Continuing the transcribed interview with Madame X from PART V
[so during most of the war years, we’re talking 1941-45 your marriage to David was increasingly a front and behind that he was……homosexual]
It wasn’t a front exactly. Before he went away to war we…David and I enjoyed what we had in our way…
[but he was involved with various men]
Yes. But it’s up to him to say anything more about that.
[but the various magazine articles we can pull from the time, 1941 until the end of the war, depicting your idyllic life together…]
Oh God they’re fiction, but they were always fiction. I mean who the hell would believe those? The rictus smiles, the so-called interviews put together by the studio publicity department. When you were under contract you had to do them. But yes, fiction.
[so what was reality?]
He had his relationships. I suppose for the first year or so I waited, in my naivety for him to start liking girls and wanting to sleep with me more than…never.
[were there other men?]
Not seriously, not at all really, not until Basil. I had a massive crush on Francis Lederer for a while, before and after my marriage, but nothing really happened. I just daydreamed about him. It was completely childish.
[and you began an affair with Basil in 1941]
Uh-huh, and that was different. It was real.
[so beneath the façade David was seeing…men and you were involved in an affair, a pretty intense affair]
Yeah, but it wasn’t lurid. It was just life you know. I lived with my mum and sister after David was in the marines…I worked 8 til 5, we grew vegetables for the war effort. It was just life.
[but you were also sleeping with this famously married man]
Yes. But that was just life. We were involved with each other. We were friends and lovers.
[while he was still living with his wife]
Yes. We took what we had. It wasn’t his choice it was that way, and it wasn’t some grimy episode of cheating.
[his wife refused to divorce him]
Yes. She’d nailed her colors you know. She’d taken her stand. She wanted to continue to be mrs Basil Rathbone. She saw it as her right. The only things left he could do were stay or cut loose on his own terms and to hell with her…walk away and leave her to do… whatever it was she would do…
[which might have been kill herself…as she’d…possibly tried to do before]
Yes…that varied according to when you asked her [laughs]
[do you believe she tried to end her life that night?]
That’s a big question…I don’t know. I know she…according to what the medic said who saw her she would or could have died if she hadn’t been found…but then she WAS found you know…so…I don’t know, it’s hard to dismiss someone else’s experience. Maybe she would rather have died than end her marriage.
[did he consider just walking out and risking her doing something like that again?]
Of course. I mean, even before I came along, what she was asking him was to live all on her terms. And he was…he’d been finding it harder and harder to do…. She was fine. But he wasn’t. Long long long before I came along. You know they were roommates or business partners…. There was no physical affection. I don’t just mean sex. I mean you know warmth and tenderness and touching. She didn’t do warmth very well. Even when they used to be sexually intimate it wasn’t warm. It was “ok, do it if you must.” You might say a guy would welcome being invited to take what he wanted where he wanted, but he…he felt compromised and like some sort of additional piece of furniture she’d bought and paid for. And he was…he couldn’t live in the undemonstrative way she liked to live. They’d argue a great deal…more and more…
The things people argue about when there’s a bigger problem that they don’t want to acknowledge.…Petty things and bigger things…he…he used to get mad about her leaving Cynthia with the nanny…and about her spending. She hated his scruffy clothes and his general impromptu, disorganized attitude to life.
[so the image of their happy marriage was just that…image?]
Darling, aren’t they always? Marriages are more often long than happy and they’re not often long.
If you had her version…she’d…She’d tell you he was a lazy waster whom she saved from ruin and who repaid her by ducking out on his social engagements when he could, dressing like a hobo just to piss her off, hanging out with people she hated and who didn’t like her, and then finally breaking all his promises, wanting out when he swore he never would, lying to her face about seeing this tramp he got involved with… She thought she’d made him what he was and without her he’d…. And she was just taking back what was hers by right…
[was any of that true?]
Why ask me? I have a different version. He believed he owed her. I don’t know. When he met her he was pretty screwy.
Just things…he’d had a bad time in the war and…but you know…He couldn’t sleep without liquor and pills back then, and…this was the twenties and he…he was doing the pills and the happy dust and screwing just about anyone. You know, anyone. And…he told me when he was on Broadway in this big hit show he used to go down to Battery Park and just stand there looking at the water, trying to find the guts to jump in and let himself drown. He believed the fact he was alive was…proof he was a failure. And Ouida…met him in the midst of all this. She wouldn’t stand it. The debauchery. She said, “cut that out and come back to me when you have.” So….
[did he do that?]
Yes, he cleaned up. For her…she was his reason for living.
[he loved her]
He tried to…he loved her in a way, yes I think he did. But I think he…it was about handing over his life to someone who wanted things he didn’t want…letting someone have him and use him and…God even make him miserable…so he wouldn’t have to feel guilty about being alive. I think letting her take him away from the things he loved…England and theatre and…his kid…it…it helped him feel like he was setting things straight…you know paying a debt, not just to her…to life or something. That’s why when she wanted to move to Hollywood, he went. It was his idea of hell to do nothing but make movies, but he went. He was repaying.
And that’s… He laid his life down at her feet and she didn’t even seem to notice he’d done it. In her view she was the one making the sacrifice…she was a martyr to his cause. She thought he needed to be blackmailed into going back to her. That’s not how it was…. I wanted to tell her that… “You don’t get it. You don’t know who you’re dealing with. He doesn’t care about your stupid threats to tell Louella. Don’t you see what he’s doing? He’s repaying a debt to you and he’s going to keep doing that until he’s dead unless you…unless you tell him it’s ok to stop.” He was repaying a debt. He could only leave if she let him go…and she wasn’t ever going to do that.
[wouldn’t she have…couldn’t he reason with her eventually?]
I…I used to think maybe she’d…you know come to terms…It was too messed up for that. She was too bitter and desperate. She…thought he was just worthless. I think she just saw him as this worthless feckless liar she had to force into honoring his responsibilities. And you know, he’d walked out on his first wife and their kid, so…she just saw it as a repeat performance. In those…you know, back then if a spouse wanted to make your life hell they could even more than now…and she thought she had every reason to…punish him, hurt him. So…we were left with what could be salvaged from that.
[why did you hold on to it if there was obviously no future?]
It…I guess we just did the selfish thing. After my father died I felt I couldn’t stand to lose him too. So we did the not-just-yet thing. We’ll end it soon, but not yet.
[did his wife know he was seeing you again?]
She acted like she didn’t for a while, and obviously he wasn’t going to say anything to her in case she’d go crazy again. Slit her throat or something. So that was always there. But then…ha… then she announced she did know…and… she said she didn’t care because she knew she had too much on him and he’d never dare walk out. That’s what I mean…she thought she was blackmailing him. She didn’t know anything about how he worked on that level at all. But yes, she wrote me after that…I got this typed letter with her headed notepaper. [laughs] I don’t know…there’s something just so insane about a typed letter in those circumstances…you know. “From the desk of Ouida Rathbone,” I mean I always wondered if she got her secretary to take dictation… “Dear whore my husband is screwing, this is to inform you…”
She called me Mrs Y. Because, I was still…you know….It was something like “dear Mrs Y this is to let you know I’m fully aware of what my husband is doing but I’m not going to divorce him, however much of a whore you make yourself, because I care about my kid, and he’ll never leave because I can ruin him, so you’ll never be anything real to him.” You know that’s a paraphrase…it was…it was funny but kind of tragic too. There we were. Locked in our own perceptions. Nothing I could have said to her would have changed her view of her husband as some kind of cowardly degenerate who had to be blackmailed and humiliated into submission. Nothing she said would have made me see him her way. I thought she was a near-sighted stupid bitch, she thought I was a nymphomaniac or a professional home wrecker or something. Nothing could move or change, we were just this ludicrous tableau of attitudes and clichés.
[David came home […]. shell shocked]
He was…he was wrecked. He’d been through such hell. His nerves were in pieces. I brought him home. I was living with my mum and sister then. He just…he wasn’t the same David any more. He’d get angry about nothing. He’d lie in bed days at a time sometimes, or sit and sit and stare at…at nothing. He had this…I just remember him in this black and gray robe, day after day. Wouldn’t shave, wouldn’t wash. He’d talk about the things he’d seen and then just stop and…forget to speak. It was as if he couldn’t…pull his mind away enough to focus on the present…as if he was still there. Still seeing it. And everything that had been wrong before was just magnified.. He’d say he couldn’t be my complacent husband any more. And I’d say well, you made me a complacent wife for God’s sake, why can’t we face facts?
Yes we would, more than we ever had, and we…I wanted him to just get past that so we could talk, you know because we could always talk……but…he just wouldn’t let it go. He didn’t even want me that way. I’d say that, “You don’t even want to sleep with me, you never did,” and he’d…. He’d say, “are you saying I’m not a man?” It was crazy. We couldn’t get past it. I couldn’t help him. He couldn’t get past it. He’d ask, “did you see Basil?” It would make him crazy if he thought I was seeing him, sleeping with him… I couldn’t let David be anywhere near him and I couldn’t let Basil know what was going on, because otherwise…things might have…. He’d have got protective. I didn’t. He might have made things worse. So I didn’t tell him. [But I was the last person [David] wanted to talk to. And the rages kept happening. And I wasn’t his wife, I wasn’t there. I was wrapped up in my own problems….and And he’d say and do awful, terrible things. In the end I just said to him, “Leave, just please leave.” He’d grabbed a knife out of the kitchen, he was screaming, “I’ll kill you and myself.” And I…my sister was white…frozen, standing in the doorway, and I was just saying, “Ok, ok, darling, you kill all of us tomorrow, but let’s put the knife down for today.” And then he was normal again, and…saying “X darling I didn’t mean it, I’m so sorry.” But I just couldn’t…none of us could take any more.
[you think he meant it?]
No, he didn’t mean it, but…he wasn’t himself. In the end I was only making it worse, we could only be friends if he wasn’t my husband. He said, “you must divorce me.”
[And you separated….?]
Officially. But he’d left long before. He moved out after that… thing with the knife which was in the winter I think. I missed him. His companionship. He started seeing another woman. A woman. Why? I suppose..I know it was hard to be what he was. You couldn’t be homosexual, there was no social, acceptable way of being that. But you know there were men, even then there were men and women who accepted it in themselves at least. I thought, if he could at least do that he’ll…he’ll be happier. But…he…he never did that, just kept marrying women….
[after you divorced David how much longer did things continue with Basil?]
You know, I was…it was hard for everyone…there were a lot of…a lot of time apart. After I was divorced it felt worse in some ways. I was free, he wasn’t free. I had a lot of nights lying awake with just empty space beside me… thinking about everything until the sun came up. The Sherlock Holmes radio show was on – Sunday or Monday nights I think. You know it was an institution back then. And…I’d listen religiously when he wasn’t there. Curl up on the couch with my dog, listen to his voice. Cry sometimes. My mum would just say “X dear, get out of this, find yourself a man who doesn’t have a wife and kid.”
But I think it was still easier on me because I wasn’t the one being pulled two ways. His kid was…she adored him and he was her security. She’d want him there when she was sick or when she woke up with a bad dream. When he was with me he wasn’t there for her, when he was with her he wasn’t here for me. Ouida didn’t ask much of him beside his…you know continued residence, but she spent his money like an insane person…and…you know…she filled the house with stuff…it was…she could have taught Charles Foster Kane a few things about buying crap you don’t really need. She’d always been a bit like that but after…everything happened she…it just got out of control. She was on medication for depression, and she just spent money…she had charge accounts by the hundred. He’d close one down, two more would get opened up. He stopped her accessing his bank account, but she was…she was a movie star’s wife, everyone would give her credit. She didn’t care she was breaking him…
[what did he do?]
What could he do short of locking her up? He’d get mad with her…she’d say “what else have you left me? I trusted you and you betrayed me…” And you know…you could always get him with guilt.
And his career was going to hell, mostly because he’d been committing to things without thinking because he was…his mind was on…everything else. Us…his work with the Relief Fund…. He was just taking film work where it came for the money…and he was signed into a contract with MGM where there was…Mayer didn’t really like him from way back. And one with Universal…playing Holmes. That pretty much hamstrung him. I said to him – don’t sign it, you always told me not to sign anything restrictive. But he didn’t feel he had the choice. He wasn’t doing his best work, he was getting the whisper going round he was slipping, not so reliable any more. So he signed. This is a man who swore he’d never sign himself away like that.
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 trusted. His close 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.
[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 way.” 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…