On This Day: British star Gracie Fields marries Romanian repairman in Italy

Julian Gavaghan

February 18: British singer and actress Gracie Fields married a Romanian radio repairman in a quiet ceremony in Italy on this day in 1952.

The 54-year-old Allied forces’ favourite wed Boris Alperovici, 48, at the Church of San Stefano on the island of Capri, where they both lived.

A British Pathé newsreel shows Fields, who wore an unglamorous dark skirt suit, being married for a third time by Catholic priest Father Lembo Alperovici, who Fields described as the “love of her life” after their meeting a year earlier when he fixed her radio, is filmed slipping the ring on her finger.

None of her Hollywood friends – including Elizabeth Taylor, who is shown marrying Michael Wilding in the following clip – attended the simple ceremony.

Instead the church was thronged with islanders, who had taken to their hearts the humble Sally singer, who was born Grace Stansfield.

But Taylor as well as her later husband Richard Burton, Greta Garbo and Noel Coward would later become regular guests at their villa in Capri.


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Fields, who was born above her grandmother’s fish and chip shop in Rochdale, would remain happily married to Alperovici until her death aged 81 in 1979.

As well as her music and movies – including Queen of Hearts - she was well well known for her numerous charity deeds.

Notably, after divorcing first husband Archie Pitt, she donated their Hampstead home on The Bishops Avenue – one of London’s priciest streets – to a maternity hospital.

Her own chances of having children were ruined by cervical cancer, which she beat in 1939 after receiving 250,000 “get well” cards from the adoring fans.

But despite being so beloved, UK officials refused to return her British passport after she became an Italian citizen when she married film director Monty Banks in 1940.

When Italy sided with Germany in World War II, she became an “enemy subject” due to the bithplace of her husband, who changed his name from Mario Bianchi so he could work in America.

But Fields was determined to help Britain’s war effort and and she left her home in the U.S. to travel the world and boost morale by entertaining troops.

 

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For this she was issued with a temporary British passport in 1940, which had to be renewed every six months.

She succeeded in making trips to Britain – despite Winston Churchill’s advice to stay away – where she often cheered up factory workers.

One of her most famous comic wartime songs - Thing-Ummy-Bob (That's Gonna Win The War) – is about a girl making an unknown, but valuable, military item.

Yet when she again applied to resume her British nationality in 1945, she was again refused.

This was officially recorded as being because Banks, who died of a heart attack aged 52 in 1950, had become a U.S. citizen and so the circumstances had changed.

Files released five decades later by the National Archives in Kew, South West London, reveal the a surprising degree of Home Office animosity towards her.

In 1945, an official wrote: "There is no indication that Miss Fields intends to settle down in this country and by naturalising her we may be naturalising a woman who has practically severed her connections with this country.”

Another wrote: “Miss Fields has rendered considerable service to the nation, but I do not think the public opinion would tolerate any sort of special favour at the present juncture.”

And a third wrote: “There might be considerable objection to granting a certificate to a woman who left this country voluntarily in 1940 and has stayed away for the remainder of the war apart from two short visits.”
As a result, she remain an Italian citizen until her death.

But, despite the snub her loyalties never wavered and in 1947 she said: “I may have an Italian passport, but no matter what is written in this book, I am British at heart.”