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Leaving a Doll's House
By Claire Bloom
Back Bay Books Copyright © 1996 Claire Bloom
All right reserved.
Chapter One Where I Came From
I was born in the North London suburb of Finchley on February 15, 1931, the eldest of two children born to Edward Blume (originally Blumenthal) and his wife, Elizabeth (nee Grew). My parents were both born in England - my mother in London, within the sound of Bow Bells, making her an official Cockney, and my father from farther north, in Liverpool - although neither my maternal nor paternal grandparents were of English origin.
My father's family were from the cradle of European Jewry: my grandmother Caroline from Riga in Latvia, my grand, from somewhere in greater Russia. And my mother's family went back to an ancient Jewish community on the banks of the Vistula, some miles northwest of Warsaw.
My maternal grandmother, Paula, and her husband came to England at the start of this century, as did my father's parents. My grandmother Paula's marriage was an arranged one, something not uncommon in young Jewish couples of that time and place. My maternal grand, Henry Griewski, his surname later to metamorphose into Grew, is described on my mother's birth certificate as a cabinetmaker. Some knowledge of timber my grand, must certainly have brought with him from Russia, where his family were overseers of large and wooded estates belonging to the Russian gentry. He started a modest workshop in the East End of London, turning out small "fancy goods", wooden boxes and picture frames, and went on to manufacture furniture and wooden moldings. This led to some improvement of my grandparents "financial position" and by the time my mother was a small child, they had moved from the East End to the more comfortable suburb of Cricklewood, in North London.
In those days, the tyrannical behavior of the husband, the timid subservience of the wife, the adoration of male children, and the use made of daughters as domestic help were accepted in most lower-income families. Although in a Jewish household only recently arrived in Western Europe the male prerogative may have been even stronger, I doubt if Paula and Henry's household differed enormously from those of their more assimilated neighbors, but the dominant male authority that my grand, exerted had an indelible effect on the character of my mother and her sister, Mary, and possibly, in a more distanced way, on my own.
My mother's name was Elizabeth, though she was known as Alice by everyone except her mother who always called her Alishce. Born in 1903' she was the second daughter and third child born to my grandparents. Her elder sister, Mary, had arrived three years earlier.
My mother and aunt dealt with this problem of their female identity in completely different ways. Mary saw in her upbringing a challenge, and she fought with strength and determination to escape her family and make a successful career as an actress. After an early and ill-starred romance, Mother set about leading the most conventional of lives, and continued to do so until her middle age, when she opened an antique shop in London and ran it with great success. She determined to marry and have a large family. Mary, a "bluestocking" as well as a recluse, would have none of that.
From her earliest memories, Mary's answer to any family commotion was to retreat into her room and read. She read voraciously and passionately; her greatest happiness was to read and reread the great English poets, and, above all, to immerse herself completely in the works of Shakespeare. Her love of literature, plus a longing to escape the restrictive atmosphere of my grandparents' house, fed Mary's determination to become an actress.
Mary entered a beauty contest, knowing no other way to penetrate this unknown world. The scheme was devised by my mother. Looking back on it, there is more than a little irony pondering the fact that this actress, described in a London Times obituary some forty years later as a leading player in the intellectual theater of the twenties and thirties' should have entered her profession in this way. Mary won first place; her photograph appeared in the newspapers.
Having wasted no time telling the press of her ambition to go onstage, Mary received several offers in theater and film as a result. Among these came a surprising one, from Mary's future husband, Victor Sheridan, who had been one of the judges. Victor was taken with Mary's dark-eyed looks, even if he was somewhat wary of her intellectual predilections. Although associated with the stage as owner of several "variety theaters" around the country, he was more businessman than artist, and therefore a far cry from Mary's ideal of the man to share her life with.
With an alacrity that must have astonished even Mary, she and Victor became engaged. After their marriage, Mary Grew Sheridan, formerly of Hoxton and more recently of Cricklewood, moved to an elegant flat in Mayfair, with a staff of servants waiting upon her. She was dressed by the House of Worth, and dined out with her husband nearly every night at the Savoy Grill or the Ritz. But her opulent lifestyle wasn't enough to quench Mary's overpowering thirst to express herself artistically. With Victor's financial assistance, Mary was able to take lessons from the famous teacher Elsie Fogarty, vocal coach to the young Laurence Olivier and Peggy Ashcroft. After a year as Miss Fogarty,s pupil, Mary played the role of Mme. Moskowski in Israel Zangwill,s play We Moderns. Produced in 1925 at London's Fortune Theater - whose manager was her husband, Victor - she scored a modest, though distinct, success.
Shortly afterward, she found herself pregnant with her only child. This unexpected interruption to her career came as an extreme blow. When my cousin Norma was born, in keeping with the practice of the day among people of means, she was swiftly passed on to a nurse. Then, just as swiftly, Mary returned to her beloved profession.
Mary was to have a brutally brief career. Her greatest moment on the stage - and also her harshest trial - came when she played "The Young Woman" in The Life Machine - called Machinal in the United States - a play by the American Sophie Treadwell, an early defender of women's rights. Treadwell wrote a stunningly honest play about a woman who is convicted for murdering her brutal husband, and condemned to die in the electric chair. This harrowing story was an extraordinarily exhausting role for an actress, both physically and psychologically; the play takes her to the very moment she is led to her execution. Mary appeared in every scene; the play was given not only for the usual six evening performances per week, but in addition there were matinees on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday.
Mary suffered a physical and mental breakdown, and was forced to leave the play altogether - and, indeed, the stage, for some time. This pause of over a year was enough to damage her fragile career; thereafter, Mary's brief period as a star was over. Her run had lasted barely a decade. By the time I came to know my aunt Mary, the pursuit of a role worth playing had become a fruitless burden and only a source of sorrow and frustration. Until I found my own path, somewhere in my mid-twenties, Mary played a role almost equal to my mother's in the forming of my artistic life.
The strongest memories I have of my earliest years consist of following my mother everywhere, of clinging to her skirt, of wanting to be one with her. Also of the constant trembling of her hands, a genetic weakness inherited from her. My own, doesn't seem to exist in my mind, perhaps because he was away so often; possibly because although only a small child, I already sensed my mother's deep disappointment in her marriage and rejected my ineffectual, in favor of my protective and adored mother.
Alice remembered the difficult years before her father's business began to flourish, the Saturday dinners where one chicken was divided among nine hungry children. Coming somewhere near the center of the age group in my grandparents, large family, Alice became chief helpmate to her mother in running the household, particularly in caring for the younger children. When she was in her early twenties, my mother had taken a job with an American firm of film distributors; she worked as a secretary to Bobbie Brenner, a married man about fifteen years older than she. His marriage, so he claimed, was unsatisfactory; his wife had remained behind in the States while he worked in London. Alice and he very soon became lovers, and remained so for the time that Brenner worked in England. However, after about eighteen months of happiness - at least for my mother - he was posted back to New York, and he implored my mother to follow him. She must have agreed to do so with a great deal of trepidation, but agree she did. For a middle-class Jewish girl to take such a step in the 1920's was a serious flouting of morality. How she squared all this with her parents I have no idea; I think the probability was that she told them nothing of the truth, but let them believe that she was going to America to take up a job as a secretary in New York.
Her loneliness in New York, as she described it to me, was extreme; she even welcomed a mouse who came for the leftover bread crumbs; it was a relief from the isolation of the hours, or even days, when she waited for her married lover to visit her. For Mr. Brenner, in the good old tradition of married men, turned out to have no serious intention of leaving his wife. He just wanted my mother as well. After enduring two years of misery - tempered by the fact that even under these melancholy circumstances, Alice found New York to be both thrilling and vibrant - she decided to go back to London.
She very soon met and married my father. My mother and Edward Blume, met at a dance at my grandparents, house. Alice was now twenty-seven, Eddie was twenty-three. He spoke with the nasal Liverpool accent that he never completely lost. He was of a light build, with dark curly hair and dark eyes. I doubt he was ever good-looking. His charm lay more in the swiftness of his repartee than in the handsomeness of his features. Mother was captivated by his quick wit and taken with his dry Liverpudlian humor, though that didn't stop her from noticing the weakness of his mouth, or being more than a little concerned that he had no noticeable profession. Scarred by her unhappy first love affair, Alice settled for the attainable: she married Eddie in the hope that she could "make something of him." They were married in a synagogue, my mother dressed in silver lace, her bridesmaids in pale apple green. They settled in the north of London. There I was born, one year later. My father's profession, on my birth certificate, is described as traveling salesman.
When I once asked Mother why she married Eddie, she replied that they enjoyed a cup of tea together, a cigarette, and a good laugh. If there was more to it than that, and I hope there might have been, she never told me.
The year was 1935 or 1936. I distinctly remember climbing a staircase behind my mother, above a darkened shop. Upstairs, men, including my father sat around a table playing cards. There followed an angry exchange between my parents, and Mother left in tears, dragging me, also weeping inconsolably, behind her. In my child's mind I sensed that the quarrel had been about money, and saw Mother upset terribly. I am certain now that my father, was playing away our household funds; the fact that he was a hopeless gambler only came to be clear to me many years later.
I cannot say how many times my father, lost his job - or even what jobs he held - but from the number of times we changed homes and I changed schools, he must have lost them regularly. Each time we shifted homes we moved up or down the socioeconomic scale; at one point we lived in a small bungalow in Hampshire, at another in a substantial middle-class house in Bristol, and so it went. At the start of the Second World War, we moved for some months to a primitive cottage in Cornwall. None of these changes troubled me too much, although they must have caused Mother considerable anxiety.
In spite of these dark periods in her life, she seemed to find fulfillment in our close bond. As my greatest joy was to be with her, I think hers was to be with me, and as long as we could remain at the center of each other's lives, where we lived made little difference.
What I remember most from those early days is the sound of Mother's voice as she read to me from Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid and The Snow Queen. These emotionally wrenching tales, to which I raptly listened and to which I was powerfully drawn, instilled in me a longing to be overwhelmed by romantic passion and led me in my teens and early twenties to attempt to emulate these self-sacrificing heroines, at least on the stage.
The sound of Mother's voice and the radiance of those long summer afternoons are fused in my childhood memory, creating a pleasurable sensation of warmth and comfort and safety. I lived very much in a world of fantasy. I remember no childhood playmates. I invented a phantom friend, someone I conducted long discussions with, who was my constant playmate, whose hand I held regularly, and whose ghostly company appeared to be quite sufficient. I attended so many different schools, due partly to my father's uncertain employment, and later to the war, that I never settled long enough in one place to have time to make friends with other girls.
My real friend and true companion from the beginning was my mother. We were much closer than would seem normal for a mother and daughter, almost like beleaguered inmates of a walled city. I never wanted her to feel lonely, so I would remain at home and keep her company even when I might have been outside playing. Even then I sensed I was becoming a painfully "intense" young person. All I remember of my years at school was the feeling of desolation when Mother dropped me off, and the feeling of relief when she picked me up again.
Because of our rootless and nomadic life, Mother also seemed to have few close friendships. She must have had some social life: I can recall how, during one of our family's few brief affluent periods, she came to kiss me goodnight, wearing a black chiffon dress and a white gardenia in her hair. This image of my young and lovely mother remains with me after so many others have faded with time.
In spite of my love of reading, I was never cut out to be an academic; I distinguished myself only in English and history classes at school. I hardly excelled at sports, which are such a vital part of the school curriculum of English boys and girls. Hockey was always a mystery to me, and a source of some misgiving; I never fathomed what could motivate a group of girls to thunder about a field smacking one another with long wooden sticks. I might have enjoyed netball, the English version of basketball, had I been chosen for the team, which I wasn't.
Excerpted from Leaving a Doll's House by Claire Bloom Copyright © 1996 by Claire Bloom. Excerpted by permission.
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