Giuseppe [Joseph] Grimaldi was probably born between 1709 and 1716, the son of the dancer John Baptist Grimaldi, one of a family of Italian entertainers who performed throughout Western Europe. Little is known about his early life. His father was the first to use Grimaldi’s nickname of Gamba di Ferro (Iron Legs). When Grimaldi settled in England is uncertain. He appeared for the first time as a dancer at the King’s Theatre on 10 January 1758.
In April 1762, when he was in his late forties or early fifties, Grimaldi married a sixteen-year-old dancer, Mary Blagden. There were four children from this marriage. During the 1760s he had a number of affairs with young dancers and entertainers. Having contracted syphilis by 1767, he infected his wife with the disease.
Grimaldi and Mary stopped living together in 1775, and two years before her death in 1781 she began divorce proceedings on the grounds of abuse. By then, Grimaldi had begun a relationship with Rebecca Brooker, a young dancer at Drury Lane, by whom he had two, or possibly three, illegitimate children, including Joseph Grimaldi, the future celebrated clown Joey (admired by Lord Byron) who was born at Clare Market on 18 December 1778.
There were other illegitimate children. In 1780 Grimaldi was living with Ann Perry at no. 125 High Holborn, while he continued to maintain a household with Rebecca Brooker and their children at Theatre Court, Lambeth. ‘Old Grim’ had a reputation as a coarse humourist, an obscene practical joker, and as an accomplished dancer and pantomimist. He practised dentistry alongside his career in dance, advertising himself as a ‘Surgeon-Dentist’.
He was a violent man with an obsession with death (contemporary anecdotes about him are related in Charles Dickens’s Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi). In his will of 25 February 1786 he requested that, on the day that he was buried, his eldest child, should sever his head from his body. He died in March 1788 in Lambeth, and a surgeon was asked to carry out the beheading.