BIOGRAPHY, general biography, Relationships, The Swan (1923), THEATRE
Comments 116


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.

“THE SWAN” company on tour, October 1924; it was probably around this time that Rathbone’s affair with Le Gallienne began

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.

Detail of above, Rathbone center, with Le Gallienne beside him

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.

“He will come Thursday after his rehearsal,” she wrote her mother. “It’s all very strange.”

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.


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  2. GRETCHEN says

    OMG……in that close-up headshot photo of Eva above, she looks JUST LIKE ME!! 🙂

    We’ve got the SAME nose, mouth, eyes, face-shape, and everything. I suppose it could be because I’m of European-descent, and so was she…those physical traits are pretty common in us Europeans, ya know (my family’s from Germany, Poland, Russia, Austro-Hungary, and a few other places in that vicinity thrown-in for good measure). She also has that “still looks like a kid” face, like mine…everybody always thinks I’m 14, but I just turned 38 last week! I basically stopped aging at around 11, and grew to my adult-height (5′ 6 1/2″) by 16, and that was that. (It’s a good thing, since I LOVE to wear costumes and go trick-or-treating on Halloween—and I’m REALLY into “Mickey Mouse”, “My Little Pony”, and “Hello Kitty” toys and stuff!!! I also dress in the SAME clothes that mostly tweens and teens wear, so luckily I don’t get stared-at in a funny way…I can understand why my boyfriend feels a bit EMBARRASSED when people think I’m his child…especially since he’s 19 years OLDER than me, besides!) 🙂

    My dad looked like Eva (in this photo) too, in his teens and twenties—imagine her face with a 1940s guy-hairstyle—he was a CUTIE! He also NEVER aged……when he died at 83 (in 2008), he still looked like he did in his early 50’s!! My mom looks 20 years younger than she is, and she’s 78…I suppose it’s genetic, or something. Hey, I was just thinkin’—if Basil was attracted to EVA, maybe he would’ve liked ME too, since I look like her! 🙂

    I’ve always loved the ’20s; the ragtime-music, clothing, films, jewelry, “art-deco” futuristically-styled furniture and buildings—and the new freedoms women were just beginning to envision for themselves. I like to imagine myself back in 1923, at that party where Basil first saw Ouida; I’m dressed in a plain but sexy “clingy” shimmering silver floor-length spaghetti-strap gown and matching heels, with just a simple but elegant jeweled-headband wrapped around my forehead, and my curly brunette bobbed-hairstyle and ’20s makeup—holding a sparkling beaded clutch-purse. Everything I’m wearing is borrowed from an acquaintance, ’cause I have no money of my own to buy such nice things (since I’m merely a poor artist—which I actually am, in REAL life), and she kindly invited me to come to the party with her as a special treat. (Or, sometimes I’m me NOW, but I get the chance to “magically” go back in time for 1 day, and I pick THAT one!) I feel like a beautiful princess; like I’m Cinderella at the Ball, or something…and, that I don’t deserve to be there with all those “fancy” people. Having noticed Basil mingling amongst the guests earlier that evening, I stand there shyly; hoping his and my eyes could meet just ONCE accidentally during the night……and that perhaps he would feel that same “I already know you” feeling I have for him (when I look at him now in films and photos), take an interest in me, and come-over and introduce himself—nah……totally AWESOME stuff like that NEVER happens to ME! Plus, even if he DID like me, he’d probably think I was kinda strange—the way I’m like a KID, and all. That would have been a MAJOR TURN-OFF to him, I’m sure! Even my OWN boyfriend thinks I’m a weirdo!! 😦


    • MikuFan says

      Everybody thinks I’m ‘kinda strange’, you’re not alone in this strange-person fangirliness my friend. 😦


  3. Basil says

    Well, I read once Ouida only wanted sex after marriage, so I guess that explains it a bit..


  4. Joanie says

    I find the story of Rathbone and Le Gallienne quite emotional and intriguing. Surely more there than just a fling? When she says “I still call him my Basil” I find it hard to believe she is talking about him in a professional sense at all. She is confiding in her mother the depth of the connection she still feels with him. Was it entirely one sided, if not then it’s very hard to understand his heart at that period.Did he really have a closer connection with Ouida, or did she offer other things he wanted or needed perhaps?


  5. I can’t speak for Antwan, but having talked fairly extensively to Sheehy, and to Schanke, I think the problem is Le Gallienne left no direct record of her feelings for Rathbone, other than in the letters she wrote to her mother. All the stories of how, why and when they broke up are secondhand, being related by ELG’s friends at various times. Different friends have different stories, and there’s no way of verifying which if any are true.

    I think it’s pretty clear from ELG’s letters to her mother that she was very attached to Rathbone after the affair ended, (“I still call him My Basil, because I know that he really is”) both professionally and emotionally. Beyond that, who can say?

    About the duration of their affair, Sheehy estimates it began in the fall of 1924, possibly in Chicago, and ended some time in the spring of 1925.

    Probably should be noted – he’d already known Ouida for a year before he began sleeping with ELG


  6. Matelot says

    Really? Eva holding a torch? Well, later on, she sure tells it differently:

    “…Besides, she knew her strong preference for women. But her career was another matter. Maybe she did need a convenient marriage to serve as a cover. After all, both Katharine Cornell and Lynn Fontaine had recently chosen that option. With a husband at her side, she could confound the critics and keep the public in the dark.
    The man she ultimately selected was her costar, the dashing young actor from England, Basil Rathbone. Although she told a good friend that she was ‘bored after ten days,’ at one point during their courtship, Eva thought she was pregnant. When she told Rathbone, he promptly ended their affair.”
    – _Shattered Applause: The Lives of Eva Le Gallienne_ by Robert Schanke. Notes on the quotations above, “Interview with May Sarton, April 27, 1989; interview with Dulton Dearborn, August 2, 1989.”

    Of course, in another telling, she says she ended it when she heard him bragging to other members of the company about sleeping with her. (Helen Sheehy in _Eva Le Gallienne: A Biography_)

    Does anyone know the duration of the Eva/Basil affair? Since I have Eva returning to her female lover de Acosta in November and Basil meeting Ouida in November…?


    • AnnaPindurka says

      Helen Sheehy had access to Eva’s own papers, diaries and letters, Robert Schanke, as you show, is quoting here from interviews with others. Clearly, the matter needs more clarification as I suppose neither book’s main focus is on the affair between these two, but Sheehy includes some quotes that suggest Le Gallienne liked Rathbone much much more than as a candidate for a partner in a marriage of convenience.
      Also, just a thought, I’m not sure Basil would have taken on such a role, even if politely asked.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Why is it i have a hard time seeing Basil “bragging” to “other members of the cast” about haveing slept with Eva? Oh I know why..It’s because when he wrote his book he refused to kiss and tell on anyone,or say bad things about anyone.The few “affairs” he aludeds to he cloaks in quite a discret manor.Via Petnames like ‘kitten’.The one thing he was known for in Hollywood[beside Ouida’s wacky parties]is that he was Mr. Nice.Mr kind Mr wonderfull..humm dosent sound like a guy who runs aroung bragging about hitting 3rd base with his leading lady.The song Paradise by the dashborad light keeps comeing int my mind here.


      • Elaine Drury says

        Absolutely! I don’t see Basil as the bragging type at all. I think it’s a question of interpretation. Basil could have been talking about his relationship without “bragging” – after all, why should he assume it was a secret? And let’s not forget this story doesn’t come from Eva directly, but from friends and ex-lovers of hers, who may have had reason to resent Basil and misrepresent him. I don;t think hr letter to her mother where she ays “I still call him my Basil” reads like someone who had called things off because he’d betrayed her by “bragging,” or like someone who had gotten “bored” of him. It reads like a woman who is still very attached to him emotionally, and still thinks very highly of him.


  7. lissa says

    What a poignant love story! Only imagine they had stayed together, as a theatre pairing if nit as lovers! What history they might have made. I amso fascinated by what may have happened at their last meeting. What did he want to say to her? “Please rescue me from this awful looming marriage”?


  8. Hermione says

    What a beautiful pair they were – such a glowing Romeo and Juliet they could have been!


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  10. la morte rouge says

    I think Rathone may have had more of a thing for Eva than she guessed and was going to see if she felt the same. He was probably feeling like he’d made a mistake with Ouida and was looking for a way to bail before he had to marry her.


  11. anita Vaudricort says

    So, I was watching The Cat’s Meow yesterday and something occurred to me. Jennifer Tilly HAS to play Ouida Bergere!!!!

    (edited by NeveR to fix the image link)


  12. Rebecca says

    I love mr Rathbone so much, and this blog is becoming my favourite place on the web! Please keep updating, there’s so much to know about this lovely man.


  13. Larry says

    As I informed you before, I met Rathbone, after a college lecture, while I was a high-schooler. Years later, I interviewed LaGallienne, and I recalled her terming him, “my wonderful Basil.” She autographed the photo of her and him in his autobiography. We were alone in her rooms, and she recalled lovingly this “fine gentleman.” I hope this anecdote helps. Keep up the fine work. As a protoge of William K. Everson, my film students love ‘the Baz,’ too!


    • Mary from Iceland says

      Larry did she say anything else about Basil? What sort of impression did you have about how she remembered him? Was she still a little in love with him do you think?


    • Bradford says

      Larry, please don’t be coy, tell us more about your meeting with Rathbone and your interview with Le Gallienne. Was the latter published anywhere?


  14. Bradford says

    Who are all these people so determined to believe Basil was some sort of saint?


    • Yes, I was wondering what that was all about. “St. Basil of Assissi” seems to sum it up. Very strange. is this typical of his female fans?

      Ladies, please tell us baffled men!


      • Margaret G says

        I think the hint of ascetism and scholarliness mixed with sensuality is very appealing. I used to think he should have played Peter Abelard in that wonderful play by Ronald Millar. I’m sure he would have defined the part had he been born in the right generation. A bookish monastic scholar overwhelmed by love and desire! How perfect.


        • Jasmine says

          Basil as Peter Abelard! Who would have played Heloise? Omg, I’m dying of feels


      • Yolanda says

        I think it’s fine to respect Mr Rathbone as a wonderful actor, a Christian and a a happily married man, but as a saint – please!


    • Alyssia says

      He was a wonderful human being who was faithful to the woman he loved, does that make him a saint?


  15. I think it’s quite likely Ouida would have destroyed anything Basil kept in his possession that referred to past love affairs or any aspect of his life she didn’t want the public to know about. He told my father he had letters and things from his first wife and his mother that he’d leave to his son, but so far as I know nothing ever materialized after he died. So, your guess is as good as mine what else disappeared. That woman was controlling and completely dishonest. If there’d been letters from Le Gallienne I think it’s probable she would have destroyed them. She seemed to want to eliminate everyone from his life who wasn’t her.


    • Remy says

      Should we necessarily blame her for doing that though? Perhaps Basil wanted it that way. She after all was closer to him than anyone else.


      • I do blame her. I cannot admire a woman who tries to keep her husband from his son and grandchildren (as Ouida did). It’s just not right.


        • roesbette says

          Since you’ve done more research than any of us on this topic, Marcia, is it really true that Ouida made herself an obstacle to Basil’s relationship with his son and grandchildren? Or is this speculation?


          • This is what “HRD” posted a while back. And he/she knew Basil and Ouida. HRD wrote that Ouida faked a heart attack to try to prevent Basil from going to England to see his son. And that after Rodion was married and had children, Ouida kept Basil from them. I guess Rodion’s children could confirm this, but I haven’t spoken with them.


          • What Marcia says is true, and in addition I believe other authors have talked to Basil’s grandchildren directly and been told something very similar. I don’t want to speak for them, but maybe they’ll confirm it themselves.


            • Hermione Granger says

              Well, are we supposed to take your word for it? What authors? You don’t give any names?


        • FredaKowlie says

          Me too. If it’s true she did that, then pure and simple it was an evil thing to do. You can’t just excuse it just because Basil loved her. Men fall in love with bad women all the time


    • Alyssia Warren says

      Ouida helped Basil become a successful actor as well as everything else. Am I allowed to say that?


      • Of course you can say that! Note, however, that Basil was already a star on Broadway when he met Ouida, so some would say he was already a “successful actor.” What Ouida did, according to BR’s autobiography, was negotiate a lucrative contract with MGM for making movies. That certainly led to him becoming a successful movie actor.


        • Alyssia says

          Basil doesn’t say he was already a star on Broadway. I think you have that wrong.


          • When you have a leading role in a successful Broadway play, you are a star. Before The Swan he starred in The Czarina. Before that he was a star on the London stage.


  16. Alyssia Warren says

    Maybe Basil didn’t comment on Eva because he was indifferent to her. Just because she fantasized about him doesn’t mean he cared about her. His love was focused on Ouida, his soulmate.


  17. Fred Singer says

    Thanks for this follow up which has helped solidify the story. And how tantalising we don’t know the very end!


  18. Louise says

    I’m a lurker here and longterm fan of the sublime Mr Rathbone, whom I saw once on the street in New York in 1963.I didn’t speak because he looked rather preoccupied. I still think Ouida was the love of Basil’s life. if he did cheat on her with Eva it was probably an isolated incident, and one mistake in 40 years is not that bad! You have to put it in the context of his life.


    • Philippa says

      OTH he’d only been with Ouida about a year when he slept with Eva! Was that the only time he strayed?


  19. Alison Rougeot says

    I think La Gallienne may have picked up a vibration from Rathbone that what he anted to talk about was something personal to do with them. You can do that can’t you,we all do ti all the time. Someone call you or meet you by chance and says, “we have to meet up again,” and even though it’s outwardly nothing you can tell there’s something on their mind. ELG was artistic and intuitive and she picked that up.

    But then she never follows through and tells her mother what happened. This means one of three things.

    The meeting didn’t happen.

    It happened, but what ever occurred between them at the time was something she didn’t want to share.

    The letter in which she told the story has been lost.

    So, I have a question for Eva buffs. Do you have ALL her letters to her mother from that period? Or have seem gone astray?


  20. MaskedMadman says

    Quite seriously, though, it would make a hell of a screenplay. It’s got everything to make it speak for now. The sexual orientation-issue is so right on for today. The period is fantastic for film. Eva’s own background with Mercedes de Acosta was an Edward Albee nightmare in its own right. This baby would write itself.


  21. proof12 says

    No, Scarlett Johanson as Eva (look at the physical resemblance) and Hugh Jackman as Basil.


    • Rita says

      You are actually so right, there is a real physical resemblance. If only there was an actor around who looked as much like Basil! Do any of his descendents act? Actually is the guy in Twilight a relative? Great blog by the way.


  22. Bit OT but look at the two lads in the foreground of the group picture. Their scruffy hair and reluctant expressions and dodgy collars tell such a mute tale.


  23. MarySue says

    This would make such a movie! Anne Hathaway could play Eva and Christian Bale could play Basil!


  24. Barbara Edwards says

    I’m wondering what about Basil’s request to visit her seemed “strange”. Strange i what way? Was she picking up something in his attitude? You get the feeling she’s a little bit excited and wondering don’t you. I hope it was something nice that came of it. I hope he didn’t stand her up.


  25. Love your perceptive comments here on this relationship. Le Gallienne must have been deeply affected by Rathbone; she writes about him so vividly in her letter, especially how hard it will be to work with other actors. It must have been a complex relationship on so many levels, personal, professional, and artistic.


  26. Liam Goulding says

    This is an excellent article. What a poignant story, and what mystery. I’ve followed your blog for a while, and I have to say it just seems to get better and better.


    • I’m with Liam. Rathbone gets more interesting the more The Baz digs. The back and forth between Rendell and Sheehy was action packed and left me wanting more. And this follow up about Baz-Eva paints him as one impressive rake in his youth. I’ll watch his dashing roles, like Sir Guy and Capt. Esteban, with more respect because he should’ve, and just might’ve, got the girl (late at night, before the last reel).


      • ErnestEnquirer says

        You are just jumping to conclusions based on nothing. Basil was a devout Christian and he believed in the sanctity of marriage. He would never commit adultery. Once married he was married. What evidence is there, I mean real evidence, he was an ‘impressive rake’? Eva Le Gallienne was just a disturbed woman who wanted to seduce her co-star and probably pretended he had to boost her ego. Basil never admitted it. Basil was not like the usual sort of Hollywood man. He adored his wife and respected her and no gossip or anything has ever linked him to anyone but her. See and look at Basil’s Views on Love!


        • Susan Klein says

          I’m not saying you are wrong, but what evidence is there he was a devout Christian? And if he believed so much in the sanctity of marriage why did he leave his first wife?


        • But aren’t you also jumping to conclusions? How do we know he was a “devout Christian”? And I’m afraid he did commit adultery, every time he slept with a woman between the time he left his wife in 1919 and getting divorced in 1926. The website you link to doesn’t endorse either of the claims you make btw.


        • roesbette says

          ….So was St. Augustine, and he led quite the life before he converted! Besides, the affair with Eva occurred before Basil was actually married to Ouida. I think Basil was an Anglican (I’m an Episcoplian, so in my second life, maybe we’d be “soulmates”), which is Church of England, not the same as a fundamentalist Christian. Certainly, writing the play “Judas” and appearing in J.B., would lead one to believe he was a man of faith who was constantly seeking for answers.

          Also, being a believer doesn’t mean being perfect.


          • I think you make a good point, and I think it’s pretty clear he was a spiritually questing, questioning kind of man. I’m just not sure of the source for him being devoutly Christian (as opposed to simply a theist of some kind). Does he present himself in such terms anywhere?


            • roesbette says

              Not that I’ve seen. You might refer to Marica on that one! But I can’t resist the quote attributed to August, “Dear God, make me chaste, but not yet!”


              • I don’t recall reading anything about Basil being “devoutly Christian” but I do think that he was interested in exploring the complexity of biblical characters.


            • Efffie says

              I think you just want to discredit Basil in the eyes of posterity. He would be so upset at the way you let people talk about him


      • Wanda says

        I agree totally. I always thought he had to have been a bit of a rake, when you see his eyes when he’s playing opposite a beautiful woman, even when he’s supposed to be asexual Mr Holmes – there’s that smouldering sort of look. And the way some of the women look back at him! And the chemistry between him and some of the female leads when he was playing the villain! Far more chemistry between him and Garbo than Garbo and March (who was so much less romantic-looking than Basil it was just a joke putting him in as Vronsky, what were they thinking?). And has anyone seen that candid of him on the set of Confession? The girl he’s talking to is gazing into his eyes, and he’s obviously got the charm turned up to 11!


        • Dinarius says

          You can’t smear someone’s name like that based just on your impression! He was an actor. He was acting. And when he’d done acting he went home to his wife.


        • proof12 says

          I’d agree with you there. There are several scenes in “Woman in Green” where Basil’s Holmes behaves as if he is quite experienced with women, not what one would expect.


            • Lucille says

              Oh God yes. How can you not imagine him in bed with a woman? Have you seen the way he looks at that brunette in Pursuit to Algiers? Can’t you just imagine that ending up between the sheets?


  27. ElsieSpanner says

    I think she threw himself at her, and he was weak fir a moment, it doesn’t change the fact he loved Ouida his whole life


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