BIOGRAPHY, general biography, LETTERS
Comments 29

full(er) text of letter quoted in “a life divided”…

Basil Rathbone....

Basil Rathbone in 1943

As suggested by a couple of readers,and after consulting with the owner, I’ve decided to publish a larger part of the text of one of the letters quoted in my blogpost “a life divided” (March 12 2013).

Names and portions of text are being withheld by request. There’s no date on the original, but there is a later annotation that says “written from Canada, around September 1941.” If anyone has any info that can verify he was in Canada at this time then please let us know.

“Darling girl – I found your letter this morning, but I think it arrived yesterday or the day before. Don’t fret. I’m well, really. Much much better than when you last saw me. It’s exhausting, and my voice is struggling with all the speechifying, but people here are wonderful…

As to everything else, oh my dear girl, no one has ever questioned me so closely or made me realise how pitifully few answers I can provide. You look at me with those eyes and you see through every stupid lie. And I don’t know how to tell you the truth, which is – I don’t know the why of anything, even when I pretend most diligently I do.

The truth is the last time I had any idea why or what I was supposed to do I was lying in a shell hole, looking up at the sky. My mind was filled with a Bach keyboard sonata , which was one of the last I’d learned, I forget which one now. I absolutely knew I was about to die and I was completely happy and at peace, in a way I never was before or since, not even with you, in our best moments. It was so easy, you see, a kind of absolute joy and peace, because I knew it was all done and I was all square with life. Nothing left to do but let things take their course.

And when I didn’t die, I didn’t know what to do. So I thought, I’ll take my revolver, go out and blow a hole through my head. Only I knew it wouldn’t work. I knew, I just knew you couldn’t do it that way. You couldn’t make it happen, not if you wanted to find peace. So, I thought, then, a sniper can do it for me. But no matter how I tried to let them no sniper ever found me. And all the other times I went out and lay in shell holes in No Man’s Land it wasn’t the same, and I knew I wouldn’t die this time, and of course I never did.

I had this mad feeling I’d become some sort of Wandering Jew. And everything for so long afterwards was about dragging this living corpse of myself around, giving it things to do, because here it was, alive. And nothing made any sense and I didn’t even hope it would. I followed paths that were there to be followed, I did what others said to do. I didn’t care. And, angel, that’s the only why I have about anything to this day.

I’m so ashamed to even write it. I could never tell it, even to you. Do you judge me terribly for such a weak fool? Letting myself be dragged here and there for no better reason than that? I know the awful disaster I have made of everything, and I don’t think there’s much mending anything now…

I’ll telephone you tonight from wherever we are,



  1. Woman in Green says

    Is this a letter to his wife or not? Does anyone know who he is writing to?


  2. rosebette says

    One of my students, a young military guy on leave, was just chatting about his adjustments at being home, relationships that didn’t work out, the changes between who he was before active service and after, and I thought again about this letter and those Basil wrote during his service in WWI. The effects of warfare on the psyche are probably more profound than those of us who haven’t experienced it can ever imagine.


    • Ellen Foley says

      Thanks for sharing,very informative.I’m going to a discussion on PTSD tomorrow.Watched Joyeaux Noel today,good pic!He really was a boy in military and in his 1st marriage,prob boy helping to raise and support his son,too.And seemingly no bitterness toward Marion or his sister,given her upset over his leaving wife and son,perhaps for everyone’s sanity-sake post-war.


  3. Sounds like hitting the depths of despair.Maybe true then of him being Huxley’s model for Theo.Wow,wish he were here now to hug and console,whatever happened.Wonder if he was writing from a vet’s hosp.Sounds like he was writing after some drastic event.Could be to Bea,all the more questions of not being more supportive to him,Post WWI,and OR at anytime during their relationship,be whatever it was.


    • My mistake,now see it was from ’41.Must’ve reminisced about WWI,hence his intense feelings.Can relate to that level of despair after losing love-of-my-life.If he felt strongly on certain subj,why wasn’t OR more sensitive to ya,Baz my man?Who can tell.


    • Not that it has anything to do with the above post…but can anyone tell me if Basil ever was in a movie mid 40s perhaps [by the coat he’s wearing]where he played a jewel thief wearing a black mask over his eyes? Ring a bell with anyone? I found an un captioned photo in a mag.The photo looks a lot like him,it’s a profile from the mans right side and only about 2x2in big. He’s wearing a suit or sport coat and wearing a black masque. stealing some ladys jwewels out of a dressing table sticking them in his suit pocket. Sure looks like him in profile.


        • rosebette says

          The name of that film with Rogers is “Heartbeat”, but I’ve never seen it all the way through– just the first part, so I can’t say if that specific scene exists. It “hangs up” on youtube after about the first 15 minutes. From what I’ve seen, both Basil and Ginger are very good in it.


          • I’ve seen Heartbeat but honstly it has been at least 10 years or more. Cant make u-tube work on my computer it’s WAY not dial-up friendly. I suppouse it colud be from that? I Realy cant recall much about the movie?


          • Roberta says

            I loathe Heartbeat! I think it’s an insult to him that this is the only film his own studio could find for him in an entire contract period! Were MGM trying to discredit and humiliate him for some reason?


          • Has been awhile but i believe that seen is not in Heartbeat.Do not recall that seen in any movie i have.I think he has a mask on in the movie After The Ball though.Hope this helps.


      • Basil played a jewel thief in a television episode in 1954. It was called “Volturio Investigates.” I don’t know if he wore a mask. Is the magazine from around 1954?


      • Cyn is to young in 1941 born in 1939,not wrighting him letters unless penned by Weedy. Not his grand daughter is was born in 1942. Caroilne,Jr.s wife perhaps? Would she care enough about him,to wright him deep thoughtfull letters? Marion like Quida were both a bit long in the tooth to be called girl werent they?Unless Basil like Robert Shaw had a habit of calling all women “Girl” Or perhaps a pet name for one of the above. The mystery lady in the hotel room? the mom of the dau?The one he helped out about? His sister..I’m going for Bea…


        • Harriet Rufus Brown says

          I was wondering how much is currently known about the mother of his daughter (not Cynthia, his other daughter as mentioned on Marcia Jessne’s site). I emailed that site to ask but didnt get a reply. I am interested to jnbow if she left any memories of Basil.


          • Sorry! I don’t see any e-mail from you in my inbox. Please write again. ( On the subject of Louise (mother of BR’s illegitimate daughter), everything that the family is willing to share with the public is on my website. I have no knowledge of any memories of Basil that she might have had.


            • Harriet Rufus Brown says

              Oh thank you. if you are in contact with the family is it possible to ask if they have any memries to share? is there only the one letter? I found it such a sweet letter I immediaty thought how nice it wu;d be to learn more about this part of his life


  4. rosebette says

    This letter is certainly a testament to the description of so many men returning from that war being part of a “lost generation.”


  5. Thomas Dekker says

    Are you, by proximity, dropping a hint this letter is to Olivia de Havilland?


  6. Judy D. says

    …Second though, he calls her “girl” several times–quite a stretch for ol’ Ouida. If it were written later, I would think it could been addressed to Cynthia, which would make total sense. Well, there was a popular married-couple love song many years ago called “Dear Old Girl.”


  7. Judy D. says

    This letter is absolutely awesome. (And nothing like the tone of his autobio.) It’s certainly proof of what has been written here about his state of mind during and after the war. What a shame. And what promise he showed as a serious writer. Was startled when Irene assumed it was to his wife…but guess that makes sense. If only he had used her name just once! If it was to Ouida, it’s very telling that he apparently never could tell her these things before. If things need to be said and you can’t say them, sure, you write a letter…but you don’t wait over 14 years to do so!
    Neve, hope you have more you can share!


    • Jenny says

      I agree it’s awesome but I don’t think it’s different from all of his autobiography, just some of it. The style of this letter reminds me a lot of that part where he talks about the horror of war.

      War! . . . Going into an attack, paralyzed with fear, knowing that if we had our own free will, not a living man of us would go! Every living man of us would funk it. We go because we cease to be individuals… We move into the attack only because it is the only way out. If we do not go into the attack, if we turn back one quivering inch, we are shot down like dogs – deserters. So we are forced to go forward, not because we are brave and gallant gentlemen, but because we are in a trap. War is a trap, a monstrous, gigantic, inconceivably barbarous trap. And there you have it….”

      by the way, I agree he didn’t write those awful parts of that book. I have been reading it lately after Neve’s blog posts and it doesn’t make sense the same man wrote the good bits and the bad bits


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