses produced on his behalf. The respondent (his estranged wife) and co-respondent did not defend the suit at the hearing. On 21 May 1936, Marcus Marsh was ordered to the pay the petitioner’s costs, which totalled £59.14.8. A final decree was issued six months later on 23 September 1936, leaving Eileen Bennett, as she was once again, free to marry for the second time, which she did almost immediately.
At this point Edmund Fearnley-Whittingstall departs from the scene although there is a glimpse of him a few years down the road, when the Second World War had just begun and he was gazetted as 2nd Lieutenant in the 4th Battalion of the Queen’s Officers Roy W. Kent Regiment in 1939. He served from 1939-43 before being invalided out. It is thus possible to state that he had at least one thing in common with Eileen Bennett’s second husband because Marcus Marsh was also to serve during the Second World War. But who exactly was Marcus Marsh?
In the announcement of their marriage carried on 29 September 1936, the “Chicago Tribune” states the following: “Mrs. Edmund Owen Fearnley-Whittingstall, Eileen Bennett, the tennis player, was married today to Marcus Marsh, racehorse trainer.” (In fact they appear to have married one day earlier, in Chelsea, London.) Marcus Maskell Marsh (born 1904) was the son of Richard Marsh, royal racehorse trainer to Edward, Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. Marcus Marsh was already enjoying a successful career by the time he met Eileen Fearnley-Whittingstall (as she then was) some time in the mid-1930s. Windsor Lad, trained by Marsh, won both the Epsom Derby and the Saint Leger races in 1934 and he was to train another winner of both races after the Second World War while also enjoying success with other horses.
A handsome, moustachioed, well-groomed man, always dressed immaculately in a suit, he certainly cut a dashing figure. It is clear that he had money – one source says that he liked to spend time in the casinos on the French Riviera. If this is true, it is easy to imagine him and his wife, who was playing less and less tennis by the time of their marriage in September 1936, enjoying themselves in the south of France and appearing regularly in the newspapers and periodicals of the time. Today they would probably be a “celebrity couple”.
Eileen Marsh, as she now was, would have had fond memories of the French Riviera, having played there during several seasons earlier in her career and having won the singles event at tournaments in places like Nice (1927) and at the Carlton Club in Cannes (1929). In 1926, as an eighteen-year-old, she had lost 6-0, 6-2 in the quarter final of the same tournament in Cannes to Helen Wills, who a few days later went on to lose the final to Suzanne Lenglen in their only meeting in singles and what was billed as “the match of the century”.
Due to his success as a racehorse trainer and because he served in the Second World War, more is known about Marcus Marsh from the late 1930s onwards than is known about Eileen Marsh from the same point in time onwards. On 16 July 1937, she turned thirty, an age at which many players usually think of retirement. She lost 6-3, 6-0 to the Australian Nancye Wynne in the second round of Wimbledon in 1938 and does not appear to have played there again. In any case, the war would have severely interrupted her career if she had continued playing competitive tennis.
It certainly interrupted Marcus Marsh’s career. He joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) but was taken prisoner on the night of 9 May 1941 when his plane, on a bombing mission to Mannheim, Germany, was shot down by a German night fighter. He and the rest of the crew were captured and spent most of the war interned in Stalag Luft III, a prisoner-of-war camp located near Sagan, now Żagań, in Poland, 100 miles (160 km) south-east of Berlin. The camp is best known for two famous prisoner escapes that took place there by tunnelling, which were depicted in the films “The Great Escape” (1963) and “The Wooden Horse” (1950).
As has already been stated, after the war Marcus Marsh resumed training, with continued success. He retired at the end of 1964 and published an autobiography entitled “Racing with the Gods” in 1968. He died in 1983, aged 79.
An obituary of the racehorse trainer published in “The Times” of London on 15 December 1983 stated that Marcus Marsh’s marriage to Eileen Bennett was “broken by the war”. It is likely that they were divorced soon after the war ended. In any case, Eileen Bennett, as she once again was, married for a third time, on 6 May 1947, in Westminster, London. Her third husband was one Geoffrey Akroyd, or Ackroyd. Nothing is known about him except that, with a name like that, he was probably from a well-to-do background. Could they possibly have married at Saint Margaret’s Church, the scene of Eileen Bennett’s first marriage to Edmund Fearnely-Whittingstall?
Something went wrong with this third marriage, too (Geoffrey Akroyd, or Ackroyd, may have died while still married) because Eileen Bennett, as she had become once more, married again, in London on 6 June 1957, one month before her fiftieth birthday. Her fourth and final husband’s name was Carl (V) Forslind. He is likely to have been Scandinavian, or to have had Scandinavian origins. But that is all that is known about him.
Little else is known about Eileen Bennett’s, or Eileen Forslind’s later years, except that she appears to have died in Middleton Tyas, Yorkshire, England on 6 November 1979 at the age of 72. It seems that she had no children. These final details have not been confirmed, but they do have the ring of truth. According to wikipedia, “Middleton Tyas is a village and civil parish in the Richmondshire district of North Yorkshire, England. There are two pubs in the village. The village had a post office and shop but it closed in April 2003. This left the village with no retail facilities within its boundaries, so the local community decided to open a new shop.”
North Yorkshire is virtually Brontë country, very far removed from London and, in some respects, light years away from the French Riviera and from places like Forest Hills. What could have drawn Eileen Bennett there? The desire to spend her final years in a quiet neighbourhood, close to nature, after a rather peripatetic existence? This seems like a logical explanation but, as with so much concerning this fascinating person’s life, nothing is certain.
* What did Eileen Bennett actually look like? The following is a link to eight portraits (photographs) of Eileen Bennett (Fearnley-Whittingstall), dating from June 1925 to April 1934, and currently held by the National Portrait Gallery in London. All of the photographs were taken at the fashionable Bassano studios in London.