Continuing the transcribed interview with Madame X from PART IV
“…You know, one of the first things [Ouida] did was get in touch with David. He came in one day and said, “Well, darling, guess who wants to have lunch with me tomorrow.” I think maybe she thought he didn’t know and she was going to…you know…but…she…she…So they had lunch and she said, “Do you know about my husband and your wife?” And David said, ‘Ouida, what are you implying? I’m there whenever Basil visits and we just sit round making raffia table mats for the war effort.’
And he said to me, after he had lunch with her, he said “Darling, you need to realize she’s never going to divorce him, because if she isn’t Mrs Basil Rathbone, what is she?” And of course he was right. The whole divorce thing was just…it was just shock and rage…and Ouida being Ouida. She was Mrs Basil Rathbone. That’s what her life was.
[and when the shock and rage subsided she was going to do anything she could to keep him]
[and so, how long was it before that happened?]
Oh, a few weeks. It was just a few weeks.
He went back to the house late to get mail and stuff and she was waiting for him and she told him she had changed her mind and didn’t want a divorce. And she gave him…she said if he broke up the marriage she’d keep him from ever seeing Cynthia and she asked him to make up his mind what he was going to do inside a month.
[did he go back?]
No. He…he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t even know if she meant it, because she kept changing her mind.
[but he didn’t go back]
No. He was very torn. And…Well, one day she…she…she took a lot of sleeping pills.
And then her maid called the Bruces’, because…because Basil was staying with them. But he wasn’t there. He was with me…he was staying over with me. So Bunny called me. It was about five in the morning. I actually woke up before the phone rang. You know in that way you do when something startles you awake. And I just lay there a few moments, too shocked to think clearly. But you know nothing was wrong. Everything was quiet. And I was just lying there, listening to see what had startled me, when the phone rang. And you know, if the phone rings at 5am it’s not usually anything good. I though, “oh, my God, it’s my mum, it’s David, something awful has happened to one of them.”
And I grabbed up the receiver and my heart is pounding, and I was expecting to hear…I don’t know…but I wasn’t…the last thing I expected was to hear Bunny. And she said “X, put Basil on the phone, dear.” And something……something in her voice. I just, I didn’t say anything I just handed him the phone. And I can still remember how he looked. He’s listening, and he’s just woken up and he’s not really focused, but his face just sort of froze. And he’s just saying, I can tell from what he’s saying. It’s just…it’s obvious from what he’s saying what’s happening. He’s saying, “Did she call a doctor? Well, just get back on the fucking phone and tell her to do it now.” When he put the phone down he said, “Her maid found Ouida and she thinks she’s dead.”
[it must have been horrible]
It’s one of those things were time gets all distorted you know? And you feel outside yourself. He just threw on some clothes and left. I stayed in bed. Just huddled up in bed and waited. And waited and waited and waited. And I kept staring at the same patch of sky out the window, watching the clouds move across it and the color change and it was the only way I knew time was going by. The only thing in my head was “please, please, please don’t let her die”. Because it was my fault if she died. My God, I’ve killed someone. I’ve killed her. I thought she was dead. We all thought she was dead. Later on my mum turned up. Basil had called her and she’d come out right away. She just sat on the bed and cuddled me. I didn’t cry. I couldn’t do anything but wait. I couldn’t move or speak until I knew she wasn’t going to die.
[but she was ok]
Yes she was. She wasn’t even…well, the doctor gave her something to. By the time Basil got there the doctor had been called and he’d given her something to wake her up. I don’t know, something to counter the effects, and she was awake but…she was drowsy but awake and saying she had no idea what all the fuss was about, she’d just accidentally taken a few too many pills. But the maid was a wreck and crying and shaking and saying “I thought she was dead, I thought she was dead.” And the doctor said to Basil he didn’t think it was an accident. So…so no one knew if it was true. Or what to believe.
Basil called me later that morning to tell me. She was…and my mum was…she was saying, “You have to get out of this X dear, you just have to get out of this.” I didn’t…I didn’t want to get out of it. I just…I was so worried about him. I was asking Bunny, “How is he?” I was calling her saying, “How does he look?” Because I knew he’d say he was alright even if…whatever was happening he’d say he was alright. And Bunny said…I didn’t see him for about a week, because of…he just didn’t dare leave her. And didn’t…So I’d call Bunny, or she’d call me, and…because Bunny was going round. She and Benita Colman. They would go round and…just help out. And she…she said, “He’s not sleeping, he looks like death warmed over.” He was living on whiskey and tobacco.
[So, you were telling me about what [Ouida Rathbone] did that winter of 1941 to 42.]
She denied she’d done anything. But sometimes she’d say she had after all, just to Basil. She’d say to him, “Yes, I did it, but I don’t want people to know. I don’t want to live without you.” To everyone else she just denied she’d done anything. I don’t know. I just don’t know. She saw a doctor who…said she was having a nervous breakdown and she needed total rest. And…she told everyone she was exhausted by her workload, because you know she was the Hollywood Hostess and doing the war charity stuff.
[and Basil moved back home]
Yes. Cynthia was crying all the time. He moved back to take care of things.
[That must have hurt]
Well…yes. Yes. But he had no choice. I could only really talk to Bunny about it. Mary blamed Basil for going back. She said “he’s gone back home X, that tells you everything about what he really wants.” And I’d have to…I’d say “no, Mary, you’re wrong.” If she could have seen how much of a mess he was in. But she never trusted HIM. So…So I used to go to Bunny. She’d known Basil for years, longer than Willie had. From before he was married. And it was then she told me what Constance Collier had said about him, you know…
[the slow form of suicide]
Yes. And she said, “hold on to him, because whatever that marriage is about it’s never been about making him happy.”
It was a crazy time. [Ouida] would sleep all day on her sedatives and then she’d be hosting a gala for 300 people in the evening. And she’d say to him “see, I’m shielding you from what you’ve done to me.” But then on another day she’d cry and cry and say “I’m going to do it again, I don’t want to live without you.”
[did you manage to see each other?]
It was difficult. After she did that. Right afterwards he was afraid to leave her for long. And Cynthia was very clingy because she…you know kids always know when things are wrong. We’d manage to grab a few hours sometimes. He’d call me when he could. And Bunny would be a sort of go-between.
[and this was]
Around Christmas. He was supposed to start work on a film. And he had to call in sick for about ten days, because he was afraid to leave her and Cynthia.
Yes. She’d sleep all day sometimes and then be awake all night and rant at him, or cry and ask him to hold her. The first time I saw him after it all blew up, he…just came to my house and slept on my couch for about five hours. Just dead. He was so tired. David…David was…he came in while Basil was asleep. And he was sitting in the armchair by the fire reading the newspaper, and my dog was asleep beside Basil on the couch. And it looked so…domestic. And Mary came downstairs, and she just…she just came into the kitchen and she said to me, “X don’t ever tell your father I was here when this was happening.”
But he was so…so torn apart. His nerves where shredded. His hands would shake. He bit his nails. He was chain smoking. I couldn’t make it worse by telling him…by making demands, by…I didn’t want to. I just wanted him…even more than I wanted to be with him I wanted him to be ok. And I said to him…I said, “just go back if you need to. Just end it. If you need to.” But…
That winter…I have this picture of him in my mind that winter. He’d sit out on the terrace steps of the house I lived in…wearing his oldest, scraggiest sweater because it was…you know it was his comfort sweater. He was an awful slob of a dresser you know when he, when Ouida wasn’t telling him what to wear. He’d…sometimes he’d just sit out there for hours. He’d just be smoking and throwing a ball for my dog, who…I mean she thought she was in dog heaven. Someone throwing her ball for her for hours on end. But I knew…I knew I had to just leave him be. So, I’d just let him…He didn’t know what to do. He just didn’t know what to do.
[how did you feel about Ouida?]
I hated her. I completely hated her. I saw what it did to him. We should have stayed friends…you know everything…everything was wrecked. His marriage, my marriage, our friendship…it was all wrecked. And…we never had anything. We never had anything.
[you loved each other]
What difference does it make how anyone felt?
[it made a difference to you and to him]
Sure it made it worse. It made everything worse.
[and this was winter of ’41-42 your father got sick]
Yes. He was diagnosed with cancer. And he wrote and told me and said “Don’t tell your mother or sister.”
[so you were carrying that as well as everything that was happening (with BR)]
Yes. Just after. I think it was just after Ouida did…what she did, that I heard about my father’s cancer.
[it must have felt like everything was crumbling]
Everything. And then of course David joined the [name of armed service]. So…so…I felt as if he was doing that partly to clear the way. For me. To help me. So, it was very hard. I…
[how did you cope?]
Well, I didn’t eat or sleep too well. I was a bit of a bitch to everyone. My nerves were pretty choppy. It was very hard. Pretending to my mother and my sister everything was fine at home. And also pretending to my father that I was happy. He’d keep asking after David. He didn’t know. He didn’t even know about…how David was. Because I didn’t want him worried about anything. Basil used to say, “Tell your mother, she deserves to know, you can’t carry this on your own.”
[you told him?]
Yes. I couldn’t keep it from him. I had to tell him. He used to say “it’s killing you, you must tell Mary.” But I’d promised my father.
And then that spring Basil said, “I have to go back.”
[were you expecting it?]
It had been pretty much inevitable since she did what she did.
[So you broke it off]
Yes. I said…I gave him my blessing. And I was on the set of [NAME OF MOVIE] trying to keep it together. Trying to be a pro. Not really succeeding, but trying.
Daddy died.. And at that point. When my mum told me I just broke down. I just snapped. I’d been keeping everything in for so long. I couldn’t work. At all. I was just huddled up in a ball on the couch crying. My mum tried to…I just wanted [Basil]. I just wanted him, no one else. I just wanted him. His voice…his voice. His arms. It was the only comfort that meant anything. And he called my mum to see how I was. And she gave me the phone so I could talk to him. And I just said, just like the first time, just when it all started, I said, “Please come and see me.” He came round to the house right away. And he just held me and…and let me cry until I fell asleep. I think it was the first time I slept in about three days. And he stayed with me. Just let me sleep on him in the armchair until morning. He had to go to work and he only had about an hour’s sleep. And Mary said to me that morning, she said, “I was wrong about HIM dear, if a man sits up all night just so as not to wake you sleeping all over him, it’s love dear…”
The image at the top of the page is an advertizement for”Madame X” (1920) starring Pauline Frederick