BIOGRAPHY, general biography
Comments 62

A small amount of insightful biography

A while ago I stumbled on this blogpost…

laszlosonlex.blogspot.co.uk/2010/08/basil-rathbone-1892-1967-today-august-1.html

It’s a reprint of the sales catalogue for the auction of the Rathbone estate following Ouida’s death in 1975, and is -surprisingly enough – one of the most sensitive bits of biography I’ve yet read, and that’s why I’m reproducing it here (for full appreciation go to the original and also view the rest of the blog, which is now defunct sadly but very beautifully written)…


Basil Rathbone: A catalogue of the collection acquired from the estate of Basil and Ouida Rathbone. Including books from their library, personal photograph albums, holograph manuscripts, and letters from celebrities in the performing arts. Also included are scrapbooks, programs, playbills, souvenirs, photographs and ephemera pertaining to their film, stage, television and radio careers. Gravesend Books, 1975. Cover art Β© by Terry Witmer.

Introduction

The Man

Basil Rathbone walked on to a stage in 1912 and played Hortensio in William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. In 1967, he walked off a sound stage, having completed the film Hillbillies in a Haunted House. What happened to the man’s life between those two milestones says much about two countries, our times, and the various art forms that his talent encompassed. The course of his life between those events is represented at its various stages by the material listed within this catalogue.
Early research to provide background for this catalogue indicated that printed information on the actor’s life was limited to a few sources. Rathbone detailed his own life in an unsatisfactory book and Michael Druxman catalogued the actor’s films, and little else, in a book published in 1975 by a house apparently as uninspired by the subject as was the film organization that conceived the actor’s last film.

We cannot fault others for not writing the book that Rathbone did not write himself, but I believe that a biography of Rathbone, if an understanding one will ever be written, can only be written by a biographer with solid credentials in the theatre. Until such a book is written, this collection can provide some insight through the study of the source material within it.

Rathbone married a playwright and this is a significant and consistent point in his life. The playwright was a failure in her chosen craft and I suspect Rathbone’s own professional life was a failure by his own standards. Throughout this collection is evidence of his discontent. Only in the bright moments and brief successes of J.B. and The Heiress do we find a satisfied Rathbone. He succeeded financially, and to many of us, aesthetically, in film. But he was a man of the theatre, disillusioned with film, who would write: “It is the shadow of the substance.” He viewed film in that light and appeared unable to take it on its own terms.

He left Hollywood in 1946 and returned to a theatre, which if not unhealthy, was at least poor soil for his own new flowering. He had his moments of new growth, but they were few, and he spent his later years bringing talent and enthusiasm to tired summer audiences who confused Noel Coward for Neil Simon, and to young college students who perhaps carried some light from his Evening with Basil Rathbone into their later lives.

But Rathbone belonged to the theatre, which by its nature, unlike film, cannot be preserved in its performers but only in its words. Here then he is preserved, within the limits and life span of words and print and fading pictures; of ink on fragile paper and programs and playbills; all of these — vestiges of a time when young Shakespearean actors were presented to queens.

Pieces of the whole. Fragments of a career. He has crossed his century and the stage work is ended. And if we will have him reside on Baker Street, it will have to be on film. But I feel the loss he may have felt for himself and for all the audiences who never had the privilege of seeing Basil Rathbone on a stage as Sherlock Holmes, or as Judas, or more sadly — in his and our waning youth — as Romeo to Katherine Cornell’s Juliet.

The Woman

Ouida Bergere was an established scenarist and a socially prominent member of the film and theatrical community when she met and won the young actor’s heart in 1924. Thereafter, as Ouida Rathbone, she was in his shadow but did emerge as a famed party giver, particularly in the Hollywood success period of the late 1930s and early 1940s. She contributed to Basil’s career as an advisor and an intermediary. And he adored her.

Throughout the period of their marriage, she wrote a series of unsuccessful, mostly unperformed, plays in a, heavy-handed style that had the essence of being written in magic marker (clutched in) mittens. The plays themselves, with the possible exception of the Liszt piece, lack originality, and are virtually all adapted from other sources, or were the results of inbreeding from her own prior work.

The three dimensional strength and attractiveness that must have resided in the woman is not overly apparent in the two dimensional face of this collection. If the catalogue suggests something akin to a coolness for Ouida, perhaps the cataloguer has lived too long among the effects of others and wandered too far across the bridge from bibliography to biography.

The Collection

Ouida Bergere Rathbone, who survived her husband by seven years, died in November 1974. After her death, the material in this catalogue was acquired over a one year span from two sources. The books were purchased from an estate buyer who had acquired them from the lawyer representing the estate. The scrapbooks, photographs, letters and other memorabilia were willed to the Actor’s Fund. These were acquired directly from the Fund a year after the books. Again a few items were acquired from the estate buyer who had since acquired pieces of the collection from the Fund.

Solicitations to purchase elements of the collection before it was catalogued were refused. I wanted the catalogue to become a permanent record of what the Rathbones retained.

The collection is offered as it was acquired. Nothing has been added. Everything has been included except a Robert Louis Stevenson collection of poetry and a Phyfe photograph of Rathbone as Romeo. These were kept by the cataloguer. Nothing was broken down and pictures listed as extracted from scrapbooks were already in that state when acquired. Items were placed together so that material relating to a particular event or performance could be offered as a unit.

Rathbone’s books were not kept in collector’s condition. They were read, used and annotated. Those books without indication of Rathbone ownership have the following written in pencil on the front free endpaper: “Purchased from the estate of Basil and Ouida Rathbone by Gravesend Books, 1975

I have to agree entirely with what he says about the sense of “failure” or loss that haunts Rathbone’s persona. In fact I talk about it myself in my “Basil Rathbone and Me” page. It’s the thing that both puzzles and attracts me most about him as a human being and as a creative artist, and no one has articulated it as elegantly as this writer does. I think, like me, he’s a little puzzled by it too. It’s so hard to define and locate the reason, but yet it’s all too obviously true that Rathbone’s career – great as some of his individual moments were – never lived up to its potential, and faded while he was still only middle aged, and we fans are left to metaphorically pick up the scattered pieces and mourn what’s lost or what was never there. It makes adoring the Baz a slightly elegiac experience, but all the more fascinating for that.

And lastly, as a book-fanatic myself I find that last paragraph both affirming and incredibly poignant. I wish I had one of his used, read annotated volumes. It’d be like getting to know him a bit.

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62 Comments

  1. Roberta says

    This is very interesting. I agree about the last line and how touching it is that he read and annotated and used his books, because it speaks of a real mind at work. Lovely.

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  2. Alyssia says

    @ Kendrick. I have his own words right here. I can quote them any time. Would anyone like me to?

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  3. roesbette says

    I don’t see Rathbone’s life as tragic, merely one of missed opportunities. Burton’s life was tragic because he was a man of extreme talent (a professor of mine said he was the best Hamlet he ever saw) but also a severe alcoholic. Rathbone’s life was probably not all that he dreamed it would be or that we would have wanted it to be, but many of our lives are that. Perhaps he was a man of exceptional talent who succumbed to some rather ordinary temptations — the rich lifestyle of Hollywood rather than the professional challenge of the stage and the lack of discipline to stand up to his wife and curb her spending of his earnings.

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    • Alyssia Warren says

      Basil’s life was blessed not tragic, and consecrated in love, love for all thing, but centered on his total love for his red-haired wife.

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      • roesbette says

        I can think of many greater tragedies. Most lives experience the “tragedy” of missed opportunity, and people then build their lives aroud the circumstances that they have, even if they don’t completely fulfill their potential. To me great tragedy would be an early death; the death of a spouse; the death of a child; life, hopes, and family destroyed by alcoholism or some other addiction. I see Errol Flynn’s life as a real tragedy, for example, because he essentially squandered his talent, destroyed his health, hurt many people, and died an early death.

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        • bradford says

          I daresay we are only quibbling over terminologies. I agree with you about Burton and Flynn, but I would include Rathbone too. He didn’t die an early death in the actual sense, but artistically it could be argued he did decidedly when you look at the brightness of his rising star and the speed of its eclipse.

          And of course we don’t know why he made that choice to follow wealth, do we? If all that fine promise was lost – not in pursuit of his own wealth and comfort as you assume – but in some bid to make others happy or assuage guilt – wouldn’t that be tragedy?

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        • Margaret G says

          I think you would have to call the waste of his talent tragic, whatever the cause. And let’s not under-estimate that talent too much. He was, after all, “one of the most gifted actor of his generation,” Olivier’s “magical prince Hal.”

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        • Jenny says

          Rathbone’s memoirs don’t give any hint of a man with unhappiness or tragedy in his personal life, you could say any tragedy is ours, in the sense we missed out on appreciating so much. Oh for his presence in more Shakespeare on film. Cassius or Antony in JULIUS CAESAR, Antonio in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. And wouldn’t you like to see how he’d have handled HAMLET in his youth, or MACBETH in his middle age? And what fool failed to cast him in GASLIGHT in 1944? It was the kind of part he had done before but in such a prestigious film that his career would have been rejuvenated. And he would have been far better than the lovely but woefully miscast Boyer. If you want to see the film it would have been with Rathbone in it, then watch the Anton Walbrook/Diane Wynyard version.

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        • WillowTheWisp says

          I agree, Basil obviously enjoyed his career and was wealthy and successful. How is this tragic?

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    • I think that’s quite sensible, though I think Ouida as a monster to be ‘stood up’ to is another part of the mythology fostered by Druxman and the webmaster of this site, and Jessen too now it seems. Why these people feel the need tO character-assassinate Basil’s beloved wife is beyond me. Do they want him to have been miserable?

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      • The issue isn’t about what I want or what anyone else wants. We are commenting on evidence that is being presented to us. Articles, letters, testimony from people who knew the Rathbones–these are all pieces of evidence that are worthy of consideration. We don’t have to agree on what we think the evidence implies or suggests. Our differences of opinion make for interesting discussions!

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  4. cinegeek says

    His real tragedy IMO was the waste and depletion of a blazing talent. It makes Richard Burton’s similar decay look positively heartwarming. At least Burton got the chance to do SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, 1984, and a few other gems. Basil’s film career was almost one long missed chance by comparison. Damn the moguls, and maybe damn him too for the choices he made.

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    • Kendrick says

      Could not disagree more. I think the trend to see Basil as tragic figure is one motivated by the teen Goths that infest this site. The Basil Rathbone of real life was not a tragic man. He was happily married, content in his personal life and successful in his career. People need to accept this and stop inventing reasons to mourn his tragedy.

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      • Hannah says

        I’m a teen and a big fan of Basil, but I’m not a Goth! Do you even know what Goth means? And how many teens here have said he wasn’t happily married? Just because we ship him with someone else in a movie doesnt mean we are saying it really happened

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      • Cinegeek says

        Ok, well…I’m not a teen or a Goth, though I’ve been called a hipster before now. My use of the word tragedy was based solely on an observation of Rathbone’s career. I’m not informed about his private life and wasn’t attempting a critique. Just call me Goth, but when one of the finest actors of his generation is begging for scraps of work and making commercials for peanut butter just to make ends meet and pay for his kid’s medical bills that comes off as pretty furkin’ tragic to me.

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        • I agree! I find it depressing that he couldn’t afford to retire, but had to keep traveling (doing his one-man show) and trying to get acting gigs just to pay the bills.

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          • Kendrick says

            but he only couldn’t afford in the sense of wanting to keep up a lifestyle, he was wealthy by normal standards surely?

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            • From Druxman’s book (page 105): “Newspapers reported that the actor left an estate valued between ten and twenty thousand dollars, with assets divided equally between his wife and son, Rodion.” Druxman also wrote that after Basil’s death, Ouida struggled financially and some of her wealthier friends took up a collection for her. Basil and Ouida were living in a modest apartment in New York City in the 1960s. Maybe not “poor” but certainly not wealthy.

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              • Kendrick says

                That does surprise me very much I have to say. It raises some obvious questions about where the money went. I’m actually quite shocked at that. I am interested what Alyssia has to say

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          • MaskedMadman says

            He probably didn’t want to retire, few actors choose that option. But I bet he would have liked to be able to pick his work for quality and only work when he chose to. And I bet he would like to have ben offered more quality work, which brings the discussion back to the mystery of why he wasn’t!

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            • I have wondered about him not receiving better offers also.Maybe it was simply after the war US fans preferred foreign actors less.Could it have something to do do with the studio system?He was a contract player and then refused to renew etc.Maybe this rubbed them the wrong way and they blacklisted him.Could David O selznick have done or said something.Maybe i am just being an American.You know how we love a conspiracy theory.

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          • In Auction Madness, a book by Charles Hamilton, the author writes about Basil selling some letters he had from Jackie Kennedy. Hamilton wrote that Rathbone was “strapped for money”; he had very little income. According to Hamilton, Cynthia had long been ill with hepatitis. Although he didn’t specify which type of hepatitis, I believe that it must have been hepatitis C.

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              • roesbette says

                It could be that the money was spent in the late 30s and 40s on all those parties. Perhaps like many couples today, they didn’t anticipate the financial needs of retirement, or medical bills for a sick young woman. You think about situations in the US where parents have an adult child at home with little or no insurance (before Obama said insurance companies must cover children up to age 26 under the parents’ health insurance). Stuff happens. My own dad retired early at 62, and his pension really wasn’t enough to take care of my mom after he died.

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                • Kendrick says

                  My present feeling is it depends how the money was spent. If it was a joint decision then I agree with you, but it really upsets me to think they were that impoverished. With the amount he was earning it’s hard to see how. I just hope it wasn’t all Ouida as people have said

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                  • Alyssia says

                    Bail insisted on spending all his money on Ouida. She begged him not to, but making her happy was more important than anything else. That’s how much he loved her. She was special and unique. So much more vibrant than any other woman he ever met that she just captivated him. The reason he didn’t have affairs is that no other woman could compare to her. She was beautiful and very intelligent and with a deeply loving heart. She would never spend money on herself, only on those she loved, and on charitable causes. That’s why he spent money on her because she wouldn’t. She would give her last dime and one time even gave her coat away on a freezing night to a woman who was homeless on the street. This was why he loved her.

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                    • Kendrick says

                      Yes, but please before we go any further, tell me how you know this!

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              • roesbette says

                There are a number of ways Hep C can be transmitted, including through blood transfusions, and even through the infection of the mother (remember, Cynthia was adopted). I would hate to promote an unsubstantiated and somewhat scurrilous speculation about the Rathbone’s adopted child. It’s one thing to speculate about Ouida’s character, due to her spending habits and some of the statements about her dificult personality, which are documented, but it’s another to do it with this young woman, who died tragically young. By all accounts, the Rathbones appeared to be protective and somewhat vigilant parents, and Cynthia often traveled with Rathbone on his speaking tours. I wonder if Cynthia had a congenital condition that would have made her susceptible.

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                • Yeah I tend to agree we need to approach the question of Cynthia’s death with care. She wasn’t looking for celebrity, and didn’t ask to be adopted by a famous man. Let’s try to adhere strictly to the facts here and not start making fairly unsupported suggestions.

                  People keen to know more could go to the NYU library and access Ouida’s unpublished MS about her daughter.

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                • I read several times she died of complications from anemia.What the specifiic cause of her anemia i never read.Bleeding is one of the complications of liver disease though.There are other causes to be considered besides viral if she had cirrhosis.I certainly can not corner the market of knowledge about Hep C,but i think it was first identified in 1989.I think you could contract B and C thru blood transfusions before 1992.The symptoms of C might take years to show up.I worked with an older nurse who did not have it diagnosed until age 60.The cause was from an accidental needle stick from attempting to recap a needle.Then along came the advent of needleless systems and retractible iv cathelons needles after you thread the cathelon in the vein.
                  PS.None of the above is an accusation or statement that i know the poor girls acctual cause of death.

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                • cinegeek says

                  @ Rosebette –
                  I respectfully disagree. Spreading unfounded rumors is always inappropriate. It’s hurtful to the living and creates misinformation about the dead. But in a situation where a person’s death remains publicly unexplained then speculation about possible cause is legitimate provided it remains within the bounds of current knowledge. A possible diagnosis of hep C does bring the clear possibility of a drug-related cause AMONGST OTHERS, and provided it is presented as merely a conjecture then that possibility is as legitimate as any other. And while Cynthia was not a celebrity or looking to become one, she was nevertheless the adopted child of celebrity parents, and her life and death have stories to tell us about the people who raised her.

                  So, sorry, but she is a legitimate focus.

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                  • Thats ok .I think you misunderstood me.I was not spreading rumors and creating misinformation.I was participating in a discussion.I thought the knowlege i had as a nurse would be helpfull here.I thought others would get that i was actually presenting a case for the likely hood of her not having Hep C as the cause of her {IF SHE HAD] liver disease.I think i still am surprised how people treat others with certain mentions of a dx.like cirrhosis,aids,mental illness.I feel these are diseases and should not be labels of shame.Dirty etc.not to be talked about.I bet if i said cynthia had liver cancer it would have been very acceptable and met with sympathy.You do not know me but i have always seen a pt.as someone who deserves caring treatment no matter what.A disease is a disease no matter what.I was also saying in other words a doctor may,for example.know more than i about the disease.I was speaking of past and CURRENT knowledge.But as any other human being i do not know it all.I always like to throw it all up against the wall and see what sticks.

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                  • I remember reading that Cynthia had some type of anemia,and he’d mentioned in his autobio that she was “Irish” and enjoyed badgering Ouida.The Irish have some genetic predisposition to something caled Hemachromatosis,where iron is broken down and causes multiple health issues,esp heart problems.That’s my theory of her health problems.

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      • Frankenfurter says

        Well, if you can look at the final two decades of Rathbone’s life and think you see happiness and success I congratulate you. Personally I see degradation, poverty, pain and lost opportunity. Maybe we need to compare sources? πŸ™‚

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        • Ellen Foley says

          Extremely well stated!How sad to not be able to say how things really were because of publicity hounds,or those ready to pounce on any other’s misfortunes.OR lived high on the hog,fail to see her as socially prominent except for marrying well,while BR has to avoid upsetting the applecart at the expense of his health or reputation.He def showed love and concern for an adopted child he was not looking to bring into his life except to fulfill any need/motherly yen of OR,but did so much better than if he was his own natural child.

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      • MIKUFAN says

        Teen goths? =_= I’ve not seen one teen goth here……
        Plus you are sort of disrespecting people of the goth lifestyle, perhaps you should think before you type…

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  5. Deirdre'sCatiscalled Michael says

    I have never gotten any sense of tragedy from Basil Rathbone. I always see him as a profoundly balanced and happy man. A true English gentleman, successful professionally and successful domestically. He didn’t have serial marriages or love affairs, he raised a daughter, loved his dogs and made some excellent films. I think we should all be proud of such a life.

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  6. Frances says

    I don’t think Basil was tragic or a failure and I’m upset you should keep a blog about him and describe him that way. He had a wonderful happy marriage to a talented woman, and a wonderful career. Just because he didn’t play the kind of parts this man thinks he should have played doesn’t make him a failure. He preferred to play villains. It was more challenging for him. As a fan of his for some sixty years I think I know what I’m talking about. And I even had the privilege of meeting him once when he gave a talk, and I know he was a true gentleman and scholar, and a happy man!Look at his last words to his wife. is that a tragic or unfulfilled human being?

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    • Basil didn’t “prefer” to play villains; he simply excelled at playing villains. But he complained about being typecast as a villain, and jumped at the opportunity to play other non-villain roles.

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  7. Verity Morgan says

    I just stumbled on this site, and I have enjoyed looking over it hugely. I find Basil Rathbone a very rewarding actor. I feel as if he never cheats his audience, and everything he plays is imbued with intelligence and professional commitment. It can be an underrated accomplishment, but it marks a person of integrity I think.

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