What She Did for Love
By Jonathan Yardley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 20, 1996
The life of Claire Bloom as recounted in this exceptional memoir is a cautionary tale. This beautiful and accomplished woman, now in her mid-sixties, has had more than her fair share of unhappiness. She attempts to put the best possible light on it and claims to look to the future with confidence, but as an actress who has spent much of her long career studying and performing the work of William Shakespeare, she should know better than most of us that the past is prologue.
Bloom's misfortunes have been personal rather than professional. There are a few parts she might have played to greater effect and a few she never got to play at all -- she reports ruefully about having the effrontery to offend Laurence Olivier and losing the chance at a cherished Chekhov role as a result -- but the lasting pain of her life has been private. In her previous book, "Limelight and After," she "attempted to reveal only what was relevant to my career while carefully and self-protectively concealing my identity as a woman." Now, though, "all the factors have altered, and I am free to tell my story in full."
By this she apparently means that a number of the people who were important to her are dead and that her divorce from her third husband, the writer Philip Roth, is final. Certainly her candor is impressive. She writes with deep feeling about her long affair with Richard Burton -- "my first -- my greatest -- love, the only man to whom I have fervently and completely given all of myself" -- and about her less satisfactory amatory encounters with Olivier, Yul Brynner and Anthony Quinn. She is kind to her first husband, Rod Steiger, and dismissive of her second, a theatrical producer named Hillard Elkins. She regrets the things that came between her and her brother as well as her and her daughter, and rejoices in the happy reconciliations she has reached with both. She writes about her late mother with tenderness and gratitude.
But it is likely that what will most interest readers about this memoir is its account of Bloom's long relationship with and brief marriage to Roth. Here we are dealing with a man who has made his own life the sole raw material of his literary career, who has made sex a literary specialty and women the objects of lust and scorn, who has repeatedly denied the autobiographical character of his fiction even as he obsessively psychoanalyzes himself. It is understandable that people who have read Roth's fiction should be curious about the man behind it and that they should look to his former wife as a likely source of enlightenment.
The portrait she paints is devastating. It is impossible to say how much of it is clinical observation and how much is retribution, not to mention how much of it is theatricality, but there is little elsewhere in this book to suggest that Bloom is an unduly vengeful person. As with many actors, her emotions are at once right out on the surface and buried beneath old wounds, but she gives the impression of being fair to others and of making a good faith effort to accept them as they are rather than as she might wish them to be. She is quick to credit Roth with those qualities that drew her to him -- "his penetrating mind and depth of sensitivity," his humor, "his ability to . . . be a tender, thoughtful and understanding man" -- and she leaves no doubt that at the end of their marriage she was left "lonely and full of regrets, trying to comprehend what had gone wrong." It is possible that her publisher's lawyers urged her to pull some of her punches, but there seems nothing contrived or calculated about the affectionate and remorseful tone she often adopts.
The great mystery is that she was drawn to Roth at all, much less that she actually married him. Her relationship with her father was unhappy, and she believes that in gravitating toward relationships with "difficult, if talented, men who could never bring me contentment," she "seemed to need to meet a challenge, to recreate the lack of certainty of my early childhood." Perhaps so, though this language smacks of warmed-over psychotherapy. But if she was looking for a father, what on earth led her to Roth? As she herself wonders, how could she "have hoped to find a paternal figure in Philip Roth, so austere, so conditional, so far removed from the warm and protective father of [her] childhood imagination"?
When Bloom first became involved with Roth, in the mid-1970s, she had a teenaged daughter, Anna, whose life had been in constant upheaval. Bloom was well aware that her daughter needed -- and, it might be added, deserved -- the most generous share of her attention. As she and Roth grew more attached, they attempted to find a way to divide their time between his residence in the United States and hers in London. Finally they worked out an arrangement, but he attached "one provision: he made it clear that he had no intention of living together in the same house as my daughter." He did make an effort, in London, but one morning at breakfast he handed Bloom a note demanding that Anna leave. Caught between "the security of a companion and the welfare of a daughter," Bloom capitulated: "Anna was asked to move out. She was eighteen." From the perspective of two decades, Bloom now writes:
"Philip had his way, and it has taken me a long time to accept the repercussions of his calculated move barely two years into our relationship. It wasn't about hatred for my daughter, though animosity may have been the catalyst -- it was about control. Philip made character assessments the way surgeons make incisions. He knew I would make any compromise to support our relationship. If I was willing to jettison my own daughter in this manner, what could I ever deny him?"
Not much, or so it seems. Bloom went on loving and obeying Roth despite blatant provocations. He "turned toward me with the face of an uncontrollable and malevolent child in a temper tantrum . . . This expression of out-and-out hatred went far beyond anything I could possibly have done to provoke it." This, mind you, while they were still getting to know each other. In a novel, Deception, he has Philip, the narrator, married to "an actress by profession, and . . . her name is Claire." She comes from a "self-hating, Anglo-Jewish family" and "is nothing better than an ever-spouting fountain of tears," a "jealous wife who is betrayed over and over again." Bloom came to see Roth as "a bitter, lonely, aging ascetic with no human ties; like Kafka, he's chosen a cold, solitary journey" and as "a game-playing, Machiavellian strategist."
Yet she stuck with him, through a 15-year relationship and a three-year marriage. She nursed him through various ailments both physical and psychological; she put up with his verbal abuse, his icy distance, his "emotional swings . . . so extreme that I was unable to follow them in a rational manner." One can only conclude that toward the end he was quite literally impossible to live with, for her determination to continue this "long, complex, rich, rewarding, but ultimately tortured relationship" was intense, and she had already hung on through phases from which most others would have fled.
Obviously there is plenty of material here for speculation. Bloom herself says that "I had no real adolescence, no grace period in which to try out the role of woman and make my big mistakes early on"; that "acting can be a refuge for those who are sexually, psychologically or socially wounded"; and that in the role of Nora Helmer, in "A Doll's House," she "was able to fuse two conflicting sides of my nature -- the spoiled child-wife and the determinedly independent woman." Nora's "painful journey toward freedom was one that I was able to make," she says, though the amount of suffering she permitted herself in most of her romantic relationships suggests that she had to travel a far greater distance, and leaves one wondering exactly how far she has really traveled.
Her journey has involved a great deal more than marriage to and divorce from Philip Roth, though that clearly is the longest and most important chapter. Her first major role in the movies was in "Limelight," with Charlie Chaplin, to whom she was devoted, as she was to his wife, Oona. Her stories about the acting life are interesting, agreeably gossipy and occasionally amusing; there is an especially good one about the unlikely encounter between the young, virginal Claire Bloom and the young, feral Elvis Presley. Though her life has not been easy, she is quick to acknowledge its pleasures and rewards, including those that were hard-earned. But in the end what she leaves us with is a renewed understanding that talent, beauty and fame, just like money, can't buy you love.
© 1996 The Washington Post Co.
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