TB: Tell me about how you became interested in Basil Rathbone.
JESSEN: Like so many people, I loved the Sherlock Holmes movies that Rathbone made. Then I saw Dawn Patrol and loved it. After that I began to actively watch for Rathbone films to be shown on television.
TB: Why Rathbone?
JESSEN: To be honest, my interest wasn’t limited to Rathbone early on. I’ve got lots of books on Errol Flynn and most of his films on VHS or DVD. But sometime in the 1990s, I was admiring an Errol Flynn website (errolflynn.net, which oddly enough doesn’t exist anymore), and I thought, “Someone ought to make a site like this for Basil Rathbone!” Since I couldn’t find a Basil Rathbone site that was as I thought it should be, I decided I would have to create one myself.
TB: When did basilrathbone.net first go on line?
JESSEN: I don’t remember exactly. I know it’s been at least ten years since the domain name basilrathbone.net was registered. I started out small in the late 1990s and had a few pages on the free space that AOL allowed with my old AOL account. As the site grew, I bought web hosting service and the domain name.
TB: So, you’ve been “on the air” over ten years. You’re also a collector aren’t you. How extensive is your Rathbone archive?
JESSEN: I’ve been collecting a little at a time for all these years and have acquired a large number of photos and old magazines with articles about the Baz. Of course I’ve tried to get every Rathbone film on VHS or DVD.
TB: You’re being very modest. I’ve been lucky enough to see some of your collection, including the early articles you have and I think it’s safe to say what you have is a unique and invaluable resource. Are there any rare items you are finding it hard to locate?
JESSEN: I haven’t been able to find ALL of Rathbone’s films; I fear that some of the early ones may be lost. The Masked Bride, for example (silent film from 1925). I would love to find a copy of that film and see Basil doing an apache dance! I don’t know if the silent films exist or not. I’d also love to find A Lady Surrenders (1930), This Mad World (1930), One Precious Year (1933), and After the Ball (1933).
TB: What kind of feedback do you tend to get from your readers? And has it changed over the years?
JESSEN: Most of the e-mails I receive are questions about Basil’s life, his films, his co-stars… I have been asked all sorts of questions. But they’ve changed over the years. Prior to 2003 (when MPI released the first set of the restored Sherlock Holmes films on DVD), I was inundated with e-mails from people wanting to know where they could buy the Sherlock Holmes films on VHS or DVD. 90% of the people asked about that. Most of them specifically enquired about The Hound of the Baskervilles. The other ten percent asked about where to get The Stingiest Man in Town on DVD. Now that all these are available on DVD, folks find more obscure things to ask me about.
TB: What’s the strangest thing you have ever been asked?
JESSEN: Some people have asked if it’s true that Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn had a homosexual relationship, citing David Bret’s allegations in the book Satan’s Angel. I cannot confirm the allegation; I’ve never seen any evidence to suggest that Rathbone was gay.
TB:People send you their personal memories, not all of which you’ve published. Has anything you’ve been told surprised you?
JESSEN: Over the years many folks have e-mailed me stories of their personal encounters with Basil Rathbone. When I started the website, I was interested in documenting Rathbone’s professional career. I didn’t know what to do with all these personal stories until I got the idea to create an Anecdotes page. Still, some folks send me stories that they don’t want made public. As I wrote in a comment on your blog, one woman who wrote me claimed that her mother had an affair with Basil Rathbone. If this is true, it certainly is surprising, considering how Basil writes about his love for Ouida. It’s hard to imagine him being unfaithful, but the allegation has been made! Another person wrote me that when his father was in the military during WWII, and was on leave, he and his buddies were invited to spend the afternoon at the Rathbones’ swimming pool. The writer said that his father was shocked to see big-boobed starlets “flopping around” in the water!
I appreciate when fans e-mail me and give me information about something that isn’t on my website. This helps the site to grow! But sometimes those same fans are impatient with me because I don’t immediately add their new information to my website. I try to verify all the information that I get. Once someone told me that Basil Rathbone had been a guest star on an episode of a particular television show. He insisted that he remembered seeing him in the episode. I hadn’t come across that information anywhere, so I was excited to know this. But when I started looking at cast information for that television show and all the guest stars, I found no mention of Basil. I did find that John Carradine had been a guest star in one episode. This is just one example of why it’s so important to verify all information I receive.
TB: Given the large amount of information in your possession, much of it not easily available to the public, you’ve probably had a uniquely informed insight into him as a human being. What sort of a man do you think you’re dealing with? Is your impression well formed or is it still developing?
JESSEN:My impression of Basil Rathbone is continually developing as I learn more about him. I feel that I’ve barely scratched the surface where Basil’s life is concerned. My current impression of Basil is a hardworking, professional actor, proud of his Shakespearean training, and yet lacking confidence (in the early years). Once he became a star, he was confident, but he never acted superior to his fellow actors. He was friendly to and supportive of his fellow actors, a mentor to the young actors. He took his work seriously and gave a good performance even in the abominable films.
TB: Ouida Rathbone has been the subject of some discussion lately. What’s your impression of her from all the information you’ve managed to pull together so far?
JESSEN: My first impression of Ouida was based on Basil’s biography, in which he wrote about her as his soul mate and how much he loved her. I thought that she must have been an angel! I did think it was terrible of her to spend so much of Basil’s money in Hollywood, though. In at least one magazine interview, Basil told the reporter that he objected to the reputation that he and Ouida had as extravagant party-givers. He said that they enjoyed entertaining their closest friends, but they were certainly NOT the “Host and Hostess of Hollywood”! (I don’t have the article in front of me, so can’t quote exactly.)
His response is nonsense. The huge parties to which nearly everyone in Hollywood was invited were documented in the newspapers. We aren’t talking about a small dinner party for six or eight people. They were outlandish parties with fake snow and huge ice sculptures. And it seems clear that the parties were Ouida’s idea, and Basil just went along with it. Michael Druxman interviewed Louis Hayward, and wrote in his book (page 63) that Hayward remembers Basil being almost in tears after one of these expensive parties, and he said that Ouida was breaking him financially. (Forgive me if this was already quoted in the Druxman interview. It bears repeating here, I think.)
So why couldn’t Basil stop Ouida from ruining him? If she were really the perfect wife he wrote about in his autobiography, she would have said, “Honey, let’s put away some of this money you are earning for our retirement.” I’m disappointed that they didn’t do that.
And then I’ve read other people’s impressions of Ouida. Christopher Plummer (Basil’s co-star in the play J.B.) wrote in his autobiography that he liked Basil Rathbone very much, and he thought that they could have been friends, but for some reason Ouida did not like him (Plummer), so she prevented him from being friends with Basil. When I read that, I thought, “What? Basil’s an adult, but he can’t choose his own friends?” I also wondered why Basil’s autobiography has no mention of his son and grandchildren. It’s as if they didn’t exist. I find it difficult to believe that Basil didn’t want to have a relationship with them. Though I don’t know what happened, my “spidy-senses” tell me that Ouida was involved.
And then there’s the post on The Baz about Jed Harris’ impressions of Ouida. I no longer feel that she must have been an angel! Basil must have loved her, else why would he have stayed with her and put up with her manipulation of his life and his relationships? But I struggle to understand why he loved her. I guess we can’t explain the heart!
TB: Yes, there does seem to be a basic dichotomy between the story Basil puts out in his autobiography, and in some interviews, and the story told by others who knew him and Ouida. For example, have you encountered anyone but Basil describing her warmly? Did any of the people who expressed love or fondness for him also express it for Ouida?
JESSEN:Now that you mention it, no. I haven’t read anything positive about Ouida from anyone besides Basil. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything. David Macklin, for example, has told me quite a lot about his association with Basil. David is an actor who worked with Basil in the early 1960s. He knew Basil professionally. He may never have met Ouida. You’re going to have me digging through my notes for mentions of Ouida!
TB: So, are we talking about love being blind? Or was Basil simply presenting a public face?
JESSEN: It’s certainly possible that love is blind, although he wasn’t blind to Ouida’s faults. He complained about her spending habits to others, but it seems that he loved her in spite of it all. I definitely think that he was presenting a public face. I imagine that he feared a scandal would affect his career in a bad way, so he was careful to avoid any scandal. I believe that Rathbone wanted the public to view his marriage as one of the few that lasted in a culture where several marriages were the norm. Well, his marriage did last, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything was rosy in the Rathbone home.
TB: Good answer. Some celebrities, then as now, were running to their publicists and to Hopper and Parsons with every little marital problem. Rathbone didn’t do this and tended to keep his private life private. Even his “autobiography” is far from revealing or exhaustive isn’t it. What do you make of the almost total omission from the book of his son and grandchildren? .
JESSEN: I think it’s very strange that Rathbone makes no mention of his grandchildren, and hardly mentions his son. Maybe he thought that readers wouldn’t be interested in hearing about them. Personally, I would rather have read stories about his family than the story of Mr. Poole, the butler. I certainly have a lot of questions about the family.
Why did his first marriage end? I can understand that he came back from the war a changed man. Such a horrible experience would naturally change someone. I can understand that perhaps they had grown apart and the passion wasn’t there anymore. But unless they parted hating one another, why wouldn’t he want to be a part of his son’s life? Did Marion not permit him to see his son? (It’s too bad that Marion didn’t write an autobiography!).
Basil’s son Rodion came to Hollywood and lived with Basil and Ouida for a year, but after Rodion’s marriage, it seems as though he disappeared from Basil’s life. I’ve not seen any post-wedding photos of Basil with Rodion or with his grandchildren. Why? What happened? Perhaps Basil didn’t write about it because it was painful for him.
None of Basil’s grandchildren have ever contacted me. I would welcome the opportunity to present their side of the story!
TB: Does Rathbone’s life contain any other areas of puzzlement or “absence of evidence” that you’d like to see resolved?
JESSEN: I’ve wondered what happened to Basil’s sister Beatrice. In his autobiography, Basil doesn’t mention having any contact with her as an adult. If they were estranged, I wonder why.
TB:– let’s talk about the Rathbone Biography Project. Can you remind our readers about what it is?
JESSEN: Ah, the Basil Rathbone Biography Project! That’s where all these unpublished stories are going! The Project is a repository of information that will be made available to the person who undertakes the writing of a biography. There are bits and pieces of information all over the place–little nuggets published in one book that don’t appear anywhere else, for example. It would take a biographer years to track down all the sources. The Project should make the biographer’s research a snap! Believe it or not, the amount of information on basilrathbone.net is small compared to what is available. My focus with the website has been more on Basil’s professional life rather than his personal life. But I would be very interested in seeing a biography of Basil Rathbone written!
TB: OK, that’s a good note to end on!