Continuing the transcribed interview with Madame X from PART 1
“…[so then…you were in [NAME OF MOVIE REDACTED]
I was nervous on that film. You know because I’d bought my ticket home. My career was clinically dead…. I wasn’t cute any more. Wasn’t blonde. I was just this funny-looking…broad and no one in Hollywood wanted to employ me. I’d been doing radio in New York and just basically marking time before calling it quits. My mum didn’t want to leave was one reason I was still there. She liked the States, and she was saying “oh X darling leave it just another six months…otherwise I might have been in England already. Which is a weird thought…
Then I got this job. This great job. An A picture. Great part. I remember telling Mary [her mother, name changed] they wanted me and we were so excited. I was just so glad of the work. And it was a challenge. I remember thinking, oh God, Basil Rathbone, he is a real actor, I am going to be exposed, I am going to have to work hard to come off as anything. I was so nervous I was trembling. But they were so lovely and kind and lovely…
At the time…it was…I was just so grateful for the kindness, all these sweet people making me welcome. That’s all it was. Kind people, wonderful opportunity. He and [NAME REDACTED] and [NAME REDACTED] took lunch with me that day. I was so damn nervous, you don’t get a good performance out of a nervous kid, so they took a little trouble for me. They talked theatre…they’d all come from the theatre. They were so educated and so intelligent. It was one of the great lunch hours of my life. After that…I just loved them all…all these lovely kind, clever men, and…I was the only girl – or most of the time I was. So they all kind of petted me and were all fatherly about me. I don’t even remember when…. It just somehow some day… I remember…the thing I remember first is looking forward to seeing him. Hoping he’d take his coffee break beside my chair, or share a joke or a remark with me. I had a crush on him; a huge embarrassing crush. I was always getting crushes. I thought he was incredible and beautiful and an extraordinary actor and I was constantly gazing at him in awe. Vacant awe.
Mr Z [the director] took me aside one day and said to me “honey, for Christ’s sake could you get through one take without looking at [CHARACTER NAME REDACTED] as if you want to fuck his brains out.” He was not a genteel man Mr Z. But he was right. My God, I saw that movie not long ago and the big cow eyes I’m making at him. It’s too obvious what little fantasies were going round in my head. Sometimes the camera does that. It just reaches in and grabs your most private thoughts and shows them to the world. It’s embarrassing. I don’t know why not one reviewer ever noticed it. But he was just impeccable and none of that came from him.
[and he was married]
Well…yeah. That wasn’t an issue. Not like that. They…You…I didn’t know it then, but I got to know it later. All part of the rich and weird pageantry chez Rathbone.
Their marriage wasn’t about sex darling. Not any more any how. You know, it was all about show and sex isn’t for show. Usually. They had an understanding. He dallied discreetly and she pretended not to notice. You understand I didn’t get to know that until much later. I mean I picked up some things. Everyone did. It was sort of in the air that he did…dally discreetly. But no one talked about it. David said once he thought she was frigid. That was before I even met Basil, and there were just some friends sitting round dishing dirt. Turned out he was quite a lot right.
[she didn’t like sex]
Oh…There was a whole back story. Her first husband had been abusive. The story was she’d been married before and the husband had basically raped her serially and she’d lost a child because of it. And he’d knocked her about too. So. She had trust problems. And…that was part of the thing you know because Basil was her protector. The way she’d told it she’d never trust anyone, so he had won her trust and when she married him it was on the promise he’d always be there for her. Never desert her. Never scare her like this guy had.
Anyhow, she put up with his attentions while she thought she could get pregnant. But then she just had a string of miscarriages and she was depressed…and they didn’t…she drifted out of it, and it was given to understand he was free to find other outlets. It was all good provided she was sacrosanct wifey at home and all the decencies were preserved. So. You know, she lived in her part of the house and he lived in his part of the house. And…well, she was happy. And he was…in it for the duration. He’d taken an oath you know. He was protecting her.
[what about their daughter?]
Cynthia. She was a sweet kid. She was adopted. Ouida wanted to have a child, but she just had miscarriages. And then she was too old. He told me he hadn’t really wanted a child but Ouida was desperate for one. So, they found Cynthia. But…I never got that because Ouida was no one’s idea of maternal. Cynthia always had a nurse and she never seemed to have much of a bond with her mother. But…I could never get that. Why adopt this child and then keep her at a distance? The way Basil described it just didn’t fit with what I saw.
[did he find other outlets?]
What do you think? I don’t know who they were or anything, so forget that. Like I said he was English and discreet…well I know about a few of them. But I’m not…It was just anonymous girls mostly. Girls from the lot[?], that kind of thing. No shortage in Hollywood honey. Most of those little bitches would fuck any name that asked them.
[so, were you in love with him?]
I don’t know. That’s a movie sentiment. Real life is too messy for that kind of summation
I was just this little weird chick. He liked me…protective and avuncular. Ouida came to the studio. She had lunch with us and he told her about this silly word game we all used to play…and I remember he said “X is the best and always wins,” and he was a little bit proud, like “our girl is smart,” and so open about it I knew there was nothing happening for him. He was very flirtatious, and women adored him. He was always you know playing it a little with every good looking woman around. But not me. Never me. I was just little X. Little tom boy who could share a beer with the guys.
[what was he like?]
Basil. You could feel his intelligence and his energy.…he could be a moody son-of-a-bitch…he absolutely had no time for idiots or for stupid conversation. And he was smarter than most people in any room. And he could be an awful snob. And he’d take immediate aversions to things that you could never shift him on. But I never saw him do anything truly mean-spirited, I never saw him be ungenerous or unforgiving. And he was honest. And real. And unique. He hated formality and grand parties. That was all Ouida. He was so gifted, so quick and sure.[laughs] He could be kind of fizzy and bright and hectic but then also incredibly gentle and quiet, almost shy. He was wonderful. That’s how he was then. Later it was different.
[so, how did things progress?]
…I became really close with Willie [Nigel] Bruce and his family. I loved them all. Bunny was like a second mother. A different kind of mother. My mum never cooked or cleaned or mended stuff. Mary was…Mary. She was a theatre mother. She could tell great stories and dance and sing and be enormous fun but she couldn’t cook an egg and if you lost a button then hell, just buy a new outfit darling. Bunny was like the archetypal nuturing mother. She was a wonderful, kind person. I miss her so much. She cooked great food, and she always seemed to have cake and pies and things. And her kitchen was warm and friendly. They both took to me. I think they saw me as their little stray. They’d invite me over for meals. Sunday lunch, that kind of thing. David and me sometimes…but often it would be just me or just my mum and sister and me. Because you know…I think the David thing was one reason they adopted me. Everyone kinda knew, even though we…I never ever talked about it. It would have been betraying him to talk about it. I never would, never will say anything about that in public. But, everyone kinda knew.
Sunday was a big thing for the British Raj out there at that time. Through Willie and Reggie [Gardiner] I used to go to the cricket club some weeks. You know C Aubrey Smith? Willie was a huge cricket fan and a real player and he played most Sundays. They all did. Ronnie Colman, Basil Rathbone, David Niven, Olivier, Flynn, Reggie Gardiner…They all looked so lordly in their whites. There’d be Sunday lunch or cricket and tea. And if I was there we…I would sort of tag along as cockney riffraff.
He was there…he’d play most Sundays…and then if Ouida was throwing one of her uber-parties David and I might be invited and David would end up with the little gang of Basil’s unwelcome friends in the library or somewhere. And I’d be there too, because I was this honorary boy and could drink beer out of a bottle. I was just X. Good old X.
[so he liked you]
Yes, he did. In that little sis way. He’d tease me and we had fun together. We just hit it off and we could talk for…. We had the same kind of humor. I could always make him laugh. I got into a thing where I’d borrow from his library. And I liked having his books because it was like having a piece of him with me. He’d send me little notes and things at work and when he was abroad he wrote me these great letters. And he was always bad at sleeping and you know I come alive at night. So, when he was in a bad patch 4am he could call and know I was awake. And he just would do that. It wasn’t anything. It was just “are you awake? “ Uh-huh. Ok. We’d talk about all kinds of everything. David would be asleep upstairs. He was not a night person. He needed his eight hours. I think Basil was just gravitating to someone else who was crazy enough to be wide awake at 4 in the morning. When he was really restless he’d go out driving or walking. A couple of times I’d go with him and we’d go driving out into the hills in his old station wagon. I’d like to say he was smitten…but he really wasn’t. He just liked me, was fond of me. I think when something else happened, it took him totally by surprise. I think feeling like that about me just didn’t happen until I kissed him. And then it did.
David used to…he’d tease me, but…You know David was troubled. He had his demons. And this was a time when he couldn’t just be what he was. And you know he was seeing [NAME REDACTED]. And there was a British actor he’d been working with. And that’s something else – I could talk to Basil about that because he didn’t judge it like most people did back then. He could understand it like I could understand it. And he was fond of David and admired him as an actor. So I could talk to him without having to defend my husband from cruel things being said. Like my mum and sister were cruel about him once they knew. They didn’t mean to be, but they didn’t understand. He was what he was. He was still David. I should never have told Mary. She’d adored David before she knew. The only thing Basil ever said was he ought to have told me before we were married. And he’d worry because we fought sometimes, and he was worried David might get physical. But…but he wouldn’t ever. It wasn’t in him. He’d get verbal and very very scathing and mean, but he never would hit a woman.
David was a dear wonderful man. I loved him. He was the brother I should have had. Dear dear David. And no one knows what a hero he was for me.
I had a crush on [Basil], and he probably knew but pretended he didn’t. That was all. I was willing for anything to happen but he never gave any sign of it. For a long time he didn’t think of me like that. I wasn’t his type. He liked beautiful brunettes and dark eyes. And I was this mousy blue-eyed thing. Good old X. It would have been about a year this all went on. It was a blessed year looking back. Everything was pretty calm. Daddy was well. Everything else was rolling along ok.
Christmas Eve. I was at his house in Bel Air. David was there. Other close friends, and there was a lot of booze and egg nog. And at some point there were just the two of us in the library. Basil and me. We were talking about The Bridge of San Luis Rey…you know? Wilder. He was sitting next to me and we were very close and…and he was talking away, going off on one of his flights of theorizing. And I kissed him. Just like that. I just kissed him. And he kissed me back. Oh, did he. It was, you know, a kiss. It stopped, someone came in the room. We didn’t really get the chance to talk alone again. I think maybe actually he was avoiding me. Next day, Christmas, I didn’t hear anything from him. Everyone’s having Christmas all around me, and I’m watching the phone and just don’t care about anything else. Day after, nothing. Nothing for about four or five days. I was in misery thinking I’d wrecked something.
Then he called and said he needed to talk to me. We sat on the steps in the garden of my house. It’s getting dark. It’s getting cold. He’s stony faced, not talking. I think he’s mad at what I did. I don’t talk either, just sit there and huddle with cold and wait for what’s coming. He tells me not to interrupt until he’s done and he tells me about his marriage. I can see he’s kind of ashamed. The deal between them. Well, like I said I half knew he was…that there were discreet liaisons, but it, like we all did. But not…I didn’t know the whole thing, and I really still didn’t know when he finished. I was young and stupid and I didn’t think anything to a conclusion. I didn’t see what he was trying to tell me. He says he can’t let this thing happen because he cares too much about me. But I didn’t understand what he was saying. The meaning of flouting that. I just sit and shiver and say ok, because I don’t know what else to say. And he goes home.
And it’s not the same after that. It’s not the same. Because it’s there now in the open. I kissed him and he kissed me back and it was very hot, and when I look at him I think about it, and I think when he looks at me he thinks about it. So, it’s in the way. He doesn’t call me late at night any more. I wait. I’m awake at night and it feels so alone. No one to talk to. No night drives. I don’t go to the house like I used to. You know I’d drop by the house just…well, ok, just so I could see him, but also to borrow books and stuff, and it was very precious to me to have that place to go to. I liked being in the library there because it was his space and it felt like him. So I missed that.
[how long did that go on?]
I don’t remember now. In my memory it’s a long time. But it can’t have been. I was making [NAME OF MOVIE REDACTED] when the kiss happened, and I was doing [NAME OF MOVIE REDACTED] by the time anything else happened. I remember driving home one night, from my girlfriend’s, only when I got to Sunset Boulevard I turned, you know, left instead of right. And I drove to his house without even knowing why and the door is answered by oh, one of their army of flunkeys. And I am thinking what the fuck am I doing? It’s about 11pm. And I am shown in to the library and Basil is there. And I try to make up some half-brained story about why I’m there, and I am so embarrassed I am bright flaming red and. And he takes my hands and says “angel, go home.” Oh. That was humiliating.
[what did you do?]
I went home darling. And I got myself an incredibly stiff drink and went to bed and cried into my pillow. Or my dog actually. He’d always just cuddle right up when I was upset. I thought I’d lost him, his friendship. All those little moments of days that meant so much. I only realized how much you know when…I just. I wanted it back. Being able to talk on the phone. And just…it felt so alone to not have that.
[so how did things change?]
He called me that night. Late that night. I was fairly drunk and you know sodden with crying. We talked around and around. He was saying he doesn’t want to wreck things with me, I was saying they’re wrecked. We don’t even talk. I miss you. He said it might be better to miss each other. But that was…no…no. I say I don’t know if I can stand that.
[it sounds like you were completely in love with him]
I say please come see me, please, please. There’s a silence. He’s struggling with things you know. Then he says all right angel. I met him at the door in my old robe and my face swollen with all that crying. And I wasn’t even thinking about any of that. I just wanted him to be there. And he dried my tears and made me a cup of tea and we sat together. I didn’t want him to leave. I just didn’t ever want to be away from him. And we kissed. And…
[you went to bed]
It was joy for a while. Just…I was 23 and finally getting laid properly
You know he…he knew a lot of things about women that David didn’t know. Or want to know.
God, so this is what all the fuss is about. Yeah that makes sense. But you know we were hiding…it was. I mean…you know there were rules. He could fuck anyone he liked, but it wasn’t supposed to threaten anything. And we had this unspoken agreement we weren’t crossing some line. But we were. We’d been good friends and when you bring sex into that it can get very intense very fast. And it got harder and harder to pretend we weren’t. It was exactly what he knew…why he’d stayed away. Of course. Maybe…maybe he was right to.
Things with David…he knew about Basil. That was the thing. No secrets. I didn’t want secrets. He didn’t. In theory. In theory he knew he had no right to mind. He tried so hard not to mind. But you know he was a man and men have things programed into them and one of those is the territorial imperative. It was an attack on his territory. On his sense of himself as a man. And no matter how much he tried not to give in to that feeling it was there. When he’d encounter Basil he’d be struggling to find how to be. He liked him, and he knew he had no basis for objection, but still part of him wanted to challenge him…you know, do the male thing. And he felt inadequate because he didn’t do it. But it was anything but inadequate. It was very brave.
With me there was always an edge now. We weren’t all right any more. We couldn’t have fun like we used to, making up plays and stuff, and being like kids. It was…we didn’t know how to be ok any more. So, in the summer. This would be ’41. [David] left. It wasn’t a bust up. He just thought he would be able to be better about everything if he wasn’t living with me. We tried to keep it quiet. But…somehow Hedda found out and called me. And she was all over it. Was there anyone else. What was going on. And oh God, there were so many skeletons. I mean, for David you know. And also for Basil. But in a way it was lucky it was Hedda and not Louella. Louella didn’t like the British. Hedda said to me “so what’s this about Sherlock Holmes?” So, she knew about it somehow. So I said to her Hedda darling, please don’t do this. And she said “for you dear and because of what he’s doing for the war, it’s safe with me.” And she meant it. She respected him. She let it go. So, I can’t say all bad things about Hedda. She would do that. She had a conscience of sorts. Couldn’t say that about Louella. Louella was a whore. Hearst’s whore. He used her to destroy people he hated. Hearst hated anyone he thought was a communist. He thought most of the British colony were communists. He was a lunatic. Everyone feared Hedda but they were fucking terrified of Louella. When she got on the case after David and I divorced. That was unpleasant. But by that time David was a war hero and an American citizen. So he was safe at least.
I didn’t tell Basil about Hedda calling. Because…you know it coming out would have hurt his wife and the promise between them. She didn’t sign up for that. So, I just kept that to myself. There was enough of a mess already by that time…”
The image at the top of the page is a still from “Madame X” (1920)