It’s the 46th anniverary of Basil Rathbone’s death today. I was wondering what we make of two slightly different versions of his final moments, both sourced to his wife Ouida. The first appears in Michael Druxman’s book Basil Rathbone, His Life and His Films (pp.103-5)
Mrs. Rathbone recalls the incidents of the next day: “Basil was very sad, as an old friend of his had died. We were in the living room of our apartment discussing it, when he suddenly said, ‘You know, I’m not afraid to die, but I just wish it didn’t have to be.’ We talked for a few more minutes and he seemed to cheer up a bit. Then, he went into his den, because he wanted to play a record he’d just purchased. About five minutes later, I went into the room to ask him something . . . and he was gone
The second appears on IMDB, written by someone who calls themselves “firstname.lastname@example.org” who allegedly knew Ouida in old age, after both Basil and her daughter were dead. Among other stories he/she has this to say about Basil’s last day.
“…on friday,july2lst he returned from a stroll to a nearby record store where he picked up a new classical music compilation, he was looking forward to listening to it but had first been listening to the news on radio, he seemed very sad when he joined ouida in the living room and said he was upset having just heard of the death of a friend on the radio(she never mentioned the name of the friend ) she said he grew very reflective and said ‘you know im not afraid to die but i just wish it didnt have to be” she said she tried to change the subject telling him we’re getting rather depressing here and he changed the subject telling her about his new record “we’ll have a nice dinner and listen to this beautiful music together tonight” ironically before he left the room he said ‘I hope we have another forty years together” and she laughed “where darling in heaven”? he muttered ‘maybe’ and blew her a kiss. he went to his study to do some writing and not ten minutes later ouida heard her daughter cry out ” mother come quickly something terrible has happened to daddy” he was sprawled across his desk dead he had evidently suffered a fatal heart attack and his beloved dog was near him with his head resting on basil’s foot as though he also felt the loss…”
The second is certainly a bit of an embellishment on the first, but I’m curious to know if it was Ouida’s embellishment or the imagination of the person posting the story? Did “weetingy” ever even talk to Ouida as an old woman or was he just a persuasive troll? We can’t tell, though I for one find his version of Ouida in old age fairly plausible, and I think he/she might really have known her. The impression he/she gives of Ouida sitting there, alone, consumed by equal parts self-pity and the need to impress (and lie about her age) sounds terribly and tragically authentic. No whisper of remorse. No suggestion that with the loss of both husband and child she sees the superficial folly of her old life. No suggestion that lopping ten years off her age is no longer important to her.
But whether or not Ouida told that story originally I’m not sure I believe it or either version of Basil’s death. They both play just a little too like the last reel of a movie, or one of Ouida’s unperformed and unperformable plays. And from what we know of her, I think we can be sure that if the true story of what happened that summer day hadn’t been so poetic and so tidy, Ouida would soon have re-invented it so that it was.
So I’m fairly sure in my own mind that we don’t actually know how Baz really died, we just know how Ouida wanted us to think he died.
Which, many would say was kind of appropriate in a grim and awful sort of way.
The image at the top is courtesy of A Basil Rathbone Tribute
Also thanks to Marcia Jessen for supplying the Druxman quote.