Extracting the Michael

The Redgraves: review.

Vanessa Redgrave with daughters Joely and Natasha and newborn son Carlo
Vanessa Redgrave with daughters Joely and Natasha and newborn son Carlo in 1969. Photograph: Getty Images

The Redgraves: a Family Epic
Donald Spoto
Robson Press, 384pp, £25

Given how much our culture admires glamour, it is remarkable how little careful thought we give to it, especially in the form that is most devoted to glorifying it. Celebrity biographies are, by and large, the last place to seek enlightenment about the meaning of celebrities or glamour. Deriving etymologically from a Scottish word for witchcraft, glamour provides our secular world with a mode of worship, which is why its metaphors are religious, its stars called icons and idols: glamour offers us a more exalted vision of ourselves.

It is not an accident that we think of them as gods, as the remarkable Michael Redgrave seems to have understood. In addition to being one of the greatest actors of a magnificent acting generation, Redgrave was also erudite and highly intelligent; he wrote several books, including a novel, The Mountebank’s Tale, which opens with an epigraph from Rilke that concludes: “In the life of the gods . . . I understand nothing better than the moment they withdraw themselves; what would be a god without the protecting cloud, can you imagine a god worse for wear?”

Compared with the legacies of Redgrave’s male contemporaries on the London stage – Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness and Ralph Richardson –his achievements have been somewhat overshadowed since his death in 1985 at the age of 77, his star unaccountably allowed to dim. Happily, recent biographies are working to burnish it once more, arguing rightly for Redgrave’s place at the centre of an epoch of remarkable theatrical accomplishment. Donald Spoto’s The Redgraves: a Family Epic is the second biography of Redgrave to appear in eight years, and the first American biography of Redgrave and his dynasty (although Spoto ends his book quoting Vanessa Redgrave’s resistance to the term “dynasty”, it seems a fair characterisation of a family that has achieved fame and influence across three generations and counting). The first biography of Redgrave, Alan Strachan’s Secret Dreams: a Biography of Michael Redgrave, itself long overdue, was published in 2004 and then only in the UK. This is lucky for Spoto, as Strachan’s book is by far the superior: considerably more thorough and detailed, more thoughtful and much better written.

Over the course of his distinguished career, Redgrave acted in and occasionally directed more than 260 plays and films, along with countless television and radio appearances, as well as readings and recordings, and writing a small handful of books. It is hard to imagine the energy that enabled him, amid all this work, also to maintain, usually concurrently, longterm relationships with members of both sexes, a 50-year marriage and a family with three children (Vanessa, Corin, and Lynn), all of whom became notable actors themselves. That said, it is clear that his wife, the actress Rachel Kempson, did the lion’s share of the work raising the children and holding the family together –while her husband appeared at times to be trying to pull it apart.

It seems clear that Redgrave was a genuinely doting father, although his peripatetic career and his habit of always keeping a male lover or two handily nearby meant that he was largely an absent one as well. Although Spoto claims that this will be a story of the entire Redgrave clan, his primary focus is on Michael and his “split” sexuality. For a writer who has published 26 celebrity biographies to date, most of them about actors (including Laurence Olivier, Marilyn Monroe, Ingrid Bergman, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean), Spoto does not always seem very interested in the process of acting. Redgrave was a serious actor, devoted to his craft, but his charm and handsome good looks meant that when he was cast in his first film role, in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 hit The Lady Vanishes, he became an instant celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic.

Spoto continually implies Redgrave’s discomfort in a world of stardom without actually addressing the difficulty of being a “classical” actor in an age of celebrity, the actor’s perpetual conflict between vanity and craft, external image and internal turmoil. This remains subtextual – Spoto has some pungent comments on Laurence Olivier’s cultivation of celebrity – but his stated personal liking for all of the Redgraves (he interviewed and chatted with both Michael and Rachel before their deaths, getting to know the latter fairly well, it seems) keeps this biography safely skin-deep. Despite its protestations to the contrary, it is mostly about Michael. As seems to have been the case in life, he is the centre, the rest of the family the orbiting moons: he dominates the story for almost 300 pages until his death in 1985 at the age of 77; the others are summarily despatched in another 80 pages.

Where Spoto does want to delve deeper is into the cognitive dissonance of a man who was so actively bisexual. In his diaries, Redgrave sometimes referred to his sexuality as his “split nature”; Strachan takes Redgrave’s admission of bisexuality (“I am bisexual, to say the least of it,” he told Corin many years later) on its own terms, whereas Spoto strongly implies that Redgrave’s primary erotic energies were directed toward men. It is impossible to know what choices Redgrave might have made had he lived in a more open society; perhaps his bisexuality was a compromise with the closet but he also had several long-term sexual relationships with women.

The more salient point is that in an era when gay relations were aggressively prosecuted (in the UK between 1940 and 1955, Spoto points out, the number of arrests for homosexual “behaviour” increased by 600 per cent), his relationships with men caused Redgrave intense guilt, anxiety and outright fear of disclosure, even as they also clearly gave him great pleasure, both sexually and emotionally. But after years of promiscuous infidelity on his part, when Rachel suggested that perhaps the couple should separate after the birth of Lynn, Corin later said, the idea “brought such a storm of grief that she had to spend the rest of the week comforting him”.

According to Strachan, Rachel had a fourth pregnancy, which ended in miscarriage, during Redgrave’s decade-long affair with a man named Bob Michell, an episode that Spoto doesn’t mention, leaving the reader with the strong impression that the Redgrave marriage had ceased to be sexual, becoming only a respectable cover for Redgrave’s “true” homosexual desire. Yet the truth, as so often happens, seems to be more complex than that.

In general, Redgrave made little effort to hide his affairs; long-term lovers such as Michell joined the family for years, an honorary uncle to the Redgrave children. (Strachan’s book includes a photograph of Michael relaxing on a beach lounger between his beautiful wife on the right and his handsome lover on the left; even Strachan’s photographs are far superior to Spoto’s.) Rachel, who seems often to have genuinely liked her husband’s lovers, began to dream that she had two husbands, and Spoto deems this peculiar: “In dreams and fantasies at least,” he tuts, “things were becoming more and more curious.” Surely the dream seems perfectly understandable if we accept that Rachel acquiesced to her husband’s lovers, a decision not exactly unheard of, and Michael and Rachel clearly loved each other. He had other sexual and emotional needs, and, eventually, so did she, taking her own lover for several decades (at which point, amid all this sophisticated tolerance, many readers will be cheering her on).

One occasionally hears an axe grinding in Spoto’s commentary: discussing the public prosecution of homosexuality in the UK in the mid-20th century, he writes that the attempt to suppress it “was of course an impossible agenda, as any sensible person knew”. Any sensible person today may know that but in the 1940s and 1950s many more or less sensible people genuinely believed that homosexuality could be cured – it was listed as a mental illness by the American psychiatric association well into the 1980s.

Spoto is also prone to abrupt spurts of judgmentalism that are clearly at odds with how the Redgraves chose to live their lives. Rachel accepted her husband’s male lovers in part because Michael had warned her of the “difficulties in his nature” before they married, and she knew what he meant; in part because of her generation’s sense of duty; and in part because, by all accounts, the Redgraves loved each other deeply and loyally (although not faithfully) for half a century.

Rachel entered the marriage with her eyes open; and if in the beginning she thought she could change Michael, she quickly learned how wrong she was and began the far more loving and generous, if painful, process of letting her husband be who he was. Spoto finds it odd that Redgrave was so open with his wife about his liaisons but this may well have been a facet of what kept them together: they would not have been the first couple to conclude that deception might be more damaging to their marriage than sexual infidelity.

So when Rachel and her (male) lover and Michael dined together after one premiere, Spoto patronisingly (and speculatively) adds “it was all very civilised and tepid”. One man’s tepidness is another man’s fair-mindedness and Redgrave was certainly in no position to cast stones. One of his intense affairs was with Noël Coward during the Second World War. After their sexual relationship ended they remained good friends. One day, some years later, Coward saw a movie poster in Leicester Square advertising “Dirk Bogarde and Michael Redgrave in The Sea Shall Not Have Them”. “I don’t see why not,” he quipped. “Everyone else has.”

Although Spoto can have something of a tin ear (“‘the best dressed and best acted bad play in London,’ whined the Times”), he does offer some entertaining anecdotes, such as the marvellous advice Michael gave a young Vanessa when she realised she was going to be quite tall: “Don’t worry . . . hold yourself up and be severe, demanding, splendid!” But then Spoto rather spoils it by telling us that this was Redgrave’s first acting note for his daughter, helpfully explicating what a note is (“a direction or suggestion”). He also explains that Shaftesbury Avenue is “London’s Broadway”, although one imagines that a reader sufficiently interested in the theatre to read a biography of Redgrave would not require this gloss. Spoto’s feel for such cultural translation is not always strong: he says that Redgrave received a “baccalaureate degree” from Cambridge in the 1930s: he took an upper second in English, in reality.

This biography, Spoto declares at the outset “is in no sense an authorised biography”. Actually, it is in several senses an authorised biography and not just because of Spoto’s avowed personal fondness for Michael and Rachel. In the book’s later pages he is fiercely defensive about Vanessa and Corin’s political activism, castigating Americans for what he sees as their bigoted response to it. He ignores the awkward questions raised by some of their more extreme statements and allegiances and by the contradictions that undermine any celebrity family claiming the moral high ground while enjoying the perks of wealth and fame. By the end, his generally admiring tone has become positively hagiographic.

It is perhaps not fair to blame Spoto for not transcending his own form, but after 26 books he might take a lesson from Redgrave himself, whose family came to understand that he frequently became irritable before his performances because he could not bear to repeat himself from one night to the next. From such dissatisfaction comes greatness – and it is time for celebrity biographies to begin to aspire to something more commensurate with the power of their subjects.

Sarah Churchwell is professor of American literature and public understanding of the humanities at the University of East Anglia. Her next book, “Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby”, will be published in June 2013 by Virago