The Q&A with Helen Sheehy about the Baz’s relationship, professional and otherwise, with Eva Le Gallienne continues to get a lot of feedback and there have been several interesting points raised in the comments. Opinion seems scattered over a wide spectrum between those who refuse to believe Rathbone would sleep with a lesbian and those who think he and Eva were lost loves for one another. I’m inclined to agree with Helen that the truth lies somewhere in the murky middle ground between.
I think it’s probably pointless to refuse to believe Rathbone had a physical affair with Le Gallienne, when Le Gallienne herself and her friends all said he did. Likewise I think the chance they were ever in serious danger of marrying each other seems remote. Their affair only lasted for something like five or six months. Le Gallienne moved fairly swiftly on to other lovers, and Rathbone was already involved with Ouida Bergere when it began. So it’s important to remember this in order to keep it in proportion alongside other events in their lives.
One aspect that’s provoked a lot of discussion is the letter Eva wrote to her mother, September 1925, after she and Rathbone were no longer working or sleeping together. Unfortunately a few things contrived to add further ambiguity to this already ambiguous letter, and Sheehy has suggested I add some clarification. Here, for example, is Sheehy’s complete, summary of what the letter says:
“…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). It is so hard to play with just a lot of ordinary actors, after playing with him.” She thanks God she has 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…”
And Sheehy herself has this to say about what Le Gallienne may have meant:
“What Le Gallienne’s mother understood and knew was that her daughter was a lesbian, who had had a relationship with her male co-star. To understand the meaning of the quotation, it’s necessary to understand the context of the quote. And, of course, that context can be found in the complete biography. Yes, Le Gallienne was a lesbian who loved women, but she also adored Rathbone as a fellow artist and as a man, and yes, she had her moments when she wondered about the road not taken –marriage and children. Her relationship with Rathbone was extraordinary since it was highly unusual for her to be attracted to a man. This is why she is happy that she has no love scenes in her current play. But at this time in her life, Le Gallienne’s consuming passion was to become a great artist.”
I think this is a very nuanced and sensitive reading. The mere fact Le Gallienne slept with Rathbone at all made him extremely significant to her, because she was a lesbian, and he was a man, and as a lover he occupied a place in her life shared – so far as we know – by only one other male. Not only is this a simple physical truth, but we can reasonably infer that he must have affected her fairly deeply and unusually in order for her to initiate such a relationship in the first place. As Sheehy says, he represented the road not taken; the straight life of husband and children, and those untrodden paths can be very haunting and beguiling things in someone’s life. It doesn’t mean he was the love of her life, or even that they would have been at all successful as a longterm relationship. It simply means he meant something to her, something at once desired and repudiated, and the ambiguity we see in her letter is a reflection of the ambiguity she was probably quite genuinely feeling, then and in the future.
Of course this tells us nothing about how Rathbone felt about her. And indeed we know – at this point – precisely zero about that. We have no information on his opinion of Le Gallienne, either as a lover or a woman or an actress. We don’t know why he started the relationship, and we don’t know how he felt about it ending. In fact we don’t even know for sure who ended it or when or why, since La Gallienne apparently left no record of that, and all we have is the testimony of her friends that she broke it off after she heard Basil telling members of the company he was sleeping with her. But according to Robert A. Schanke, another Le Gallienne biographer, other friends told him it was Rathbone who ended the relationship after Le Gallienne feared she might be pregnant (she wasn’t, in the end according to Schanke). We’re basically in hearsay territory here and have no way of knowing what the exact truth is.
Two things we know about Rathbone’s side of the affair with Le Gallienne. 1) he was already involved with Ouida Bergere (who would become his second wife) when it began, and 2) after it was over he met Eva at the theatre by chance and asked to come and see her at home.
The Ouida-dimension is the most surprising I suppose, for those who have read his autobiography, and absorbed the idea that he was committed to her from the day he saw her to the day he died. Certainly his embarking on an affair with his co-star a year after this “lifelong commitment” began didn’t make it into his book. If Ouida never knew about it then that would have been a smart move of course, but it really underscores what a hopeless source of biographical information In and Out of Character is. As one reader said in the comments – it’s very charming and lovely, but it’s not a life story.
The second fact, or fragment we know about Rathbone’s conduct toward Le Gallienne is that in September 1925, not long after she wrote the above letter to her mother, and at least six months after their affair ended, he ran into Eva at the theatre and surprised her by asking if he could visit her at home. She was puzzled, but agreed.
And that is all we know. Because Le Gallienne’s letters say nothing else about it. Did he turn up on Thursday after his rehearsal? Or did he change his mind and cancel on her? If she saw him what did he say?
Wouldn’t it be good to know?
Maybe somewhere out there is the answer. Maybe there’s a letter he wrote her, or a letter he wrote someone else confiding his actions and impressions. Or a line in some third party’s journal that will make a few more things clear.
You have to hope don’t you.