Welsh designer Laura Ashley wearing one of her scarves before an Ashley-designed curtain

“I Like Things That Last Forever”

by James W THomas

Some September birthdays to remember for three special people that should last: actor Victor Spinetti born on the 2nd, robber Jesse James on September 5, and designer Laura Ashely on the 7th.

Because Ringo is missing, the nervous director foretells his future. “It’ll be the news…in Welsh.” John, Paul, and George can’t find their drummer and the televised concert is only minutes away. The director is Welsh actor Victor Spinetti and the movie is A Hard Day’s Night (1964) with the Beatles, the first of Spinetti’s three Beatles films along with Help! (1965) and Magical Mystery Tour (1967).

Vittorio “Victor” Spinetti was born above his father Giuseppe’s chip shop in Cwm, just south of Ebbw Vale, on 2 September 1929. He studied at the College of Music and Drama in Cardiff before joining Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in London where he starred in their musical Oh, What a Lovely War! The Broadway version won Spinetti a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical in 1965. He appeared with Richard Burton in The Taming of the Shrew (1967) and Under Milk Wood (1972) and claimed his part in Return of the Pink Panther (1975) was cut because he was “funnier than Peter Sellars.”

He told that story in his 2009 revival of A Very Private Diary…Revisited! in New York and sang his version of The Beatles Complete on Ukulele in 2010. Victor Spinetti died on 18 June 2012 at age 82.

Next – December 7th, a day that will “live in infamy,” but in 1869 – it was the first bank robbery of Frank and Jesse James. The duo with the Welsh family name from Pembrokeshire went on to legendary fame, or infamy, depending, and stardom in music, books, and movies. Born on 5 September 1847, Jesse grew up in “Little Dixie” Missouri, near Kansas City, and sided with the Confederacy in 1864 by joining Quantrill’s Raiders, notorious for murdering Unionist civilians and surrendering Yankee soldiers.

His crime in 1869 made Jesse James famous with those who admired him as a symbol of the southern defiance of Reconstruction. With brother Frank he formed the James-Younger Gang and the legend grew. But Jesse “Robin Hood” James robbed from the rich, and gave only to himself. When poet and playwright Oscar Wilde learned in 1882 that James had been killed by one of his own gang, Bob Ford, he noted: “Americans are certainly great hero-worshippers, and always take heroes from the criminal classes.”

Bob Dylan, in “Outlaw Blues” on 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home, explored leaving the pieties of folk music with: “Well, I might look like Robert Ford / But I feel just like a Jesse James.” So there it is, the outlaw Jesse James is now a footnote in the work of the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Bang!

“The trouble with feminists,” declared Laura Ashley “is that they put themselves on an equal with men. Well, I’m a woman and I’m much stronger than any man.” She proved that as she specialized in romantic designs for women in natural fabrics with an old-fashioned appeal. As a designer and a businesswoman, by 1981 she had 500 shops worldwide and in Wales. She had started her first Welsh shop in 1961 in Machynlleth and moved to Carno in 1967. The rest was fashion history.

Born 7 September 1925 in Dowlais, Laura Mountney married Bernard Ashley in 1949 and the two started with home furnishings in London in the 1950s. Victorian-style headscarves came next, then dresses in floral prints with nostalgic silhouettes. After the move to Wales and the halcyon days of the 70s, Laura Ashley’s designs were famous. But, unfortunately, after a fall, she died on 17 September 1985 at age 60 and was buried in Carno. Power-dressing was in, romantic garb was out, and the company slowed.

Sir Bernard Ashley died in 2009 but the Ashley Family Foundation is still involved in Wales. The Ashley company is now foreign owned and has returned more from fashion to home furnishings. Laura Ashley is gone but her name is lasting. “I don’t like ephemeral things; I like things that last forever.”