The Redgraves: A Family Epicby Donald Spoto
For more than a century, the Redgraves have defined theater and film while captivating the public eye. Their history is a rich tapestry of singularly talented individuals whose influence is felt to this day, yet their story has never before been/b>
The dramatic, poignant and revealing saga of the Redgraves, one of history's greatest families of actors.
For more than a century, the Redgraves have defined theater and film while captivating the public eye. Their history is a rich tapestry of singularly talented individuals whose influence is felt to this day, yet their story has never before been told. In The Redgraves, bestselling biographer Donald Spoto draws on his close personal relationships with the family and includes both his interviews and unprecedented personal access to them. The result is a groundbreaking account of this extraordinary clan and their circle, including such luminaries as Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, and Sir Laurence Olivier.
The story began in 1907 with the marriage of actress Daisy Scudamore to matinee idol Roy Redgrave and the birth in 1908 of their son, Michael, who became a famous stage actor and movie star. Michael’s family and wild social circle knew that for decades he was insistently bisexual, notwithstanding his marriage to Rachel Kempson, one of England’s most glamorous and admired actresses.
Their daughter Vanessa, a great and revered performer, is the only British actress ever to win Oscar, Emmy, Tony, Cannes, Golden Globe, and Screen Actors Guild Awards—achievements that have been paralleled by a profound humanitarian commitment even as she tackled difficult and controversial roles.
Vanessa’s sister, Lynn Redgrave, led a triumphant and complex life in her own way, too. From her performance in the movie Georgy Girl to her prizewinning play about her father and her Oscar-nominated performance in Gods and Monsters, Lynn established herself as a very different Redgrave.
Corin Redgrave, their brother, was known for his acclaimed performances onstage and screen—and he was a tireless and outspoken political radical.
The family tradition of distinction continues with the careers of Joely Richardson and Jemma Redgrave and reached a high point in the life and career of Vanessa’s daughter, Natasha Richardson, who earned a Tony Award for her role as Sally Bowles in the revival of Cabaret. Natasha’s sudden death after a skiing lesson in 2009 shocked and saddened admirers of her work and graceful spirit.
The product of more than thirty years of research, The Redgraves recounts the epic saga of a family that has extended the possibilities for actors on stage, screen, and television in Britain, America, and around the world.
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Read an Excerpt
Their Wedding Days
( 1824–1921 )
uring the cold afternoon of Friday, March 20, 1908—in a modest, poorly heated room above a newspaper shop on Horfield Road, in Bristol, England—a twenty-three-year-old actress named Daisy Scudamore Redgrave gave birth to a plump, blond-haired boy. After the newborn’s first cries, a woman who had helped during the delivery asked if Daisy had chosen a name for the baby. “Mother looked across the street and saw St. Michael’s Church,” said Michael Redgrave years later. Daisy’s notebook confirms the choice of name she had made without consulting her husband, an actor who was then in London, a hundred miles away. Recently, he had been absent much of the time.
For the previous three months, obeying her doctor’s instructions, Daisy had accepted no roles in the provincial tours that frequently kept her busy but brought neither wealth nor fame. During her confinement, instead of traveling and meeting with theater managers, she paid her rent by working a few hours each day in the shop beneath her rented room. She had met Roy Redgrave the previous summer, when they began a passionate romance that almost at once resulted in her pregnancy. Roy at first hesitated but then proposed marriage, six months before the child’s birth. Daisy accepted, but the sequence of surprises was just beginning.
Daisy Bertha Mary Scudamore was born on November 13, 1884, in Portsmouth, an island-town on the southern coast of England and a major naval port. She was the last of five children born to George Scudamore, who worked for a shipbuilding company, and Clara Linington, who was forty-five at the time of Daisy’s birth. The girl’s school record was unremarkable, but she had a flair for song, dance and recitation—aptitudes her staid Victorian parents did not encourage.
During a family holiday in Aberdeen at Christmas 1898, fourteen-year-old Daisy appeared in Aladdin, a musical pageant for children. She soaked up the applause and clutched the small bouquets friends offered after the performance; with that, the theatrical die was cast. Already a tall, pretty, vivacious teenager with expressive blue eyes, she had (so she was convinced) a fund of talents that guaranteed a successful career.
The following year, Daisy announced that she wanted to work on the stage—news her parents received in mute shock, as if the girl had proclaimed her intention to work on the streets.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the acting profession was only just beginning to enjoy widespread respectability. Since Elizabethan times, most actors were regarded as little more than rogues and vagabonds. The daughter of the actor-manager Samuel Phelps, for example, was expelled from school in the 1850s when it was learned that her father was an actor, and the wife of the great actor Henry Irving ridiculed him about the shame of his profession, and eventually left him for that reason. As recently as 1889, when she was on the verge of international fame, the actress known as Mrs. Patrick Campbell received a letter from her aunt Kate, pitying her as “a poor unfortunate child . . . yet to learn the shame, the humiliation of seeing yourself despised by decent people” precisely because she was of the theater.
Early in her reign, Queen Victoria had begun to reverse this prevalent contemptuous attitude. An avid playgoer, she invited actors to Windsor Castle, to present scenes from respectable dramatic works. Although she denied herself this pleasure for twenty years after the death of her husband, Prince Albert, Victoria later attended command performances and received leading players in her homes. This appreciation was symbolized in 1895, when Victoria bestowed a knighthood on Henry Irving, the first such honor for an actor. Six more actor-managers received the same honor between 1897 and 1913, first from Victoria and then from her son and grandson, Edward VII and George V.
The national census of 1881 had counted 4,565 actors in Britain. Their number had grown to 18,247 by 1911, and during those three decades, twenty-one new theaters were opened in London’s West End. At the same time, more actors were coming from respectable backgrounds. An actor’s status continued to improve in the public’s estimation: higher classes of society were now depicted onstage; amateur theatricals expanded everywhere; and repertory companies multiplied. For the first time since the Middle Ages, the Church also took an eager and sustaining interest in the theater, and actors were no longer regarded as undesirable companions. In London, the founding of the Academy of Dramatic Art in 1904 (granted royal status in 1920 and henceforth known familiarly as RADA) and of the Central School of Speech and Drama (in 1906) also helped to erase the stigma attached to acting by associating it with education.
In light of the loud parental disapproval of her career plans, Daisy bided her time. But then, around the time of her fifteenth birthday, she packed a small bag, slipped away from home without so much as a farewell, and sought out a London theatrical agent whose name she spotted in a newspaper. When she said her name was Scudamore, the agent presumed that she was somehow related to the noted actor-manager-playwright Fortunatus Augustus Scudamore, and he forthwith suggested that she visit that man’s home in Barnes, a riverside London suburb.
F. A. Scudamore was actually no Scudamore. Born Frank Davis, he had assumed the classical moniker Fortunatus and the venerable surname of a family that could be traced back before the Norman Conquest and included many nobles and landed gentry on various branches of its tree. When he opened the door to the clear-eyed, ambitious Daisy that afternoon late in 1899—and so met someone he thought was an authentic Scudamore—he improvised a little scene that could have been straight from one of his own sentimental plays. “If you are not my daughter,” he cried, welcoming her with a throb in his voice, “then I don’t know whose daughter you may be!” He did not investigate, and she did not elaborate.
That was enough for Daisy, who was delighted to be offered a more obliging family than her own, and one better suited to her professional aspirations. (For decades thereafter, the fiction circulated that Michael Redgrave was the grandson of Fortunatus Augustus Scudamore—a canard Daisy did nothing to suppress.) She had no further contact with her real parents up to the time of her father’s death in 1916 and her mother’s in 1925.
Taken into the house and welcomed by F.A.’s wife and children, Daisy was thenceforth presented to the world as his long-lost niece, while her true Portsmouth parents faded into oblivion. Over the next two years, “Uncle” Fortunatus created roles for her in several of his provincial productions and at London’s Pavilion Theatre, Mile End. After playing small parts in two plays during Sarah Bernhardt’s visit to London, Daisy gave (according to one newspaper) “a pleasing representation of the heroine” in Scudamore’s four-act melodrama The Dangers of London, in which she was required to cry repeatedly to her stage husband, “Kiss me, Percy!” In April 1901 she had better luck with a comedy called Riding to Win: as one critic observed, “her grace and buoyancy have been heightened by a capacity for fun that has proved very diverting.”
But the press took note of Daisy only rarely, and she began to complain that her talents were never fully appreciated. This instilled a certain crusty bitterness that went beyond mere ambition or professional rivalries. Years later her grandson had the impression that Daisy believed in “a charmed circle [that] surrounded the West End theatres, and a kind of freemasonry [that] kept out actresses like herself.” It never occurred to her that there might have been other reasons for her disenfranchisement—the absence of a singular talent, for example.
One day in November 1904, Daisy took sides with Scudamore’s son Lionel in a dispute with his father. Hastily tossing a feather boa around her neck and lifting her head in mute exasperation, she stormed out, as if rehearsing an actor-proof exit scene in a new play. When she returned the next afternoon for some fence-mending, Daisy found the house unaccountably silent. To her horror, she saw her patron and mentor sprawled on the parlor floor, dead of an apparent heart attack at the age of fifty-six.
Davis/Scudamore had left his house and copyrights to his wife and offspring, but for a time his widow continued to support Daisy with small sums, considering her, as she said, “nearly as dear to me as my own children.” This patronage was short-lived, however, for soon the family was overwhelmed with debts and utterly without capital.
But Daisy thrived. By early 1905 she was back in theatrical harness, landing jobs that usually paid one pound a week and scurrying from Cornwall to Scotland, accepting virtually anything on offer. The closest she came to a major role was in a production of Irving’s The Bells at the Savoy Theatre in June 1906—a production in which she costarred with Irving’s son.
In late spring 1907 she appeared in Brighton, in a play called Their Wedding Day. Also in the cast was an attractive actor named Roy Redgrave, whose birth name was George Elsworthy Redgrave. He already had at least one wife, several mistresses and a number of children, but soon Daisy thought that she was his favorite, and she foresaw a long and happy future with him once he obtained a divorce. Well might she have encouraged this rosy dream, for she was soon pregnant with Roy’s child.
For more than a millennium, there have been Redgraves in England—mostly in and around Suffolk, clustered near the historic market town of Bury St. Edmunds. In 1005 there was a Redgravesthorpe Parish, a designation meaning “a family settlement in a grove of reeds.” Because variant spellings were common until modern times, the surname eventually took almost as many forms as there were generations, and some of these are still widely scattered over the British Isles—among them Redgriff, Redgrove, Redgrough and Radgrave.
Roy’s great-grandfather, Thomas Redgrave, was a prosperous shoemaker in Northampton, where the leather industry flourished. He and his wife, Mary, had twelve children, of whom the seventh, born in 1824, was at least tangentially involved in the entertainment world. As “Cornelius Redgrave, Tobacconist,” he set up shop in London near the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, famous for theatricals since 1663. Sensing a lucrative if somewhat shady means of augmenting his income, Cornelius became one of the first ticket brokers: anonymously, he bought blocks of seats for the nearby spectacles and then sold them at extortionist rates to eager playgoers. “He was one of the first theatrical racketeers,” said Michael Redgrave years later.
George Augustus Redgrave, son of Cornelius, moved the clan a step closer to dramatic legitimacy when, in 1872, he married the actress Zoe Beatrice Elsworthy Pym, whose credits included appearances at the Lyceum with the noted Anglo-French classical actor Charles Fechter. George and Zoe’s son, George Elsworthy (later Roy) Redgrave, was born in Kennington, South London, on January 11, 1873—the first of five children born in eight years. He and his sister Dolly, with their parents’ hearty encouragement, “took to the stage even as youngsters,” as Roy recalled, describing their apprenticeship in local amateur dramatics.
His father’s death at the age of thirty, in 1881, compelled eight-year-old Roy to work as a barber’s assistant to help support the four younger children, while Zoe traveled with an acting company. In 1897 she had enormous success in a revival of Douglas Jerrold’s perennially popular comedy Black-Eyed Susan, at the Empire, Croydon. She married a second time, and Roy began to pursue a career in acting; one of his brothers, Christopher, became stage manager of the Surrey Theatre.
Roy was a handsome and athletic young man, five feet nine inches tall, with light brown hair, sparkling blue eyes and considerable charm. He became an expert at every kind of theatrical stunt, at fencing, at staged fights that seemed perilously authentic—and, offstage, at the craft of seduction, a talent he practiced with a legion of women. Roy appeared in a West End theater only once, but from the 1890s he was much hailed as a character actor at the Britannia, Hoxton—hence his billing as “The Dramatic Cock of the North,” i.e., North London’s most popular player.
In 1894 Roy Redgrave married Ellen Maud Pratt, who became an actress and prudently changed her name to Judith Kyrle. Her wealthy father provided a generous dowry and a comfortable home, and between 1895 and 1898 she bore three children. But for Roy, marriage did not mean domesticity: Judith deeply resented his ongoing philandering, which he made little effort to conceal. He was often away from home, acting wherever good roles were available and wherever he could find compliant female companionship.
In 1903 Roy met another actress, Esther Mary Cooke, whose family was part of a successful circus troupe in the English provinces. After descending from the trapeze to the stage, she, too, changed her name, to Ettie Carlisle, and somehow she landed a role in a play starring Roy Redgrave. In short order, two things occurred: Ettie and Roy began to live together as lovers, and Judith Kyrle went on the warpath, breathing scorn and threatening to ruin the careers of both her husband and his mistress. Roy told Ettie he would terminate his marriage so that he could wed her, but she was terrified of being hauled into court as corespondent in a divorce case.
Instead, Ettie signed on with a drama company headed for South Africa, where on November 1, 1903, at St. George’s Cathedral, Cape Town, she married the actor William Arthur Parrett, known professionally as Cecil Clayton. Roy, however, was not to be so easily rejected. He followed Ettie, resumed his pursuit, and persuaded her to return with him to England. It took the abandoned Parrett some months to trace his wife and initiate divorce proceedings.
Back home, Roy lost no time finding work. He successfully played the notorious outlaw Captain Starlight in a stage version of the classic Australian novel Robbery Under Arms, and soon he had a job at the Standard Theatre, Shoreditch, in The Girl Who Took the Wrong Turning—“an excellent drama with an excellent moral,” according to The Stage. He earned even more enthusiastic notices in A Girl’s Cross Roads: “He played the part of Jack Livingstone with much earnestness, depicting a man cursed with a drunken wife.” In Shadows of a Great City, the positive response continued: Roy effectively portrayed “a dashing sailor hero, giving a touch of true pathos.” These performances were much noticed, as were those he undertook when he returned with Mrs. Parrett on his arm.
And what of Ellen Maud Pratt, aka Judith Kyrle? Writers and Redgraves claimed for decades that she and Roy were never divorced, and that therefore his subsequent marriages were bigamous and the children from them were illegitimate. But the National Archives of the United Kingdom contain a divorce record proving the contrary, dated 1905. The file does not provide the reason for the wife’s petition, but Ellen/Judith may have claimed desertion or abandonment in her uncontested divorce petition: Roy was in Australia by this time, performing almost constantly with the prestigious J. C. Williamson Company. In any case, Judith contracted a second marriage in 1907, for which she duly presented her 1905 divorce decree so that, without impediment, she could legally accept the proposal of a respected landowner named Frederick Nettlefold.
Roy Redgrave had certainly done a lot of living by the age of thirty, when he signed with Williamson, the most successful theatrical impresario in Australia and the producer of spectacular shows in all its major cities. In addition to the freedom and excitement of acting abroad, and the financial security of a contract, Roy was also, by shipping out, effectively avoiding the responsibilities of his English affairs. And from a professional standpoint, “He preferred to be a big fish in a small pond,” as Daisy said many years later.
Success came quickly. “He is already a leading young actor,” wrote a Melbourne reporter about Roy’s appearance in the play Sunday. “He has a very pleasing, restrained and finished style.” His performance as a high-spirited Greek soldier in Theodora earned even more favorable reviews for his subtle underplaying and refusal to rely on huge gestures and exaggerated expressions. He also undertook the part of Mercutio, one of the few classical roles of his career. In these and other productions over the next several years, Roy frequently played opposite the renowned beauty Tittell Brune, an American who had become the most loved and respected actress in Australia. Happily married, she was no target for Roy’s amorous exploits.
Now it was Ettie’s turn to board ship and pursue Roy. She landed in Australia, where, billed as a soubrette, she performed at least once in Melbourne, in a Williamson musical. By the following year, she and Roy were back in England, where (still unmarried to Roy) she was soon pregnant with his child. Enormously fond of the baby boy, Papa suggested a postponement of marriage to Ettie until his financial situation was more secure. To that end, he agreed to work for a summer season at the resort town of Brighton. At his first rehearsal for Their Wedding Day, Roy met his fellow cast member Daisy Scudamore, eleven years his junior.
The title of the play was ironic on several levels. Ettie was pressing Roy to set a date for their nuptials, and now another young woman had compounded what Roy saw as his “problems.” At the end of the summer, Daisy left Brighton and went to Bristol, where she had a one-month acting job; there she awaited Roy’s arrival. But disappointment came with his first letter, in which, as he protested, “my first duty is to Miss C[arlisle] and the boy . . . it is the only right thing I can do. Heaven knows how this other trouble of yours [Daisy’s pregnancy] hurts me, and you know I shall do all I possibly can to straighten matters.”
Daisy replied the same day. Her letter has not survived, but it must have been a masterpiece of persuasive improvisation, for by mid-September, Roy had evidently decided in Daisy’s favor. “If you say you will have me, we will be married,” he wrote. “I know I love you. I believe you love me and if you will bear with me, I will do my level best by you. I know I am not a saint but dear, with the right hand at the helm I can and will steer straight. I can say no more . . . I can’t have the boy [i.e., his son by Ettie]. We must have our own.” At this point, Ettie Carlisle, summarily abandoned, departs the story.
“I am going to bed tonight the happiest woman in the world,” Daisy wrote to Roy in an ecstatic response to his proposal. “It seems all too good to be true that you love me so much and yet I know it is true. I love you and you love me. Dearest, say it again in your letters and whisper it to me when we meet.”
Roy and Daisy were married on September 23, 1907, at the Registrar’s Office, 4 Minerva Street, Glasgow. He had suggested Scotland because at that time (unlike English municipalities), no term of residency or waiting period was required prior to marriage. Hence, contrary to the suspicions of several Redgraves and their chroniclers, Roy and Daisy’s son, Michael, although conceived out of wedlock, was indeed born legitimately, less than six months after his parents married. (Alas, Michael’s son, late in life, was still proclaiming, “My father was illegitimate,” an assertion his sisters blithely repeated, apparently believing it to be true.) Nor was the marriage bigamous: that irregularity Roy reserved for still another nuptial, nine years later.
The groom returned to his work in London, the bride to hers in Bristol, and he sent her small sums from time to time, pleading inordinate expenses. When their baby was five months old, Daisy rejoined Roy in London. There, she began the custom of placing Michael with nannies or minders for a night or two here, or a week or longer there, while she sought acting jobs. With Roy as her leading man, she performed in a revival of The Christian by Hall Caine (based on one of his most popular novels and the first work of British fiction to sell more than one million copies).
This play addressed the so-called Woman Question that exercised writers and politicians in the early years of the twentieth century. In this case, the action focused on the struggles of a young woman named Glory Quayle, who tries to lead an independent life in a large city. “Mr. Roy Redgrave is magnificent as John Storm,” ran a typical review, “whilst the work of Miss Daisy Scudamore, as Glory Quayle, approaches very near to perfection.” At last, a rave review.
The Christian had a healthy run to the end of 1908. When it closed, Roy told Daisy that he had a splendid offer to return to Australia—this time with an acting company under William Anderson, who had just opened the King’s Theatre in Melbourne. “That’s where the real money is,” he announced. Roy departed at Christmastime; Daisy and their year-old son followed in the summer of 1909. “My mother was determined not to lose my father,” said Michael.
Before departing, Daisy appeared in a novelty: a four-minute silent movie. Filmed at a small studio near Brighton and directed by Dave Aylott, the picture (And Then He Woke Up) was a two-character comedy starring the popular Ernie Cornford as a tramp who dreams of saving a young woman from danger and then marrying her. For this production and forever after it, Daisy preferred to be known as Margaret Scudamore. Thus she is listed in the archival credits of And Then He Woke Up, and thus her name appears in all subsequent English plays and movies.
Theatrical touring is not the glamorous enterprise it is often imagined to be, and there was certainly nothing privileged about such travel for those making their way across the deserts and outback regions of Australia a century ago. Service on the overcrowded trains was erratic at best; cheap lodgings for actors were uncomfortable and depressing; indoor bathrooms were not routinely available to any but the very wealthy; and theaters were gelid in winter, stifling in summer.
Hoping for better shows as he proceeded, Roy put up with these inconveniences, taking comfort in female companionship and liquor. After six months, his income had dwindled to almost nothing, and so he welcomed Margaret and Michael none too enthusiastically. She, too, had hoped for a good career in the Antipodes, but soon she had to work in this or that town as a laundress or seamstress when there were no acting jobs—which, as it turned out, was alarmingly often. While they were in Melbourne, Michael was baptized in the Church of England.
When she could afford the minimal expense, Margaret left the boy at a boardinghouse while she looked for work; later she recounted colorful details of their experiences. “Australian landladies seem to have been eccentric,” Michael recalled. “One kept snakes and a pair of magpies. The birds terrified my mother by darting at my very blue eyes.” Another guardian bathed the child by watering him down, fully clothed, with a garden hose, and then putting him out to dry in the afternoon sun.
Up to the end of 1910, Margaret (sometimes with Roy) undertook minor roles in a variety of repertory spectacles. Traveling across Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania, she joined the casts of (among other forgotten plays) The Bushwoman—A Tale of the Outback and The Squatter’s Daughter, melodramas that invariably concerned the hardships of rural life. Margaret’s name does not occur in reviews—not even of the occasional one-act plays written by her husband, of which none survives in any form.
During one presentation, two-year-old Michael unofficially and unexpectedly made his theatrical debut. Waiting in the wings with his mother, the child recognized Roy onstage and toddled swiftly and amiably toward him, loudly wailing, “Daddy!” Unflustered, Roy worked the moment into the dialogue, picked up his son and, while both of them stage-whispered some nonsense or other, returned him to his mother’s arms. The audience—evidently considering this a sweet, sentimental moment in an otherwise starchy evening—burst into wild applause. Later, Margaret described the event for Michael in storybook detail, and so it entered into family lore.
But amusing family incidents were rare. To his standing as archphilanderer Roy now added the reputation of hard-drinking gambler and man-about-town. Margaret at last became angrily impatient with her irresponsible husband, who was increasingly dissolute and incapable of supporting his family: he was mere “flotsam and jetsam,” as she described him. “She gave up the struggle of pursuing him across Australia,” wrote her grandson, Corin Redgrave, “all too often arriving at the hotel just after he had left and then being unable to leave until she had paid his bill as well as her own.”
Summarizing the time in Australia for an interviewer years later, Michael Redgrave said his mother was “desperately unhappy there, very miserable”—and as for the marriage, “she gave it up as a bad job and brought me home.” Mother and son returned to England just before the new year 1911—with no objection from Roy, whom they never saw again. “I don’t remember my father. I knew next to nothing about him, and little good.”
But Margaret was nothing if not resourceful—and to some men, she was quite irresistible. The harshness and disappointments of her time in Australia had not compromised her good looks, and she was able to affect an appealingly flirtatious manner at opportune moments. One such occurred during her return journey at sea, when she met a man named James Patrick Anderson. Tall and courtly, with the demeanor of an Edwardian gentleman, he sported a neatly trimmed moustache that countered his baldpate; at forty-seven, he was almost twenty years older than Margaret. But he was handsome and charming. And single. And wealthy.
Born in Scotland and raised in England, Anderson was returning after years of successful entrepreneurship with a tea and rubber conglomerate in Ceylon. He found Margaret stimulating as a companion and alluring as a woman, and he arranged for her to join him in the ship’s First Class restaurant for dinner. The friendship advanced swiftly: Margaret called him Andy and confided the details of a marriage she now regarded as history, and she encouraged him to recount tales of his colorful experiences in the land of exotica. Andy told her that he had fathered two illegitimate children with (as the designation went) a native girl—offspring whose support and upbringing he had honorably guaranteed with a handsome trust fund.
Andy’s enviable financial status obviated the need for him to seek further employment. He was living on investments, the administration of which was his sole occupation, and he had decided to reside at his London club while seeking a suitable Westminster address. Before they disembarked in England, Andy invited Margaret to be his dinner guest a few days later; he then booked tickets to squire her to the theater and to concerts. For almost five years mother and son lived in a series of rooms in various parts of London, Surrey, Kent and Sussex, where she found work in modest theatricals. Andy, meanwhile, lived in respectable bachelorhood at his all-male preserve and then at a home he purchased in Belgravia.
The couple was very much a couple despite the lack of a marriage certificate, and soon Margaret was pregnant with Andy’s child. One of Michael’s earliest memories was of a tiny flat where he awoke to see Andy quietly leaving his mother’s bed. For a moment, before he recognized the man, Michael wondered if this was the father of whom he had heard much. He sensed the absence of the mysterious, mythical Roy—an emptiness he felt even more keenly when he met other children with mothers and fathers. More poignantly, as he wrote in a diary, “I don’t remember [my mother] being especially affectionate with me, though [she was] always calm and gracious and beautiful.”
But there was a serious obstacle to a marriage between Andy and Margaret, for she and Roy had not been divorced, and her letters to him on the subject went unanswered—perhaps because he was never long enough in one place to receive them. When she bore Andy’s daughter in 1911, they named her Peg (the diminutive form of Margaret), but it was decided, for the sake of propriety, that the baby would live with her mother. A woman alone, with a child of apparently unknown paternity, was not the zenith of respectability, but Margaret’s situation was not held in such low esteem as it would have been for a wealthy, single gentleman with a baby but no wife in sight. Andy contributed to the support of Michael and Peg, but he did not yet want to live with his mistress.
“When I was very young, as an actress’s child,” Michael recalled years later, “I was always being left with landladies or being given to total strangers who were introduced as Auntie Dolly This or Uncle Fred That.” His childhood was indeed an uncertain, unstable and peripatetic time of his life—a succession of flats, always dependent on his mother’s schedule, never feeling that he belonged anywhere or to anyone, and never accustomed to any warm or even consistent adult guidance or attention. “I didn’t know what a home was.”
Demanding his mother’s attention and fearing to lose her, the boy often begged to accompany her to the theater. “At the age of five, I watched my mother act in an old melodrama. In the last act, she had to clasp her long-lost son to her bosom and cry, ‘My son—my son!’ I topped her line with one of my own, crying out from my place in the audience: ‘That’s not your son—I’m your son!’ The house burst into laughter and I into tears, and I was bribed out of the theatre by an attendant with a box of chocolates.”
After another of Margaret’s performances (as Lady Gilding in James Barrie’s The Professor’s Love Story), a journalist cornered her and Michael outside the theater. “Miss Scudamore,” wrote the reporter, “has a clever small son whose ambition it is to write plays for his mother.” This item was apparently a gloss on Margaret’s remark a moment earlier, that her son had just written a children’s Christmas story which they had sent to none other than Barrie himself—adding that young Michael had already read and reread the Peter Pan cycle.
“My dear Michael,” Barrie replied in his idiosyncratic orthography, “i like your story very much. I am sending it back to you with many thanks for letting me read it, and some day i expect u will be the author of printed books if there is nothing better for u to do.—Your fellow-scribe, J. M. Barrie.” From that time, Michael was a prodigious scribbler of stories—and later of diaries, letters, essays, articles, screenplays, novels and plays. “Being a writer seemed to me far superior to being an actor,” he claimed.
During the first two years of the world war, while Peg was still a toddler, Michael attended several schools in neighborhoods that Margaret (perhaps presumptuously) deemed safe from the zeppelins. But security was impossible, and in fact he witnessed some of the most destructive bombings of London. On October 13, 1915, for example, he and his mother witnessed the so-called Theatreland Raid, in which German bombs fell in Charing Cross Road and struck the Lyceum Theatre, causing multiple casualties but leaving them both unhurt.
Despite the anxieties of wartime and his frequent transfer from one school to another, Michael did well in classes. “I got best marks at school,” he wrote to his mother while living temporarily with yet another guardian. “She is going to take me to the pantomime. I am in a little play at school on Thursday. With love from your Michael, with kisses.—P.S. The cat walked on my paper.”
Meet the Author
DONALD SPOTO is the author of twenty-six books, including bestselling biographies of Alfred Hitchcock, Tennessee Williams, Laurence Olivier, Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman, and Audrey Hepburn. He earned his Ph.D. degree from Fordham University. Spoto is married to the Danish school administrator Ole Flemming Larsen. They live in Denmark.
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I suppose everyone is looking for something different in a bio. This is really the michael and rachel story. I wanted more about Vanesssa and Lynn and their children. Things that stick in my head would be the outrage when Lynn breast fed her baby on set she was one of the first to cause a ruckus concernning this situation which is still a subject today. Or Natasha's movies.. she was the very definition of charm in Widow's Peak with Mia Farrow and Larry Olivier's widow Joan Plowright and how Broadway went dark to honor Natasha when she died. I wanted more and got less.