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IN & OUT OF CHARACTER – guest post by Rosemarie

Thoughts on In & Out of Character – by Rosemarie

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I finally received my “Bible” for Christmas, BR’s own In and Out of Character, which in literary terms is more of a memoir than a true autobiography. In the past, I’ve only read snippets here and there from searching the book in amazon, or quoted on this site or on basilrathbone.net. I must admit that reading it from cover-to-cover gives me new insight. While Basil’s bio is not completely “factual,” I believe it is honest in what it reveals about him and Ouida.

I think he did truly love her, whatever her foibles. As a teacher of writing and literature, I think the preface one of the most important parts of the book. He begins by dismissing any ideas that he is going to reveal anything damaging about the people he loves, perhaps already putting aside the speculations and criticisms of any who knew him well and knew about any of the inadequacies of the marriage. According to the section where he describes meeting Ouida, he calls her “Titian-haired” and he also refers to her as a natural redhead with alabaster skin. In his narrative, he is the one who makes the first move physically. He describes many aspects of his relationship with Ouida which woud make them a good match — they share the love of the same books, music, theater, the arts. (As a long-married person myself, I have to agree that a “long run” marriage needs this as much as or more than sexual chemistry.)

I think he does refer in subtle ways to some of the more intimidating aspects of her character. He often calls her more “conservative” in terms of discipline and morals regarding the upbringing of their daughter and later on, her respect for social conventions. He comes across as more free-thinking and liberal, and emotionally a bit of a softy. (I was surprised by the many sentimental moments, particularly about his childhood and wartime experiences.) I do think Ouida probably did give his life more discipline and was a controlling influence in some ways, perhaps some positive, others negative (although you won’t hear that from him!)

I find it interesting how he reveals in veiled ways that both of them were sexually experienced before marriage and that helped them also get along as a couple. Also, yes, he was a ladies’ man before Ouida. Not counting the wartime “almost” dalliance with “Marie” and his first roll in the hay with “Esther”, in his theater days, he refers to at least three ladyfriends — another “Marie”, “Kitten,” and his first “Juliet” (not to mention “June” in the U.S., his date when he first came as a guest to Ouida’s, and whom he admits he rudely abandoned). All of these while still legally married to (but separated from) Marion. He describes these escapades charmingly — with no rancor or misogyny, a real gentleman who loves women. So, he was no “St. Basil,” but a bit of a bohemian enjoying the free loving lifestyle of the theater.

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He adored Cynthia, his daughter, who is described as a willful but charming child, and if there were difficulties between him and Ouida in the 40s, I could see him as being inclined to stick it out with her and overcome them for the sake of the child.

The book also allows me to hear his side of some of the stories I’ve read on the posts. For instance, on the encounter that Jed Harris describes over whether Rathbone should take the role of Dr. Sloper, Rathbone admits that he is excited about the play, but that she didn’t like it. Rathbone said she didn’t care for the role because it was not a “glamor” role, but that of a mature man in his 50s, perhaps a transition for both of them in acknowledging middle age.

Rathbone describes Harris as a man of enormous charm who was unable to win over Ouida, and Rathbone admits Ouida “proceeded to reconstruct the play along lines as she saw it.” For his own part, Rathbone said that “whatever happened… I intended to do the play,” and he acknowledges that “her version of the play would require major revisions, and I knew Jed was not sympathetic to them.” Here, you do see the picture of a husband humoring his wife, but also determined to make the right decision for his own career. It’s an interesting passage where you can see the tension of the marriage, the “agree to disagree” component of it. $T2eC16h,!yEE9s5jHPtcBQGeLQVuLQ~~60_3

Despite these disagreements, I never get the sense of resentment of Ouida, and in fact, she’s depicted as an accommodating wife, particularly about managing the many moves and transitions required by his career, which involved transporting a household to the opposite coast while he was busy touring in a play or making a film.

Overall, the book is filled with Basil’s voice, which is at turns charming, sentimental, wistful, reflective, very British, and even occasionally humorous. He loves a good story and he’s a skillful raconteur. Toward the end, there is a yearning for the past and the usual complaints about the modern age, which are as relevant today as when they were written; he describes TV as “Like a monster New York garbage truck the industry was devouring material every day of the week,” and this before the days of the Kardashians and Honey BooBoo!

As the book ends, I get the sense of an intensely spiritual person, moved by music and the arts, which absorb many of the last pages. While his last paragraph looks forward to his future anniversaries with Ouida, in earlier passages, there are indications of his awareness of the possibility of his own passing, but it’s an awareness without fear. Before his sudden illness during J.B., he tries to visit a church, but finds the doors closed and he feels a vague sense of anxiety. His treatment at St. Carmel also brings with it a sense of comfort, both from the nuns and the lovely nightly music, and from his receiving the sacrament from the rector of his own church, which is Episcopalian. (Ah, Basil, we are kindred spirits.) Yet, like many Episcopalians, he is a bit of a free-thinker, accepting spiritual leaders from many faiths (he speaks positively of Bishop Sheen and of many Jewish colleagues).

judas3His chapter on Judas describes his intellectual and spiritual process in trying to understand the man who betrayed Jesus, and his discussion of the various roles of J.B. also reveal a man of complex beliefs. He clearly has a belief in the afterlife and a sense of comfort in that; during his hospitalization, he describes feeling connected to his loved ones who have gone before him: “Mother and Daddy and Beatrice and John. And one prayed again as then, so many years ago; and those who had gone before came back for a fleeting moment and a reunion in blessed memory was consummated.” This also is not the first time in the book that he refers to experiencing the presence of his deceased family members.

When I finished the book, I felt a sense of loss, a sense of the loss of this man’s voice, which was a presence to me as I read it during my many travels over the holiday week, and even a loss of his ideas – a national theater program in the U.S. – what a wonderful dream (especially for a mother who has a daughter with a degree in theater)! I don’t see his life as tragedy, but of one of missed opportunities, but on his part, no regrets, except for his early failed marriage. The book does not reveal all, but it does reveal the kind of man he was – flawed, modest, funny, gentle, intellectual, spiritual. No, you won’t get any “dirt” on Ouida or anyone else because that’s not the kind of man he was, nor would I want him to be any other than what he was. – ROSEMARIE

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68 Comments

  1. Allie says

    Wow that was strange. I just wrote an extremely long comment but after I clicked
    submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.
    Anyhow, just wanted to say fantastic blog!

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  2. Was he ever scoped by McCarthy in the 1950’s? I always assumed this was why he disappeared off of movie radar at this time

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    • cinegeek says

      I also always assumed he may have been graylisted by the McCarthy reign of terror, but I have no data on if this is true. I dont even know if he had an FBI file. Anyone have this info?

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      • Unsure about a FBI record. But he was “investageted By some sort of Inqusition over the fact that he [and also others] had donated money to a group he called “the starveing lettece pickers of selenius” or some name such as that. That was a undercover commie[?] org. He was found to be compleatly inocent. And guilty of nothing more then giveing to what he was told to be a good cause. Havent read the book in a few years,nor can I locate my copy so I cant pin down a date for you.

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      • Carolyn says

        If the FBI did have a file on Basil, it must have been extremely thin; he seemed like a very above-board patriotic person during both world wars plus he portrayed a patriotic super-hero, Sherlock Holmes, Nazi-fighter!! We should all be so heroic!

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    • AnnaPindurka says

      He said in an interview around the time that he did not. The interview is published in Counterpoint, ed. Roy Newquist, 1964

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  3. Clare Armitage says

    I stated reading this book just recently and googled it which is how I came here. It’s a very unusual “celebrity” memoir. Very quirky, charming, episodic and odd. I like it but I also dislike it for everything it doesn’t say and for its odd choices of subject. Nothing about his kids? It’s not an autobiography, more a collection of essays. You have to see it that way.

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  4. Elaine Drury says

    I think some of his predictions about the dumbing down of our culture have been proved entirely accurate. His worry about commercialism being incompatible with the best at is also very relevant today, as is his defense of sexual orientation issues. He needs to be rediscovered a more than just a great Holmes.

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  5. IdaHoButSheRanAway says

    I bought this book on Amazon today, I figure it has to be of interest even if it’s for what it doesn’t say. 🙂

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  6. I can’t help wondering why he never came back to the UK to live and work. He admitted he missed the place, and we already had a non-profit National Theatre, run by his friend Laurence Olivier, who might have been happy to employ him if he’d repatriated. And if Cynthia was sick and medical bills were killing him, then, since he was a British citizen, couldn’t he have brought her here to get the benefit of the NHS?

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    • I hadn’t thought of that, good question. Even if C was American born and a US citizen she would still have gotten free health care in the UK.

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      • They did do a bit of traveling back and forth.Why He didnt stay? Mabey because his ties to home were gone.Does anyone know when Cynthia died? Was it 1969? I found something to that effect lastnight. But found at least 2 more[Im sure of] glareing mistakes in the same place.Not knowing to trust there info or not?

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    • Carolyn says

      Was Cynthia a British citizen? Wasn’t she adopted in the U.S.? I don’t know the laws on that!

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  7. AnnaPindurka says

    I love Basil in his autobiography and really enjoyed reading your post about it!
    I read Errol Flynn`s autobiography and David Niven`s The Moon`s a Balloon soon after and how different they all are. I am a bit offended as a rabid Baz fan that Niven`s jolly collection of little stories has been so much more popular than Basil`s book. I am more forgiving with Flynn`s book because I found it daring and different and his philosophising towards the end of the book really touched a nerve with me. What bothers me though is that it seems Basil`s newspaperman friend was right when he answers in the affirmative when Basil proposes that `if one writes a book in which one`s thoughts and experiences play a major role, it is no good doing so unless one can be sensational` in the Preface to his autobiography. Did Basil hurt his own chances to remain more than a Sherlock Holmes icon in the eyes of posterity when he was so gentlemanly in his book?
    This is not to suggest he should have written a different book.
    This is to suggest posterity should get its act together. 🙂

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    • Margaret G says

      Alyssia – I think you are starting to annoy people by saying things like that and then never following through. But I will venture to ask again – how do you know that, when Basil himself says there were?

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  8. Elaine says

    Lovely article. I have read this delightful book more than five times since I first bought it about ten years ago. I find his “presence” in the pages deeply reassuring, honest and admirable. Whatever his flaws I think it;s clear he was a good man who strove for much of his life to do right by others and his art.

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  9. roesbette says

    I did wonder about that. He does speak very regretfully about the end of his first marriage and takes responsibility for its failure. He speaks of Cynthia, his adopted daughter, but not of Rodion, his son (except of him as a young child of a failed marriage). That is one of the unsolved mysteries for me.

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      • Elaine Drury says

        That’s possible, perhaps they didn’t want to be mentioned? Though it seems unlikely they would ask to be totally obliterated. It would be no invasion of privacy to simply refer to their existence. Very strange.

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    • Thomas Dekker says

      Yes, it is. I find it hard to believe he didn’t care about his biological child and grandchildren. I suppose if he was estranged from them he might have preferred to keep the entire issue out of the public arena. And the fact he is leaving such large tracts of his life out of the story completely raises – for me – the question of what I am reading. As you say, more of a memoir, but an extraordinarily partial and selective one. And of course, “suppressio veri” results in “suggestion falsi” – “to suppress the truth is to suggest a falsehood.” Partial truth can lie as much as, well, a lie, and a man can end up deceiving without any bad or dishonest intention, just by being selective with his facts.

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      • Honstly I dont understand 1/2 of what you said.Why would we even begin to consider that he disliked his son? Just because Basil dosent rabbitt on about him in the book.Jr. was out of the movies by that time,presumably by his own choice,but we dont know forsure about that. Pretty sure I know right where he lived in the 1940s.It wasnt hollywood or NYC.I think Jr was a good actor..well from the minute part in TOL.He seems to me to have alot of promise and he’s mighty nice to look at. Prehaps he chose to leave showbiz.His dad was a actor his mom had been an actress,mabey he was one of those kids that “dont go into the fanily busines” Why should I think he dosent love his son just because he dosent wright whole chapters on him.Perhaps he was a disapointment to his dad..Still dosent mean his Dad didnt love him.

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        • Oh and I too had a stepmom..Who I think would have liked to drive me out of my dads life.But it never stoped him from loveing me.Oh and she never managed to do that either. You know just thinking about it from that point of view I feel SO sorry for Basil jr. Who would want Ouida for a stepmom?Poor little Cyn too.

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          • roesbette says

            My own speculations on the issue of Basil and his son might run a bit along the lines of your thoughts, Countess, on how rocky relationships are between a person’s “first family” and “step family.” After all, Rodion himself may have had mixed or even negative feelings about his father (who, let’s face it, left him and his mother when he was just a tot) and about his second marriage. Then, Rodion’s invited to Hollywood (either with or without Ouida’s “intervention”), he lives with his stepmom and Dad, and it just doesn’t work out and leads to even more hard feelings. How many stepmothers have had to deal with a surly or cool young adult stepchild and not done so gracefully? How many stepchidlren have really “warmed” to their stepmoms or fully forgiven the father who left their natural mothers? These are very complex relationships. There were probably enough blame and hard feelings all around in Basil’s situation. Here is what Basil says about his first marriage and the consequences of his divorce: “The colors here are gray and often black, and regrets and hurts leave scars that can never be permanently erased….There are too many elusive temptations in facing up to or avoiding the truth. But certain it is that broken marriages, particularly where children involved, inevitably lead to hurtful and sometimes tragic consequences.” (p. 17) This is all Basil said on the matter of his first marriage and child, and perhaps all we will ever know. It says a great deal without really revealing “the facts”.

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            • Thomas Dekker says

              “Tragic consequences,” is an implication of something very extreme. Is he referring here to the estrangement from his son and grandchildren? It’s commendable of him not to have used his book as a means of excusing himself and condemning others, but the allusiveness is frustrating.

              Neve tells us the grandchildren have affirmed that Ouida was instrumental in keeping them apart from their grandfather, I hope there’s more detail to become available on that subject as it seems crucial. And is there any information on why Basil permitted her to do this? Was he unaware of it? Did she lie to him about it? After all, it does seem she was quite willing to tell rather extensive untruths about herself.

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        • I believe that Thomas is merely speculating on possible reasons why there is no mention of Rodion or his children in IAOOC. The lack of mention suggests that there was no relationship with them. If there was no relationship, that suggests estrangement. It’s a plausible theory. Remember that story from a magazine that Ouida orchestrated an emotional reunion between Basil and Rodion in the 1930s? If that was so meaningful to Basil, why didn’t he write about this wonderful thing that his wife did for him? The fact that he didn’t mention it suggests that there is something fishy about that story. (And someone who knew the Rathbones said it’s completely untrue!) I agree with what Thomas wrote about partial truths.

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        • Thomas Dekker says

          I’m very sorry for not expressing myself clearly Countess, what I was trying to say was that I DON’T believe Basil didn’t love his son, which makes it all the odder that he apparently allowed himself to be estranged from him and that his book doesn’t discuss him or his grandchildren.

          @Marcia – you make a much better job of expressing what I was trying to say, thank you!

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  10. Thomas Dekker says

    Thank you for a very thoughtful review. May I ask what were your thoughts on the total absence of his grandchildren and almost total absence of his son from the book? I have to admit it’s very curious to me, as a father and grandfather.

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    • That’s what makes me suspect that Ouida edited the book. She didn’t want Basil’s son and grandchildren to be a part of his life, so she wouldn’t allow them to be a part of his book, either! Why Basil tolerated that is one of the unsolved mysteries for me!

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      • Elaine Drury says

        I wonder if rather than Ouida editing out the grandchildren, Basil himself chose to stay away from the subject because his estrangement from them was too painful. Or perhaps a bit of both? I can see why people think she had a hand in the book. It’s terribly flattering to her, almost absurdly so, and, having re-read it recently after seeing this suggested, I think I can almost detect where the tone might change. Take a look at the extraordinary way that Ouida is presented as running the entire Hollywood Canteen almost singlehanded. That kind of runaway egoism is awful like some of the examples Neve quoted elsewhere of Ouida being over the top about her achievements, and isn’t the prose style there much choppier and less flowing than in the more obviously “Basil” bits? Tempting to think she might have jumped in there with heavy edits to beef up her role in the HC and do herself “justice” as she might have thought.

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        • Thomas Dekker says

          I reviewed that portion last night, and I agree that is very plausible. In fact, given what we know of her controlling tendencies, isn’t it more likely she did edit this book than that she didn’t? She as somewhat prone to using her husband a a conduit for her “talent” so for all we know the very idea for the book was always hers.

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  11. Margaret G says

    Interesting that Basil’s take on the Harris business more or less confirms what we were reading, that he was humoring Ouida.

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  12. Many great points, as usual, Rosemarie. Once or twice I’ve heard speculation that the Baz had help writing IAOOC, maybe even from Ouida, but I don’t think so. I suspect she might have been vociferous regarding how she was presented, being so ego-driven, but like you I hear his voice in the way the writing comes together. Plus I always smile at the wistfulness and wisdom of the words, even if it doesn’t give us the insights we’ve always wished for.

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    • If Ouida did, perchance, write some of it, I don’t think it would have been because he needed her help. I mean how bad would you have to be to ask Ouida – “you show me a sentence and I’ll turn it into pompous gibberish” – Bergere to help write your book for you? 😆

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      • I dont know,but to me when I read it [and I have quite a few times]You can here Basil saying it.It has a flow,as if he were sitting down beside you talking to you.Even the somwhat jumpy style.As if he actuly wrote parts of it at diffrent times,then put it togather into a compleat book later. As opposed to sitting down at a desk for a weekend and turning out a book.And I agree what a hash Ouida would have made of it if she had set to “editig it”..

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    • roesbette says

      Thanks for the compliment, Robert. BTW, I’m the same Rosemarie that you honored by allowing me to post a reflection about Errol Flynn after my father’s death. I’ve really been graced by some generous blog hosts!

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  13. Madge's Cat says

    I agree with every word of this, thanks Rosemarie. I too had the impression Basil loved Ouida, and was. above all else devoted to her and faithful to her after their marriage.

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  14. roesbette says

    Thanks for cleaning this up and posting it, Neve. You did a beautiful job integrating the photos into the essay.

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  15. I am reading this right now and I am just so in love with him as a person and a man. I wish I could meet someone like him who was as handsome and intelligent. The guys I know are all such losers. I have a stupid fantasy where he was born like sixty years later and he’s making movies now and I can get to meet him somehow, maybe when he does a personal appearance or something. Or I daydream I was his adopted daughter, which isn’t as creepy as it sounds. I just really like the way he talks about Cynthia and the way they would hang out and the,games he would make up for her, like the waiter one? That would be so cool, and to be a teen with him as a father. Amazing. Anyhow, thanks Rosemarie, for a brilliant article. I also saw the bit with Jed Harris and I though I wonder which version is true, but I would always believe Basil first.

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      • Hally says

        Mine too! And I totally know what Amy means about wishing he was your stepdad or something and it not being weird. It’s just he seems so intelligent and kind and wise,he’s like the kind of step dad you could take your problems to.

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      • Hot Chick says

        Oh.My.God. Do NOT get me started. I could fill a book the size of The Lord of the Rings with the time travel fantasies I’ve had. And they all end the same way. I’m stranded on the highway and one of my little band of Classic Movie hotties come by, or I’m working as a maid in one of their houses. Lately it’s mostly Basil’s house and I am totally sad about it and go and look up what they really looked like so my dream is “right,” you know? But it makes bus rides and boring dates a lot shorter 😉

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        • roesbette says

          My fantasy involves a long discussion about theology, theater, and music in a coffee shop in Cambridge or a pub. Or perhaps we go to a concert together and end up holding hands. Because sex is temporary, but the meeting of minds is eternal… Also, I’m 50+ now (and I always imagine him my age or a bit older), and I like the person I am better now than what I was 30 years ago.

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