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Love in the Afternoon

The Grafton Cinema, formerly The Grafton Picture House, closed its doors at some stage in the 1970s. I was quite sad at the time, as it was a pleasant refuge for myself and my student pals on those sunny afternoons when the library seemed a grim antechamber to death.

The Grafton opened its doors on Easter Monday 1911. The building, especially its interior, which was designed by William Orpen’s brother Richard, was impressive. A feeling of stepping away from the humdrum descended as one entered the cool and elegant hallway which led to the cinema theatre. Films and shorts of all sorts were continuously screened from midday. I saw Don’t Start the Revolution without Me, starring Donald Sutherland and Gene Wilder, in the Grafton. I have always been afraid to view it again just in case I don’t still find it mindblowingly funny. The Grafton was perfect for anyone skiving off or wishing to have a secret rendezvous. There was always something on.

In the mid-1920s, The Grafton Picture House was well known to Rubin MacKenzie, a young man whose family were “well-to-do” Catholics. The family started out in Ardenza Terrace in Monkstown. Later they moved to Stradbrook in Blackrock and finally settled into a Shrewsbury Road mansion. The head of the family in the 1901 census was James MacKenzie, a shipbroker. Although wealthy, he was unlucky and died young a few years after that census. The religion of his wife, Frances, was given as Roman Catholic, whereas his was given as Presbyterian, as was that of his children who, at the time, were all male. A common agreement in “mixed” marriages was that the males would take the father’s religion and the girls would follow that of the mother. It might be that after three sons Frances felt that in terms of the children’s religious affiliation she had got the short end of the stick. But perhaps the listing under the father’s denomination was more nominal than actual. In any event, by the time of the 1911 census Frances at forty years of age was head of the family and all her children were all listed as Roman Catholic.

Simone Henry who was also familiar with the Grafton and had, like Frances, entered into a religiously mixed marriage. Simone was French. Her father was a member of the Paris bourse and his daughter had been educated in France, England and Germany. She was in Germany when the Great War broke out and returned home to join the Red Cross and drive an ambulance. She met her husband, WAD Henry– an Irish officer in the British army ‑ at a dance at her father’s house in Paris. The young pair were attracted to each other and a marriage was agreed before Lieutenant (later Captain) Henry returned to the front, where he unfortunately lost both his legs.

The planned marriage went ahead notwithstanding the disaster which had befallen the groom. The couple were married in a Paris registry office and also in the Anglican Church attached to the British embassy in Paris. Later, when they moved to Dublin, they were married once more in Harrington Street Church on the South Circular Road, Captain Henry having agreed to convert to Catholicism at his wife’s request. 

Simone was an energetic young woman in her twenties and found that she liked to leave her Fitzwilliam Square home and socialise in the evening. In the court case which eventually followed her involvement with Rubin MacKenzie, her husband said that he did not object to his wife going out alone, and that he was aware of and approved of her friendship with MacKenzie, a man with whom she dined regularly in the city’s hotels and with whom she attended dances. Captain Henry, described as “a gentleman of considerable position in this country”, may well have been telling the truth or it may be that he was, understandably, striving to avoid public shame ‑ more likely both.

Whatever the original purpose of her solo outings, Simone became very friendly with MacKenzie and it appears the pair fell in love. Back in the big house in Blackrock, Rubin’s mother began to notice changes in his behaviour. Among other things he was staying out very late, and not only at weekends. In time she became concerned. According to his mother’s evidence, he withdrew from his family’s society and did not offer any explanation for his behaviour. This withdrawal from family life may have been due to distraction caused by an overwhelming emotional involvement. It seems also that he left Simone’s letters lying around his bedroom, which was certainly indiscreet, if not the action of a man distracted by passion.

It was not so very long before Mrs MacKenzie picked up some of those letters and read them, with what degree of unease we can only surmise. The real horror may have followed only when she learned that Simone was “a married woman”. We may assume she regarded Rubin’s involvement with Simone as the potential ruination of a son she had struggled through widowhood to raise into social respectability. During the trial Simone’s counsel put it to Frances MacKenzie that her behaviour in reading Simone’s letters was underhand. Frances rejected the suggestion, saying the letters were lying there in Rubin’s wardrobe for anyone to read. This was hardly a convincing response but the court was not the place to explain that the prospect of a son’s moral and social ruin would certainly allow a mother some flexibility in the area of his private business.

Whether acting on information gleaned from the letters or from another source Mrs Mackenzie learned that her son was to visit The Grafton Picture House with Mrs Henry. One afternoon in the late summer of 1926, she pressed her – perhaps unwilling –daughter (also called Frances) into service and the pair made their way into town and slipped into the row behind the lovers in the cinema. The whole business might still have been dealt with privately were it not for what transpired outside the cinema.

Outside on Grafton Street Frances senior approached Simone and told her that if she didn’t accompany her across the road and into South Anne Street she would call a policeman. Simone asked Rubin who the woman was, to which he replied “She is my Mother.” Simone crossed with Frances, agreeing with Ruben that they would meet five minutes later in the Shelbourne Hotel. It was to be a long five minutes. In fact all four crossed the road, stopping at the third parked car.

It is interesting that Mrs MacKenzie confronted Simone rather than Rubin. A sense of unquestioning righteousness is reflected in her strange threat to “call a policeman”. She could, figuratively speaking, have taken Rubin home by the ear and demanded an end to the relationship on pain of severe financial penalty. Indeed she could have done this at home, saving herself and her daughter the train journey. But she was aware that in Rubin’s case it was more than an inappropriate dalliance which could be rationally challenged and that it was less a case of her son being bad than having fallen into the power of “a bad woman”; her Rubin had been bewitched by a Jezebel!

There were aspects of the whole business which Simone appears to have found mystifying. As she pointed out at the trial, Rubin was a grown man and presumably knew his own mind. No one cares to have their private business aired on the public street and this may have been behind Simone’s suggestion that they converse in French. She perhaps also wished to use a language which was replete with terms adequate to discussing difficult questions pertaining to relationships and matters of sexual delicacy. Rubin’s mother rejected this idea out of hand saying she would speak in “her own language” and it transpired that the English spoken in Dublin at the time was well able to encapsulate the full degrees of her hostility and outrage.

Mrs MacKenzie demanded that Simone tell her what “claim she had on her son” and allegedly said that Simone was “a respectable prostitute”, that she was from the gutter, that she had “stopped a week” with a Mr Reddin, that she did not believe that she was married to “that man with no legs”, and that she would throw her into a shop window and shoot her.

This was too much for Simone to endure. She told Frances that if it were not for her age she would slap her face. The self-confident Parisienne, confronted by a provincial matron, cannot have felt she had anything to apologise for. The son, as she said in court, was a grown man. Instead of slapping her face she brought Frances before the courts alleging slander. Too late did Frances learn she was not dealing with someone from “the gutter” who would cower before her social betters or someone who would melt away in the face of her moral perfidy being exposed but rather someone who could afford good lawyers and who would on principle bring her into court and see the whole business ventilated before a jury of ordinary Dubliners and reported in the press. It must have been an appalling vista for Frances exacerbated, if possible, when Simone won the case and was awarded fifty pounds in damages.

During the case the lovers denied they were lovers. Rubin, when asked questions about the letters, repeatedly said he could not remember. Simone was asked about one letter in which she spoke of a joint visit to Paris. “How can I go to Paris without you my Rubin? I love you Rubin and you know it and will do so whatever happens.” In her explanation Simone was economical with the truth. She said that this was merely an expression of friendship, that Mrs MacKenzie’s counsel was bad-minded and that the French and Irish looked on these matters differently. Her husband, WAD Henry, made the same point about differing attitudes between the French and the Irish. The Irish press which covered the trial was fascinated by the idea of differences between French and Irish concepts of friendship.

At the distance of nearly a century, it is possible to see this in large measure as a clash of cultures, a clash between the values of Parisian bourgeois culture and that of conservative middle class Dublin. Twentieth century Ireland never really had a European-style bourgeoisie. It did have a wealthy upper middle class, but that is a different thing altogether. The concepts of friendship were indeed different. It was difficult for 1920s Dublin to comprehend was that while the French bourgeoisie demanded discretion they did not make a tectonic fuss over adultery and that in certain circumstances it might well occur with a spouse’s effective consent.

Communication between Ruben and Simone ceased. My guess is that Simone returned to Paris and that Rubin continued to be employed in the “office”, from which it was said during the trial he might have had to resign. But who can be entirely sure what followed?

24/1/2015