John Gielgud: The Authorized Biography

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9780743222426: John Gielgud: The Authorized Biography

Sir John Gielgud's career as an actor was perhaps the most distinguished of any of his generation, and, in a lifetime that spanned almost a century, he appeared in hundreds of theatrical productions and films, receiving virtually every honor given, including an Academy Award. Now, in this wonderfully insightful biography, fully authorized and written with first-ever access to Gielgud's personal letters and diaries, bestselling biographer Sheridan Morley not only traces the actor's fascinating career, but provides a fresh and remarkably frank look into John Gielgud the man, showing how his success as an actor in many ways came at the expense of his personal happiness. Born into a theatrical family, John Gielgud took to the stage as naturally as a duck to water, and almost from the beginning, those who saw him perform knew that they were experiencing something extraordinary. A determined actor, intent on learning and polishing his craft, he worked incessantly, taking on one role after another, the greater the challenge, the better. During his long and remarkable career, he took on every truly great and demanding role, including all of Shakespeare's major plays as well as many contemporary and experimental productions. At ease in both great drama and light comedy, he was blessed with a great range and a seemingly infinite capacity to inhabit whatever character he attempted. Basically a somewhat shy man offstage, however, Gielgud for the most part limited his friendships to those with whom he worked, and as a result the theater -- and later, film -- made up just about his entire life. That he was flesh and blood, however, was reflected in the fact that he did enter intotwo long-term relationships, the first with a man who eventually left him for another, but with whom Gielgud maintained a strong tie, and the second with a handsome, mysterious Hungarian who lived with him until he died, just a few months before Sir John. True scandal came into Gielgud's life only once. In 1953, just weeks after Gielgud had been knighted by the Queen, he was arrested in a public men's room and charged with solicitation. The British press had a field day, but Gielgud's friends and fellow actors rallied to his support, as did his thousands of fans, and the result was the eventual change of law in England regarding sex between consenting adults. While these and many other aspects of his personal life are discussed for the first time in this distinguished biography, it is Gielgud's career as an actor, of course, that receives the greatest attention. And while British audiences had the pleasure of seeing him perform in the theater for his entire life, Americans came to know him best for his work in the movies, and most especially for his Oscar-winning performance as Hobson the butler in the Dudley Moore film Arthur. As dramatic and captivating as one of Sir John's many performances, this authorized biography is an intimate and fully rounded portrait of an unforgettable actor and a remarkable man.

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About the Author:

Sheridan Morley is an award-winning theater critic, broadcaster, and biographer. He is the author of several biographies, whose subjects range from Noël Coward and David Niven to his late father, Robert Morley, and his grandmother, Dame Gladys Cooper. He lives in London, England.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: An Edwardian Youth (1904-1921)


If your great-aunt happens to be Ellen Terry, your great-uncle Fred Terry, your cousins Gordon Craig and Phyllis Neilson-Terry, and your grandmother the greatest Shakespearean actress in all Lithuania, you are hardly likely to drift into the fish trade.


Whatever other achievements may yet be claimed for the twentieth century, one is already beyond all doubt or dispute: it produced in Britain the greatest generation of classical actors that the world has ever known. It took almost eighty years to get from David Garrick to Edmund Kean, and then at least another fifty to get to Henry Irving, and they were essentially on their own, loners unchallenged by any immediate rivals. Yet in the middle of this past century it was possible to see, in the same city and sometimes even the same stage or screen productions or acting companies, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Michael Redgrave, Paul Scofield, Alec Guinness, Peggy Ashcroft, Edith Evans, and Sybil Thorndike. And, of course, the greatest survivor of them all, John Gielgud.

The coming together in the same lifetime of this classical galaxy is unlikely ever to be repeated; those of us lucky enough to have witnessed it will just have to be content to describe it to anyone who will listen, illustrating only by often inadequate film or television records, aware that, like any of the magic kingdoms from Prospero's to Peter Pan's, it was just there for a while and then, suddenly, it wasn't. Like the boy Thomas Malory, who is sent by King Arthur behind the lines at the end of Camelot to spread the word of what once was, we just have to be aware that, for one brief shining moment, from approximately 1925 to 1975, the British classical theater was at an all-time zenith.

Kenneth Tynan, the greatest theater critic of this midcentury period, and the one lucky enough to be writing about this amazing generation in its prime, once suggested the following analogy:

"You have to imagine the English stage as a vast chasm, with two great cliffs either side towering above a raging torrent. Olivier gets from side to side in one great animal leap; Gielgud goes over on a tightrope, parasol elegantly held aloft, while down there in the rapids you can just discern Redgrave, swimming frantically against the tide."

This, then, is the story of the man on the tightrope: although written with his approval and active cooperation in the last decade of his long life, it is intended as a critical biography of an actor who indeed spent much of that life working on the high wire without a net. And although in retrospect it now seems to have been a charmed life, that of a man from a theatrical family who simply carried on its tradition all the way to solo supremacy, we need to recall at the outset that we are also attempting to record the life of the only leading actor of the twentieth century to have come to the very edge of a prison sentence for homosexual soliciting; a man who then, albeit briefly, considered suicide; a man who had no real financial security until he was well into his sixties; a man who had constantly to cope with the frantic jealousy of his only acknowledged rival, Laurence Olivier; a man who only really learned to live happily in his own skin once he realized that, against all early odds and forecasts, he had outlasted and outperformed all the competition.

But this was also the man who, with his beloved brother Val, virtually invented radio drama and remained, both on stage and radio, his century's longest-running Hamlet, a role he played for almost thirty years at home and abroad. Long before the coming of the Royal Shakespeare Company or the National Theatre in the early 1960s, Gielgud alone in the West End effectively invented what we think of now as the classical repertory company. He was the actor and director who dragged Shakespeare out of the Victorian era of his own theatrical ancestors and toward something vastly more psychologically complex. His early partnerships with his cousin Edward Gordon Craig, the ground-breaking Russian director Komisarjevsky, and the Harris sisters, who made up the radical costume and set-design team of Motley, meant that he was at the cutting edge of all the revolutionary 1930s changes in how Shakespeare was staged. With Ralph Richardson, in a late-life partnership dubbed by Ralph himself "the broker's men," after a well-known British vaudeville skit, Gielgud was also the first classical stage actor to excel in Harold Pinter and Alan Bennett and David Storey, and the first player king ever to hold the Order of Merit as well as the title Companion of Honour.

Knighted far later in life than he deserved, overlooked for the theatrical peerages that have thus far gone only to Olivier and (amazingly) Bernard Miles, John G. yet managed to end the century having not just outlived but also overtaken all his competition. There is a lot to be said for sheer survival. Gielgud spent his ninety-sixth birthday in April 2000 working with Harold Pinter and David Mamet on a play by Samuel Beckett. He died peacefully on a Sunday afternoon, at home, barely a month later, and only then was the sound of what Alec Guinness once called "the silver trumpet muffled in silk" silenced for the first and last time, just three months before Sir Alec himself died at eighty-six, thereby ending the generation of stage and screen giants of which Gielgud was the first and Guinness the last.

In many ways, John G.'s death was as perfectly timed and placed as his life; his lover Martin Hensler, with whom John had lived for the last forty years of his life, had died of cancer in considerable agony almost sixteen months earlier, and John was appalled by the prospect of a hospital end. With Martin's death, just before Christmas 1998 soon after John himself had been in the same local Aylesbury hospital with a sprained ankle, something in Gielgud also started to die; until then, he had been happily going out to film small but richly paid and showy roles in critical hits like Shine and Elizabeth, as well as several more obscure parts in minor television movies. He would only accept two or three days' work at a time, knowing now his own fragility, but he loved the gossipy life of a film set, catching up on the lives of those actors whose names he could still recall, and escaping (albeit briefly) Martin's dominant, craggy, reclusive demands at home. Theirs was not, as we shall see, a marriage made in heaven, and toward the end Martin was by no means an easy, or even a very suitable, partner for the older John. Still, there is no doubt that Hensler's death was the moment when John himself started to die.

He also became convinced that, although he still wanted to take every role that came his way (and indeed in the last few months of his life hired a new young agent, Paul Lyon Maris, on the retirement of his old friend Laurie Evans), he must avoid even the possibility of sudden death on the set. John became hilariously obsessed with the idea that, if he were to die in mid-shot, they would send for Michael Denison to replace him, and that was not precisely how Gielgud wished to have his seventy-year career come to an end. Sadly, Denison died a few months before him, but ironically enough it was his widow, Dulcie Gray, who alone took to visiting John almost daily when Martin was no longer around.

John left strict instructions that there was to be no memorial service, according to a pact he had once made with an old friend and colleague Emlyn Williams, and that even his funeral was to be held as privately as possible. His estate was eventually valued for probate in November 2000 at rather more than a million pounds, of which a large proportion would be accounted for by the sale of South Pavilion in Wotton Underwood, where John and Martin had lived for al

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