MAE DAHLBERG - THE AUSTRALIAN YEARS

Melbourne Night Owls tent member Steve Rattle, with the assistance of professional genealogist Graeme Haigh, has uncovered much new information about Stan Laurel’s pre-Hardy partner.

 

There are many Australian connections with comedy duo Laurel & Hardy. Mae Busch & Daphne Pollard both played Mrs. Hardy on film and were both born in Melbourne. Stan Laurel also had a Melbourne born ‘wife’, a colourful character named Mae Dahlberg who kept reappearing in his life and outlived him by four or so years. Patchy facts have been in circulation for many years about her early life. But from around 1917 this Australian vixen played the part of Laurel’s namesake, common law wife, lover and partner both privately and professionally. She is even credited with changing his professional name to Laurel from Jefferson.

The birth certificate for May Charlotte Dahlberg records her birth on 24 May, 1888 in the ‘town of Brunswick’, an inner northern suburb of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Father Louis Dahlberg was a 29 year old labourer born in Sweden. For 22 year old mother Mary Jane Dahlberg (nee Gundry), this was her third pregnancy. The couple had married in Adelaide, South Australia on 1 June, 1885, the birthplace of Mary Jane. May’s two older sisters, Annie & Edith were both recorded as deceased. Young May appears to have studied dancing at an early age and been given support and encouragement by family, teachers and friends.

Fast forward to 1906 - eighteen year old ‘serio and dancer’ May ‘Charlota’ Dahlberg marries Rupert William Cuthbert (1884 - ?) baritone and picture balladist, in Hobart, Tasmania, the southern island state of Australia. Cuthbert and Dahlberg were both working at the Temperance Hall in Hobart during August 1906. Perhaps romance blossomed on-stage or back stage? By December that year they are performing at The Hippodrome in Adelaide, South Australia. The Adelaide Advertiser reports their performance as:

“Miss May Dahlberg and Mr. Rupert Cuthbert at once won their way into the good graces of the audience, who were reluctant to let them leave the stage”.


The newlyweds soon return to Brunswick and May’s parents where a son, Rupert Clifton Saxe Cuthbert is born on 4 April 1907. Between 1906 and 1912, the pair appear in music halls across eastern Australia. Newspaper reports record these ‘theatrical entertainers’ in the mining township of Broken Hill in 1909, Hobart in 1910, Brisbane and Sydney in 1912 delivering ‘vaudeville items’. Reviews of their ‘clever dancing’, ‘fresh illustrated ballads’ and ‘delightful singing and crazy dancing’ are documented.

In 1909 the three Cuthbert’s are living with Rupert’s family in suburban Albert Park, just south of Melbourne. The census held that year lists Rupert William as a ‘vocalist’ and May as undertaking ‘home duties’. We can assume the census taker had not seen May on stage.

One further Australian reference has been located – the three Cuthbert’s left Australia on the RMS Niagara and arrived at Seattle, Washington on 28 May, 1913. So begins the U.S. career of ‘Mae’.  By 1916 Mae is one half of a vaudeville dancing duo named the ‘Hayden Sisters’. Enter Arthur Stanley Jefferson, a struggling English comic trying to hit the big time. Fans of Stan Laurel know of their tumultuous relationship until 1925.

Many years later, Mae stated that her husband had died ‘about 1914’. Not true – a grieving widow would surely know the exact date of her husband’s death! The Cuthbert’s separated and later divorced. Rupert William later appears on the 1930 New York census as William R. Cuthbert, actor in theatre, and married to Australian actress Ethel M. Cuthbert (c.1900 - ?) who had also been in the U.S. since 1913. Renting at 510 W 151st Street, Cuthbert also recorded daughter Elaine J. Cuthbert (c.1927 - ?) born in New York. He also stated that they were paying $55 per month rent and owned a radio set!

Now let’s focus for a while on son Rupert Clifton. In 1920 he is recorded as residing in Boston, Massachusetts with an ‘unrelated family’. By 1930 he was listed as Clifton Cuthbert, a bank clerk and living at 315 W 19th Street, Manhattan. Clifton married Petrograd, Russia born ‘Concordia’ on 9 August 1932 in New York. Born in 1896, Concordia was the daughter of an admiral in the Russian Imperial Navy. She had married a ‘prince’ at age 15 but was widowed by the time she met Clifton. One interesting footnote, Concordia was arrested on drug possession charges in 1934!

Mae’s son enlisted in the US Army on 9 April, 1942 stating that he was ‘separated with no dependents’. In 1962 Clifton, now quoted as a ‘successful author’, was injured in a freak accident while visiting London. The Chicago Daily Tribune on 20 July 1962 reported:

 Author Cuthbert Wins $49000 for Injury.

London, July 19 [Reuters]

- Clifton Cuthbert, of Jamaica Plain, Mass., said to have been a successful writer before a London street accident reduced him to a shattered wreck, won damages of $49,000 in a court here today. Cuthbert was hit on the head by an overhanging portion of a truck while on a three-day visit to London. His counsel said his head injuries had seriously affected his mentability (sic) and personality and he now looked like a down-and-outer because he has lost all care or concern with his appearance.

He died in New York in March 1978, just a few years after his mother.

 Back to Mae – after her departure from Laurel in 1925, she returned to Australia and is reported to have married actor Jack Wall in 1929. However, no proof of this marriage can be located. By 1936, a return to the U.S. and Laurel occurred. The New York Times and Chicago Daily Tribune of 19 November, 1936 reported the appearance in the Superior Court of Mae Laurel seeking alimony from Stan Laurel of $1000 per month. As his ‘common law wife’, Mae must have fallen on hard times and decided to seek recompense for the earlier years of vaudeville struggle. Laurel was now famous and ‘obviously wealthy’. American researchers will need to pick up the story from here.

Hazel Harrison and Tom Vickers were great-niece and great-nephew to Mae on the Gundry side of the family. Hazel recalls Mae as being “fun loving and believed she did coaching for the theatre while in the USA”. Tom recalled meeting Mae at his grandmother’s house in Footscray, Victoria in 1946. “She seemed to run hot and cold in her memories of Stan Laurel. She told me he was a clever man, just the opposite of the simpleton he portrays. She was a very outspoken woman, very dominant and according to my father, very well versed in politics”. 

In 1978 Australian playwright David Allen penned ‘Gone with Hardy’ for the Melbourne Theatre Company. The play is described as the story of Stan Laurel before he became the partner of Oliver Hardy. It tells of his stormy relationship with an Australian woman.

Mae Dahlberg chose to end her days in New York. She died there in a nursing home in 1969 or 1970.     


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