Actress Claire Bloom's relationships with Rod Steiger, Richard Burton and Philip Roth all failed. But she is relishing her independence, she tells Michael Shelden
Claire Bloom: 'My daughter keeps my head on straight'
12:00AM GMT 18 Mar 2002
IN her twenties, Claire Bloom led a charmed life. Almost overnight, she rose from middle-class obscurity in Finchley to international stardom, playing the leading lady to Richard Burton, Charlie Chaplin and Laurence Olivier. Her elegant beauty was celebrated in the pages of Vogue and Time; her acting talent was praised by Kenneth Tynan as "pure gold".
Then she started having trouble with husbands. Her career lost its direction as she struggled to save three difficult, volatile marriages, each more demanding than the last. Indeed, her divorce from her third husband - American novelist Philip Roth - was so acrimonious that he bombarded her with faxes demanding the return of every penny he had spent on her and sarcastically suggested a "fine" of $62 billion for her alleged violation of their prenuptial agreement.
Now, still beautiful and energetic at 71, she has decided that enough is enough. Fixing me with her sharp gaze, she leans back in her chair and declares, "Freedom is marvellous. There are other things in life besides men."
She sounds convincing, especially when she discusses her ambitious hopes for reviving her film and stage career. In America, she is touring in a one-woman show that features various Shakespearean characters, and she has just completed work on a small film in Montreal.
In her private life, she has formed a new friendship with the writer Marianne Wiggins, an ex-wife of another "high-maintenance" literary star, Salman Rushdie. The two women have become travelling companions, taking a boat trip on the Amazon together and no doubt entertaining each other with stories of famous novelists behaving badly.
For an update on her new life of independence, we meet in New York - which she now calls home - and have lunch at a small restaurant near her apartment. It is a cold day and she is clothed in various layers of artsy finery that she removes with theatrical grace. When she is seated comfortably, she takes four rings from her handbag and puts them on her fingers in a way that seems almost ritualistic, as though they are good luck charms for protection.
Her dark hair is wispy and her glances are often sidelong and furtive, betraying shyness as well as suspicion. One moment, she seems anxious and guarded; the next, relaxed and forthcoming.
"There are definitely two sides to my personality," she admits. "Part of me is childish, playful, dependent. Another part is fiercely independent and protective."
The tension between these two sides is at the heart of her success as an actress. She was brilliant on the London stage as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, perfectly capturing the torment of a woman caught between the demands of genteel respectability and raging desire. Some of the same tension was also apparent in her celebrated Broadway performances as Nora in A Doll's House.
But in her private life she has suffered from what her friend Gore Vidal describes as her "neurotic" temperament. When I repeat Vidal's succinct commentary on her relationship with Philip Roth - "He's tense; she's tense" - she laughs nervously, but does not deny the accuracy of the description.
Part of the difficulty in her tumultuous love life is that she has been drawn so often to men whose anxieties and obsessions mirror her own. Her first husband, the actor Rod Steiger, didn't seem to know whether he wanted his wife to be a free spirit or an accessory to his own career. They had a child - Anna, now 42 and an opera singer - but the marriage soon collapsed when Bloom found herself attracted to one of her husband's friends, the producer Hillard Elkins.
She now acknowledges that her marriage to Elkins was an enormous mistake and describes him as having "an air of fearful anxiety", yet she was only too willing to join him in a stormy relationship, playing the "child-daughter" to his father-lover.
Significantly, her own father was largely absent from her life. It was her mother who inspired her to pursue an acting career, while her father drifted from job to job and place to place before disappearing from her life. In her childhood she was never quite certain what her father did for a living. "I later found out from my birth certificate that he described himself as a tie salesman, but I have no idea if he actually sold a tie."
After her father abandoned the family, Claire and her brother, John, lived with their mother in greatly reduced circumstances, made worse by the privations of the war. She still has vivid and painful memories of the period.
"It was so dreary and bleak, with rationing and bad food. I came to resent not only the poverty that we saw around us, but the whole caste system of Britain that made any escape from such poverty so difficult. Although you might get a taste of success, you still felt enclosed and unable to move ahead. I couldn't wait to get out of England."
Her chance came in the early Fifties, when her budding career as an actress attracted the attention of Charlie Chaplin, who flew her to New York to audition for a starring part in his film Limelight. He liked what he saw and showered attention on her, generously sharing the cover of Time magazine with her when the film was launched. Suddenly, Hollywood wanted her and she made several big films in America, including The Buccaneer with Yul Brynner.
"I had acting jobs in London, but I wanted to be in America. For me, the one bright thing about England in those days was a Welshman."
She is referring to the first great love of her life, Richard Burton, who starred opposite her in Hamlet at the Old Vic. Unfortunately, he was married at the time and she was never able to enjoy more than brief periods with him.
The fact that their love was frustrated and finally faded is still a source of pain to her, and she does not have much sympathy for Elizabeth Taylor, who eventually lured him into a second marriage. There seems little doubt that he was the favourite of all her lovers.
"He had it all: intelligence, physical beauty, an incredible voice. There was no one else like him. When we were at the Old Vic, he proved that a working-class actor could make it, and I was proud of him. I thought he set a great example in a society that was, and still is, so preoccupied with class and accent."
Her resentment of social distinctions is such a favourite theme that she can't resist interrupting her praise of Burton to deliver a sharp dig at the Queen: "As long as people continue to bow to an uncultivated woman, the caste system will continue."
It is not surprising that she soon drifted away from Britain and made her new home in America, first with Steiger in balmy Malibu and then with Elkins in New York. It was during her early days in New York that she met Roth, who was immediately drawn to her.
"We liked many of the same things. We're both Jewish and bookish. I suppose, at one level, it was a kind of tribal connection that made us fall for each other."
But the relationship grew with painful slowness because Roth was both wary of marriage and deeply jealous of losing Claire's affection. He made it difficult for her to pursue her career and tried to dominate every aspect of her life. So intense was his jealousy that he turned against her daughter, Anna, insisting that the girl was a distraction and consumed too much of Claire's attention.
When Anna was 18, Roth demanded that she leave their house. Claire agonised over his demand but, to her regret, gave in to it.
"He didn't like having her around. It was as simple as that. They are two people with very strong personalities and I couldn't find a way to bring them together. So Anna left. It was a terrible mistake, and she and I have resolved this question only after much difficulty."
Now that Roth is gone, how do relations between mother and daughter stand today?
"She is the most wonderful woman I know and we are very close again. She is so good for me in so many ways. She keeps my head on straight. When I go over the line, she will put me in my place by saying, `Oh, Mom, that's so actressy'."
It took almost 20 years for Bloom to get Roth out of her system. They spent years feeding each other's anxieties and debating their future, and the question of marriage was put off again and again. They lived together in a state that varied from open hostility to quiet domesticity. She tolerated his many emotional outbursts and depressions and nursed him through several illnesses.
"But our love was always doomed to fail. I see that now. Philip can't endure relationships that go on peacefully. He needs controversy and conflict and abrasion. We had many good times, but they were always followed by some outbreak of anger and guilt."
In a vain effort to save their relationship, Claire proposed marriage to Philip. He hesitated, but finally accepted the offer. Their union lasted only three years. And when he turned against her, it was with a vengeance, threatening expensive legal actions and sending angry letters of recrimination.
In 1996, she struck back by turning his instrument of power - the pen - against him. She wrote a brutally candid memoir of their life together and took a literary swipe at him in the title by calling the book Leaving a Doll's House. Over many pages, she details her case against him, attacking him for his selfishness and ingratitude. For her pains, she was criticised in some reviews for airing her dirty laundry in public.
"My crime was that I blew the whistle on Philip Roth. I thought what I was doing was giving the world a truthful picture. Much of it was bad, but there was also great love between us and I tried to convey the spirit of that love."
It is difficult to see the love in her memoir when so much mad obsession seems to swirl around it. He emerges from the book as a nasty, lonely misogynist whose supposed genius hardly serves as an excuse for his wild tantrums and petty cruelties. Bloom seems to think his genius partly redeems him, but it may well be that his self-indulgent fictions will not be read by anyone in 50 years. In which case, she suffered for nothing.
But that bleak view is not one that she is willing to accept. What is most amazing about Claire Bloom, six years after she declared her independence from Roth, is that she still can't seem to let him go.
The more we talk about him, the more she seems to yearn for him, speaking wistfully about their house in Connecticut and reports of his comings and goings in the literary world. In fact, much of her willingness to wash her hands of men seems to be based on the notion that no one else but Roth can suit her. After describing some of their good times together, she says, ruefully, "He is a hard act to follow."
Her devotion to Roth is touching, but he appears not to share her tender memories. In one of his recent books, I Married a Communist, he viciously attacks a character who closely resembles Bloom, portraying her as a double-crossing Jewish actress who betrays her husband.
Given this assault on her reputation, it would seem unlikely that she would have any fondness left for the old brute. But I am stunned by her answer, when I ask if she still loves him.
"Yes," she replies, firmly. And, then without missing a beat, she adds an explanation that seems almost like a chant: "I loved him, I still love him - and I always will love him."
Daniel Craig signs up for Bond 25 as Christopher Nolan admits to talks with producers
While Daniel Craig still has one Bond film left of his five-movie contract, the question of whether he will return to the role ever since the actor voiced his disdain for playing 007 during a wearying run of press junkets around the release of Spectre in 2015.
But the latest is that Craig will return, according to The Mirror. Reportedly, the actor, who famously said he would "rather slash [his] wrists" than return to the role has agreed to don the spy suit once more, after hearing about the galaxy of stars who were ready to replace him.
Craig has been at the centre of the franchise's most lucrative films to date: Skyfall grossed $1.1 billion at the international box office, making it the highest-ever grossing film for Sony Pictures and the second highest-earning of 2012. Spectre, the 2015 follow-up, is the fourth biggest earner in the franchise's 53-year-history after Thunderball (1965) and Goldfinger (1964) with inflation.
The Mirror also reports that producer Barbara Broccoli is attempting to secure Adele, who won the franchise its first Oscar with her theme for Skyfall, to return for the 25th film. Broccoli is said to be "talking the singer round".
But the Broccolis are also looking for new talent to bring a new twist to the formula. Academy Award-nominated director Christopher Nolanhas said that he's been speaking to producers, but would want to wait until the franchise "needed" him before stepping into Skyfall and Spectre director's Sam Mendes' shoes.
Nolan told Playboy:
I've spoken to the producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson over the years. I deeply love the character, and I'm always excited to see what they do with it. Maybe one day that would work out. You'd have to be needed, if you know what I mean. It has to need reinvention; it has to need you. And they're getting along very well.
Reports suggest that Bond 25 will start filming next year, with a potential release at the end of 2018.
I was reading the late novelist’s short story “Redemption,” based on the accidental death of his younger brother in a horrifying farming accident, and found its sentences beautifully crafted. John Gardner, at eleven, was driving a tractor when his brother fell under its towed cultipacker, a pair of giant rolling pins for mashing the clods in harrowed soil that weighed two tons. In the story, grief almost destroys the father, like Gardner’s father a dairyman, orator, and lay preacher; the surviving brother is tortured almost to madness by guilt.
This sentence is about the wife and mother—Gardner’s was an English teacher:
Because she had, at thirty-four, considerable strength of character—except that, these days, she was always eating—and because, also, she was a woman of strong religious faith, a woman who, in her years of church work and teaching at the high school, had made scores of close, for the most part equally religious, friends, with whom she regularly corresponded, her letters, then theirs, half filling the mailbox at the foot of the hill and cluttering every table, desk, and niche in the large old house—friends who now frequently visited or phoned—she was able to move step by step past disaster and in the end keep her family from wreck.
That’s 112 words. Virginia Woolf wrote longer ones, 140 words and more, but what Gardener kept aloft—the construction of his sentence and its clarity and beauty—and those double parenthetical dashes—amaze me. ‘‘Redemption” was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1977, and Gardner later included it in his collection The Art of Living in 1981; the complete story is available on line.
There’s a famous quote by Gardner that seems to apply to this story:
By the time you’ve run your mind through it a hundred times, relentlessly worked out every tic of terror, it’s lost its power over you . . . [Soon it’s] a story on a page or, more precisely, everybody’s story on a page.
In the 1970s his novel The Sunlight Dialogues was everywhere I looked, but I didn’t read it, nor have I read what’s considered his masterpiece, the novel Grendel. I did enjoy as they appeared his books on writing—On Moral Fiction, On Becoming a Novelist, and The Art of Fiction—and later read two novels I much admired, October Light and Mickelsson’s Ghosts.
Between Them: Remembering My Parents by Richard Ford. Harper, 173 pp.
Richard Ford’s new memoir, a short book made of two long essays, is a vocal performance. And he’s in good voice. Forget scenes: he’s telling. The New York Times Book Review said Ford’s prose style in his novel Canada (which I reviewed here) is “so accomplished it is tempting to read each sentence two or three times before being pulled to the next.” The same applies in Between Them: Remembering My Parents, though it’s Ford’s rhythms—how his sentences work together—rather than lone sentences that please you and lure you onward.
Here’s an early characterization of his father that slides into his mother:
His large malleable, fleshy face was given to smiling. His first face was always the smiling one. The long Irish lip. The transparent blue eyes—my eyes. My mother must’ve noticed this when she met him—wherever she did. In Hot Springs or Little Rock, sometime before 1928. Noticed this and liked what she saw. A man who liked to be happy. She had never been exactly happy—only inexactly, with the nuns who taught her at St. Anne’s in Fort Smith, where her mother had put her to keep her out of the way.
What various vocal rhythms here. Take just the first four sentences: a passive sentence—Daddy didn’t smile: his face itself was “given to” that act—followed by a great turn of phrase about that quality, his smiling nature; then a fragment; then another fragment—with a dash! More fragments follow. Their colloquial snap. Then, this passage about his father, in the essay about his father, pivots into his mother’s dire childhood. That’s a much longer sentence, with a kick at the end, though it relies on what’s come before. Relies on how Ford has set us up.
Ford seems ambivalent about the semicolon, using only a few in his new memoir, but plenty of dashes, short sentences, and sentence fragments. His style is undergirded by and reflects his forthrightly imaginative approach to his parents. Like they’re two of his fictional characters he’s made up. So he writes confidently, almost over-confidently. As in that great, cheeky (borderline smarmy) “only inexactly” line about his mother’s happiness. But we see in his judgments and generalizations the same confidence (and speculation and limits) we possess in musing upon our own ordinary yet mysterious parents.
He’s skating beautifully for us, in the southern Scots-Irish rhetorical tradition, on thin ice. Take his parents’ early days together. Sprung from loose-limbed, garrulous, backwoods clans—with stomping grounds and boon companions, and surely also with fresh collards and raw elbows—they drank companionably, and sometimes to excess, and in those sepia honeymoon years they “roistered.” His father settled into a bland career as a traveling starch salesman, and his mother accompanied his excursions across the South, until Richard came along.
You keep opening Between Them for their boy’s vocal performance. You can feel Ford’s implicit wink at us as he conjures his parents. His manifest love is how he escapes sentimentality in asking us to share simple affection for them. These ordinary forgettable people from Arkansas, who landed in Jackson, Mississippi, left no trace aside from their gifted only child. And as he talks them to life, rather than dramatizes their narrative arc—well, he does, inexactly—they melt away when you shut the book.
[Brian Doyle on his home turf at the University of Portland.]
Rhetorical & other reasons for Brian Doyle’s long sentences.
You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words I have something to tell you, a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in the thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.
Brian Doyle was a prolific writer, of novels and narrative nonfiction, and a master of the short, tight essay made of long, loose sentences. His shortest essays verge on, or become, poetry. A devout Catholic, he saw life suffused by love. He took rapture in the ordinary, which he showed is extraordinary. He wrote the best essay about the 9/11 attacks, “Leap,” only 572 words. He died at the end of May of a brain tumor, aged 60. Early last week, I came across his essay “His Last Game,” reprinted by Notre Dame Magazine, and bookmarked it. Only 1,184 words, it’s about an outing with his older brother, who was dying of cancer, in 2012.
It feels almost wrong to analyze some of his essays rhetorically, since they’re about what’s sacred. But such study leads to imitation, and that’s what makes writers, even before they know they’re doing that lowly, necessary act, so that, when the greatest joy blesses them or the hardest fate befalls them, they can sing truthfully in their own voices. Craft is the necessary portal to make what’s called art from experience.
In the case of “His Last Game,” Doyle makes long, loose, plain, rambling sentences that put hard emphasis on conjunctions, which further imparts movement. He and his brother are in a single unfolding scene, driving around during an ordinary day. Which we see isn’t ordinary at all—the brother is sick. Very sick. Maybe he’s not going to make it. And Doyle’s looking at that, with his brother looking at it—their conversation and what they see is all about that, sometimes overtly but mostly between the lines. Enough for us to get and to feel all the implications.
Here’s the opening in paragraph in which Doyle plants his brother’s refrain: mock concern over remembering to pick up his medication, at this point pointless:
We were supposed to be driving to the pharmacy for his prescriptions, but he said just drive around for a while, my prescriptions aren’t going anywhere without me, so we just drove around. We drove around the edges of the college where he had worked and we saw a blue heron in a field of stubble, which is not something you see every day, and we stopped for a while to see if the heron was fishing for mice or snakes, on which we bet a dollar, me taking mice and him taking snakes, but the heron glared at us and refused to work under scrutiny, so we drove on. We drove through the arboretum checking on the groves of ash and oak and willow trees, which were still where they were last time we looked, and then we checked on the wood duck boxes in the pond, which still seemed sturdy and did not feature ravenous weasels that we noticed, and then we saw a kestrel hanging in the crisp air like a tiny helicopter, but as soon as we bet mouse or snake the kestrel vanished, probably for religious reasons, said my brother, probably a lot of kestrels are adamant that gambling is immoral, but we are just not as informed as we should be about kestrels.
[One of his many books.]
When an “unapologetic Catholic” blasted Portland, the magazine Doyle edited for Catholic Portland University, for covering the marriage of two men, Doyle replied that Catholics are “called to compassion, not to judgment.” Doyle’s spiritual outlook seemed inextricable from his stance as a writer—one who sees and weighs—and his response to life urged him to make his sentences in the first place. In other words, his inner vision determined what he looked at, and hence wrote about, and that ethos also fueled his need for expression. You can’t easily imitate such aware mental or emotional states, but you can aspire to them. You can earn them. And, as a bonus, that artist’s job is simply a human task.
Doyle also advised the University of Portland’s student journalists at The Beacon, their newspaper, and, upon his passing, its editor Rachel Rippetoe used a run-on sentence to make her own point about his animus toward periods—an existential and spiritual one: “Brian had a contentious relationship with punctuation. He had a special distaste for periods and the way they interrupt thoughts needlessly and arbitrarily, he said they give a sense of absolutism to an indefinite world.” Doyle told Oregon Public Broadcasting in 2015, “I get teased a lot for my style. People are saying, ‘Wow, a sentence will start on Tuesday and it doesn’t end ’til Friday.’ But I want to write like people talk. I want to write like I’m speaking to you.”
And so he did.
I resisted reading “His Last Game” until this past Saturday, fearing it might be sentimental, that he couldn’t earn from us his desired response, that it couldn’t be that good, but it is.