BLOG INTERVIEWS / Helen Sheehy

Interview with Helen Sheehy

Today The Baz is talking to Helen Sheehy, author of Eva Le Gallienne: a Biography. Le Gallienne was Rathbone’s lover and Broadway co-star, yet her name is not even mentioned in his autobiography, and in consequence her role in his private life and artistic development will be entirely new to many of his admirers and indeed his past and future biographers! The Baz is very grateful to Helen for taking the time to talk about this neglected subject. It will certainly be a surprise to numbers of his longterm fans.

TB: Let’s begin with you telling me a little bit about your book “Eva Le Gallienne: a Biography.” How you came to write it and what drew you to your subject.


Helen Sheehy  has worked in the theatre, written about the theatre and taught theatre for three decades. She is the author of three biographies and a textbook,All About Theatre (1981). Her biography of theatre pioneer Margo Jones, Margo: The Life and Theatre of Margo Jones, (SMU Press 1989) was released in paperback with a new introduction by Emily Mann in 2005. The New York Times Book Review selected Sheehy’s biography Eva Le Gallienne (Knopf 1996), about another pioneer of 20th century theatre, as one of its notable books of 1996.  Sheehy’s biography of the first modern actor, Eleonora Duse: A Biography (Knopf 2003), was also selected by the New York Times Book Review as a notable book. In 2005, Mondadori published an Italian translation of the biography,Eleonora Duse: La Donna, Le Passioni, La Leggenda.

Sheehy is a member of PEN and the Author’s Guild. She recently completed SPARKS, a novel.

SHEEHY: When I finished my first biography, Margo: The Life and Theatre of Margo Jones, I looked around for another subject. Margo had single-handedly pioneered the resident theatre movement in this country – her legacy lives in the hundreds of non-profit theatres from coast to coast. So when I finished the book, I looked for another subject – another pioneer who had been forgotten by the textbooks and who changed the culture. I found Eva Le Gallienne.

TB: Tell us something about who she was.

SHEEHY: She was born on January 11, 1899, the daughter of a Danish feminist and an English poet. She was a huge Broadway star before she was 21, and turned her back on the commercial theatre in the 1920s to devote herself to non-commercial theatre.

TB: And you actually met her didn’t you?


SHEEHY:
Yes. In 1984, before I had any thought of writing theatre biographies, I met Miss Le Gallienne. At the time I worked as a dramaturg for Mark Lamos at the Hartford Stage Company, and I had interviewed her for our HSC magazine because we were doing Chekhov’s Three Sisters in a new translation by Lanford Wilson. Le Gallienne, at her Civic Repertory Theater in New York, had done the first American production of Three Sisters. At first my reception was quite chilly. She raised an eyebrow and demanded in her cello voice, “Why aren’t you doing my translation?” I had no answer since I didn’t know at the time that she even had a translation –later I learned that not only had she translated Chekhov she also had translated Ibsen’s plays. Gradually, Le Gallienne warmed to me, and she took my hand and gave me a tour of her “Blue Room” Library at her home in Weston, Connecticut. A fire blazed in the fireplace, a sleek white cat posed in a bay window, and everywhere there were books, thousands of books.

As she guided me around the room, she paused to take down her hand-copied manuscripts of Sarah Bernhardt’s Memoirs and read the inscription that Sarah had written to her. She touched Eleonora Duse’s photograph, pointed out Edwin Booth’s framed autograph, and ran her fingers along the spines of dozens of biographies of theatre people. She’s introducing me to her old friends, I realized.

TB: And you have also had fairly privileged access to her papers haven’t you?

SHEEHY: In 1991, when I began work on Le Gallienne’s biography, her executor Eloise Armen gave me access to over sixty years of diaries; dozens of unpublished manuscripts; thousands of letters; and countless scraps of paper filled with Le Gallienne’s musings, recollections, and thoughts—a detailed, accurate, unsparing account of her personal as well as her public life. She didn’t leave out the struggles she had with her “demons”—vanity, alcohol, lust, pride, fear of aging. I read her diaries, tried on her Fortuny evening gown, worn Eau de Verviene, her signature cologne, examined every letter of hers I could find, listened to her voice, studied photographs and videotapes of her, walked the ground that she walked and interviewed more than 150 people who knew her.

TB: I was talking to Robert Matzen about how bare facts can only take you so far in the process of understanding a subject’s life and that no biographer can really do their job without that ingredient of intuition and interpretation that comes from “inhabiting” that person’s space. I sense very much that, in addition to all your research, you have you have communed with the “essence” of ELG in that essential and indefinable way.

SHEEHY: Yes! Robert Matzen is exactly right. Bare facts can only take you so far. You need to walk the ground your subject walked and inhabit her mind and thoughts. It helps enormously to have diaries and letters that take you inside, but sometimes what is unsaid can also be important. And here’s the wonderful John Gardner, writing about fiction, but I think his words apply to non-fiction writing as well. “All writing requires at least some measure of trancelike state,” he said. “The writer must summon out of nonexistence some character, some scene…until the imaginary becomes real.” In working on Le Gallienne’s life, I was struck by how much the art of the actor shares with the writer’s art. A biographer is an interpreter of a life just as an actor is an interpreter of a character. I’ll go even further. Writers are also actors. My first training was as an actor and that training has been invaluable in writing biography. Using imagination, sense memory, empathy, and research, just as an actor imagines a character and makes her come to life, so the biographer takes the raw material of letters, notes, interviews, newspaper clippings, reviews, books read, places lived–never inventing facts but freely imagining and choosing the form those facts will take–the biographer breathes life into her character. And, as all actors know, properties and settings can speaks as eloquently as pages of prose. In the same way, I treasure objects touched by Le Gallienne. Above my desk hangs a framed motto written in pencil by Eleonora Duse. It hung by Le Gallienne’s bed for 40 years. “The soul’s joy lies in doing,” it says. And that saying and the example of Le Gallienne’s life and her friendship with Duse inspired my biography of Eleonora Duse.

TB:Your book talks about Le Gallienne’s relationship with Basil Rathbone. Their liaison was both professional and romantic. Let’s talk about the former first. How did they come to work together for the first time?

SHEEHY: Le Gallienne had just had a huge hit on Broadway playing Julie in Ferenc Molnar’s Liliom (which later became the musical Carousel). Molnar asked her to play Princess Alexandra, the title role in his new play, The Swan, in its American premiere on Broadway. Playing an elegant, lovely princess was quite a contrast from the stoop-shouldered waif Julie, and Le Gallienne accepted. Basil Rathbone played the role of royal tutor to the prince.

TB: Was the play a success?

SHEEHY: A huge success despite the fact it opened on October 23 in a rain storm. Le Gallienne played with a “freedom I had never before experienced on the stage.” When the play ended, the company received a standing ovation and was called back again and again. Rathbone saw the critic Alexander Woollcott throw his hat in the air. The play was a tremendous critical and commercial hit and broke box-office records.

TB: And it was The Swan that established Rathbone on Broadway. Did Eva enjoy the experience of working with him?

SHEEHY:Le Gallienne told her mother that she liked Rathbone “better than any man I have ever played with. He is entirely charming—very gentle and nice to me—and wonderful to play with (he is the first leading man I have ever had who is earnest and deeply sincere about his work—who never cheats or in any way shirks his end of things.).He likes me too—and we both hope we may do many things together in the future.”

TB: And in fact she chose Rathbone to be in another play with her almost immediately?

SHEEHY: Yes. Although she played eight performances a week in The Swan, she produced and played the title role in three matinee performances of Gerhart Hauptmann’s play The Assumption of Hannele at the Cort Theatre. For the dual role of the Schoolmaster and the Christ like Stranger, she chose Rathbone.

TB: But they weren’t as yet romantically involved?

SHEEHY: No, she wrote her mother on Jan. 6, 1924, “I am glad to say that as far as his emotions are concerned, they are deeply engaged elsewhere–so I haven’t that situation to cope with either–all of which is quite delightful.”

TB:And the woman with whom Basil’s feelings were “deeply engaged,” was Ouida Bergere?

Rathbone & Ouida Bergere

SHEEHY:Yes.

TB: But despite this “engagement,” Le Gallienne and Rathbone did in fact begin a sexual relationship didn’t they, when was this?

SHEEHY:I can’t say for sure, but it appears that their physical affair began in Chicago in the fall of 1924 when The Swan company began a national tour. At this time, Le Gallienne was distancing herself from her lover, Mercedes de Acosta.

TB: And this was after he had spent the summer in England with Ouida. So, unless seeing other people was agreed between them he was to some extent “cheating” on her with Eva.

SHEEHY: Yes.

TB: Tell me more about their relationship, professionally and romantically.

SHEEHY:Oh, Neve, I wish I knew everything about Le Gallienne’s relationship with the man she called “my Basil.” Most of what I do know comes from Le Gallienne’s letters and diaries and an interview with her former lover, actress Josephine Hutchinson. Le Gallienne and Rathbone had a fascinating relationship – a work affair and a love affair. Much of their attraction was undoubtedly propinquity. Still, it was rare for a man to excite Le Gallienne’s ardor.

TB: Is it true Rathbone was her only recorded heterosexual relationship?

SHEEHY: Le Gallienne also had a close relationship with Joseph Schildkraut, her costar in Molnar’s play LILIOM, which was her first big Broadway success. When Basil died, Le Gallienne wrote in her diary on July 22, 1967: “So both my fellows have gone on.” Schildkraut had died a few years earlier.

TB: What was the nature of the attraction to Basil?

SHEEHY:She was attracted to Rathbone on every level—sexually, artistically, and spiritually. She adored his “long aristocratic legs,” his gentle nature, and they were both schooled in European and English theatre, loved the classics and shared artistic aspirations. They talked of a production of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, playing the doomed lovers Rebekka and Rosmer. At one point, Le Gallienne told Mercedes that she thought of marrying Basil and having his child.
Then in late October Ouida Bergere joined Basil in Chicago while they were playing The Swan there, and Le Gallienne had to compete for his time. I want to “pry Basil away from Ouida,” she wrote.

TB:Do we know when and why their sexual relationship ended?

SHEEHY: Not precisely. According to people close to her, their physical relationship ended when Le Gallienne overheard Rathbone telling other members of the company that he was sleeping with her. But Eva herself left no direct record of this. Since The Swan closed in late April of 1925, their affair probably ended sometime during the winding down of the run -winter or early Spring 1924-25. Remember that one of the reasons Le Gallienne was interested in Rathbone was because of work.

TB:What happened after The Swan closed?

SHEEHY:Le Gallienne moved on to other work and other lovers, but she wrote her mother on September 15, 1925 that “my” Basil was back in New York, and she had heard that he had married Ouida [she was wrong]. “I still call him ‘my’ Basil,” she wrote, “because I know that he really is. I miss him—but most particularly in Work I miss him (because after all, that must be most vital to me)…Thank God I can write like this to you—for you understand & know. He must still be with Ouida otherwise he surely would have called me up.”

TB: And was that the end of it?

SHEEHY Later that month, Le Gallienne ran into Rathbone at an opening of a new play, and he asked to come and see her. “He will come Thursday after his rehearsal,” she told her mother. “It’s all very strange.” What happened at that meeting, if it happened, is not known.

TB: The following year Rathbone married Ouida and in 1930 he went to Hollywood to become a leading man. He was only intermittently to return to the stage for the next sixteen years . And despite their sympathy and mutual goals, and their terrific onstage chemistry he and Eva Le Gallienne didn’t work together again for nearly thirty years.

SHEEHY No. Although Le Gallienne and Rathbone were the two brightest and most beautiful young stars in the American theatre, no producer had the good sense to team them again.

TB: And it wasn’t until April 1953 they worked together again.

SHEEHY:To raise money for a proposed American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, director Margaret Webster and Le Gallienne put together a troupe of actors from the theatre and from Hollywood to perform Shakespeare scenes. Le Gallienne and Rathbone played scenes from Henry VIII and Macbeth. It was a joy for her to act with Basil again, she recalled, since “we are so completely in rhythm physically–always were–and that makes it all so easy.”

TB: Do you think theatre missed out on a potentially legendary onstage pairing?

SHEEHY:Yes. Neve, can you imagine what a Romeo and Juliet they would have made? Two young actors at the height of their powers with all their physical grace and beauty—it would have been, as Le Gallienne liked to say, “frightfully thrilling!”

TB: Indeed. And that’s an excellent image to leave us with. Helen, thank you.

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127 thoughts on “Interview with Helen Sheehy

  1. What an amazing story, and I don’t know what other people think but I think it could have been a real love story too. When Basil asked to see her in 1925, what was he going to say? Did the meeting ever happen? How tantalizing

    • I was wondering that too, and also wondering why Basil doesn’t mention this relationship in his book. Not to be making assumptions but it makes you wonder what else he left out!

  2. I simply don’t find it credible that Basil would sleep with a lesbian woman. He was shocked by lesbianism and homosexuality. And why would he be sleeping with this woman while he was deeply involved with Ouida?It makes no sense.

    • I think Rathbone’s involvement in the the play “The Captive” shows his tolerance of homosexuality. Also, even though LaGalliene was predominantly lesbian, apparently she had bisexual tendencies since she also had an affair with Joseph Schidkraut. BTW, Schildkraut and Rathbone are physically similar men if you’ve seen pictures. Schildkraut also played Judas in the film King of Kings, while Rathbone played Judas on stage. And why wouldn’t Rathbone be attracted to her — she was an intelligent, beautiful woman with whom he had a lot in common. I’m straight and I find many gay men attractive; why wouldn’t it work the same way for a male? I’m wondering whether Rathbone was in the early stages of his relationship with Ouida when he was Eva’s lover. Perhaps it was hard for him to choose between the two women, or perhaps because he knew Eva was bisexual, a marriage between them might not work.

    • I agree with you Alyssia Warren. Never say never, people do all kinds of things, but there is something about this story, that is simply hard for me to accept. Then again, they say he was mad when his play (in which he played the husband of a lesbian) was forced to close, but then again, something about this story(him and this woman) is not fitting together for me. Thank you for reading. *_*

    • I don’t see how it can not be true when Eva and all her friends said it was. And your remarks about lesbianism look a bit homophobic.

  3. Fantastic interview. The repetition of the theme of Basil’s gentleness is a new one. Ironic, this kind and gentle man who ends up portraying some of the screen’s most noted villains.

  4. Absolutely fascinating! What an amazing woman Eva was. A fitting companion indeed for Rathbone, on stage if not off. What they might have achieved!

  5. I didn’t know much about Le Gallienne, but she seems to have been an idealist and someone who lived her principles like a true artist. The contrast with Basil’s wife is very telling: Ouida’s spending and social climbing seem to be the reason he sold out (over and over) and ended his career doing just about anything for money. It’s pretty tragic, isn’t it? Ouida looks more and more like the Colonel Parker in the story of Rathbone’s downfall…

  6. I have been an admirer of Eva for many years and am also a big fan of Baz, so I am very happy to know they were lovers as well as colleagues. When Eva says she overheard Basil talking about their affair and thats why she ended it, was he being disparaging about her? I guess not in fact as they remained friends. So, was she keeping it a secret from people is that why she didn’t want him to tell anyone?

  7. What a fascinating, engrossing interview – thanks so much for posting! I knew about Le Gallienne’s lesbian affairs, but had not even known she had once did a play with Rathbone. You can see in the photos that physically they were a good match – they must have been wonderful to watch onstage.

  8. I’m trying to post an image of the young Joseph Schildkraut, but am too technically inept, but it would great if someone else would! He was quite handsome in his younger days, and a very fine actor, too, ending his career as the father in “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

    • Not a full answer to your question, I’ve just taken a quick look in Helen’s biography and found this: “She had talks with various producers and agents in Hollywood, primarily about directing and producing, but no one offered anything that interested her or allowed her the control that she demanded. Because of her disfigured hands and the faint scars on her face, acting in movies was not a possibility, even if she had wanted to.” The scars and the damage to her hands were because of a fire in her home, gas exploded in her cellar just as she was about to go down there.
      Also, look, this is an old Eva in a 1980 movie:

  9. Thank you for the interview and the lovely pics. I am learning so much about Basil from this blog. Is it fair to say he cheated on Ouida though? They had only known each other a year and may not even have been dating yet

  10. Potential marriage between a lesbian and a gay man was very common. It’s only more evidence of Rathbone’s true sexuality. can anyone point to any actual evidence of him being involved with a (straight) woman he wasn’t married to? I don’t think so.

    • Claude, sit down, take a look at this blackboard while I draw the necessary pictures.

      MS LE GALLIENNE DIDN’T MARRY RATHBONE, SHE HAD AN AFFAIR WITH HIM. AS IN THEY HAD SEX. AS IN RATHBONE HAD SEX WITH A WOMAN.

      Now, Claude what is it that most gay men tend _not_ to do?

        • What difference does that make? If Basil enjoyed sex with women, then he was not gay. The women’s sexual preference doesn’t change that.

        • Claude, you annoy me. You haven’t researched Rathbone’s life have you? You haven’t combed the archives or interviewed those who knew him, have you? You’re basing your conclusions about the supposed “absence” of evidence on nothing more than one perfunctory biography and a book about Errol Flynn’s alleged proclivities that might as well have been scrawled on a toilet cubicle door. And from that barren source you feel justified in making absurd pronouncements about a man’s life?

          If I were to say I have in my possession testimony that makes it absolutely clear Rathbone had numerous affairs with women you’d no doubt tell me I was making it up. And perhaps I would be. But then so are you making up your own version, based on nothing but a supposed absence you have constructed as much as observed.

          Have a little respect sir.

          • I have read Druxman’s biography. He interviewed everyone who knew Rathbone that he could find. None of them mentioned hetero love affairs. The silence over his sex life is the first clue for anyone researching the suppressed world of pre-Stonewall gay life. It’s a flashing neon sign. Here is this exceedingly attractive, successful man, who had numerous opportunities for affairs with women, and yet never seems to have had any. No one talks about him with this woman or that. He married twice, his first marriage was hasty and obviously something he quickly regretted. His second was to an older unattractive woman, and you don’t get any impression the factor there was sexual. So, do we conclude he simply only ever had sex with these two women and perhaps Le Gallienne? Or do we infer the silence is the polite covering always laid over homosexual affairs at a time when such affair were socially unacceptable and illegal?

            I’ve never claimed to be sure. And if someone knows of evidence for him being involved with women on a regular basis then they should come forward, because the man’s sex life is overdue for some examination. If they do come forward I’ll accept I was wrong. All i’m doing is pointing to the absence of evidence. if it’s never filled, then eventually it DOES become evidence of absence doesn’t it.

            I agree with you Bret’s book is scurrilous and stupid, but he still dares to go where no one else has. Rathbone’s private life has been uninvestigated. All we get is a facile observation he was “happily married for forty years.” Possibly that’s true. But if we can leave fantasy aside for a moment we need to accept it’s also not very probable. People remain married for all kinds of reasons, only a lucky minority do so because they are happy. I think it’s possible Rathbone was gay, and possibly very conflicted an unhappy about it. The fact he may have slept with three women doesn’t make that less likely, as anyone who understands anything about real gay life would know. Oscar Wilde married and had two children. If it weren’t for the scandal of Bosie no one would ever have known of his secret reality.

            I’m not saying the same is true of Rathbone, but I’m saying the signs are there to suggest it might be. Not sure why that flags a lack of respect in your opinion..

            • As a gay man (I am guessing the same is true of Claude), I do agree this is a valid point, and it’s a shame Claude has been ridiculed for making it. The gay culture is used to reading signs and hints between the lines. It was the only language we had to communicate in until comparatively recently. Basil’s profile fits a definable pattern. Look around you’ll see others. Absence of evidence of hetero activity is, like Clause says, the flashing (pink) neon sign we all know to look for.

              But Claude we also need to be aware the man hasn’t received an in-depth biography, as has been said on this blog a few times. What we see as absence might not be absence. Maybe there’s a string of letters somewhere to show he really was happily and hotly married for forty years to a wife who might have been dynamite in bed. Or then again maybe the Three Sisters of the Biography Project are sitting on an affidavit from his longterm male lover they don’t want us to know about (girls, are you? :D).

              What I’m saying boys and girls is, let’s play nice and wait to see.

              • Jed and Claude – I apologize. I was hasty. But Claude I think you also must take some of the blame for being misunderstood since you have not always expressed yourself so moderately or with such clarity.

                It’s true absence of evidence must in time come to be construed as evidence of absence, but until Rathbone’s life has been studied by a competent biographer rather than a qwik-fix writer and a yellow journalist, we aren’t in a position to draw such a conclusion.

                And it’s not the imputation of homosexuality I object to. If Rathbone were gay then that is what he was. But I loathe the kind of writers and commenters who claim to “know” other, more famous people as if they were adjuncts to their own ego and use them as puppets for the expression of their own, often tiresome and unworthy, thoughts. Claude, I thought you were doing that. I see now you are not.

                • Bradford – fair enough, I haven’t always expressed myself clearly I’m sure. But gay experience still has to fight hard to be acknowledged in a predominantly straight world that often completely fails to comprehend its language and culture. We are used to seeing silence about certain matters as a signal. The silence about Rathbone’s sex life IS such a signal, even if on closer analysis it turns out to have been an artefact, if you get what I mean. And if you couple that with Bret’s claims, and Rathbone’s sympathy for gay issues, and, well, it’s starting to quack isn’t it.

                  • You put me in an awkward position Claude, and the Three Sisters likewise. I agree with you about the current state of knowledge to the point of it being an open question. I’m disturbed though by the suggestion a man has to be gay in order to sympathise with the parlous position of gay men and women at that time. I read Rathbone as a conscientious, decent, imaginative man who would naturally have been revolted by injustice and unfairness of any kind, and I don’t see his championing gay causes as having anything to say about his own sexuality one way or the other.

                    But I believe there is probably a great deal of evidence about his life that is yet to come to light. As Jed says, we should wait to see.

                    • I can’t help but think if there was evidence of any magnitude we’d have seen it by now. Druxman spoke to most people who knew Rathbone. How much can be left? I grant we can’t jump to conclusions, but we have to also work with what we have

              • I’m gay and a huge fan of Basil, he was a very gorgeous man in his prime, but I have never seen him as gay. I think he was just very very married. Boringly married and boringly happy. It happens.

            • I’m still pretty new to this blog, so I’m backtracking here. Apologies. Claude (BTW, LOVE Claude Rains!), you say in this comment “the man’s sex life is overdue for some examination”…WHY?!? Why is ANYONE’S sex life due (or overdue) for examination?? I was a history major, and I get a great deal of joy in learning about people whom I admire, but a person’s sex life is…personal. It shouldn’t matter if Basil (or anyone) is gay, straight, bi, has had multiple heterosexual affairs, or has had one or two homosexual encounters (I don’t think experimenting makes someone one way or the other, but I don’t know). It shouldn’t matter. If you like someone, you like someone for who they are, not who they sleep with. Anyway, I’m just curious what makes someone think a celebrity’s sex life is a “right” to know.

              • I’ve been saying that for MONTHS, too!! :)

                Who CARES what “sexual orientation” Basil was, or HOW MANY partners he had?? I love HIM—his being, his SOUL……that’s ALL that matters!

                If someone judges his “likeability” solely by whom he SLEPT with, than that person cannot TRULY care for him. :(

                • I kind of agree with you both (Blackcat and Gretchen), however, I also think that a person’s sex life is part of his (or her) life. If we don’t know anything about a person’s sex life, we don’t have a complete picture of who he (or she) was. Think about the image you would have of Basil if your only source of information was his autobiography. You assume that he was happily married, and there were no problems, and certainly no extramarital affairs. How does that image change with the knowledge that sex with Ouida was almost non-existent, and that Basil had many casual affairs and at least one serious love affair? I’m not saying that we have a right to know, but knowing gives a truer picture of who the man really was. It has nothing to do with judging him or liking him any less/more. And it doesn’t matter who the women were or how many there were. If there were male lovers (a hypothetical example), it wouldn’t matter who or how many, but it would be interesting to know that there were in fact male lovers. That fact would inform the larger picture.

                • GRETCHEN said:
                  “Who CARES what “sexual orientation” Basil was, or HOW MANY partners he had?his being, his SOUL……that’s ALL that matters!”

                  @ GRETCHEN – I care about his sexual orientation. Just as I care about his taste in music and poetry, his war experiences and his films. Because I am interested in him, as an entirety. I believe that must be the case for all of us here, and I think it disingenuous to claim otherwise. Of course you care about his sexual orientation, Gretchen, because if you don’t know that you don’t know who the man really was in his “soul”or anywhere else. It seems unnecessarily prudish and Anglo Saxon to make a special case out of his sex life and consider that out of bounds while everything else is legitimate.

                  • :) Claude (and Marcia)—

                    If you’ve read my past comments regarding my views on Basil’s sexuality, you’d know that I personally find it to be QUITE important and valid as a way of knowing and explaining just what kind of a man (and lover) he was in life.

                    I have a strong interpretation of him being possibly bi-sexual, and to ME this is a turn-on, as well as extraordinarily SEXY. I find bi-sexual men VERY attractive, and they seem more understanding of BOTH sexes than heterosexuals. Also, a guy who’s “been-around”, and had many previous partners (whether they are straight OR bi), is attractive to me…since he’s a better, more mature, experienced and caring lover.

                    I’m usually CORRECT about guessing a person’s sexual orientation…I suppose you could say I have not only “gay-dar”, but also “bi-dar”! ;)

                    As to your misunderstanding my above comment—I happen to have NO problem with what a person does in their bedroom…but, I’ve noticed some others on this blog have previously mentioned that if there’s even a SLIGHT “chance” that Basil wasn’t COMPLETELY straight, they were “offended” at the very idea—as though he were somehow “tainted” by it. This is what I was talking about when I said: “Who CARES…etc.??”. It bothers me to NO-END that people judge others negatively based upon their sex-lives—in an unfair, cruel, and unnecessarily PREJUDICED way.

                    That was my point—and, I THINK it was also Blackcatpratt’s point.

                    And YES, Claude…I happen to care very DEEPLY about Basil’s sexual orientation…and I’m glad to know more about him in that special, private way. In fact, it makes me WANT for him more in that “special, private way”, too, if you know what I mean! ;)

              • Well a couple of points here.

                1. I didn’t say anything at all to convey the idea I believe a celebrity’s sex life is a “right” to know. This was your construction of a single sentence of mine. I do NOT happen to believe anyone has any right to know about any living person’s sex life. While they are alive it is their business and no one else’s, and there are very good laws designed to enshrine this fact.

                2. Basil on the other hand is dead. This puts his life in a different category both legally and ethically. In law one can’t slander or libel the dead, and as someone else pointed out here quite recently, there is a good reason for that, as if one could libel the dead one could not ever write history or biography without ending up in prison. A dead person’s life becomes an open subject for examination, and their sex life goes with that. If you write a man’s biography it won’t be complete or tell the truth unless you include his sex life as a part of that. If he was gay or straight, monogamous or promiscuous all tell us about the man’s character and experience. They are a valid and essential part of his story.The very obvious aspect most egregiously absent from Druxman’s book was any examination at all of Basil’s sex life. What has been the result of that? Do people read his book and think “ah how proper of Mr Druxman to leave out his sex life”? No, they mostly conclude he barely had a sex life at all, beyond his two marriages. This has the effect of badly skewing our entire concept of his life. We either accept the absence of evidence as absence or we being to speculate about what is left out (the numerous rumours that Basil was gay probably spring somewhat from the absence in Druxman’s book). Neither of which is very helpful.

                If Druxman had included information about Le Gallienne, X and the other numerous lovers I think that would only have been an improvement don’t you?

                • No worries, Claude. I know I wasn’t quoting you when I typed “right to know,” but that’s how I felt it came across. I was just curious why it matters to some people – feels intrusive (to me), whether dead or alive. I don’t know that I would say all of that personal information is an “improvement” or not. Granted, I don’t think putting a “false” image out there is the way to go either. When it comes to sex, there is often a lot of misinformation out there (about a lot of people), and we may never know the real “truth.” Not sure any of it really matters in the whole grand scheme of things! Basil did what he did, for many reasons none of us will understand, and that’s just being human. Fortunately, my sex life won’t be examined in any detail in the future! ;) (Hope I don’t regret writing that!)

    • The book talks about Eva’s relationship with Mercedes de Acosta in detail but has no mention of an affair with Tallulah Bankhead.

  11. I’d like to ask Ms Sheehy if she thinks a marriage between Eva and Basil would have been as happy and successful as his marriage to Ouida?

    • I think Helen might want me to remind people at this stage that there’s no evidence either of these people ever seriously contemplated marriage with one another, and the affair itself lasted only a few months. The relationship is interesting and probably quite significant to them as artists and as people, but it needs to be seen in the context of their entire lives or things will possibly get disproportionate.

  12. Very fine interview. The quality of these Q&A’s is so high I think if you continue to do them you ought to consider putting them together as an Ebook or something

  13. Delightful and poignant story. Whether or not these two loved each other, (and I suspect Le Gallienne was a little more attached to “my Basil” than she liked to admit), the theatre surely lost out on a glorious pairing when they wen their separate ways. Is it known why they were never cast together again?

    • Her book doesn’t give any reason. If Ouida knew he’d been seeing Eva perhaps she preferred he didn’t work with her any more.

  14. They made a lovely movie version of The Swan in 1956 with Grace Kelly and Alec Guinness and Louis Jordan playing the part Basil played. So girls – download this film and just use your imagination to replace Louis with Basil! Believe me, it work!

  15. What a lovely and gentle story of bonding between these two beautiful people! What a perfectly wonderful film or novel it would make. Thank you Helen Sheehy for your sensitive and meticulous interpretation

  16. Rosebette has asked me to post this photo of Eva’s only other known male lover, Joseph Schildkraut. He’s gorgeous, and, yes, very similar type to the B. The girl had taste.

  17. I think people need to remember a person called Ouida Rathbone, whom Basil loved and worshipped and stayed faithful to for forty years.

    (edited by NeveR to fix the image link)

    • I don’t want to rain on your parade sister, but in that photo they both look like they’re kissing a skunk. I mean maybe they were madly in love, but you certainly wouldn’t know it from that pic. It looks like the photographer’s gone “let’s have one of you kissing” and they’ve looked at each another and been like “oh well, guess we’d better just get it over.” LOLS

      • I’m not your sister. And I think you don’t know the difference between love and lust. Why would they be showing desire in a public place? But it does show love. And more than that is the fact they remained together, an on the day he died h told her he wanted to do it all over again. That is love

    • Err, according to Helen Sheehy he didn’t stay faithful to her for forty weeks! He was “deeply engaged” with Ouida in Jan 1924, and by October same year he was sleeping with Eva LeGalliene.

      I’m not saying you’re all wrong, but everyone has to stick to known facts.

        • Because she quotes from Eva’s own letters and from people who knew her. Are you claiming they were all lying?

        • There are a LOT of people Basil doesn’t mention in his autobiography. He doesn’t say anything about his son Rodion, except to acknowledge that he was born. And yet we know that he had a relationship with his son. There are photographs of them together. He could have had relationships with other people who are not mentioned in that inadequate autobiography.

          • Maybe he didn’t mention Eva because he was never involved with her, and never involved with anyone but his two wives. Not all men have to be having sex with everyone

            • There is so much good information on this site. I have been browsing for the past few days and am constantly amazed at the depth of information the quality of the writing and the marvellously insightful comments from readers. This is a star Classic Movie blog!

              • I agree! congratulations to NeveR for running and to the wonderfully spectrum of people who post here! It’s my first port of call on the web every morning.

  18. “I still call him ‘my’ Basil,” she wrote, “because I know that he really is. I miss him—but most particularly in Work I miss him (because after all, that must be most vital to me)…Thank God I can write like this to you—for you understand & know. He must still be with Ouida otherwise he surely would have called me up.”

    So have they broken up when she says this, because IMO she is still crazy about him. I mean it’s the way we talk isn’t girls? We’re all like, “oh I’m so over it, only I just miss him for work and being friends, and whatever” and all our gf’s know we are just so not over him, and jealous as hell of the new gf. And the way she says he’d call if Ouida wasn’t around, it’s so what an ex says when they aren’t over it. IMO. Like she is blaming the new gf for him not calling because she doesn’t want to face the fact he doesn’t want to call her.

    • What does she mean by “I still call him ‘my’ Basil because I know that he really is”? How does she know he “really is”?

        • Helen has asked me to post this for her:

          “I did put an ellipsis in because for some reason in my notes when I copied the letter to her mother I mixed up a paraphrase and a direct quote so here is the missing bit: She thanks God she has no love scenes in this play–that would be almost impossible for me.

          And why does she call him “my Basil” – well, you need to understand who Le Gallienne was as an artist and a woman, and I’m afraid I can’t give you the answer in a few lines in an e-mail, but I believe your readers would understand why if they knew how Basil fit into the context of her life.”

          • Right, thanks, so if we put the cut bit back and put it in first person again, this is how it reads?

            “I still call him ‘my’ Basil,” she wrote, “because I know that he really is. I miss him—but most particularly in Work I miss him (because after all, that must be most vital to me) I thank God I have no love scenes in this play–that would be almost impossible for me. Thank God I can write like this to you—for you understand & know. He must still be with Ouida otherwise he surely would have called me up.”

            Err, is it only me or does that cut bit being put back make it pretty obvious she was still into him in a big way?

            emphasis added by NeveR

  19. @Claude Rains

    You said:
    “I can’t help but think if there was evidence of any magnitude we’d have seen it by now. Druxman spoke to most people who knew Rathbone. How much can be left? I grant we can’t jump to conclusions, but we have to also work with what we have.”

    I’d like to quote something to you. It was spoken by a quite famous woman I had the privilege to know, explaining why she had never talked publicly about certain things in her life (the who or what isn’t relevant here, but the sentiment is apposite):

    That’s the thing about so much biography isn’t it…it’s almost like a negative image. It’s all the things most trivial and talked about that get emphasized and all the most important private things that get left out or minimized. Because we’re like that. The things we care about most deeply we keep to ourselves, we don’t share them, because they’re fragile and they can…you know they can spoil on contact with air. So we don’t talk.

    The things that most shaped my life… I’ve never talked about that. And then…that’s why so much biography is so awful. You know I’ve read some about people I knew well, and I don’t recognize them. It’s like those death masks that capture the literal reality of that face at that moment but lose their soul, and it’s not them…you know? It’s not them. And a good biography has to…they happen sometimes and they…they catch that truth. And…and…well, that would be fine. I’d rather they knew nothing than they knew enough to just not get it.

    The point being, we easily forget how complicated other people’s lives are,and how arbitrary biography can be. Perhaps is Mr Druxman had interviewed different people or asked different questions, or begun with different assumptions, you and I would not be having this conversation.

    • of course we may, but that’s just another way of saying we don’t know. It isn’t an option for Rathbone to have people “know nothing.” So the choice is to be misunderstood or have the whole truth. If I were a member of his family or a person with a story to tell, I’d just tell it, and if people are holding back then it’s their problem if people don’t know about the real Basil.

  20. I think Druxman focused more on Basil’s professional life, particularly his films, not his personal life. Most readers have commented that Druxman did not fully capture who Basil was. That doesn’t mean that Basil was gay or that he had affairs (although I do believe he had an affair with Eva LaGalliene), but that there were dimensions of Basil’s life and personality that were missing from the biography. That’s why we need to biography project, or someone like Robert Matzen to take an interest and write about who this man really was.

    • I think Basil’s own autobiography captures who Basil was, a beautiful souls deeply in love with his wife. What else is there to say on that score?

        • Alyssia asks me to post this as she is having trouble commenting:

          “Yes he does, he just doesn’t talk about the life you want him to have had, having affairs and being immoral. He was a good moral human being, it doesn’t mean he didn’t have a life.”

          • Uh, I never said anything about what kind of life I wanted him to have. I don;t want him to have any kind of life, I’m just a very big fan of his and I am interested to know who he was as a man, and I’m sorry but his autobiography isn’t his life story. It doesn’t even mention his son’s name for f**k’s sake! It’s some kind of extended stream of consciousness, and it’s totally charming in places and makes you think, ‘gee i wish I could have sat down at a drinks party and talked to this guy about life and stuff’ but it totally does not tell you about his actual life.

            Come on Alyssia you don’t really believe it does do you? You believe that stuff between the covers of that book is his whole life and if it ain’t in there it didn’t happen? So, like did he not know his son’s name, or how his mom died, or where his sister ended up, or did he not notice his wife spent all his money and he was broke last ten years of his life?

            Oh yeah and while we’re on the subject, if she loved him so much why did she do that?

            • Who says she did spend all his money? Maybe HE spent it ON her, because he loved her. And if his son made him choose between his wife and him then Basil chose his wife out of love. Ouida would never have made him make that choice, she brought his son back into his life. Out of LOVE. You can’t understand them if you don’t understand about TRUE LOVE so deep and so complete you are one person in one soul.

              • “Who says she did spend all his money? Maybe HE spent it ON her, because he loved her.”

                So, what did he BUY her? A small country somewhere?

                “hey honey I weeeally luvs oo, here’s Luxembourg”

                “oh ok hunny-wunny, since you insist”

                *falls on floor laughing; tries to get up, just falls over again*

    • I’d like to ask the people running the project if they’ve seen anything in the unpublished material they have seen that has changed their view of Rathbone from the one they’ve received from everything in the public domain?

  21. We have some testimonies from people who would like these to remain private for the time being. But certainly nothing has changed our impression of Basil as a sensitive, caring and thoughtful man. We will share information as we are able. Follow this blog for more bits of info that will add to the portrait of Basil, but nothing to make you disappointed in him!

    • I notice what you carefully don’t say. Has anything in the stuff, whatever it is, you aren’t publishing changed your impression of his sexuality or his major relationships? And may I politely ask why not publish it? You can’t libel or slander the dead. What can be the point in keeping stuff back unless you aren’t comfortable with what it says? I don’t mean you directly here, since I get what you say that you’ve been asked to keep some information private, but whoever it is who doesn’t want it published is being a bit precious aren’t they. Given he’s been dead forty years, I’d say it’s fair game. Why not lay it out for his fans to see?

      • Yes, Rathbone is dead, but there are people still living who may be affected by the publication of private information. I’d say it’s their right to keep it private if they want to. What I can tell you is that I haven’t seen anything to suggest that Rathbone was gay.

        • Oh how intriguing, and how annoying for you, and for his fans! Can you give clues? No, that’s probably childish. But I can’t be the only one who is curious! Is there any one item that has radically surprised you? Please don’t answer if it’s awkward, I’m only expressing fannish fascination!

        • But how far does sparing people’s feelings go? I mean no one would write anything about anyone if they were worried about offending all and sundry. Once the subject himself is dead I’d say fair game.

          • That’s exactly the attitude of so many biographers. Why ‘fair game’? If the person lived life in a certain way what right does a person coming after have to change the facts and make them appear to have been different? If you want to write fiction then write a novel don’t write a biography that simply invents things

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  23. Why does so much have to come back to perverted sex? I really find it hard to believe Basil would have slept with a known lesbian, as that other poster says. He was a confirmed Christian. I have to sympathise with the lone and mocked minority voice and I’m only posting to try and offer support please dn’t mock me too.

    • Motherof5 – I seriously hope that handle is not descriptive. The world doesn’t need five more kids learning how to be bigots from their parents. Do you have ay idea how judgmental and ignorant you are when you use words like “perverted” to describe consensual adult sexual behaviour that hurts no one?

      • I have five beautiful children as it happens who have been raised to know right from wrong. I have alway admired Basil Rathbone for upholding the traditional values of family and patriotism and I think it’s deplorable that a younger generation are trying to undermine that in him. The portrait of him as a supporter of “gay rights” and a questioner of religion is designed simply to shock people and isn’t based on truth at all.

        • The portrait of Basil as a questioner of religion comes from his own autobiography. Read the chapter called “Judas.” I don’t know if he’d be a supporter of gay rights as we understand them today, but he was a lot more open-minded than most people of his generation. And he strongly opposed censorship of a play that dealt with gay or lesbian relationships. It’s in his autobiography. Read “The World Is not a Stage.”

        • I have three children who know right from wrong, too. My daughter actually took time off from school to support her gay friend whose father committed suicide. I’ve been to church services where same-sex and hetero relationships were blessed. It’s wrong to discrimminate or marginalize people on the basis of sexual orientation, and if Basil was one of the people to recognize this, I see it as confirmation of his moral values, not rejection of them. Also, as a believer myself with a degree in Theology, I belive that often those who question and explore often have a deep faith that is constantly finding new ways to redefne itself, rather than blindly accepting what authority has handed down to them. Faith is about a relationship with a Higher Power, not blind acceptance of rules.

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  25. I had the privilege of meeting Ms Le Gallienne many years ago. She mentioned Rathbone in our talks and though I was not aware and she did not mention they had been lovers, I received the impression she remembered him with passionate intensity both as actor and man. I remember she said he seemed in some way to never lose a quality of innocence.

    [edited one time by NeveR to correct typo at request of author]

    • What a wonderful contribution, thank you for telling us. Would you mind if I put these words up on my tumblr page? I would use the full quote, not change anything, mention your name and add a link to this page here on The Baz.
      Alternatively, you can always check the Biography Project page here on the blog! Or put up on your own website, publish it in an article or book… Essentially just shout it from the rooftops… :)

      • Please be my guest. I treasure the memory of talking to her. I was a lowly student at the time, interning at Westport and was lucky enough to be detailed to drive Miss Le Gallienne when she was there. She insisted on sitting in front and we had a marvellous conversation about theatre. She said Basil was amongst her favorite leading men and said it was “such a loss” he went to Hollywood. She asked had I seen him on stage and when I admitted I had not she told me I had missed a great experience.

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