When I first joined the Young Communist League in the early 1960’s I met some amazing people. One was Joe Bent a well known and leading communist in community politics in Southwark. Joe was a regular communist candidate in many elections.
In one GLC election he narrowly missed winning a seat by less than a thousand votes. He was a great speaker and would come and talk at out YCL meetings. When he did he was often accompanied by an elegant and fascinating women comrade. Her name was Jean Ross.
Jean lived in Barnes and had a large Daily Worker round among her neighbours. She also helped Joe in his many election and other campaigns. When the film Cabaret was released in 1972 I first heard a strange and at the time, almost unbelievable story. That same Jean Ross, it was said, was the real Sally Bowles, chief character in the film played by Liza Minnelli.
Jean died in 1973 and I was never able to track down the origins or indeed the veracity of the stories. Now exactly forty years after her death I think I’ve found the truth. It is certainly an amazing tale and one worth telling.
Her full name it seems was Jean Iris Ross. She was born in Alexandria Egypt in 1911. Her Scottish father was in the cotton business.
Jean was the oldest of four children. Jean was shipped back to England to be educated. She hated her school. She was bright and had done all the sixth form work by the time she was 16. Bored stiff she feigned pregnancy to get herself expelled. In desperation her parents tried sending her to finishing school in Switzerland. That didn’t last long either.
Using a small allowance from her grandfather she took herself to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where despite winning a prize for acting she left after just one year. In 1930, aged just 19, she got her first film part, she played a harem girl in a low budget and long forgotten film When Sailors Leave Home.
She and another young actress friend heard there were jobs for young actresses in Germany. The pair set off for Berlin. No acting jobs materialised but Jean did find work as a fashion magazine model. That was the day job. In the evening she sang in the many Berlin Cabaret clubs.
In 1931 a young British writer Christopher Isherwood was soaking up the atmosphere of those clubs. Isherwood and Jean became close friends and even shared lodgings. Isherwood based the heroine of his book Sally Bowles on Jean and her life in Berlin. He also made her the chief character in his later book Goodbye to Berlin.
In Berlin a botched abortion nearly took her life. The baby’s father was a musician called Götz von Eick. He would become well known in Hollywood as Peter van Eyck. Jean was on holiday in England when Hitler and his Nazis took power. She saw the writing on the wall and decided not to return to Germany.
That Nazi warning inspired her to join the Communist Party in Chelsea; she remained a communist till the day she died. In England her career was going well, with stage parts and modelling for magazines like Tatler.
Her fluency in German and her knowledge of the German entertainment world found her work in a British film industry newly populated with German and Austrian film directors fleeing Nazi persecution. One was Berthold Viertel, who was making a film of Ernst Lothar’s novel Little Friend. Jean suggested her old pal Isherwood as a script writer.
As well as being the original Sally Bowles, Jean was also remembered in another piece of popular culture. Eric Maschwitz’s popular song, These foolish things remind me of you, was based on Jean. She and the married Maschwitz had an affair and the song is a lasting memorial to that flirtation.
Jean was always elegant and stylish, right up to her death, in the 1930’s she usually carried a long black silver tipped cane – perhaps unusual for a communist. One night in the Café Royal – then a meeting place for London’s bohemians she met Claud Cockburn.
Cockburn asked her to cash a cheque but phoned her the next day to tell her it would bounce.
Strangely that didn’t end the friendship before it started.
Cockburn was, at the time employed by the Daily Worker, forerunner of today’s Morning Star. The two became firm friends and soon lovers. They would sit up till the early hours of the morning discussing Marxist economics. Cockburn suggested Jean should become a journalist.
She did and got a job as a reporter on the Daily Express. The couple were on holiday in Spain when the civil war broke out. They both stayed on, she reporting for the Express, he for the Worker. When Cockburn went to fight with the International Brigades, Jean wrote his reports for him.
She sent stories to the Daily Worker under his name and in his style, and filed her own, very different, copy to the Express. Later she would become both a reporter and also a film critic for the Daily Worker.
In 1937 Jean and Claude now living together in South London, had a daughter Sarah.
The couple never married and three months after Sarah was born, Cockburn walked out never to return. Jean and young Sarah moved away from London as the bombs started falling; first to Hertfordshire, and then to Cheltenham.
Jean wanted Sarah to have a Scottish Education so they moved north of the border. In 1960 Jean moved back to South London where she settled in Barnes.
Daughter Sarah went to Oxford University and became a very successful writer of detective stories and a notable pipe-smoker. Jean concentrated on work for the Communist Party and the Daily Worker.
The media would frequently come seeking out the real Sally Bowles. Daughter Sarah recalled “journalists always wanted to talk about sex and my mother always wanted to talk about politics”.
Jean Ross died, aged 62, forty years ago in 1973 at her home in Barnes. She may have been the inspiration for the well remembered Sally, but in many ways the story of Jean Ross’s rich life is much more fascinating than any character in any work of fiction.
This article was first published in the Morning Star 31 December 2013