After a successful career as a child actress, she later established herself on the stage as an adult, playing in comedy, drama and experiment theatre, and broadcasting on the radio. She found her milieu in revue, which she played from the 1930s to the 1950s, co-starring several times with Hermione Baddeley. Later she played formidable elderly characters in such films and stage musicals as Gigi (1958), Bell, Book and Candle (1958), The Music Man (1962) and A Little Night Music (1973).
From the early 1950s Gingold lived and made her career mostly in the U.S. Her American stage work ranged from John Murray Anderson's Almanac (1953) to Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad (1963), the latter of which she also played in London. She became well known as a guest on television talk shows. She made further appearances in revue and toured in plays and musicals until an accident ended her performing career in 1977.
Gingold was born in Carlton Hill, Maida Vale, London, the elder daughter of a prosperous Vienna-born Jewish stockbroker James Gingold and his wife, Kate (née Walter). Her paternal grandparents were the Ottoman-born British subject, Moritz "Maurice" Gingold, a London stockbroker, and his Austrian-born wife, Hermine, after whom Hermione was named (Gingold mentions in her autobiography that her mother might have got Hermione from the Shakespeare's play The Winter's Tale, which she was reading shortly before her birth). On her father's side, she was descended from the celebrated Solomon Sulzer, a famous synagogue cantor and Jewish liturgical composer in Vienna. Her mother was from a "well-to-do Jewish family". James felt that religion was something children needed to decide on for themselves, and Gingold grew up with no particular religious beliefs.
Gingold first appeared on stage in a kindergarten staging of Shakespeare's Henry VIII, in the role of Wolsey. Her professional début was in 1908 when she had just turned eleven. She played the herald in Herbert Beerbohm Tree's production of Pinkie and the Fairies by W. Graham Robertson, in a cast including Ellen Terry, Frederick Volpe, Marie Löhr and Viola Tree. She was promoted to the leading role of Pinkie for a provincial tour. Tree cast her as Falstaff's page, Robin, in The Merry Wives of Windsor. She attended Rosina Filippi's stage school in London. In 1911 she was cast in the original production of Where the Rainbow Ends which opened to very good reviews on 21 December 1911. Among her colleagues as child-actors in "Where the Rainbow Ends" were Philip Tonge and Noël Coward.
On 10 December 1912, the day after her fifteenth birthday, Gingold played Cassandra in William Poel's production of Troilus and Cressida at the King's Hall, Covent Garden, with Esmé Percy as Troilus and Edith Evans as Cressida. The following year she appeared in a musical production, The Marriage Market, in a small role in a cast that included Tom Walls, W H Berry, and Gertie Millar. In 1914 she played Jessica in The Merchant of Venice at the Old Vic. In 1918 Gingold married the publisher Michael Joseph, with whom she had two sons, the younger of whom, Stephen, became a pioneer of theatre in the round in Britain.
Gingold's adult stage career was slow to take off. She played Liza in If at the Ambassador's in May 1921, and the Old Woman in Ben Travers's farcical comedy The Dippers produced by Sir Charles Hawtrey at the Criterion in August 1922.
In 1926 Gingold divorced from Joseph. Later in the same year she married the writer and lyricist Eric Maschwitz, whom she divorced in 1945. She underwent a vocal crisis in the late 1920s and early 1930s: she had hitherto described herself as "Shakespearian and soprano", but nodules on her vocal cords brought a drastic drop in pitch, about which she commented, "One morning it was Mozart and the next 'Old Man River'". The critic J. C. Trewin described her voice as "powdered glass in deep syrup". During this period she broadcast frequently for the BBC and established herself at the experimental theatre-club the Gate Theatre Studio in London, first as a serious actress and later in the genre for which she became famous, revue. According to The Times it was in Spread It Abroad (1936) a revue at another theatre, the Saville, with material by Herbert Farjeon that she truly found her milieu.
In the ten years from 1938 Gingold concentrated on revue, appearing in nine different productions in the West End. The first four were The Gate Revue (transferred from the Gate to the Ambassador's, 1939), Swinging the Gate (1940), Rise Above It (1941) and Sky High (1942). During this period she and Hermione Baddeley established a stage partnership of what The Times called "briskly sustained mock-rivalry". In June 1943 she opened in a revue at the Ambassadors, Sweet and Low, which was continually revised and refreshed over a run of almost six years, first as Sweeter and Lower and then Sweetest and Lowest. In her sketches she tended, as the writer of the shows, Alan Melville, recalled, to portray "grotesque and usually unfortunate ladies of dubious age and occasionally, morals; the unhappy female painted by Picasso who found herself lumberered with an extra limb or two … the even less fortunate female who, after years of playing the cello in Palm Court orchestras, ended up bow-legged beyond belief." In a biographical sketch, Ned Sherrin writes, "Gingold became a special attraction for American soldiers and 'Thanks, Yanks' was one of her most appropriate numbers. During the astringent, name-dropping 'Sweet' series, she played 1,676 performances, before 800,000 people, negotiating 17,010 costume changes."
Gingold's first new revue after the war was Slings and Arrows at the Comedy in 1948. She was praised, but the material was judged inferior to that of her earlier shows. She appeared in cameo roles in British films, of which Sherrin singles out The Pickwick Papers (1952), in which she played the formidable schoolmistress, Miss Tompkins. Gingold became well known to BBC radio audiences in "Mrs Doom's Diary" in the weekly show Home at Eight; this was a parody of the radio soap opera Mrs Dale's Diary in the manner of the Addams Family with Gingold as Drusilla Doom and Alfred Marks as her sepulchral husband. Gingold and Baddeley co-starred in a Noël Coward double bill in November 1949, presenting Fumed Oak and Fallen Angels. Reviews were poor, and Coward thought the performances crude and overdone, but the production was a box-office success, running until August the following year.
Between 1951 and 1969 Gingold worked mostly in the US. Her first engagement there was at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts in It's About Time, a revue that incorporated some of her London material. In December 1953, she opened in John Murray Anderson's Almanac which made her an instant Broadway success and for which she won the Donaldson Award in 1954. She also became a regular guest on talk shows. In 1951 she cited as her hobbies; 'Interior decoration' and 'collecting china'.
Gingold continued to make films. In 1956 she played a London "sporting lady" in Around the World in 80 Days, and won a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in the 1958 film Gigi playing Madame Alvarez, Gigi's loving grandmother. In the film, she sang "I Remember it Well" with Maurice Chevalier. She said, "It was my first American film and I was very nervous." But Chevalier put her at ease. "I had to sing and I hadn't got a great voice, but with him I felt the greatest prima donna in the world." Gingold followed this with another hit film Bell, Book and Candle, also 1958, in which her role was Mrs Bianca De Pass. She played the mayor's haughty wife Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn in The Music Man (1962) starring Robert Preston and Shirley Jones.
In October 1963, Gingold opened in Arthur Kopit's Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad, playing a monstrously possessive mother driving her son crazy. She played the role in the London production in 1965. Reviewing the latter, and noting that the first night had been greeted with cheering at the end, the critic Philip Hope-Wallace wrote:
It marks, of course, the return of Hermione Gingold, which would be cause enough for cheering. Blatant as ever, deafeningly loud, strutting like a parody of every tragedy queen, male or female, since time began, she was in splendid relishing form, her lips drawn back over fangs and her voice swooping campingly through a whole two octaves of sneer.
Gingold was a member of the original 1973 Broadway cast of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music in the role of the elderly Mme. Armfeldt, a former courtesan. Clive Barnes wrote of her performance, "Hermione Gingold is immeasurably grande dame as the almost Proustian hostess (I haven't loved her so much since she sang about the Borgia orgies 30 years ago)." When the production transferred to London in 1975 Gingold reprised the role, and later played it in the film version of the musical (1977).
At the age of 77, Gingold made her operatic début, joining the San Francisco Opera to play the spoken role of the Duchess of Crackenthorp in Donizetti's La fille du régiment in 1975. In 1977 she took over the narrator's role in Side by Side by Sondheim on Broadway. After the New York run, the show toured the US. In Kansas City, the 79-year-old Gingold suffered an accident that broke her knee and dislocated her arm; this brought her performing career to an end (although she appeared in a 1980s Goya commercial for their drink "Coca Goya" while lounging on a chaise lounge shaking the two cans like maracas.)
Gingold died from heart problems and pneumonia at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan on 24 May 1987, aged 89.
Gingold's autobiography, How to Grow Old Disgracefully, was published posthumously in 1988. It had previously been published in installments: The World Is Square (1946), My Own Unaided Work (1952) and Sirens Should Be Seen and Not Heard (1963). She also wrote a play called Abracadabra and contributed original material to the many revues in which she performed.
The Gingold Theatrical Group in New York is a company devoted to producing plays about human rights. It was founded by David Staller, great friend of Gingold for many years, as a tribute to her. They specialise in presenting the works of Bernard Shaw and are the first group to present all of Shaw's sixty-five plays.The Tonight Show with Jack Paar and later Johnny Carson (frequent guest from 1958–62)
The Merv Griffin Show with Merv Griffin (frequent guest)
I've Got a Secret panelist (12/8/1959, 30/12/1959, 14/1/1963)
What's My Line? Mystery Challenger (19/4/1959, 8/9/1963)
Alfred Hitchcock Presents ("The Schartz-Metterklume Method"—1960) - Miss Hope
Beyond the Fringe (1967) (14 episodes)
It Takes a Thief (1968) ("Lay of the Land" – S01E15) - Duchess Christina
Winter of the Witch'' (1969) - Witch
Ironside ("Check Mate and Murder") (1970) - Ernestine Mugford
Love, American Style (1971) - Jane (segment "Love and the Heist")
Banyon (1971) (pilot for series) - Peggy Revere
Simple Gifts (1977) - Narrator (segment "The Great Frost") (voice)
Amy & the Angel (1982) - Pincus
Hotel ("Charades") (1983) - Felicity
How to Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days (1983) - Miss Sandwich