In the 1930s, when Basil Rathbone was very much in demand as an actor, few people were aware that he had grown son living in England. Silver Screen magazine published an article informing the public of this “secret son”:
Hollywood took another surprise jolt when it learned that the very fine English actor, Basil Rathbone, had a “secret son.”
At nineteen, Basil was swept into an impetuous World War marriage, and later, a son was born in London, whom he named Rodion. After his romance crashed, he set forth to win fame as an actor, while the boy remained in London with his mother. Coming to America, Basil remarried, and few knew of this early chapter in his life.
There have been a few brief meetings between father and son and last summer it was planned that Rodion should journey to Hollywood for a real visit. Then occurred one of those ironical incidents that frequently punctuate the life of the screen player; before his son arrived, Basil was called to London for an important film engagement and the two passed each other en route, with out even a chance of a “Hello!”
The tall, distinguished Rodion arrived and immediately conquered Hollywood, all on his own. The high point of his visit being that he developed a terrific crush on pretty Olivia de Havilland, calling her the Ideal Girl of the World, and having no eyes for other screen charmers. Now, having been graduated from Cambridge this spring, Rodion is coming to Hollywood for a lengthy stay and his father is exuberantly excited about it.
Said Rathbone, “The boy followed my father’s footsteps rather than mine in his education, by becoming an electrical engineer, but the acting profession intrigues him tremendously and he may try his luck on the screen. I would be very proud were he to become an actor and shall encourage him, but the final decision will be his. One must choose his own career if he is to be happy in it. Whatever comes from this visit, I shall have the great joy of his companionship and, at last, my son will be a reality. This is something I’ve dreamed about for many years.”
“Secret Families” (Silver Screen, June 1937)
Note that the second line in the above article says that Basil was 19 when he married. Another magazine article says that he married when he was “a youth of twenty.” The implication seems to be that because he was young and impetuous he made a mistake and married when he shouldn’t have. In fact, Basil married Marion in 1914, so he was 22. He was young, yes, but he wasn’t a teenager. He was old enough to know what he was doing.
Basil’s dream of having the joy of Rodion’s companionship came true. Rodion lived with Basil and Ouida in their home on Los Feliz Blvd. For a while, all was good in the Rathbone home. Rodion even acted in a couple of films with his famous father: The Dawn Patrol (1938) and Tower of London (1939). Rodion used the name John Rodion while working on those films.
This is what Basil told Photoplay magazine:
Let me tell you of Ouida’s latest gift to me.I think it is the finest thing I have ever known. She has brought me back my son, Rodion. He is the son of my first wife. He is here now, living with us, working in the technical department at Warner Brothers, and loving it. Ouida did it alone. Unknown to me, she made friends with Marian, my former wife. She wrote my boy in England and made friends with him too. She brought us together again, and now my happiness is complete. And I owe this, as I owe everything, to her.
“Love Life of a Villain” (Photoplay, August 1938)
Knowing what we know about Ouida’s narcissistic personality, this unselfish act seems very unlikely. Yet, these are Basil’s words. So, the story is either true, or one that Basil was making up for the reporter. Regardless, Rodion was living with Basil and Ouida, and Basil was overjoyed. The household included two English servants—Nellie, the maid, and Ambrose, the butler—and a Swedish chef.
And lots of dogs, of course. Rodion helped Basil walk his six dogs.
Dick Pine, a reporter for Screenland magazine, visited Basil at his home one weekend. After walking in Griffith Park with Basil, Rodion, and the six dogs, Pine sat down to dinner with Basil, Rodion and Ouida. “They love each other, these three,” observed Pine (“The Host of Hollywood,” Screenland, July 1938).
Late in 1937, Rodion met Caroline Fisher, a drama student, on a motion picture set. Over the course of the winter they fell in love and made plans to get married in the spring of 1938.
Ouida Rathbone, who had a reputation as a successful party-giver, stepped in and staged a grand Hollywood wedding reception for Rodion and Caroline. The reception was in the garden of the Rathbone home. When Basil and his wife entertained, it was very much of an event. Scores of screen celebrities attended the nuptial ceremony.
Photoplay reported that of all the gala Hollywood parties planned and executed by Ouida Rathbone, the Rathbone wedding reception was one of the most brilliant events!
According to Rodion’s son, his parents didn’t feel that their wedding day was their special day. The reception was all about the Hollywood movie stars. The photographers were busy taking pictures of the celebrities. Gary Cooper even chided one photographer, “Why are you photographing me? I’m not the groom!”
The young couple felt somewhat ignored as Ouida did her thing. In Ouida’s mind, this party was her great gift to them, and Rodion and Caroline owed gratitude to her. Given how Rodion and Caroline felt about the event, they did not express adequate gratitude to Ouida. “Words were spoken,” said Rodion.
Basil naturally came to Ouida’s defense. We may think of Ouida as a narcissistic spendthrift, but Basil worshiped her and he was loyal to her. In “Love Life of a Villain” he said, “Without her I would be nothing; with her I can be everything. Without her I would be miserable. With her I am the happiest man in the world. … Everything I have achieved – everything I may be today or hope for tomorrow – I owe to my wife, Ouida.”
So it’s no surprise that Basil would take Ouida’s side in a family dispute. Rodion told his children that Basil had said at their falling out, “I never want to see you again.” Rodion took him at his word. He made an exception once when Basil was touring in the play J.B. and appeared in a town near where he and his family lived. Rodion took his daughters Heloise and Dounia back stage to meet Basil. He was very gracious and glad to meet them.
Years later, when Basil wrote his autobiography, he barely mentioned his son. He acknowledged that he had a son, and that he divorced his first wife, and that’s all. And that’s sad.