Mary Lee: The 'skint but famous' child star who lived to be 100

By Pauline McLean
BBC Scotland arts correspondent

Published
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Image caption,
Mary Lee with husband Jack Milroy and son James

She became famous as a child star in the 1930s and lived to celebrate her 100th birthday. The life of Mary Lee, who died peacefully at home earlier this month, will be celebrated at her funeral on Monday.

For Mary Lee it began, like it did for so many child stars, with a talent show.

The 13-year-old Mary Ann McDevitt saw an advert in a Glasgow newspaper, which read: "Personality girl wanted to appear in a competition to be held at the Glasgow Empire theatre."

This led to an audition in a department store in the city, where she sang "My Kid's A Crooner", a popular dance band number in the 1930s.

Mary was asked to come back for the show, but had lied about her age and thought her parents wouldn't let her.

When they heard about the five guinea prize, they came back with her, and she won.

All-inclusive contract

However, her father drew the line at the offer of a contract with big band leader Roy Fox. He insisted they wait another few months until her 14th birthday.

She recalled in her memoir Forever Francie: "I remember saying to my mother: 'Ach, I bet they forget all about me'."

But they didn't, and a month after her birthday she received a telegram asking her to join the orchestra in London.

Her parents insisted on a chaperone, who had to share her wage and her accommodation.

"The orchestra had arranged an all-inclusive contract with my parents. It meant I wasn't paid extra for recording sessions, late night dances, or Sunday concerts.

"Instead I was to get £5 per week for the first year, six for the second, and seven for the third.

"I did have perks like travelling expenses and my stage clothes, but it wasn't really a lot to live on. Understandably my parents were innocent in the ways of business."

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Image caption,
Jack Milroy and Mary Lee in pantomime in 1977

For Little Mary Lee, the transition was painful. She asked to go home on the first day of rehearsal but was persuaded to stay.

"Though I cried myself to sleep with homesickness initially, after three weeks singing with this wonderful orchestra, I had no wish to go home.

"I was hooked on showbusiness for the rest of my life," she said.

She was so small, she had to stand on a wooden box to reach the microphone, which in many bands was actually a megaphone.

Mary Lee was treated to trips to fine restaurants in a Rolls Royce owned by Roy Fox.

But back home, it was a glamorous façade. Booked to perform for a week at the Glasgow Empire, her father ordered a taxi to take her to the theatre each night.

"What they didn't know was that my father stopped the taxi at Paisley Road Toll," she recalled.

"We continued the journey by bus, because we couldn't afford the fare into town.

"So I was skint, but famous. It could have been worse."

'Daunting transition'

Her rise was meteoric. For three years she was one of the country's biggest - and smallest - talents.

With the Roy Fox orchestra, she performed on radio, on recordings and in dance halls up and down the UK. She topped a poll among Melody Maker readers, ahead of Vera Lynn.

But then little Mary Lee grew up.

"It was dawning on me that I was a member of a very tough profession, no longer child wonder Little Mary Lee but just another jobbing dance band vocalist.

"It's a daunting transition, sliding from child star to adult status."

She was 17 years old.

"I truly started at the top and worked my way down."

World War Two saw her perform with ENSA - the service set up to entertain British armed forces personnel during the second world war.

She went to the Middle East and suffered a bad bout of stage fright before a breakdown.

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Image caption,
Jack Milroy formed a long-lasting partnership with Rikki Fulton

Mary Lee's salvation came in the form of Glasgow comedian Jack Milroy. She was working in Belfast when she met him, and they married in 1952, between shows at the Tivoli Theatre in Aberdeen.

But it wasn't an evenly balanced double act.

"Yes it was Milroy and Lee, and you'd have needed a spy glass to see my billing in the 1950s and 60s, but it was no trauma to me. There were two pay packets coming into the same house and I was laughing all the way to the bank."

She became a mother to Diana and Jim but she missed the theatre and resented Jack for continuing to work there.

Home Bittersweet Home, as she titles one chapter in her memoir.

Jack found a new partnership with Rikki Fulton, and together they launched the Scottish comedy act Francie and Josie, which endured until their deaths.

For Mary Lee Milroy, there were minor parts to play, but nothing on the scale of her 1930s singing career.

Instantly recognisable

In 1992, she got her own radio show. The Aunty Mary Lee Show on Radio Clyde was a mixture of big band music and comedy.

"My new venture was the first thing I had done entirely on my own since becoming Milroy and Lee or Jack Milroy's wife or just Mary."

While Mary Lee may have had a long and happy life, she did have sadness to bear, with the loss of her husband, Jack in 2001 and her son Jim in 2014. She is survived by her daughter Diana and her grandchildren Ross, Ryan, Darrell, Adrian and Rebecca.

She was, until fairly recently, regularly spotted at social events, her trademark high heels and blonde "do" instantly recognisable.

Last August, she marked her 100th birthday quietly, with family and friends.

As they prepare to say goodbye to her one last time, it's perhaps worth recalling the words she wrote about her husband Jack Milroy, when he died in her arms 21 years ago.

"Weep not for Jack Milroy, he lived three lives in one lifetime and enjoyed each one to the full. It was simply his time. A wonderful life, wonderfully lived."

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