More on Elsa Lanchester

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Oct 21 08:07:08 MDT 1999

The New York Times

April 17, 1983, Sunday, Late City Final Edition


By John Houseman; John Houseman is the author of two volumes of
autobiographical memoirs, ''Run-Through'' and ''Front and Center.'' [The NY
Times does not mention that Houseman was also part of the 1930s radical
scene and a frequent collaborator with Orson Welles]

By Elsa Lanchester. Illustrated. 327 pp. New York: St. Martin's Press.

SOON after Bertolt Brecht's death a radio station in California decided to
celebrate his extended sojourn in that state. As a producer of one of his
best-known plays, ''Galileo,'' I was invited to participate. So was the
widow of the actor who created the role, Charles Laughton. All Elsa
Lanchester could remember about Brecht was that he did not wash and stank
up her house with his inferior cigars. In her book, ''Elsa Lanchester
Herself'' (which was also the title of a one-woman show in which she toured
the country), she repeats this, with the added information that ''passing
through Brecht, the smoke came out with the sourest, bitterest smell. . . .
He hadn't many teeth and his mouth opened in a complete circle so you'd see
two little tombstones sticking out of this black hole. A very unpleasant

Miss Lanchester's memoirs are filled with such frank, vivid and sometimes
tasteless impressions of friends and enemies: Shelley Winters is ''a tricky
little thing''; the critic Kenneth Tynan is ''sleek, shiny, eel-like,
oleaginous''; one of her oldest and best friends ''smelled like a polecat.
. . . the bathtub gin was coming out of her skin,'' and had a husband who
''sat on the toilet reading for hours.'' She is no less frank about herself.

Miss Lanchester's book falls roughly into three parts, of which the first
and last are the most personal and affecting. Her mother was an eccentric,
idealistic, radical socialist whose determination to cohabit without
benefit of marriage in Edwardian England resulted in her family kidnapping
her and having her certified as insane. (Later she became secretary to Karl
Marx's daughter.) Though Miss Lanchester and her mother never really got
along, they had a close, lifelong relationship and the daughter's youth was
colored by her mother's ardent socialism, pacifism and feminism. Before she
reached her teens she had studied with and come under the influence of the
Duncans (Isadora and Raymond), founded a classical dance club and put out a
magazine to which she was the sole contributor. Later she earned her living
running a children's theater, modeling (for Jacob Epstein among others) and
acting as proof of adultery (for a fee of $100 a throw) for couples who
couldn't get an ''honest divorce'' under obsolete British law.

In due course she went into the theater and made striking appearances -
first as the Larva in the Capeks' ''Insect Play'' and then in a danced
interlude as Hogarth's Shrimp Girl in a famous production of Congreve's
''Way of the World'' with Edith Evans. She also founded and conducted an
after-theater nightclub - The Cave of Harmonies - frequented by such
intellectuals as Aldous Huxley, John Maynard Keynes and Evelyn Waugh. Other
acquaintances included the writer John Collier, the film producer Sidney
Bernstein, the critic James Agate, the actress Tallulah Bankhead and
Aleister Crowley of black magic fame. ''He had a bicycle, and his head was
shaved and he wore a yellow kilt.''

By the mid-20's she had become something of a celebrity in London; Arnold
Bennett describes her in his journal as ''very young, with a lovely
complexion, a wonderful shock of red hair and a rather queerly blunted nose
. . . full of virginal inventiveness and distinction.''

In the central part of her book Miss Lanchester describes her married life
with the famous actor Charles Laughton. (At the time of their meeting, she
was better known and more successful than he was.) It was an uneasy but
close and long-lasting union complicated by professional rivalry and
incompatibility on many levels - all of which are fully and bluntly gone
into. One night, after they had been married for two years, the police
stopped Laughton at the door of his London flat; they had a young boy in
custody who had been loitering outside the house, presumably to get money
after Laughton had approached him in Hyde Park. When her husband, in tears,
confessed, Miss Lanchester told him not to worry about it, that it didn't
matter. ''That's why he cried . . . when I told him it didn't matter.''

Laughton's young male companions and Miss Lanchester's occasional lovers
run in and out of a narrative that contains an imposing list of
professional accomplishments - mostly Laughton's but also some of her own.
Her most famous film role was that of ''The Bride of Frankenstein.'' Her
successful stage appearances included the daughter in ''Payment Deferred''
and an astonishing Ariel (to Laughton's Prospero) at London's Old Vic which
Tyrone Guthrie described as ''weird and lyrical in a balletic style'' and
of which James Agate wrote: ''May I be forgiven for saying that until Miss
Elsa Lanchester the part of Ariel had never been acted? She had a radiance
that cannot be explained - in short, it is exquisite invention.''

In the years that followed, Laughton's international reputation as a film
star continued to grow (''Ruggles of Red Gap,'' ''Les Miserables,'' ''If I
Had a Million,'' ''The Hunchback of Notre Dame,'' ''Mutiny on the Bounty'')
while Miss Lanchester's was mostly limited to local appearances as a
''chanteuse'' in a small Hollywood theater.

Yet, for better or worse, their marriage survived their sexual
maladjustments, the unevenness of their careers and ''the intrigues and
backbiting of Hollywood's British colony.'' It was held together by what
she describes as a sense of duty, by love of their possessions and houses,
by mutual artistic respect and by a shared and very British passion for
flowers with which they started their courtship and which persisted to the
end of their life together.

''I can only compare Charles' and my tightly bound estrangement to the
battle between Oberon and Titania in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' We were
not often unhappy but Charles showed a morose side to me and I showed an
increasingly flip side to him. . . . Nobody calculated intentionally to
part us but nor did anyone try to get us together. We needed help and we
didn't get it,'' she writes.

Others have expressed themselves more strongly about Laughton. A former
associate described him as ''diabolical . . . he had to destroy Elsa or
someone. He had to destroy to live and create.''

MISS LANCHESTER is a survivor. The final section of her book contains an
account of Laughton's 1959 season at Stratford-on-Avon (where he appeared
as Bottom and Lear) and of his arduous preparation for the role of the
king. For months he used everyone, singly and in groups, to listen to his
repeated readings of that phenomenal role. But his principal audience was
his wife. During that time they were inseparable. To get away from the
world they traveled as far as Hawaii. Between sessions ''we allotted to
ourselves breaks to go into caves and climb rocks and pick flowers and
grasses, to fill our place with strange tropical leaves. That was our
relaxation.'' Just before the opening they spent some days in Wales in the
ruins of Harlech Castle and walked among the rhododendrons and around the
Druid Stones known as ''The Kings.'' ''We got on very well and we had a
very good time. Charles was grateful to me.''

After his success in ''King Lear,'' to repay her for her help, Laughton
bought Miss Lanchester a Lincoln Continental; he also undertook to direct a
one-woman show for her - an autobiographical revue for which Laughton
supplied the structure, some of the form and the title. But by the time
''Elsa Lanchester, Herself'' was ready to open, Laughton's final illness
had declared itself and their happy interlude was over:

''The day before we were to open I heard screaming at the front of our
house and ran outside. Charles shouted that he wanted pills, that he wanted
to end his life. Then he hurled himself down the concrete stairs. I rushed
down and slapped Charles hard. He became silent and said simply, 'Thank
you.' I think I said, 'You're trying to kill my show. You want to destroy
it and me.' Charles said something like, 'Yes ... maybe ... I'm sorry.' ''

Miss Lanchester's account of their final months together is harrowing,
unsentimental and moving. At one of their last separations she reports that
she felt ''a shiver of goodbye'': ''Sometimes you have a sudden flash that
you're not going to see someone in health ever again and I had the feeling
- that I was a free woman. That's a terrible thing to say. But at that
moment that's how I felt.''

There is a deadly irony in the final lines of Miss Lanchester's narrative.
She reports that as they were leaving the church after the funeral,
Laughton's agent (whom she detested) said to her: ''Well, Elsa, you've had
a satisfactory life and nothing really to regret. After all, Charles gave
you serenity and freedom and that's all you wanted, wasn't it?''

Louis Proyect

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