News sources reported that the £5 million Tree Tops House in Henley-on-Thames in England burned down on March 19, 2019. Arson is suspected to have caused the fire. The news reports about the fire included the information that the house was once owned by Basil Rathbone! Really?
The house is located in Oxfordshire, about 60 km (37 miles) west of London. Built in 1915, the three-story house featured a galleried landing and had five bedrooms. It sits on a 2.6 hectare site across from a school on Gillotts Lane. The outbuildings include a garage, stables, a former tennis court and swimming pool and an unfinished timber pool house. A gravel driveway leads to the front of the house. The following photos were sent to me by a relative of former owners of the house.
Is Rathbone’s former ownership local legend or actual fact? Did the news sources check the ownership records? If Rathbone really did own Tree Tops house at one time, when did he own it and for how long? Did he ever live there or was he an absentee landlord? Where can we find the answers to these questions?
Let’s start with In and Out of Character, Basil’s autobiography. We know that Basil and his wife Ouida moved from Hollywood to New York City in 1946. In In and Out of Character, Rathbone mentions that he and Ouida lived at 10 Gracie Square for one year, and then they moved to 9 East 92nd St. In 1950 they moved to 15 East 91st St. In 1954 they moved to 135 Central Park West; they were still at that address when Basil died in 1967.
Rathbone makes no mention of living in England for any period of time after 1946. We must also consider that Rathbone’s income during those later years was probably not sufficient to allow him to purchase such a nice home in England.
I think we can eliminate the war years (1939 to 1946). Rathbone was busy making films in Hollywood, busy with a weekly radio show, and busy entertaining the soldiers at various events. He wasn’t traveling to England.
So let’s look at earlier years in Rathbone’s life.
Basil wrote that in 1930 he felt homesick for England, and so he and Ouida moved to London and rented a house in Connaught Square. (In and Out of Character, p. 71)
I believe that Basil was mistaken about the year. According to 1930 U.S. census, the Rathbones were living in California. We also know that Basil Rathbone appeared in seven films that were produced by studios located in California and released in 1930. And he was appearing in a Broadway play in December 1930. These facts suggest that Rathbone didn’t move back to England until sometime in 1931. He admitted to not being sure about the date! Assuming that 1931 is the correct year, the Rathbones lived in the house in Connaught Square from March or April to May or June 1931.
Rathbone also mentions living in Buckinghamshire. “May had arrived with unusually seasonable weather, and it was time to think of moving to our little place in the country, near Penn in Buckinghamshire.” (In and Out of Character, p. 79)
Could that have been Tree Tops House? No. Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire are two different counties. Below is a photo of Basil taken at the “little place in the country, near Penn in Buckinghamshire.” Though we cannot see much of the house, it looks different from Tree Tops House. So did Basil rent this country home, or did he buy it? We don’t know, but Basil referred to it as “our little place” — language that suggests ownership. On the other hand, he didn’t live there very long. Why buy a house if you are planning to live in it for only two months?
In July 1931 Rathbone returned to the USA to appear in a vaudeville sketch with Catherine Dale Owen at the New York Palace Theatre. Later that year he made the film A Woman Commands, which was released in Feb 1932. And in early 1932 Basil appeared in the play The Devil Passes.
The June 14, 1932 issue of Variety reported, “Basil Rathbone goes back to London with the determination to stay over there at least a year.” Rathbone returned to England that June and made three films in London: After the Ball, One Precious Year, and Loyalties. Rathbone made no mention of where he lived while working on those films. In October 1933, Basil, Ouida, and Moritz (their dog) returned to the United States and began rehearsals for the tour of Romeo and Juliet, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, and Candida. I can imagine that June 1932 might have been the time when Basil purchased Tree Tops House. For one thing, he lived in England for more than one year. His previous visits were of much shorter duration — a few months at most. He may have been planning to remain in England, if Katherine Cornell hadn’t offered him the leading roles in her tour of Romeo and Juliet, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, and Candida. Basil wrote about taking Moritz to England and having to leave him in quarantine for six months (In and Out of Character, p. 67). Basil wrote that this trip took place in the late 1920s, but that doesn’t fit with his known schedule of plays and films in the late 1920s and 1930. It was not possible for him to have been in England for six months during that time period. It’s most likely that Basil and Ouida traveled to England with Moritz in June 1932. This was also a period in Basil’s life when he had the money to buy a nice house like Tree Tops House.
The Rathbones moved to Hollywood in 1935 and stayed there for the remainder of the 1930s except for a brief trip to England (August to December 1936) to make the film Love from a Stranger. During that time he rented Sir Cedric Hardwicke’s North London home.
What about 1920s? Rathbone was very busy on Broadway, and certainly raking in the money. But if his career was in the USA, why would he buy a house in England? Could it be that he bought Tree Tops House for Marion and Rodion to live in? Perhaps he never lived there himself! The only trip to England that Rathbone mentions in his autobiography was the summer of 1924. He had decided to marry Ouida, and so he needed to obtain a divorce. Basil, Ouida, and their friend Jack Miltern all traveled to England that summer. The photo below is of The Weirpool, a house that they rented for July and August of 1924. Basil described it as “a charming little house on the river Thames at Pangbourne in Berkshire” (p. 61).
I wondered, could there have been some confusion in the names? Could this be the house later known as Tree Tops? No. You can clearly see the river Thames in the photo. The location of Tree Tops House is not close to the river.
Earlier than the 1920s is unlikely. After the First World War, Rathbone was a struggling actor, not a wealthy and famous one. And because he was separated from Marion, he had to pay for two homes. It’s unlikely he could have bought such a fine house as Tree Tops back then.
So the mystery persists. When did Basil live in Tree Tops House?