With her low-pitched voice and haughty demeanor – sometimes worldly, sometimes world-weary – Hermione Gingold was an instantly recognizable presence on the stage and on screen. Born in London in 1897, she was the daughter of a Viennese financier and an English homemaker. Showing her thespian flair at an early age, Gingold was an understudy in Where the Rainbow Ends (1911), a patriotic play in which the young Noël Coward also had a part. Her early work included appearances at the Old Vic, where, at age sixteen, she played Jessica in The Merchant of Venice.
In the 1930s and ’40s, she appeared in several films, such as Dance Pretty Lady, Someone at the Door, Merry Comes to Town, Meet Mr. Penny, and The Butler’s Dilemma. And during World War II, Gingold entertained allied troops in the long-running London comic revue Sweet and Low.
She moved to the United States in 1951, performing for the first time on the other side of the Atlantic in the revue It’s About Time, presented in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But it was her work in another revue, John Murray Anderson’s Almanac (1953), that made her name on Broadway. Performing alongside Harry Belafonte, Polly Bergen, and Billy De Wolfe, Gingold won praise for her brilliant comic routines.
Later in the 1950s, she appeared in the movie Gigi (1958) in one of her best-known roles, that of Madame Alvarez, a crafty old retired courtesan who offers practical advice to the young Gigi and sings a notable duet with Honoré Lachaille (Maurice Chevalier), “I Remember It Well.”
Gingold returned to Broadway in 1959 as Mrs. Bennett in First Impressions, a musical based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, playing opposite Polly Bergen and Farley Granger. The following year she headlined a revue at the Plymouth Theatre, From A to Z, for which a young Woody Allen wrote some of the sketches. Gingold was in the original cast of Arthur Kopit’s comedy Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad (1963), which also featured Sam Waterston in his Broadway debut.
Also on Broadway, she was a member of the original cast of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (1973) as Madame Armfeldt. The musical won several Tony Awards®, including Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Book of a Musical; Gingold earned a nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical and can be heard on the original Broadway cast recording – as well as on the original London cast recording, made two years later.
Her association with Sondheim carried into her later years; she took part in the 1973 revue Sondheim: A Musical Tribute (a recording was made of the one-night-only performance) as well as in Side by Side by Sondheim (1978).
Gingold appeared frequently in movies, which included The Pickwick Papers, Our Girl Friday, Around the World in Eighty Days, The Naked Edge, The Music Man, I’d Rather Be Rich, Promise Her Anything, A Little Night Music, and Garbo Talks. She died in 1987, leaving an autobiography, How to Grow Old Disgracefully.