The second part of this series is going to look a bit more closely at the claim that portions of this book, maybe even the majority of it, were written, not by Rathbone, but by Ouida Bergere, his somewhat “controversial” second wife.
The claim was actually made to me quite recently in an email from a reader who has provided pretty good evidence of having known the Rathbone family fairly well (I don’t want to say any more about this at present as I believe this person is not keen on being publicly identified). This is what she said to me:
“By the way, Basil didn’t write In An Out of Character. According to his son Rodion, most of it was concocted by Ouida. I’ve read Basil’s letters and know his writing style and believe me, she wrote that book. He only gave her a few details and she heavily embroidered the rest…”
It certainly wouldn’t seem out of character for the second Mrs Rathbone to have felt compelled to meddle in the creation of her husband’s memoirs. She was rather prone to see herself as a superior talent whose ability was needed to “improve” other people’s literary endeavors (the woman who set about re-writing THE HEIRESS would probably need to think less than twice about doing the same with her own husband’s autobiography). You might even say it’s virtually impossible this supremely ego-driven, appearance-conscious woman would have been content to sit back and let hubbie create her image for posterity without dipping in to make sure he was staying on message about how young, brilliant and successful she was.
To that extent I think we can take her role as editor of those memoirs almost as a given. At the same time I find it pretty hard to believe Ouida wrote all of that book, simply because I too have read many of Basil’s letters, and the flowing, lyrical style of some sections of IN & OUT OF CHARACTER is pretty much identical to them.
But did Ouida maybe write some of the text? I think there are some suggestions that she may have done.
When you look at her presence in the book a few things stand out. For one, she is almost universally mentioned with praise. Sure, maybe this is because BR wrote the book and he adored her. Except I don’t see so much tenderness or affection. Just praise. As in ego-affirmation. The very thing that Ouida seems to have craved unendingly.
Basically we are told how good she was at things far more than we are told how much he loved her. And in this book she is good at almost everything. She can cook wonderfully, design costumes, ride a horse, is a brilliant scenarist, ran the Hollywood Canteen singlehanded (all these just off the top of my head, there are probably a lot more). She has Sam Goldwyn begging her not to desert Paramount, Jack Miltern hopelessly in love with her, Jed Harris beaten at his own game. No virtue seems too ridiculous. She’s even credited at one surreal point with making a “carefully guarded budget,” which implies either a great deal of irony, or a great deal of self-delusion on the part of whoever wrote this passage.
And self-delusion does seem to have been Ouida’s leitmotif.
Let’s note how “June” BR’s lover at the time, describes Ouida to him in the text of this book. She tells him, (so the text says), that Ouida is, “Paramount’s top scriptwriter“ and that she was “young, petite, strongly opinionated – very successful,” which just happens to convey the very image of herself (young, and massively success) that Ouida seems to have been almost obsessed with emphasizing to the world.
Given the fact that the real Ouida was 37 at the time of this encounter, it seems a bit unlikely the real June would have thought of “young” as the primary adjective to apply to her, because while 37 is far from old, it’s not in any way unusually youthful. Wouldn’t “red-haired” or “recently-divorced” or “financially insane” have been more obvious choices for a kick-off descriptor? And since the real Ouida was by no means a “top scriptwriter” at Paramount or anywhere else (was she even a scriptwriter at all, as she wrote only for silent films?), it’s strange June should tell the same lie about this that Ouida herself was telling for most of her life.
It’s fiction, obviously, and, to me, intuitively, this has the hallmark of a woman idealizing the way another woman might see her, rather than a husband flattering his wife. The gaucheness and overkill of the wording also reminds me a bit of Ouida’s artless style of self-promotion. I think if the man who wrote the Preface to this book had also written this passage, he would have done a better and more subtle job of selling her, rather than simply making “June” parrot a collection of favorite flattering adjectives.
So, I can see reason for thinking Ouida may have concocted this sentence – and just possibly the whole passage. In fact, with a bit of close-reading I can spot a possible join.
In telling the story of his first meeting with Ouida the current text begins like this (p. 53 of the latest paperback edition)
“Nothing is very distinct about the occasion, because afterward it had seemed to me like just another big party, and I have never liked big parties very much, especially with a lot of people I don’t know, but I’ll remember as much as I can. Clifton called for me after the play and we picked up June…”
It then, in the very next para, proceeds to prove the author actually remembers everything, from the “large curving stairway” in the hall, to who was there, where they were standing and what they said and what the heroine of the hour was wearing. Edmund Goulding is dispensing drinks, Ouida the mysterious hostess is “having supper with the Italian ambassador and some friends,” so June has to fill in the gap before her entrance by describing her to BR, in the best tradition of dramatic construction.
It’s that sudden switch. “I don’t really remember” giving way to a detailed account in which everything is remembered, that smells slightly fishy. Could this possibly indicate an interpolation? Ouida may well have had a much more vivid memory of that encounter anyway, since she had developed a crush on BR after seeing THE CZARINA. Perhaps she simply added her recollection – and some imagination – to the story.
Which of course would make all of that passage after “and we picked up June” Ouida’s description of herself, not a doting husband’s description of his wife.
Let’s read it and see what we think:
“Nothing is very distinct about the occasion, because afterward it had seemed to me like just another big party, and I have never liked big parties very much, especially with a lot of people I don’t know, but I’ll remember as much as I can. Clifton called for me after the play and we picked up June.
There was a large curving stairway that led up from the hall to Ouida’s apartment on the first floor at Fifty-third and Madison. It was a beautiful old house, which has long since given place to the CBS studios. At the top of the stairs stood Edmund Goulding, a self-appointed bartender! Eddie was lavishly dispensing drinks. “Where’s Ouida?” asked Clifton Webb. “Damned if I know,” replied Eddie. “Have a drink?”
Clifton went off in search of Ouida, but he did not return. It seems that Ouida was having supper with the Italian ambassador and some friends in another room. June and I had a drink and some supper and settled down in a bay window … Nobody bothered us.
It was from June I learned that Ouida was Paramount’s top scriptwriter (Paramount was then known as Famous Players Lasky). Young, petite, strongly opinionated – and very successful…June’s description of Ouida had a touch of vinegar about it.
Some time later there was a hustle and bustle as a door opened and Ouida and her friends came out to rejoin (sic) the party. We were introduced and she kissed June. She was indeed young and petite, with the most beautiful natural red hair I have ever seen…eyes that danced with the joy of living, and a skin texture like alabaster.
She wore a low cut yellow organdie evening dress that flared at the waist. She was the perfect Renoir. A moment later she was gone, but not before she had said, smiling sweetly, “enjoy yourselves won’t you.”
So, this was the bold Cossack from The Czarina that she had said she would one day marry! At least I imagine this was what she was thinking…”
— Basil Rathbone “In & Out of Character,” p. 53
Ouida was definitely young. We get that, if nothing else, right? 🙂
I think we have to agree this passage does read very well as an interpolation by a possibly insecure, over-compensating woman who didn’t think the text as originally written flattered her sufficiently. This is especially interesting:
“So, this was the bold Cossack from The Czarina that she had said she would one day marry! At least I imagine this was what she was thinking…”
Hmmm. It reminds me of that moment in LOVE FROM A STRANGER when Basil and Ann Harding are supposed to be talking about the killer in the third person, and he slips up and answers in the first, then weakly corrects himself. “The situation never arose….I should imagine.” You can easily interpret it as Ouida getting carried away and actually writing from her POV, realizing her error and adding the rather lame second sentence to cover it. It also seems to fit with her rather naïve style of self-promotion that she’d simply add the rather blatant covering rather than simply cut that section as a more sophisticated or subtle writer would probably have done.
That is a very Ouida-esque bit of weirdness in my opinion.
Once you start looking, I think you can identify numerous “joins” like this where style and content seem to shift suddenly, and most of the more obvious examples seem to concern Ouida herself. She is introduced into situations where she doesn’t really seem to belong (such as the night he was arrested for performing in THE CAPTIVE; was she really there? Does any independent account confirm this?), the strange way that “we” is used so often when talking about BR’s career, implying that she was somehow a part of that career, to a far greater extent that she ever seems to have been. This was Ouida’s fantasy, we know that. In private letters to her family from 1950 she talked of “our work” and claimed she was designing sets for BR’s plays and movies, and even writing those plays for him. The claims are false or exaggerated. In truth the only play she ever wrote “for” her husband was the disastrous SHERLOCK HOLMES in 1953, which seems to have bankrupted several investors and all but destroyed BR’s reputation on Broadway. The claim she designed sets seems to be based on THE COMMAND TO LOVE from 1927, for which – according to a Google summary of Theatre magazine – she did indeed design the decor, though without reading the whole thing it’s hard to know if this is independent confirmation, or just Ouida saying it for herself.
What comes through from a synthesis of her letters and early magazine articles is a woman desperate to almost parasitize her husband’s success and fame, and claim as much responsibility for it as was humanly possible. So when the same false or exaggerated claims start appearing in his autobiography it’s reasonable to wonder who is putting them there.
With that in mind, look at this passage from the chapter entitled “Ouida” (p.58) which describes her alleged decision to give up her alleged high-powered writing career after she married him:
“She felt strongly that two professionals in a family were one too many! If we had been able to live and work, like Mr and Mrs Alfred Lunt or Katherine (sic) Cornell and Guthrie McClintick, that would have been one thing, but our work would have separated, us. I was making a career for myself on Broadway, while Ouida would have to spend most of her time on the West Coast in the motion picture business. So Ouida asked for a release from all pending and existing contracts, one of which would have paid her $1500 a week, in order to marry an “up and coming” actor who was earning $500 a week, but had not yet actually “arrived.” This may, in retrospect , sound like good sense, but it also required a courage and devotion that many of Ouida’s friends considered to be considerably “beyond the call of duty“! Samuel Goldwyn was disgusted with Ouida’s decision and promised to buy her a grand piano if she would give up the idea of marrying “this actor!”
—“In & Out of Character”
My regular readers might recognize some of this as almost a direct reprint of the claims BR (or someone) was making on Ouida’s behalf back in the late 1930s, when she was trying to get back in to screenwriting again. It was untrue then, and it was just as untrue twenty-something years later. Sadly, when she met Basil, Ouida hadn’t had a screenplay produced for a year, and her last effort had been a flop. By the time she married him she hadn’t worked in Hollywood for three years and she was bankrupt. Her friends were not begging her to hold on to her great career, because she didn’t have one. Sam Goldwyn wasn’t trying to buy her back with pianos (and since he’d stopped working for Paramount in 1916, why would he?).
Like so much else, it was a fantasy. And in 1960-something when this book was being written, it was a thirty-year old fantasy that had long since ceased to have any meaning to anyone – except Ouida. I mean, can we believe BR, almost seventy years old, tired, virtually destitute, broken by Ouida’s constant insane spending, with a sick daughter’s medical bills to pay, was worrying about bolstering his wife’s ego with childishly irrelevant stories like this?
I don’t think so. It’s one thing to be forty-something and tell a bit of a falsehood in a magazine interview in order to help revive your wife’s career, and quite another to repeat and embellish this falsehood twenty years later in your own personal memoirs – your last word to posterity. There’s no evidence he lied about his own career to beef himself up. Why would he do it at this stage of his life – and so transparently badly – for his wife?
Ouida, on the other hand, used lies – and silly, extreme lies – as a matter of course to flatter and console herself. So, I suggest this passage has her mark all over it.
Unless of course – and this is almost worse – he went through his entire married life believing she really had sacrificed her career for him!?
These are just a few examples of passages where I can see a good case for Ouida having edited or written portions of the text, I don’t have the space to include anything like all of them. They’re numerous, and once you get your eye in, so to speak, you can spot them everywhere. Which leads me to think my correspondent is partly correct, and Ouida did indeed have quite a hand in writing her husband’s memoirs.
This is kind of significant, because that book is a principal source of information about BR, and about his relationships and his work. We tend to read it as being his own voice, unedited and undiluted. And if it’s not, if someone else, particularly someone as partial, ego-obsessed and downright strange as Ouida, was editing and interpolating, then we have to approach it differently, and be a lot more cautious about what it says (especially about her), and what it might be leaving out.
And of course if that were true it’s also another huge question about the real nature of BR’s marriage and the psychology that underpinned it.