An Emerald Ring, a Portable Heater and $150 an Hour

Zoë Heller

  • Leaving a Doll’s House: A Memoir by Claire Bloom
    Virago, 288 pp, £16.99, October 1996, ISBN 1 86049 146 4

Claire Bloom has now written two books about her life. Lest this give rise to any suspicion of autobiographical surfeit, she notes in the Preface to the latest volume, that her earlier book, Lime-light and After, constituted merely ‘a modest account’ of her acting career, whereas the new work presents a more thoughtful self-portrait of Bloom, the female.

Perhaps so, but we may be forgiven some doubt as to whether the fascination of Bloom’s ‘full identity as a woman’ is really what has got her book analysed in newspaper columns, crowed over at cocktail parties and passed about among friends with the relevant pages increasingly dogeared. Leaving a Doll’s House contains a long description of Bloom’s troubled, now defunct marriage to the novelist Philip Roth, and it is this pained, painful part of Blooms’ story that probably accounts for the book existing in published form at all. Bloom may have genuinely desired to ‘shed light on an unfinished journey’, but what she has ended up producing seems destined to be understood and assessed as a calculated manoeuvre in a long psychosexual war of attrition between her and her former husband.

This is perhaps a shame, given the potential interest of the pre-and extra-Roth material that Bloom has to hand. Here, after all, is a woman who starred opposite Charles Chaplin at the age of 19 and who has acted with almost all the great actors of the mid-20th-century English theatre. Having enjoyed romantic trysts with Yul Brynner at Cecil B. De Mille’s country retreat, committed adultery with Lawrence Olivier, married Rod Steiger and Hillard Elkins, a Hollywood producer with ‘sadistic’ sexual inclinations, had an ‘incandescent’ affair with a pre-Liz Richard Burton and flirted with Elvis Presley, she might be thought to have quite a lot to offer on the carnal gossip front. But if public notice has seemed to neglect this promising material, it is largely because Bloom shows so little interest in it herself. Her observations on her profession all tend to standard actressy drear about the challenging but immensely rewarding nature of a life spent treading the boards: ‘I had no idea that I would be breaking new ground when I played the role of Juliet. I just played her as honestly and passionately as I knew how.’ Her descriptions of friends and lovers, meanwhile, are composed exclusively in autobiographese – that maddening modern idiom in which all experience is ‘marvellous’ or ‘a nightmare’, and all persons are nebulously ‘extraordinary’, ‘magnetic’ or ‘very kind’.

Chaplin seemed jolly happy with Oona. De Mille was ‘courtly’ and ‘charming’. Olivier was ‘a surprisingly earthbound man’. Steiger was ‘just as insecure as the rest of us’. Brynner was ‘a wandering spirit’, a ‘gallant and indomitable spirit’ and – get this – boasted a ‘warm and expressive baritone’. Elkins, the flamboyant producer-husband, who introduced Bloom to ‘the dark part’ of her sexual nature and owned ‘more shoes than Imelda Marcos’, does provide some interesting moments. But even his peculiarities shine only fitfully through the stupefying non-revelations. As for Burton, whom Bloom nominates as ‘my first, my greatest love – the only man to whom I have fervently and completely given all of myself’, we learn that he drank a lot, had a super, Welsh speaking voice, and a ‘hypnotic’ stage presence (something which Bloom attributes partly to the ‘mesmerising beauty of his eyes’ and partly to ‘a quality he had that was quite undefinable’).

It is only when Roth turns up, halfway through these recollections – in a chapter ominously entitled ‘The Writer’ – that Bloom seems able to muster any interest in the stuff of her life. With the appearance of the frosty American author, a remarkable change comes over her prose. The pace picks up. The tone loses its benign vagueness and takes on a shrill, Ancient Mariner urgency. Direct quotes begin to appear and the sentences grow feverishly adjectival and baroque in construction: ‘Closer scrutiny and recent events have uncovered intricate, subtle layers of intent, shining examples of the masterful manner in which Philip contrived, in life even more than art, within the dark corridors of sexuality.’

Bloom tells us that she has been seeing a shrink for some years, and not surprisingly, the language of what she calls her ‘inner work’ infiltrates much of the Roth narrative. Her psychotherapeutic speculations on the marriage take fairly predictable directions. There is a lot of talk about Roth’s fear of intimacy, Roth’s need to ‘control’, Bloom’s failure to set ‘boundaries’, her search for a father figure, and so on – all of which tends to empty the haunted air and gnomed mine of the marital mystery, rather than to illuminate it. But here at least she is persuaded to surrender some facts. Gone are the misty water-coloured memories: Bloom’s recollections now have a ruthless specificity. When, for example, she and Roth meet cute on Madison Avenue in 1975, we learn that Bloom is on her way to a tea appointment with her yoga teacher, and Roth en route to a session with his psychoanalyst. (We are also informed exactly when and where they have met before – in East Hampton in 1966, when Bloom was still married to Rod Steiger and Roth was dating ‘a beautiful young socialite’ by the beguiling name of Anne Mudge.)

Here are the humble but allusive details that breathe life into anecdote: the emerald ring (in the shape of a serpent) with which Roth attempts to mollify Bloom for having cruelly depicted her in his novel Deception the review by John Updike of Operation Shylock that drives Roth to commit himself to a psychiatric hospital, suffering from a nervous breakdown; the arsenal of psychotropics (Lithium, Halcion, Xanax, Valium, Prozac) used to calm the couple’s respective nervous systems as their marriage disintegrates; the sides taken by their literary friends (Janet Malcolm phones Bloom on Roth’s behalf, asking her to move out of the couple’s Manhattan apartment into a hotel: Bloom flies to Rome and takes dubious solace in the company of Gore Vidal). Then there are the fascinating financial particulars. Nothing suggests more piquantly the delicate Oedipal relations between Roth, Bloom and Bloom’s teenage daughter Anna (by former husband Rod Steiger), than the incident in which Roth ‘graciously’ agrees to purchase the daughter a bed and then delivers an aggressive ‘comic’ lecture on why she must on no account use the bed to entertain goyim. Similarly, nothing evokes the scary wrath of Roth quite as well as the series of faxes he sends Bloom during their divorce proceedings. She has written to him requesting the return of her linen, china and furniture. He responds by demanding the return of everything he has given her during their 16-year partnership, including the emerald ring, a portable heater he bought for their London house and $150 an hour for the ‘five or six hundred hours’ he has spent going over scripts with her. She ends up getting back most of her personal effects (‘some, not all of my china’), but partly as a result of the brutal terms of her pre-nuptial agreement, she must settle for $100,000 as a lump sum pay-off (not enough, she notes in one plaintive aside, for ‘even a one-bedroom apartment in New York’).

This princessy tone creeps into Bloom’s narrative quite a few times. During the breakup, which takes place while she is performing Shakespeare recitals in Connecticut, Bloom learns that her therapist is suffering from a terminal disease. ‘Two more performances to get through this weekend and now such terrible news,’ she notes in her journal. On one visit to see Roth at the psychiatric hospital where he is staying, she becomes hysterical, announces she wants to die and is promptly admitted herself for the night. Ho hum. Bloom admits that beneath her seeming fragility, there is a strong woman, ‘a survivor’, but some American reviewers have interpreted this doubleness in less flattering terms: beneath the guise of a bashed butterfly, a scorpion. Certainly, it is interesting to contrast Bloom’s wounded, more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger postures with the hawkishness of some of her marital revelations. ‘He had become terrified of the water,’ she writes of Roth’s first breakdown in 1987, ‘and made slapping movements with the back of his hand like a child’s first, awkward paddle. “No, don’t make me stay in the pool,” he cried. There was nothing I could do to help. Philip disintegrated before my eyes into a disorientated, terrified infant.’ It is one thing to take revenge on your husband by telling the world what a shit he is – quite another, to proffer painful snapshots of his mental collapse. Doubtless married life with Roth was not easy or even pleasant. But the frequency of sentences like ‘I felt unfairly misunderstood and started screaming’ suggest the pain may have been more evenly spread than Bloom would have us believe.

Such qualifications make little difference, however, to the moral lessons this story suggests – which remain the same whether Bloom is a harpie or an angel. First, her life stands as a lighthouse to stage-struck girls, warning them off the perilous rocks of a career in acting. ‘There comes a time in every actress’s career,’ she remarks, ‘when her chronological age defines her public identity.’ Bloom, who, in order to make ends meet, recently took a part in the CBS soap opera As the World Turns, and is currently to be seen playing a classy old biddy in Sylvester Stallone’s new movie, Daylight, is a fine illustration of the actress’s fate, as summarised by Stephen Sondheim:

First you’re another sloe-eyed vamp
Then someone’s mother
Then you’re camp
Then you career from career to career.

Her experiences also offer female readers a cautionary tale about the dangers of economic dependence. It does not sound too flinty or cynical, I hope, to suggest that Bloom’s romantic loss would have been easier to bear had it not also involved an egregious loss of financial security. It is never wise, Bloom shows us, to assume that the man who rocks your world will also feather your nest. Young women: read this book and weep – then examine your savings accounts.