Puffing on her clay pipe, with a ferocious glare – although, it has to be said, a bit of a twinkle in her eye too – Madame Doubtfire must have appeared a formidable character.
Wrapped up against the bitter Edinburgh climate in assorted shawls, a warm hat smothering her grey curls and accompanied by her mewing colony of cats, she would sit outside her Stockbridge second hand shop and watch the world go by.
For 50 years she ran her small empire of bric-a-brac, old furs, cast-off coats and other people’s shoes, certainly well enough known among locals but never for a second could anyone have imagined that her name would eventually go on to gain international recognition.
Or that one of the world’s best loved comedy actors – who knows, perhaps inspired by his own visit to Edinburgh to perform at the Fringe – would go on to create another version of Mrs Doubtfire, one that would bring laughter and joy to millions.
Today, of course, news of Robin Williams’ tragic and sudden passing is still sinking in. The heart-felt tributes have come from around the world, many citing the Oscar winning actor’s incredible career, often referring to his brilliant role as Mrs Doubtfire herself.
That film, based on author Anne Fine’s acclaimed novel Madame Doubtfire, hit cinema screens in 1993 and told the poignant story of a dad separated from his children who goes to the extremes of dressing up as their Scottish nanny in a bid to spend more time with them.
In it, Williams adopts the kind of prim and proper Edinburgh accent that could have come straight from Morningside or, to be more precise – the New Town, where the real life Madame Doubtfire presided over a corner of South East Circus Place and Howe Street, handy for the upmarket homes of Moray Place and Heriot Row.
There, the well-heeled of the New Town would arrange for their cast-offs to be collected by Madame Doubtfire to sell at what today would probably be classed as a trendy “vintage emporium” but back then was simply a “second hand shop”.
It was her intriguing charisma – and the lure of a second hand bargain – that drew Anne Fine to her basement shop stuffed with all manner of goods.
Ironically, as it has transpired, Fine was suffering from a deep and dark bout of depression of her own at the time, having arrived from her native England with a baby in tow, to live in a cold, unheated Dundas Street flat in the early Seventies.
But the intriguing Madame Doubtfire ignited her imagination and she drew on the unusual name to help create the central figure in her book which eventually captured the attention of Hollywood movie makers.
By the time Williams appeared on screen as Mrs Doubtfire, the novel had been given a movie makeover, its darker elements dealing with divorce and the impact on children swamped by his incredibly powerful – and hilarious – performance. Nevertheless, the name Doubtfire was immortalised.
Today it can still be found at the same spot in the New Town, reincarnated years ago as the Doubtfire Gallery, a pristine, thriving art gallery and studio space which still regularly greets visitors who pop in to talk about their own memories of the real life Madame Doubtfire.
“I think a lot of people remember the real character,” says Jane Muir, the Gallery’s director. “It’s why we named the gallery after her, it’s such a strong name and people locally do remember her.
“For example, we had a policeman who came in and said that her shop had been on his beat. He remembered the inside of the shop which he described as being a bit of a health hazard. Others remember her as a bit cantankerous, those that bought from her shop clearly knew not to mess with her.”
Madame Doubtfire opened her basement business in the 1920s, and its location close to some of the city’s smartest houses meant she often received notes from elegant ladies inviting her to come and collect their cast-off garments.
Her real name was either Isabella or Annabella Coutts. It’s believed she was married four times, once to a French captain by the name of Dofur – where the Doubtfire connection is thought to have been made.
“We would love to find out more. Stockbridge is full of old characters associated with the place. We feel it’s important to keep that memory alive and not lose them forever.”
Madame Doubtfire died in 1979, aged 92, at a nursing home. Some who encountered her have told of a very shrewd businesswoman with a highly enlightened attitude for her times. For example, one man who went to her shop regularly to purchase women’s undies for himself, was treated no differently to any other customer.
And among her customers in the early Seventies was a struggling young mum who, in the depths of depression, was gradually finding comfort and escapism in writing fiction.
“I remember Madame Doubtfire was such a striking woman,” Fine told the Evening News previously. “People of my age didn’t hide the fact that they got their clothes from her. It was in the hippy 70s and we all flaunted the fact that we were recycling clothes.”
She returned to Edinburgh to seek permission to use her name in her 1986 book but discovered the old woman had died. Eventually she found a nephew who told her the real life Madame Doubtfire “would have been chuffed to bits”.
And although she later criticised the movie for turning a provocative and at times dark novel about the impact of divorce into a comedy, she has now spoken of her sadness at Robin Williams’ sudden and tragic death. “It was terribly sad and I was as sorry as everyone else to hear the news,” she was quoted as saying.. “He brought enormous joy to so many people.”
Shakespeare in the wild west
The name owes its origins to Edinburgh and, perhaps, so does the accent.
When Robin Williams created Mrs Doubtfire for the silver screen, he may well have had in mind the accents of the Edinburgh folks he encountered during his first ever visit to the Fringe.
While Anne Fine, the creator of Mrs Doubtfire, was getting used to life in an unheated upstairs Dundas Street flat in 1971, the actor who would eventually play her best-known character was performing in a Fringe show in Bruntsfield.
Then just 20 years old, he was playing the role of a servant in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew – only this particular version was set in the Wild West.
The show, at the Viewforth Centre in Bruntsfield, starred students from the College of Marin in California, who raised their own funds to travel to Scotland.
Williams wore cowboy attire for the production which went on to scoop a Best of the Fringe Award.
The production created such a stir that it eventually received a royal seal of approval, when Princess Margaret appeared in the audience.