Slightly less than two years after the reading at the White House, Rathbone contacted the auctioneer/”entrepreneur and graphologist,” Charles Hamilton with the purpose of selling the three letters Jackie Kennedy had written him. In his book AUCTION MADNESS, Hamilton preserved his recollections of that meeting, and the the press furore that followed the auctioning of the letters. This memoir might be a little self-serving and can’t always be verified by outside sources, but it does provide some interesting insight both into the events themselves and the wider context of Rathbone’s life during his last few years. For that reason we are quoting portions of it.
Hamilton’s first meeting with Basil is vividly described:
When I first met Rathbone he was 71, but he looked as if he had just stepped out of one of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories. He was tall and handsome, impeccably dressed, with a sharp, twinkling eye that flashed like a Toledo rapier. He had a rich voice of pure gold. There was an awesome severity in his appearance that momentarily, but only momentarily, hid the warmth of his personality. For Rathbone was at heart a sentimentalist, a romantic through and through. In another time and place he might have been a courtier, a poet, or perhaps a gallant prince and patron of the arts. Basil was prodigal with his love for people and things. He had spent his life in stintless giving, and now in the twilight of his great career he was broke. I sensed the lamentable state of his affairs the moment he sat down to lunch with Diane and me.
– CHARLES HAMILTON, AUCTION MADNESS, p. 104
We have to question whether Hamilton really believed it was “stintless giving” that had broken Rathbone’s finances. He must have known about Ouida and her mad spending surely? Virtually everyone seems to have known about that. Perhaps Hamilton was just being euphemistic, but it probably should make us wary about his accuracy in other areas.
Anyhow, according to Hamilton, Rathbone confessed he wanted to make sure he (Hamilton) wasn’t just “a merchant without a soul” before entrusting his “three wonderful letters” to him. But – says Hamilton – as soon as they talked Shakespeare together “joyously,” Rathbone was convinced and told him “you are the only person to handle their sale.”
And so, in September 1965, the three “truly superb missives” from Jackie Kennedy to Basil Rathbone went up for auction through Hamilton’s agency. Rathbone “agreed to write in his own hand a description of the historic reading in the White House” that had inspired them. We quoted some of it in the previous post, but here is another sample:
“ It was then [after his complaint regarding the Crispin speech] that I received my first letter from Mrs. Kennedy … and a most gracious and charming letter it was, making me feel a little ashamed of my impetuous response to the President’s and Mrs. Kennedy’s request.
…Although I had played 52 roles in 23 plays of Shakespeare I had never played Henry V. For the performance at the white house I had to commit this speech to memory rather rapidly, during an arduous period of working at other things and I was none too sure of it as I came up to my performance on the night of Apl 30th. However I felt a certain security in the knowledge that President Kennedy knew this speech very well indeed, and that, if by some misfortune, I should “blow” my lines there would be the President of the United States but a few feet away from me, ready to prompt me!!
–BASIL RATHBONE, hand-wriiten note
Neither he nor Hamilton were prepared for the press reaction that “saluted the appearance of the letters in [the] auction catalog.”
The front page of every daily in America carried the lurid headlines that Rathbone was selling private letters written to him by the wife of the martyred president. It was less than two years since Kennedy’s murder and Jackie was still the sacrosanct goddess of the tabloids, inviolate and beyond reproach.
–CHARLES HAMILTON, op. cit
The press claimed that Mrs Kennedy was “deeply resentful” of, and “disturbed” by the sale.
Rathbone had “abused her confidence” and the grand old actor, impoverished and soon to die, was peppered with cheap shots by pen and ink snipers.
–CHARLES HAMILTON, op. cit
According to Hamilton, when he saw the depth of the reaction Basil was “crushed” and distraught. He called Hamilton saying “Perhaps I should withdraw the letters from sale. It’s not too late is it?”
Though Hamilton’s memoir doesn’t say as much, I think we can guess he wasn’t keen on losing the publicity and percentage such a sale would bring him. For whatever reason anyway he urged Rathbone to meet with the press and put his own side of the story, but Basil refused: “I don’t think I can face anyone right now,” he allegedly told Hamilton.
As the press assaults continued, Hamilton says he “feared for [Rathbone’s] health,” and so decided to take the step of writing in person to Jackie Kennedy, begging her to somehow take back the suggestion she objected to the sale of her letters. In a very odd passage of the book Hamilton says he “kept no copy” of this letter, but then proceeds to quote it apparently verbatim!:
Dear Mrs Kennedy:
Mr Rathbone is extremely distressed and depressed because he has read in the newspapers and heard over the radio that you disapprove of the sale of your letters to him.
Were he not strapped for money, I’m certain that Mr. Rathbone would never part with your letters, for he counts them among his greatest treasures. But he has very little income and earns only a meagre living by recitals at schools and colleges for which he receives a fee of $100 per appearance, plus travel expenses.
Mr Rathbone’s daughter, Cynthia, has long been ill with hepatitis. With the money he receives from the sale of your letters he hopes to take his daughter on a much needed vacation.
If you could find some way to deny the newspaper reports of your displeasure at the sale of the letters, I know it would buoy Mr Rathbone’s spirits and make him a very happy man.
Only you and I must know that I wrote this letter.
–quoted in AUCTION MADNESS, p.109
Hamilton then tells us that “less than an hour” after he sent the letter, Mrs Kennedy’s secretary called a press conference and denied that Jackie was even aware of the sale of her letters. Rathbone then called Hamilton, full of relief, to describe Mrs K as “a great lady, a very great lady.”
How much of this story is literally true is not easy to determine as yet. There does indeed seem to have been some press unpleasantness at the time of the sale of the letters. Did it really have the scale Hamilton describes? And was he really the White Knight riding to Rathbone’s rescue with his “secret” letter? (And did Rathbone really charge no more than $100 for a personal appearance??)
These details need checking, but leaving them aside, this incident still has things to tell us. It confirms – yet again – the knife-edge state of Rathbone’s finances. He was “broke” in Hamilton’s words. Forced to sell some letters that must have been important to him just to get by. A less proud and private man might have gone public with this when attacked by the press. But he never seems to have been able to bare his soul to the masses, even when it would make things easier for him.
And it also gives us a rare piece of information about Cynthia. Hamilton says she “ha[d] long been ill with hepatitis.” We can’t entirely just take his word for that, since he is “recreating” his letter from memory many years later, but it does seem to confirm other rumors and stories about this sad young woman. If it’s true Rathbone was selling the letters to try and scrape together money for Cynthia to have a vacation, then the situation is even more horrible and poignant.
Was Ouida still employing servants while this terrible little tragedy was being acted out?