Though the great actor Sir John Gielgud (1904-2000) never wrote his autobiography, we get a wonderful sense of the man from his letters. Gielgud was a regular, and somewhat indefatigable, correspondent, and many of his letters were compiled in Gielgud’s Letters, introduced and edited by Richard Mangan (2004).
Gielgud was active on the stage at a very early age, and continued to appear in films and television until the end of his very long life. His career is almost unprecedented in its diversity of achievement, its adaptation to many styles of acting, great variety of mediums, and tremendous longevity. Indeed, it is fair to say that Gielgud is one of the few figures of the Twentieth Century as famous in 1931 as he was in 1981 (or ’91 or 2001, for that matter). Consequently, his letters cover a remarkable range of topics and people, with figures as diverse as Hugh Walpole and Noel Coward, to Dudley Moore and Debbie Reynolds. A quick page through Mangan’s collection promises letters to (or letters alluding to friendships with): James Bond author Ian Fleming, Michael York, Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, Lauren Bacall, Burt Lancaster, William Walton, Clifton Webb, Ethel Waters … in short, if they were active in the world of theater (using the term very broadly) over a span of nearly 100 years, Gielgud either worked with them or knew them.
What kind of man was Gielgud? These letters, never written for publication or posterity, lays bare the soul of a generous and kindly man. What is fascinating how often he writes to provide comfort or solace to friends, or to thank others for remembrance during his own troubles. (A homosexual scandal in 1953 nearly ended his career – and his life, as he considered suicide.) He was by no means deep or intellectual, but Gielgud was a great artist, and he saw almost everything through the prism of his art. Gielgud was an aesthete of the most pure and devout kind, an acolyte who never sought to see things beyond his (theatrical) aesthetic appreciation. (World events were largely lost on him … what really mattered was whether the theaters were open and that actors and playwrights were working.)
Gielgud in his letters was also a wonderful gossip, sharing news and scandal with a boyish sense of the naughty. Here’s a 1962 sample from the party for the premiere of Lawrence of Arabia, while Gielgud was touring with A School For Scandal in Detroit, of all places: “Appalling city this, as I knew. The theatre is huge and vulgar (but lovely big dressing rooms) and very hard to get the play going in the first act, as will always be the case in America, I’m afraid. Too much of the women, and too much talk which confuses the audience, and of course, I have so little to do that I’m not much help. A pity. The weekend was great fun – huge party on the St. Regis roof, masses of people I knew. I never stopped being kissed by gentlemen! Peter O’Toole, Jason Robards, Tennessee, Quintero etc. – and a few ladies too! Maggie [Leighton] was hysterical all the evening – late, no taxies, trouble with her dress, tired, sitting so long at the picture – 4 hours, etc. etc. but she was, as usual, very sweet. Alec Guinness is not very good, rather like a benevolent old lady. It is a great pity I didn’t play it – it would have been a marvelous part for me. Never mind. O’Toole is wonderful – and dishy too – and the whole picture is superb, except that it is really two films – one the story and the other the spectacle. But it is dignified, breathtakingly beautiful to look at, moving, exciting and everything. Only some common pseudo Rachmaninoff music, which is vulgar and the only blot, I thought. All the other men wonderfully good, even Wolfit! Mad audience – wigs, rocks, start, the lot. I did enjoy the evening.”
Here’s another that I find amusing, from 1976: “I finally succumbed to play a small part for a lot of money in the Caligula of Gore Vidal. Martin [Hensler, his partner of nearly 40 years] is very cross with me for accepting it as I was originally offered Tiberius (now played by Peter O’Toole) and my first scene was to come out of a pool, with a plaster over my nose and eczema all over my face, to reveal two children, boy and girl, emerging from under my tunic where they were dallying with me. So I loftily refused and had a stinkingly rude letter from Gore saying he supposed I’d never read Suetonius, and how dared I go round saying good actors would be ashamed to appear in such pornography. Then a week or two came an offer of this other part – an old Senator who cuts his veins in a bath and disapproves of everything, and I thought well, why not? What Vidal and I will say to each other if and when we meet, I tremble to prophesy…..”
During the 1953 scandal, he wrote the following to friend Cecil Beaton: “Thank you very much for writing. It’s so hard to say what I feel – to have let down the whole side – the theatre, my friends, myself and my family – and all for the most idiotic and momentary impulse. Of course I’ve been tortured by the thought that I acted stupidly afterwards, insisting on tackling it without advice of any kind – but I expect it would all have come out anyway – and I just couldn’t bear the idea of a case and weeks of obscene publicity – even if I had got off with a clean sheet the slur would still have been there, and everyone would have gossiped and chattered. As it is – well, I can only feel that I’ve been spoilt and protected all my life and now its something basic and far-reaching that I’ve got to face for many more years to come. The miracle is that my friends have stood by me so superbly, and even the public looks like letting me go on with my work. Both things would not have been so twenty years ago (though I don’t think either the press would have been so cruelly open). There are many other things to be thankful for. For one, I don’t think my Mother has realized the full significance of it, or else she’s the most wonderful actress in the Terry Family! For another, I wasn’t actually playing in London at the time, and these four weeks of the tour are a sort of test both as regards the public and my own nerves. There are some tricky lines in the play, but many are also compassionate and charming, and the character I play has sympathy without seeming to ask for it too much. That is all to the good.”
We see Gielgud in this volume as we have never seen him on stage or screen: doubtful lover, dutiful son, amusing anecdotist, friend and benefactor, waspish gossip. He emerges warm, loving and generous – and many readers will close the book regretting only that they had never met him.