Wherefore Art Thou, Part 2: Ice Dancing's Real Life Romeo And Juliet
Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on
The dashing rocks thy seasick, weary bark.
Here’s to my love!
O true apothecary,
Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die."
- William Shakespeare, "Romeo And Juliet"
Many years after Shakespeare penned "Romeo And Juliet", another literary great, Oscar Wilde, famously said that "life imitates art far more than art imitates life." In the case of British ice dance pioneers William and Elsie Tomlinson, he couldn't have been more on the money.
1933 was an important year for the development of ice dance in Great Britain. In April, the National Skating Association organized the first in a series of competitions with the ultimate goal of seeking out new dances that would be appropriate for use in rinks during dance sessions. It was actually at that early competition that married professionals Eva Keats and Erik van der Weyden unveiled the Foxtrot. A professional competition followed two months later and on July 26 of that year, the first meeting of the new NSA Departmental Committee for ice dance was held, with the aims of writing the rules of ice dance in Great Britain, setting up a test structure and educating and recruiting judges. They organized the first ice dance test at Streatham Ice Rink at 6:30 PM on July 26, 1933, which had an entrance fee of five shillings. One of the members of that committee was an affluent man by the name of William R. Tomlinson, who lived in Avenue Road Kew, one of the most desirable areas of London.
L-R: Pioneering men of British ice dance in Villars, Switzerland: J.T. Mason, Reginald Wilkie, William Tomlinson
The well-to-do Tomlinson, according to the January 1938 issue of "The Skating Times", would often during the thirties book the ice on Monday evenings at the Harringay Ice Rink as a private ice dance club for his friends. It could have very well been at one such private party that he met his wife and dance partner Elsie Ritson, who excelled not only in horseback riding, swimming, diving and tennis but was an accomplished skater who passed her Gold free skating test and silver dance tests with the NSA. William Tomlinson was during this period extremely active in the NSA's pioneering work in developing ice dance in Great Britain and Switzerland. He also passed his silver figure and dance tests. One thing to keep in mind is that during this period the NSA hadn't had yet developed a Gold dance test, so as ice dancers, both Tomlinson and Ritson were certainly top of the line.
J.T. Mason, William Tomlinson, Reginald Wilkie and Daphne Wallis skiing in Villars, Switzerland, 1934
Elsie Ritson, J.T. Mason, Reginald Wilkie and William Tomlinson skating at the Grand Hotel Kronenhof in Pontresina, Switzerland, 1935
In 1937, William Tomlinson served on the board of the Celerina Skating Club in Switzerland alongside Mr. and Mrs. A. Proctor Burman, H. Allan-Smith, Daphne Wallis and Reginald Wilkie, Miss D. Donatsch, H.A. Bore, T.E. Leschner, George Bisenz and D.M. Martin. Under the direction of this board, an ice dance competition called the Mr. and Mrs. A.P. Burman Junior Dance Trophy was contested in Switzerland by the largely British contingent of skaters training in the Swiss canton of Graubünden during the long winters under coach H. Rolle. NISA's phenomenal historian Elaine Hooper (who assisted with much of the research about the Tomlinson's earlier skating lives contained in this blog and provided me with copies of results and clippings from Daphne Wallis' private collection and the photos contained herein) explained that "he remained on the [NSA] committee until 1939. There is an entry in the minutes of the meeting of October 5, 1939 that his letter of resignation from both the committee and judging panel had been received and was accepted with regret. No reason for the resignation was mentioned in the minutes."
Group photo from Daphne Wallis' private collection. William Tomlinson is second from left on the top row and Elsie Ritson is on the far right on the bottom row.
The same year Tomlinson resigned from the NSA's Ice Dance Committee, he married Ritson in London. After residing in Britain for a time, the couple lived for many years in Cuernavaca, Mexico. They generously donated the Tomlinson Trophy to the National Skating Association, which was contested as a televised international ice dance competition in the fifties and sixties in England. In 1965, World Medallists Janet Sawbridge and Jon Lane claimed this very title ahead of West Germans Gabriele and Rudi Matysik.
In 1975, the then-aging couple moved to San Antonio, Texas. By 1983, Elsie was a sixty eight year old author of a book of poetry and avid painter and William, at eighty, was dying from cancer, had diabetes, progressive degeneration of the spine and his body was wracked with arthritis. He wasn't expected to live.
Like Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers, the Tomlinson's made a tragic decision. On August 21, 1983, they left money for a telephone bill and letters and a tape recording for friends and neighbours. After drinking a glass of wine on their love seat, the couple held hands and put plastic bags over their heads until they suffocated. Their bodies were discovered the next day by an assistant apartment manager in their building who was concerned that no one had heard from the couple. The medical examiner's office ruled their deaths as suicide by asphyxia. In the August 25, 1983 edition of the Lakeland Ledger, friend Julius Germanoz was quoted as saying that "they were embracing. They had told me quite a few times they would end up this way. They had a pact. She said, 'if he goes - I go."
Clyde White, deputy sports editor for The London Times, explained that "The Tomlinson's were ice skaters, but they were better known as ice skating judges. They were judges in the 1939 British Ice Dancing Championships." Their attorney, Larry Gibbs, added that they were "avid figure skaters, but they weren't pretentious. If they received any medals or awards, they wouldn't have been displayed. They would have been privately contained. They were that type of people. In this world of givers and takers, I'd say they were the givers. They had a lot to share, but there were very private people. If you were in that close circle of friends, there would be nothing they'd deny you, but they were hard to approach."
Anyone who has been touched by the loss of someone close to them of suicide knows how heart wrenching a loss it can be. If anything, the 2014 death of actor Robin Williams, who was diagnosed with early stage Parkinson's Disease and suffered from depression, opened the world's eyes to the complexity of the issue. I personally subscribe to the belief that we are here for as long as we are meant to be for a reason. That said, as sad as the Shakespearian decision of the Tomlinson's suicide pact ultimately was, it was their tragic choice.
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