There’s been a bit of discussion in the comments about BR’s seemingly insane decision to leave Hollywood in 1946. It was, unquestionably, another step in his slow career-suicide. He alienated his dear friend Nigel Bruce, made an enemy of his own agent, the ultra-powerful Lew Wasserman, who, according to one rumor, may never have forgiven him, and turned his back on his best source of income.
But there was another factor that has only recently come to light which does help explain why he took such a crazy step. I mean his allusively referred to relationship with “Madame X” the unnamed woman who was his lover in the 1940s and to whom he wrote the letters recently published on basilrathbone.net.
Madam X left behind a detailed transcript of her personal memories of Basil and it tells a very painful story of their eventual break-up. Here it is…
“…I could see he was…losing his joy, losing hope. But he didn’t give in or whine and he didn’t like anyone to know what pain he was in. Even with people he loved and friends. He always kept his private life very very private. He was so English like that. But I saw what was happening. It…it was so hard to watch what was happening.
trusted. His close very very private. He was happening. It…it
[did you think you should try to do something?]
Oh sure yes, but what? What?… We’d get into arguments…. Oh just pointless debates…Why? Why? WHY? Why did you do this? Why did you just keep passively, passively drifting on, why did you stand by and let her find Cynthia and bring her home when you never wanted a child? And if you hadn’t. If you just hadn’t done that! You’d have some options now. Maybe we could be happy. Look what you’ve done… And it was cruel of me because he knew what he’d done to us…and I…I…. There was nothing to do.
After he died Vincent Price…he…we talked quite a lot. He was… you know, one of the undesirable chums. And he just talked to me about…I wasn’t the only one who got a call like mine asking…“please stay away.” He said, “That woman’s taken over his death now as well as his life.” And I said, “Yes she has, but there’s nothing you can do.” I mean…by then it didn’t matter. Or so I thought. He was gone. I don’t know, maybe it did. Maybe someone should have tried to take him back.
But he…Vincent said to me, “X you should have fought to keep him.” You know back then when we… And I thought, “My God, should I? Should I?” But how? He’d just be pulled in two if someone didn’t let go. And if I’d made some stand…if…I’d driven him to leave her and she’d…you know…done something crazy or…his kid had lost him…it just…it would have destroyed him. And I …I thought it would have been for me not him I was doing that.
So…I didn’t fight to keep him….He was saying all along – after she took back that she was going to divorce him “it has to stop, you have to find someone who’s free to be with you.” …I would have taken things the way they were…better that than no have him in my life…but he wanted to believe I could be ok without him. He didn’t want to think he’d wrecked my life. So…
It was hard…the situation was so hard. Being detailed off by the man you love to find happiness with some random other man. As if…if I don’t find this happiness I’m failing. Didn’t he see what he was asking of me. I said to him “I can’t just transform into some woman who doesn’t care about you just to make it easier.” Oh we’d fight so much then. So much. We were both going slightly mad with the strain. You know there was no future. He felt terrible for keeping me from having a future. I felt terrible for not being able to be happy with some man who wasn’t him, because I knew if I could…I knew it would…at least it would be an end. We’d break it off for a few hours or days, but…it was too hard. It was too hard to do. So you know it was…on again and off again….
And I was watching him just…fall apart. He was so thin. He barely ate. He was living on nicotine and whiskey a lot of days. His nerves were like bowstrings…You’d put your hand on him and you could feel this…this fine tremor all through him, all the time time. And he..he always got migraine headaches… but round then he..they would be really dreadful…. He’d just have to go to bed in the dark. He’d lose his temper explosively, at nothing. He’d excoriate people…friends, colleagues…just rip them up for nothing. Willie told me…he was very worried about him …he told me he just wasn’t recognizable as the same man at work. He hardly talked or joked. And you know he never lost his humor. He’d always be able to joke – blackly – about whatever mess he was in. So this man sitting alone, lost in his own thoughts…it just wasn’t him.
Six, seven years since I’d first met him…oh God, and this shining, wonderful brilliant man was…he was like a different person……It was awful..an awful thing to see. And he was good…he was a good man. He had heart and soul and mind. And…
[you loved him very much]
And respected him and admired him. He was incredibly decent. Incredibly brilliant. I was privileged to know him. Even more privileged to be loved by him.
[how did it end, when finally it did?]
He went east. Put a continent between us. He’d…he’d never wanted to be here in Hollywood, but it was…. The catalyst was us…me. It was desperation, not rationality. He wasn’t rational by then. I mean…he was in debt and walking away from this five-figure weekly pay check because he just couldn’t take any more of anything. I was helping to ruin him. He…he couldn’t go on and he just knew nothing else would end it…. He had no work to go to. But I think he’d rather have been on welfare than stay. People thought he was losing his mind and they were not wrong. He …he used to say Sherlock Holmes was haunting him…and……and…. He’d say he was cursing him. That he was inside his head. He’d pace up and down and up and down the room like a caged animal, ranting about him. He was…. You know he was…at breaking point. When we were at the beach house he’d go walking, just him and my dog, and I’d think “please God let him come back, please God he doesn’t just…you know walk into the sea.” Id try to communicate to [my dog] to watch him and take care of him. Each time he came back I’d be saying “thank you” inwardly and just want to hug him and hold him.
I knew he had to go or go mad. I knew I had to let him go. We said goodbye. And…you know I knew this was it. Not like all the other times. This was it. It was about the hardest thing I ever had to do…you know not to just hold on and cry and say “please don’t go baby.” I actually don’t know how I did it. As soon as he’d gone…I…I didn’t know how I’d done it. And that was it…
[how did his wife feel about it?]
I don’t know. I was 3000 miles away. I don’t really know anything about how he was from the moment he walked out my door for the last time. Ouida was happy to see him put the distance between us I think. But she was a Hollywood person. She liked being a Hollywood wife. And I don’t think she would have liked her endless money supply drying up.[laughs] So I don’t know how that went…”
EDIT Sep 20: Marcia Jessen has published two letters from Rathbone to Madam X. Here is a copy of one so that people are free to examine the handwriting and drawer their own conclusions