When you read Basil’s autobiography and various magazine interviews with him in the late 1930s, you get the impression of Ouida, his second wife, as a devoted and selfless woman who rescued him from failure, gave up a brilliant career as a thousand-dollar a week screenwriter to help him become a star, and was instrumental in reuniting him with his estranged son. Other sources allege she wrote for publications like the Herald-Tribune and ran a massively successful talent agency.
This is an impressive portrait. But it would be a good idea – as Alyssia has warned us – not to accept any of it without checking first.
- Though discovering what is and is not true about Ouida Rathbone/Fitzmaurice/Bergere/Berger/Burgess/Weadock/Branch doesn’t seem to be particularly easy.
Most people who knew her as mrs Basil Rathbone – possibly including Basil himself – seem to have believed the story that she was born somewhere in Europe. Sometimes the place is listed as France, sometimes Russia, sometimes Spain, or even quite specifically on a train bound for Madrid. IMBD and IBDB think the latter is true to this day.
But when we look more closely we find the second Mrs Rathbone was actually born in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Everyone during her lifetime believed she was four years younger than her most famous husband, and was born in 1896.
In fact she was born in 1886 and was six years his senior.
And her father’s name wasn’t Stephen Bergere
Or Stephen DuGaze
And her name wasn’t Ouida Bergere
or Ouida DuGaze.
Or even Ida Berger.
It was Branch. Eunie Branch.
Eunie Branch. Daughter of Stephen W. Branch and his wife Ida (nee Williams) of Little Rock AR.
In 1900 she was fourteen and living with her brother in Searcy. But by 1910, according to the census, 24-yr old Eunie Branch has inexplicably become ‘Eula Burgess‘ and is back with her parents in Little Rock, listing her marital status as “divorced.” Whether this was from an unknown “Mr Burgess” or from the husband listed as no. 1 on IMDB – “Louis Weadock” or both we don’t know. Her profession is stated to be “actress.”
Further details of her acting career are patchy. Or maybe that word belongs to the career itself. Either way, the credits are sparse. IBDB lists a single Broadway appearance at the Bijou theatre in 1911 in a show that ran for just 28 performances. IMDB lists just two movies she appeared in, both in 1912.
In 1915 she (possibly wisely) abandoned her acting ambitions and turned to screenwriting, where she was prolific for the next eight years. She wrote scenarios for stars like Mae Murray, Elsie Ferguson and Pola Negri. Many of the films she wrote were either produced or directed by George Fitzmaurice, who apparently became her second (or possibly third) husband at some date we haven’t currently determined.
In 1918 Eula/Eunie, now Ouida had a “niece” born to her, and also named Ouida (in case we’re not confused enough already). This niece’s parents are not easy to identify. In one place they are listed as being “William Branch and Ida Williams,” but those are the names of her own parents, which would make this “niece” her sister. In the 1940 census the parents are listed as Beine and Frances Branch and are resident in Texas. Rather strangely, this niece is said to have been raised by Ouida herself at least part of the time, and acquired the additional surname of “Wagner” somewhere along the way. Ouida jr eventually married a younger brother of Aldous Huxley.
In 1921 Ouida Fitzmaurice apparently saw young Basil Rathbone on stage in THE CZARINA and told the person she was with (presumably not her current husband unless he was super-cool) that “this was the man she was going to marry.” Her clairvoyance was indeed awesome. Four years later she had sloughed off husband no.2 (or possibly 3) and married the Baz on April 18 1926.
Just 8 weeks later, claiming debts of $9,000 (a fortune in 1926) and assets of $150, being basically the clothes she was standing up in, she declared bankruptcy and logged her occupation, not as screenwriter, actor, journalist or talent agent – but simply as “housewife.” Her list of unpaid creditors is a little snapshot of life as she lived it. $291.60 to the Daimler car Co in Knightstbridge, London; $542.42 to the Piccadilly Hotel, London; $600 to Miss Jenny, Champs-Elysees, Paris; and amongst all that evidence of high flying – $138.09 to the New York Telephone Company. She was driving Daimler cars and staying in swanky five star hotels, and buying Paris couture – and she couldn’t afford to pay her phone bill.
And there we have it. The Life of Ouida before she became mrs Rathbone. Or as much of it as we can find to date.
I think it’s safe to say all of the above raises more questions than it answers.
Those changes of name and the fugitive personal history. I mean ok, actors and writers can often have stage names and noms de plume, and reinventing yourself to some extent goes with the territory.
But don’t her reinventions seem a little extreme even for that milieu?
I mean she’s Eunie Branch at fourteen, Eula Burgess at 24, Ouida DuGaze and Ida Berger at some indeterminate time, and Ouida Bergere thereafter. Only one of these is definable as a stage name or a nom de plume. What was the purpose of the others? To read some of what her husband was saying, it’s possible he too was unaware of her real identity. At various times he said she was born in France and once mentioned Virginia, but never, so far as I know, Little Rock, Arkansas. Was he just keeping her secrets, or did he truly not know the whole story of her past?
Did he – as someone recently pointed out – know about her massive debts before he married her? or was it sprung on him afterwards? – Wouldn’t it be good to know the answer to that?
How much of what she said about her career and achievements was any more real than her supposed European ancestry and exotic birth locations? Possibly it was all just as she presented it to the public, but currently we don’t know. Did she really write for the Herald-Tribune? Or run the scenario department at Paramount? or start a massively successful talent agency? Was she an intrepid actress/agent/journo/screenwriter? or more of a serial failure at all of them?
In 1923, when she finally met the younger man she’d decided to marry two years earlier, she was 37, and had just written her last screenplay. She was Eunie Branch from Arkansas, unemployed screenwriter, of moderate talent and looks, but an impressive capacity for self-promotion. Was she looking for a willing new protector to rescue her from her stalling career and encroaching financial meltdown?
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