What lies beneath

If Sarkozy banned the burqa, he himself would be oppressing the women who wear it. Making something

After reading the latest sunbed scare story in the papers, I did something out of character: I went out and bought a copy of Grazia, its glossy cover resplendent with the pneumatic – and suntanned – Victoria Beckham. I believe a society gets the magazines it deserves, and I wanted to understand what has changed in our perennially complex attitude to appearance.

The obsession with beauty is at least as old as creation; so is the equation of a wholesome outside with a wholesome inside. That’s why Shakespeare has us all believing that Richard III was a hunchback, despite the paucity of evidence, and why the 18th-century philosopher Johann Lavater managed to convince most of western Europe that physiognomy was the key to personality. But these writers were trying to read, or in Shakespeare’s case to malign, the soul: they were using the surface to signify the depths. Grazia, however, signals a new style of beauty obsession: pure form, seemingly without content. Nobody cares about Posh’s soul – nobody believes that she has one. She’s all surface and silicone.

When did our admiration for human beauty and our joy in beautiful objects curdle into an obsession with appearance that seems to leave room for little else? We will risk cancer to look healthier – well, that’s nothing new: Victorian women used acid as a facial peel, and don’t tell me it didn’t occur to at least some of them that this probably wasn’t going to serve them well a few years down the line. In an era when 30 was middle-aged, these women wanted to look youthful. Now we sit inside all day staring at small screens, but we want to look outdoorsy and sun-splashed, and despite the ubiquity of fake tan we are willing to endanger our cells in pursuit of a glossier cover. Appearance has always been a conjuring trick: women wanting to look younger, men wanting to look richer. Now the gender boundaries have blurred, but we’re still all busily using every visual swindle in the repertory to convince each other that we are shiny, flawless – desirable.

Which is fine, except for one thing: there is more to us than meets the eye – yes, even you, Victoria Beckham. Yet that “more” seems to merit less and less attention. The other news story that worried me this past week was Nicolas Sarkozy saying that France should ban the burqa because it is “not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience”. Let’s push aside, for a moment, the irony of trying to ban a full-body covering because of what it supposedly displays (subservience), and of the head of a vocally secular republic claiming that this infringement of his people’s rights is not about religion (then what is it about?), not to mention the irony of a Frenchman telling women what to wear. What exactly does he think he is going to achieve? Is Monsieur Sarkozy, denizen of a great culture but also, let us not forget, a man married to a Grazia favourite, really so in thrall to the power of appearance that he believes that if he bans something from sight he will make it go away? Will all these oppressed women (and, if they are not oppressed by men making them cover themselves, they are now oppressed by their president telling them they’re not allowed to) simply shrug off the floor-length cloth and bound joyously towards Topshop?

Martine Aubry, head of France’s Socialist Party, suspects not. “If a law bans the burqa, these women will still have [it] but will remain at home,” she said. “They will no longer be seen.” So, to avoid offending the secular Frenchman’s perception of what should and should not be visible, Sarkozy plans to make a whole segment of the population vanish. They will no longer be seen: they will swap the burqa, sometimes called a mobile prison, for an immobile prison, and if those who exercise power over them there are indeed their jailers, they will have even less chance of parole than they did before. But that’s all right, because Sarkozy won’t have to look at them.

A democracy is very much about visibility: casting a vote is a way of being seen, even if secret ballot means we no longer take that prerogative as literally as we once did. And capitalism runs, at least in part, on conspicuous consumption – although it must be said that when, as at present, that consumption turns out to have been facilitated by money that was as visible as a freshly waxed WAG but wasn’t actually there, we have a hint that something may be wrong.

The credit crunch can be seen as a warning against our love affair with appearances, with things that look beautiful but have nothing inside, like a sun-kissed celeb, a jewelled Damien Hirst skull – or a housing bubble.

We have never had such a pernicious addiction to surface, to glossy appearance and Photoshopped perfection, as we do at the moment. The Victorians have the reputation of being hypocrites: look beneath that acid-fresh surface and you found all kinds of interestingly toxic darkness. Our society, however, appears to aspire to being surface all the way through: even much contemporary art (Hirst, Jeff Koons, Banksy) shies away from interiority. Peel off the suntan and you’ll find nothing at all, neither reason nor imagination nor moral shoots sprouting in the dark. In this, hardline Islamists have western liberals beat: they fear and mistreat what lies beneath the shroud, but at least they admit that it’s there.

Nina Caplan is arts editor of Time Out

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, HOWZAT!

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The love affairs of Stan Laurel: "If I had to do it over again things would be different"

A romantic who craved stability, the English comedian Stan Laurel led a Hollywood love life as chaotic as his films’ plots

The comedian Stan Laurel was, even by the standards of his time, a prodigious correspondent. The Stan Laurel Correspondence Archive Project contains more than 1,500 artefacts, and these are only the documents that have so far been traced, as many of his early missives appear to have been lost. He was, quite literally, a man of letters.

His punctiliousness about correspondence can be ascribed, at least in part, to his natural good manners, but letters were also a means of filling his long retirement. He outlived his screen partner Oliver Hardy – “Babe” to his friends – by almost eight years but refused all offers of work during that time. Instead, heartbreakingly, he wrote sketches and routines for the duo that would never be performed. It was, perhaps, a way for Laurel to speak with Babe again, if only in his head, until he followed him into the dark on 23 February 1965.

Though Laurel and Hardy have never been forgotten, they are currently undergoing an energetic revival. Stan and Ollie, a film dramatisation of their later years, starring Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C Reilly as Oliver Hardy, is scheduled for release in 2018. Talking Pictures TV is to start showing the duo’s long features from September. Sixty years since Oliver Hardy’s death on 7 August 1957, the duo will soon be rediscovered by a new generation.

They were such different men and such unlikely partners. Laurel was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in 1890, in Ulverston, then part of Lancashire, the son of AJ, a theatre manager, and Margaret, an actress. He made his stage debut at the age of 16 and never again considered an alternative profession, eventually leaving for the United States to act on the vaudeville circuit before finally ending up in the nascent Hollywood. Norvell Hardy, meanwhile, came from Harlem, Georgia, the son of a slave overseer who died in the year of his son’s birth, 1892, and whose first name, Oliver, Norvell took as his own.

Hardy, who had worked as a singer and as a projectionist, became a jobbing actor, often being cast as the “heavy”because of his bulk. Laurel, by contrast, was groomed for stardom, but it repeatedly slipped through his fingers. Unlike Chaplin’s Tramp, or the boater-and-glasses-wearing Harold Lloyd, he had no persona. Only when Hal Roach paired him with Hardy did he finally find a mask that fitted, and thus a professional marriage slowly grew into a friendship that would endure until Babe’s death.

Laurel was the creative engine of the partnership, creating storylines and gags, intimately involving himself in the directing and editing of each film, but Hardy was the better, subtler actor. Laurel was a creature of the stage, trained to act for the back rows; Hardy, by contrast, had watched countless films from his projectionist’s perch and knew that the smallest of gestures – the raising of an eyebrow, a glance flicked in the audience’s direction – would be writ large on the screen. Laurel recognised this and tailored his scripts to his partner’s strengths.

Thus – and unusually for such partnerships – they never argued with each other about either screen time or money, despite the notorious parsimony of their producer Hal Roach, who paid them what he could get away with and would not let them negotiate their contracts together in order to weaken their bargaining position. Indeed, apart from one contretemps about the degree of dishevelment permitted to Babe’s hair, it seems that Laurel and Hardy never argued very much at all.

And then Babe died, leaving his partner bereft. What was a man to do but remember and write? So Laurel, always a prodigious correspondent, spent much of his retirement communicating with friends and fans by post. It helped that he had a curious and abiding affection for stationery. During one of the many interviews he conducted with John McCabe, his first serious biographer, Laurel revealed a wish to own a stationery store. Even he didn’t seem sure exactly why, but he admitted that he was quite content to while away entire afternoons in examining grades of paper.

Since letters were Laurel’s primary source of contact with the world, much of his writing is quite mundane. He deals with repeated inquiries about the state of his health – “I’m now feeling pretty good,” he informs a Scottish fan called Peter Elrick on 8 June 1960. “I suffered a slight stroke in ’55, fortunately I made a good recovery & am able to get around quite well again, of course I shall never be in a condition to work any more.” He notes the passing of actors he has known (to Jimmy Wiseman on 29 January 1959: “That was a terrible thing about [Carl] ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer wasn’t it? All over a few dollars’ debt he had to lose his life. I knew him very well as a kid in Our Gang films…”), answers queries about his films and his late partner (to Richard Handova on 21 March 1964: “Regarding the tattoo on Mr Hardy’s right arm – yes, that was an actual marking made when he was a kid – he always regretted having this done”) and often writes simply for the pleasure of having written, thus using up some stationery and enabling him to shop for more (“Just a few more stamps – hope you’re feeling well – nothing much to tell you, everything is as usual here,” represents the entirety of a letter to Irene Heffernan on 10 March 1964).

In researching my novel about Stan Laurel, I read a lot of his correspondence. I had to stop after a while, because the archive can overwhelm one with detail. For example, I might have found a way to include Oliver Hardy’s tattoo, which I didn’t know about until I read the letter just now. But of all the Laurel letters that I have read, one in particular stands out. It was written to his second wife, Ruth, on 1 July 1937, as their relationship was disintegrating. It is so striking that I quote it here in its entirety:

Dear Ruth,

When Lois divorced me it unbalanced me mentally & I made up my mind that I couldn’t be happy any more. I met & married you in that frame of mind, & the longer it went on, the stronger it became. That’s why I left you with the insane idea Lois would take me back.

After I left you, I found out definitely that she wouldn’t. I then realised the terrible mistake I had made & was too proud to admit it, so then I tried to find a new interest to forget it all, & truthfully Ruth I never have. I have drank just to keep up my spirits & I know I can’t last doing that, & am straining every effort to get back to normal.

You’ve been swell through it all, except the few rash things you did. I don’t blame you for not being in love with me, but my state of mind overrules my true feeling. If I had to do it over again things would be a lot different, but not in this town or this business. My marital happiness means more than all the millions.

Why has this letter stayed with me? I think it’s because of the penultimate sentence: “If I had to do it over again things would be a lot different, but not in this town or this business.” Hollywood brought Laurel a career, acclaim and a personal and professional relationship by which he came to be defined, but all at a price.

Stan Laurel was a complicated man, and complicated men lead complicated lives. In Laurel’s case, many of these complexities related to women. His comic performances and lack of vanity on screen often disguise his handsomeness, and monochrome film cannot communicate the blueness of his eyes. Women fell for him, and fell hard. He amassed more ex-wives than is wise for any gentleman (three in total, one of whom, Ruth, he married twice), to which number may be added a common-law wife and at least one long-standing mistress.

Had Laurel remained in Britain, serving an apprenticeship to his father before assuming control of one of the family’s theatres, women might not have been such a temptation for him. At the very least, he would have been constrained by a combination of finances and anonymity. Instead, he left for the United States and changed his name. In 1917, he met Mae Dahlberg, an older Australian actress who claimed to be a widow, despite the existence elsewhere of a husband who was very much alive and well. Laurel and Mae worked the vaudeville circuit together and shared a bed, but Mae – who lacked the talent to match her ambition – was eventually paid to disappear, as much to facilitate Laurel’s wedding to a younger, prettier actress named Lois Neilson as to ensure the furtherance of his career.

Yet it wasn’t long into this marriage before Laurel commenced an affair with the French actress Alyce Ardell, one that would persist for two decades, spanning three further nuptials. Ardell was Laurel’s pressure valve: as marriage after marriage fell apart, he would turn to her, although he seemed unwilling, or unable, to connect this adultery with the disintegration of his formal relationships.

The end of his first marriage was not the result of Laurel’s unfaithfulness alone. His second child with Lois, whom they named Stanley, died in May 1930 after just nine days of life. For a relationship that was already in trouble, it may have represented the final, fatal blow. Nevertheless, he always regretted leaving Lois. “I don’t think I could ever love again like I loved Lois,” he writes to Ruth on Christmas Eve in 1936. “I tried to get over it, but I can’t. I’m unhappy even after all you’ve done to try to make me happy, so why chase rainbows?”

But chasing rainbows was Stan Laurel’s default mode. He admitted advertising his intention to marry Ruth in the hope that Lois might take him back. Even after he and Ruth wed for the first time, he wrote letters to Lois seeking reconciliation. It set a pattern for the years to come: dissatisfaction in marriage; a retreat to Alyce Ardell’s bed; divorce; another marriage, including a year-long involvement with a notorious Russian gold-digger named Vera Ivanova Shuvalova, known by her stage name of Illiana (in the course of which Laurel, under the influence of alcohol, dug a hole in his garden with the stated intention of burying her in it), and finally contentment with another Russian, a widow named Ida Kitaeva Raphael, that lasted until his death.

These marital tribulations unfolded in full view of the media, with humiliating details laid bare. In 1946, he was forced to reveal in open court that alimony and child support payments left him with just $200 at the end of every month, and he had only $2,000 left in his bank account. In the course of divorce proceedings involving Illiana, his two previous wives were also briefly in attendance, leading the press to dub Lois, Ruth and Illiana “triple-threat husband hazards”. It might have been more accurate to term Stan Laurel a wife hazard, but despite all his failings, Lois and Ruth, at least, remained hugely fond of him.

“When he has something, he doesn’t want it,” Ruth told a Californian court in 1946, during their second set of divorce proceedings, “but when he hasn’t got it, he wants it. But he’s still a swell fellow.”

Laurel’s weakness was women, but he was not promiscuous. I think it is possible that he was always looking for a structure to his existence and believed that contentment in marriage might provide it, but his comedy was predicated on a conviction that all things tended towards chaos, in art as in life.

Thanks to the perfect complement of Oliver Hardy, Laurel was perhaps the greatest screen comedian of his generation – greater even than Chaplin, I would argue, because there is a purity to Laurel’s work that is lacking in Chaplin’s. Chaplin – to whom Laurel once acted as an understudy and with whom he stayed in contact over the years – wanted to be recognised as a great artist and succeeded, but at the cost of becoming less and less funny, of leaving the comedian behind. Stan Laurel sought only to make his audience laugh, and out of that ambition he created his art.

“he: A Novel” by John Connolly is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 24 August

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, HOWZAT!