From the Isle of Wight to Broadway!

Betty and Jimmy dancing (between 1936-1941)

Betty and Jimmy's wedding, Cannes, France 19th April 1933

Fred Astaire and Betty Compton in Funny Face
From the Isle of Wight to Broadway!, by Angela Sherry

It wasn't until very recently that I decided to research a different branch of my mother's family, having concentrated on one particular branch for the last 20 years or so. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that a former Broadway star and I shared the same ancestor! James Meader, a builder, was very well known in Oakfield, Ryde, on the Isle of Wight, during the period 1800-1857, and he and his wife Mary had a total of eleven children. I am a descendant of one of their daughters, Sarah Meader, and a lady by the name of Violet Halling Compton was a descendant of their son, John Meader. John Meader himself was quite a prominent and well known figure on the Isle of Wight, having submitted a successful tender for the building of Ryde Cemetery Lodge.

Violet Halling Compton (later known as Betty Compton) was born at 109 High Street, Sandown, Isle of Wight on 13 May 1904, the only child of Frederick William Compton and Florence Susannah Halling. In 1910, the Compton family moved from the Isle of Wight to the remote northwestern part of the Province of Saskatchewan, Canada, to join other members of the Halling clan who had gone before them to homestead Canadian land. From Saskatchewan, the family moved to Marquette, Manitoba, finally settling in Toronto where Betty started her theatrical career at the Royal Alexandria Theatre, subsequently moving to the Uptown Theatre where her roles included parts in "Pomander Walk," "Scandal," and "Cinderella" which was described as a Canadian offshoot of the venerable British institution of pantomime.

Apparently, Betty's parents did not approve of their daughter's choice of career and wanted her to become a nurse, causing Betty to take her father's car and drive to Montreal with a friend. Her father subsequently forgave her misdemeanour and allowed Betty to remain in Montreal where she secured employment at the Venetian Gardens, the equivalent of a night club. At some point, the lure of the bright lights necessitated a move to New York where the aspiring actress ultimately found stardom on Broadway after appearing as a member of the Ziegfeld Follies in a number of high class vaudeville roles, culminating in a prominent role in the original stage production of Funny Face (1927) alongside Fred and Adele Astaire, as well as Oh, Kay! in 1926. She also had a leading role in Fifty Million Frenchmen which was a musical comedy with music and lyrics written by Cole Porter. This production opened on 27 November 1929 at the Lyric Theatre, New York City.

The Isle of Wight's leading lady was married a total of four times. Her first marriage was to a man 11 years her senior, Toronto-based barrister Charles Stanley Rees Riches. They were married in Toronto on 19 October 1922 when Betty was just 18 years old. Charles Riches later cited desertion by Betty as grounds for divorce. Her second marriage was to Paramount Studios movie director Edward Duryea Dowling in February of 1931. This marriage ended in divorce the following month after Betty obtained a "quickie" divorce in Mexico on the grounds of cruelty. This marriage took place whilst Betty was in the throes of an affair with the man who was Mayor of New York at the time, James John Walker; although the world press always referred to Betty and Jimmy as "friends" when in fact they were a lot more than that. They were going through a rough patch when Betty decided to marry Edward Dowling. Mayor Walker was married to Janet Allen Walker at the time, and had been since 1911, but rumours were rife as to his numerous affairs and a penchant for showgirls, in particular.

Things really came to a head when an investigative committee led by Judge Samuel Seabury forced the mayor to testify and answer to charges of corruption within his administration. On 1 September 1932, Mayor James (Jimmy) Walker was forced to resign office when Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt pressured him into doing so. Eight days later he set sail onboard the Italian ship Conte Grande for Europe. Betty was waiting for him in Paris.

From her home in Miami, Florida, Janet Allen Walker finally sued for divorce, claiming that Jimmy had deserted her on 15 October 1928. Enough was enough. The granting of a divorce then left the way clear for Jimmy and Betty to wed. They were married on 19 April 1933 in Cannes, France. Their European exile lasted until 1935 when they returned to New York City, once they considered the danger of criminal prosecution appeared remote. Neither would, however, return to public life. Jimmy was President of Majestic Records for a while, as well as being employed as impartial chairman of the garment industry. Betty opened a flower shop on Madison Avenue. They adopted two children; one boy and one girl. Unfortunately, this marriage was not to be "third time lucky" for Betty. She filed for divorce in February of 1941, charging extreme cruelty against the former mayor.

Betty's final marriage was to civil engineer and West Point graduate, Theodore T. Knappen whom she met in South America. They married in May of 1942, and became the proud parents of a baby boy in early 1944. Sadly, Betty's happiness was to be short lived. She died of breast cancer in Doctor's Hospital, Manhattan in July of 1944, aged just 40. More than 350 people attended her funeral service in New York which was led by an official of the Church of Christ Scientist.

Former Mayor James John Walker died in November of 1946 aged 65 after suffering a clot on the brain. New York's 100th mayor was buried in the Gate of Heaven Cemetery, New York. Betty's father, Frederick Compton, returned to the Isle of Wight in the 1920s. He died on the Island in 1943 and is buried in Ventnor Cemetery. Florence Halling Compton died in Miami in 1959 and was cremated.

In 1957, the actor Bob Hope starred in a movie entitled "Beau James" which was based on the book of the same name published in 1949 by the author Gene Fowler. The part of Betty Compton was played by the actress Vera Miles. Gene Fowler's book chronicled the life and times of Jimmy Walker, and his tenure as mayor. It tells the story of how Walker first set eyes on Betty when she was appearing in a musical showOh, Kay! at the Imperial Theatre in 1926.

Angela Sherry, Michigan, USA - Click for email address

This Article appeared in the IoWFHS Journal in May 2008.

The photographs were obtained from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division and all rights are acknowledged