These are all the letters we currently have that were allegedly written by Rathbone to “Madame X” between c. 1940 and 1963. They’re numbered as they were when received by us. Nos. 13, 15 and 16 are currently missing. We’ve only received one letter in autograph. The rest are typed copies, seemingly quite aged and pretty hard to read. Some are annotated, but not always legibly. Everything in black is original text, my notes are in blue and the annotations are in red.
no date, possibly 1939-40
1. Tell him Dietrich is an angel – for the first week that you know her. Thereafter all bets are off. Her self-interest is boundless. Her sense of ensemble non-existent. If she can erase you in front of the camera she will. She is legendary for being very accommodating in other ways, but it barely compensates for the sheer flaming hell of working with her.
2. Yeats – oh darling I know exactly what you mean. I haven’t read that one since just after I was first home from the war, when it was almost unbearable. I was a young and starving actor in London and I was paid a few shillings to read it for some Arty evening in Soho. I read it cold off the page having never seen it before – and those lines “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer” seemed to spell all the wild futility and despair of that war and the sense we all had that we were out there at the whim of men who no longer knew how to end what they had begun.
I couldn’t get the words out of my mind and they became part of my nightmares along with the skulls and the puddles of flesh and such.
But of course it speaks universally doesn’t it as all great writing does, for our own time perhaps even more than when it was written.
3. Yes I know about Barbara’s [annotated in handwriting with what looks like the word "who?] nuptials, but that’s all very long past.
4. New York is – New York. Better than Hollywood.
I have no picture of what you are doing apart from frenziedly reading Yeats and making notes. How are you angel? Did I tell you I had a charming note from your father? He was inordinately complimentary about our little film. I am assuming you haven’t told him our reservations [...]! How he loves you though, and how proud he is. He seems like a very good man.
I have to stop writing and go to a dinner party. You are welcome to pity me.
All love to you – Basil
no date, after February 1941
X – I have to go and you are very asleep and I have to go and be unkind to Gladys all day, and on an hour’s sleep! [David] has taken the dogs out so don’t fret if they aren’t here when you wake up. I will see you tonight my little succubus.
written from Canada, around September 1941
Dear little girl – I’ve been thinking all day about your besetting problems.I think in the abstract AL is right, you will get further by being charming to Wallis and seem contrite as he and JL have all the power and no one has ever or will ever win against them in a straight fight.
But I think that is beside the point and he ought to realise it as your nature will never allow you to play the “oh I am such a foolish child, please forgive me” role if you don’t believe it to be true.
I think you must just let Arthur do what he can on your behalf and simply don’t be involved directly. Keep quiet if you can and let him talk for you. And then whatever happens, well, it happens.
But you should not be saying you don’t care. My darling you are gifted and you must respect the gift. And you must do right by it. That must be your motive. By all means hold firm and don’t compromise, but not out of some spirit of not-caring. You are an actress and already a very fine one, and with years and years after this to develop your art. You must absolutely care.
Thinking of you very often. I miss your warm darling little presence. It’s very cold here. In oh so many ways.
You know it’s not that I won’t tell you. It really isn’t. And it would never be that I don’t think you could…
written from Canada, around September 1941
Darling girl – I found your letter this morning, but I think it arrived yesterday or the day before. Don’t fret. I’m well, really. Much much better than when you last saw me. It’s exhausting, and my voice is struggling with all the speechifying, but people here are wonderful. Though I’ve been missing my little night owl terribly. Oh how much. I wish you could have come with me – so many times I’ve thought – X would like this, or smiled to myself at the thought of what you would say.It’s very excellent news about “[NAME OF MOVIE]”
Yes, darling, it is quite ridiculous, No – no I won’t reassure you, little goose – because you don’t need to be reassured about something so absurd. Though it’s strange you should have thought it when you did, for reasons I will tell you when I see you – perhaps you really do live inside my head the way it feels as if you do sometimes.
When [Mary] said it’s something I would do, dare I hope it was in any sense an endorsement? No, you don’t need to tell me. I’m sorry to keep disappointing her so predictably.
As to everything else, oh my dear girl, no one has ever questioned me so closely or made me realise how pitifully few answers I can provide. You look at me with those eyes and you see through every stupid lie. And I don’t know how to tell you the truth, which is – I don’t know the why of anything, even when I pretend most diligently I do.
The truth is the last time I had any idea why or what I was supposed to do I was lying in a shell hole, looking up at the sky. My mind was filled with a Bach keyboard sonata which was one of the last I’d learned, I forget which one now. I absolutely knew I was about to die and I was completely happy and at peace, in a way I never was before or since, not even with you, in our best moments. It was so easy, you see, a kind of absolute joy and peace, because I knew it was all done and I was all square with life. Nothing left to do but let things take their course.
And when I didn’t die, I didn’t know what to do. So I thought I’ll take my revolver, go out and blow a hole through my head. Only I knew it wouldn’t work. I knew, I just knew you couldn’t do it that way. You couldn’t make it happen, not if you wanted to find peace. So, I thought, then a sniper can do it for me. But no matter how I tried to let them no sniper ever found me. And all the other times I went out and lay in shell holes in No Man’s Land it wasn’t the same, and I knew I wouldn’t die this time, and of course I never did.
I had this mad feeling I’d become some sort of Wandering Jew. And everything for so long afterwards was about dragging this living corpse of myself around, giving it things to do, because here it was, alive. And nothing made any sense and I didn’t even hope it would. I followed paths that were there to be followed, I did what others said to do. I didn’t care. And, angel, that’s the only why I have about anything to this day.
I’m so ashamed to even write it. I could never tell it, even to you. Do you judge me terribly for such a weak fool? Letting myself be dragged here and there for no better reason than that? I know the awful disaster I have made of everything, and I don’t think there’s much mending anything now.
It’s very late, or very early. I’m not sure of the time because my watch has stopped, but the sky is getting light. It’s oh so still and quiet. I am ridiculously lonely for you. Longing to be home. Let’s go to the house as soon as we can, I want to breathe you and taste you and gorge on you and sleep beside your sweet warmth. It’s so cold here alone – really, quite alone – my angel.
There, you have your needless assurance after all. What more can I tell you than that? You know it’s already more than I ought.
I’ll telephone you tonight from wherever we are. – Basil
Well there I was being talked at by some of the dullest people in British Columbia when it was announced Miss X Y was calling me from Los Angeles. I wish we could have talked longer. I would have telephoned later but this wretched man, I think he’s the mayor or something, and his wife and some other people kept me prisoner with their talking for hours until I just fell asleep in a chair – It’s about five am now and I’m writing this on the train.You were a cruel little tease to say those things – you know what you did to me, and then left me aching — all the time those people were talking all I could think of was you and your sweet mouth and where were you? I dreamt of you – profusely – even in that damn chair.
You are right it was our seven month anniversary yesterday. That first mad rut on your couch, and I was so sure David was going to turn up in the midst of it but couldn’t even think clearly enough to try and stop.
I haven’t the slightest interest in the lady with the lemonade or anyone – as I told you.
Listen angel – about the other things you said —I’m so grateful for your understanding but I have to beg you not to make excuses for me. There’s really no excuse and I didn’t tell you so that you could do that for me. People who had been through much worse managed to be men still. And I did not. I really did not. You don’t know even a part of what a creature I was. You were just a baby while I was already old in failure and sin.
I oughtn’t to have even told you and I don’t know why I did. It’s only when you demand I make sense that I realise how little sense my life really has – and I didn’t want to make up stupid reasons I dont have – but please don’t think I’m asking you to absolve me or explain me – I really am not and it would be awful and cheap of me to think you could or should.
I will see you very soon – Everyone is asleep except me. How I hate them for being able to sleep on trains. — B
[NOTE BY NeveR: the following letter has no date but seems to fit in with Madame X's narrative of Ouida having attempted suicide, which would place it as some time in November or December 1941]
Well darling, Mrs (unclear, H?) & I have finished a wonderful evening going round locking away all sharp objects and all the medications. It’s 2.30am. Everyone is asleep. C was awake a while ago with a nightmare and soaking wet. We lost her rabbit(the little brown one) and I had to hunt him up before she would settle. She’s fast asleep in my bed now. Such a small sad little thing she looks all curled up.This is a kind of hell isn’t it. Not sure how its to be endured. God willing we will find some way.
I’m so desperately sorry my darling X – for this awful wretchedness when your little cup is already so full. I can’t bear to see you so pale & jumping at every little sound, and worst of all knowing I am only bringing more pain. Don’t fret about me, all is quiet now, promise me you will eat & sleep -
I’ll call you but not tonight – reach me via the Bruces.
All my love is with you dearest girl – B
Dear girl of mine – Bunny is here, and I have your little note, which smells of you, so I can see you when I close my eyes.What have I done to you poor darling – you shouldn’t be afraid like this – none of this should be happening to you.
She still says she never intended anything. I still have no idea what to believe, but when I say she may be telling the truth people look at me with desperate pity. I think they think I’m trying to find crumbs of comfort. Does Bunny say that to you? Perhaps I am.
If she intended it then I don’t know what to do next, and if she won’t even admit it then we can’t even talk about it, let alone put anything right. – and what could be put right?
I want to see you desperately too – missing you so much. And I have to work eventually. We can’t live locked up like this forever but the thought of leaving her terrifies me. I have to do the S.H broadcast, but Bunny says she will sit with Ouida for that and it’s only a few hours, can we meet after?
Take care my sweet little darling, sleep and eat. Eat chocolate if you want, only eat. I will try and speak to you tomorrow (Wed), Give my love to [name of dog], I’ve missed her almost as much as you. And to [Mary], who doesn’t miss me at all – Basil
[NOTE BY NeveR: no date information supplied with the following letter]
Darling – I can get away on Sunday – let’s please just spend the day in bed and forget everything else for a while.Will your mother tell you it’s something I would do? I don’t care. I think I’ll start losing my reason if I don’t get to see you and touch you soon. I’m dreaming of your mouth and your hands and your darling little quim like a thing obsessed.
Write me today – tell me we can meet. And when will you have a telephone that works? – B
[NOTE BY NeveR: no date information supplied with the following letter]
Darling – Cynthia woke up as I got home so I went to fetch her some water and while I was doing that Ouida came in to the kitchen. I was prepared for the worst. But she was very quiet and calm. I made her some tea and took her back to bed because I didn’t want her wandering the house alone, and I gave her a pill.
I think she knows I was with you. If she had asked I don’t know what I would have said, but she didn’t ask.
She’s sleeping peacefully. Everything is quiet. But I’m listening for every little sound, don’t want to try and sleep, dreading she might wake up or something will happen. Everything hangs on such little threads. I’m praying, just praying this doesn’t become something. She’s been so much better – almost quite normal. I want so much to be able to talk to her and try to find some way – but I don’t dare risk anything. She begs for the truth from all of us and we all smile and lie in our different ways because nothing else is possible now.
I want to crawl back into your bed and never leave. – B
Dear girl – so I have to tell you – yes, you were absolutely correct, as you always are – there was something on my mind I didn’t tell you about. I wasn’t trying to keep it from you, I just didn’t want to say anything until I knew for sure there was something to tell because you already have more than enough to worry about. But its become pretty clear it is a real thing, so I’m going to try and put it all down so you can get as clear a picture as possible.Well, O was waiting for me when I got back late one night last week. She was terribly calm and quiet and wanted to talk about things. I suppose it was an ultimatum, though it seems a vulgar kind of word. She was pretty clear anyhow. She said she wanted me to stay. She thinks I owe her that much for all the sacrifice she has made for me, and my family. I suppose she means Roddy, I didn’t feel like asking – just wanted to let her say everything. She said said she loved me as she always had, but she could never trust me again and it would be only for C’s sake she would want me to stay. She also said if I wouldn’t agree to this then she would – ‘take all the steps she needed to protect herself and her child’, which means she will sue for divorce as an innocent party, which of course is her right and which I’d never dispute.
She will also go straight to the Weird Sisters and tell them you are – in her words – “cheating on a war hero” with a married man. You aren’t of course, you aren’t cheating anyone, but that is her chosen way of seeing it and I think we can assume the Hags will agree with her. And she thinks I will have – by leaving – abrogated my parental responsibilities and she will therefore pursue any legal and actual means she can to prevent me having any access to C because I will have shown I’m as feckless and shallow and uncaring as she always feared I might be and I won’t deserve to be spared anything that can be legally done to me.
That’s pretty much the gist. She intends to shame us – which is possibly her right. And she means to take my daughter away from me if she can. I didn’t know how much of it to believe at first – you know how many threats and how much crazy stuff she has been throwing out. But the day before yesterday she reiterated the whole thing and it appears she has a lawyer waiting on side and basically she’s wired for detonation. Since then we’ve been ‘talking’ – desperate euphemism for my pursuing her about the house pleading and raving until she tells me I’m scaring her and locks herself in her bedroom.
Really really it is as tragi-comic as it sounds.
I have told her she can have whatever she wants of me – any and everything. It’s all really hers anyway in terms of effort and attachment I really don’t care about any of it, and never have. I have said I’ll willingly keep paying for her to live here or anywhere else she wants to go only please please she must not bring little C into it. But she’s deaf and blind. She seems literally to not hear my words. She says she has no choice & I will only let C down the way I did Roddy if she does.
She means to do it, I am certain of it now. Though it may all seem different tomorrow.
What to do? The only thing I can do would be to fight it in court and I would lose, because I am an adulterer and deserting her & I (em)was(em) such a terrible father to Roddy and she knows every grisly detail and wouldn’t be shy of using them all and anyhow it would only destroy the thing I was trying to save. How could any child bear to be fought over like that.
All that poor little child wants is to be loved and made safe and happy. She already knows in her baby way that things are wrong. She cries so much more, can’t bear me to leave her for long – and O knows this.
I suppose I had some ridiculous little fantasy that she would let me take her sometimes & I might have the two people I love most in the world safe with me in one place. You and C liked each other so much. And I thought Ouida and I would always love her and share that. But she doesn’t want that. She wants to paint me in some dreadful way she knows is untrue. She knows I would never desert little Cynthia but she pretends she’s in fear I will. God knows there’s enough true things she could say. I have hurt her and betrayed her in so many ways. But she prefers this lie. Why I don’t know.
It’s not what she says in public. I don’t care about that, it’s her right anyway, but to say to me I don’t love my daughter – when she knows I do. To lie like this just for some sort of advantage when I have told her she can have whatever she wants of me – Why? Why?
Darling, don’t say anything to Bunny about this – no one knows anything yet and I don’t want B barging in and throwing opinions about.
Oh I forgot to say – she wants an answer within a month.
I’m sorry my darling, so sorry this only gets worse.
But the black farce of it. You would laugh if you saw it. I do – when all alone and must look as if I’ve been playing mad men for just a little too long. When we’re a deux we are the last act of some unwritten Ibsenian drama, and when people are here the program shifts to drawing room comedy. Right now the garden is full of women in hats I’m not sure why but O is providing tea and little sandwiches and C is sitting obediently on her knee. I’m hiding in the library with the whisky bottle. She probably wants me to turn up and smile, but my performance skills aren’t up to it right now. I would just be terribly rude or cry – and neither would go over at all well.
You know what I keep thinking, and now I’ve started I can’t stop, she only ever seems to take any notice of that child when there’s someone to see her do it.
The only thing is to hope that isn’t true, because if it is, God help us all.
I’m sure it isn’t true. I’m angry and bewildered and frantic. I can’t think why she is being this way. Of all the ways I thought, it was never this. It seems so brutal and so cold. She has a lawyer? But when did that happen? It’s only a week since the nurse was dismissed and we are all under instruction not to leave her and to humour her. Straight from nurse to lawyer – it’s a step I can’t comprehend.
She must have asked him to the house since I would have been told if she’d gone out. It must have been less than a week ago.
One of the days I was at a meeting or something. One of the days when she was so sweet and told me she would never want to stand in my way? Why does she feel a need to defend herself – have I ever threatened her in any way?
She was begging for honesty and we kept things back because she was so frail – and now she has dates and times and accusations of systematic deceit.
What good does she think will come of it…? What is it she wants? I don’t know any more.
Oh angel I’m so tired of thinking about it. Dearest X – Wish I could just come and hide in you – all your tangled hair and your little body & your sweet smell – it would be such heaven & I could sleep for a while. All I want to do. It will be Christmas in two days – & tomorrow it will be a year since I first kissed you, after you pounced on me. My little tigress in a daisy print dress. I love you so completely my angel. I hope you had a better day and aren’t swimming in rotting garbage again. Poor little half drowned baby.
The Universal thing is definite it seems. Well, I should probably be grateful for the money but I’m not sure I will take it. I am tied here then and I still hold on to the hope we can get away. Though where is home any more? I’ve been here so long is anywhere else home?
You can call me up here tomorrow as it will just be me and C all day – which will be very nice. I don’t know where she is going but she will be gone all day she says.
Can we see each other? That would be glorious. You could have the day with us – Cynthia and me – We’ll take the dogs out to the hills and play catch in the hall and she can have rice pudding for every meal. Can you get away?
I know this will be a lot to take in which is why I’ve written it all down. I’m rambling too I know, probably something to do with a fairly high consumption of whisky. I’m kissing you in my mind, and feeling your breath. I love you – love you so much.
I don’t have any idea what to do darling. About anything. Not any idea at all – I need to talk to you. I need to be able to think clearly. And I can’t – B
She talked to me this evening. At length. But nothing was resolved. I begged and finally raged like a maniac. She said the things she says. She seems so bruised & broken one minute, so full of icy rage the next, it’s all but impossible for anything coherent to be achieved. She talks to her lawyer for an hour on the phone at my expense and then cries and tells me I must know she could never divorce me.She keeps saying I’ve destroyed her life. It’s been said so much I don’t know how to feel about it any more. So tired I cant focus. I slept about an hour last night. Even after about a quadruple scotch. Nothing helps. Except you.
I suppose it’s the lack of sleep or something, but finding it hard to feel anything at all. Guilt is numbing, or perhaps I have no heart. Or it’s dead. Like those old dreams where people were chipping bits off my soul and they were like pieces of flint. I think I may be a little bit crazy tonight.
I know, I know I know I’ve wrecked her life — oh God I know but there must be somewhere to go from there. I wish I knew if she means half of what she says. I wish I could be sure she won’t try the same damn thing again. She says not, but then she also says she’d rather die than live like this. Which is true? What does -‘like this’ – mean? If I ask that she doesn’t answer — SO DARLING HOW CAN WE KNOW WHEN LIKE THIS ISN’T LIKE THIS ANY MORE? I suppose we have the excruciating joy of waiting to see.
Every morning if she isn’t awake before me I wonder – you know darling. Every time she goes out, every fight we have – I am terrified of what she might do. And my stomach is in a tight knot until I know she’s safe.
I can’t bear this always fear and this always guilt. It feels as if she was torturing us all, or me. Is she torturing me? Or am I going mad?
She talked about Louella again too. I think it’s just talk, but my darling I have to tell you I can’t be sure. I can’t be sure of anything any more. She’s been so hurt & wants to hurt me back as hard as she can and who can blame her – and I think she might sacrifice her own pride to that. If she makes the call it will be horribly ugly, I wish I could keep you safe from that but you know I won’t be able to, so be forewarned. But then does it matter beside the worst thing she could do? Does anything matter beside that?
I have made her this person that she is. She wasn’t this person once.
PART OF LETTER 11? PAPER DIFFERENT
Bunny told me how low you seemed yesterday. Now please listen to me as if I were there and speaking to you – None of this is your fault – you are not – ever – to start thinking like that. You have been honest from the beginning, you don’t know how to be anything else. [David] told you he doesn’t blame you & God knows darling he has put you through some things he had no right to ask forgiveness for. His boys – his men. The way he starved you.
What happens here is not of your making. You need to remember that or you’ll only make yourself ill with guilt. It’s older than you, I don’t even know old it is or even which of us is to blame for what any more.
Is [Mary] taking good care of you? If I telephone her will she speak to me? Dear girl I’m so so worried for you.
I wish you would tell her about your father. It’s too much of a burden to carry all on your own. And I suppose you are working hard and not sleeping or eating enough.
I know you, I know you too well little mouse. You will make yourself ill before you shirk anything. I wish I was there with you. I’d make you sit & eat & I’d make sure you slept some sane amount of time. I wish I was there with you.
I’ll try to get to the beach house but I don’t know – God knows I’m longing to see you – but C still cries when I’m not there, I have had to take her to work with me almost every day. You’ll have to give me the number for the house because I cant find it if I ever had it – so I can call you there on Sunday and let you know how things stand.
Thinking perhaps eventually we could still go east or even to London until things settle. Things can’t go on like this. There has to be some compromise. She is angry now but she wont always want to torture me. It would be so good just to be somewhere else for a while, somewhere we could just be for a while, just live in peace.
But your career would die and [Mr H] would sue you of course, bless his dear frigid heart. And if I have to keep this place up God knows how I could earn enough if I wasn’t on Hollywood money.
No hiding, not from any of it. We just have to tell ourselves this is not the way it’s going to be always. Somehow we will get through
The movie is done with or I’m done with it. I hate – HATE Ayres so much I daydream murdering him. What a canting lying fool. I want to push his face into a wall -B.
Dear sweet girl – have the very best 24th birthday – I wish I could make you a present of happiness and every problem would just melt. But failing that, I hope this little book will at least make you smile. I know you love it very much.You know my darling, no need to say – Basil
written between Jan. 1945 and May 1946.
I have to pick up Cynthia at noon. I fed D, so don’t. There is another bloody meeting tonight – I don’t want to go, it will be hellish, but if I miss another I will have to deal with CB(?) being a prig at me. I will be very late because they will drone on as ever, and I still don’t have the latchkey because [NAME] didn’t have it, as I ought to have told you before. You probably ought to find who does have it.I’m sorry little darling. I didn’t want to leave you like that. I walked along the beach. I didn’t know I’d been away so long until it started to get light. I’m sorry you had to go to bed all alone, I felt so bad, as if I’d abandoned you.
When I looked in you were just a little huddle of bedclothes. I watched you with such a hopeless feeling, because I wanted to bundle you up in my arms and hug you so hard and kiss every inch of your dear little face and make everything right – but I cant because we can’t keep living in this dream. – All we are doing is clutching at each other because we can’t bear to let go.
I don’t mean to say it’s fair. But it’s still true. Why should she care to be fair to me? Have I been fair to her? And anyhow, she detests me and she wants to make me pay my due and she has won – that’s all there is.
You’re just a little ghost of what you were. So thin and so harried. You cling to me and cling to me for comfort because we love each other so much, but there’s nowhere to go.
You have a chance for a fresh start now, you must take it.
I will call you up later, but please don’t talk about this any more for now. I just can’t darling. These are all the words I have. I’ve said them – Basil
May 11 ’63 (? Possibly ’53?)
Dear dearest X – please don’t apologise or consider for a moment you owe me an apology. Nothing could be further from the truth. When I said I would have expected you to know without my having to say that you are the last person I could ever accept it from, I didn’t mean you’d done wrong and I am not in the least offended.
I simply meant I would have expected you to know why I would feel unable to take such an offer from you of anyone living. Dear girl, I think you must know why.
But please trust I know the good and generous heart that made you do it and I could only ever be thankful for that.
God bless you my darling. Do I need I to tell you how it felt to hear from you and see your so well-remembered handwriting or all the rest of everything it meant to this silly, sad, old man?
I hope life is being good to you in these sometimes dreadful times. I wish you and your little girl all happiness love and peace as ever – Basil.