I like to think that I was introduced to Rachel Roberts by Richard Burton. This is partly because I first came across a mention of her in one of Richard Burton’s letters, and partly because I have a very active fantasy life.
The story I heard from Richard Burton in Furious Love was:
Rachel Roberts became stupendously drunk and uncontrollable. It would turn out to be an evening that even Tennessee Williams would have a hard time imagining. When she began abusing her husband Rex Harrison – “sexually, morally, physically, and in every other way,” Tennnesee, certainly no prude, asked to leave.
Suddenly, Rachel dropped to the floor of the bar and started barking like a dog, exciting the real dogs – Elizabeth’s pekingese and Rachel’s basset hound. Thoroughly drunk, Rachel began masturbating her dog, “a lovely, sloppy old dog called Omar,” . . . [stuff about how Richard felt about dogs] . . . Elizabeth and Richard tried talking sense to the intoxicated woman; she answered by turning on her husband and cursing his three former wives.”
So, obviously, this is a great person to know, yes?
Fortunately, all her journals are published, so it is almost as if we can all know her. Her journals are ours!
Which is . . . well, The Rachel Roberts Journals are so bizarre that they are almost certainly the best diary you will ever read. Masturbating a dog isn’t even the weirdest situation. With most people, say conservatively 90% of the world’s population, the dog thing would be the strangest. But not for Rachel Roberts, because she is free like a majestic lunatic butterfly.
Rachel met Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor for the first time when they were on the set of Cleopatra. It is funny that Elizabeth and Richard so thoroughly dominate that movie that you forget there were other people in it, although, of course, there were and one was Rex Harrison who played Julius Caesar. Look! Here is an exceedingly long preview, in which Rex Harrison is in many scenes!
It’s fine if you forgot. Honestly, I sometimes forget that Rex Harrison was in anything but My Fair Lady. The actress Rachel Roberts had recently become his 4th wife. (Rex was known as “Sexy Rexy” as a result of his many love affairs, marriages and divorces.) In an interview following the wedding, Rachel told a journalist, “Now, before I married Rex, if God had said to me, ‘Rachel, what would you like to be, apart from a great actress?’ I would have said a dazzling courtesan. Not a whore, not a hooker, you understand, but a lovely lady whom men adored. But after meeting Rex, all I wanted to be was the best, the most brilliant wife in the world.”
She said that in 1962. Sadly it was emphatically not destined to work out quite the way she imagined. Or, at least, not by the standards of what it meant to be a great wife in 1962; which, if you judge by Mad Men standards, mostly seemed to mean preparing some sort of roast with pineapple pieces stuck on by toothpicks.
Part of the problem was that Rachel, a lovely actress, was surprisingly insecure. She admitted that, shortly after arriving to visit her new husband on the set of Cleopatra, “Elizabeth Taylor gave a big party. I couldn’t go. I was too ashamed of my looks to attend.”
It’s not surprising that – perhaps intimidated by Elizabeth Taylor’s status as one of the most beautiful women in the world – she became friends with Richard Burton’s first wife, Sibyl. She claimed that Rachel always referred to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as “that man and his woman,” which maybe accounts for why Richard Burton doesn’t tell overly favorable stories about her.
But it is certainly true that she was really weird about dogs.
Pamela Mason recalled a fundraising dinner for George Cukor, where:
“Rachel sashays into the big room where the dinner is being held and there’s a U-shaped top table with George Cukor right in the middle. And of course, as Rachel’s in her ridiculously short miniskirt – for she hadn’t changed – she catches everyone’s eye, and as she wends her way unsteadily through the tables, everyone’s eyebrows are going up, except George’s – he hasn’t seen her. So to catch his attention she goes ‘Woof! Woof!’ Just like a dog. And when George looks up in surprise, she says, ‘We’ve come to tell you we can’t come to dinner,’ which no doubt seems a bit off, since she’s there. ‘But before I go,’ she says, ‘I just want to say something to the company. I want to say one big Woof.’ And turns to everyone and goes ‘WOOF!’ ”
Which, honestly, does not strike me as that bizarre. The first thought I had when I heard this story was, “Well, if Paz de la Huerta did that, it wouldn’t be THAT weird.” And then I considered, “Yes, but you are now thinking in terms of Paz de la Huerta type people.” And apparently Rachel’s – doggedness? – did manifest itself in other ways, like the time she crawled under a table and began worrying at Robert Mitchum’s pant leg. When asked about this stunt, she replied, “I was pretending to be a Welsh Corgi.”
And it wasn’t just dogs! Nancy Holmes, a friend of the couple, claimed:
“We used to put to sea in the motor vessel that Rex kept at Portofino – a ‘Riva’ class ChrisCraft. We’d fish from it, using tiny crabs as bait. Rachel didn’t fish. She sat on deck in the sun, drinking white wine. Suddenly, we heard her growl, ‘fish murderers’ followed by ‘crab murderers.’ When I heard that spoiling-for-a fight sound coming from her, I knew it was time to get the hell out of the way.”
At another time, at 21 Club, someone ordered soft shell crabs and she shouted, “Fish murderers, crab murderers!” In 21 Club. Have you been to 21? It is an astonishing restaurant in New York where you feel an immediate need to begin whispering, in spite of the fact that it is decorated like a third tier Applebee’s. Seemingly the crab killer thing was a persistent refrain. Anyhow, after that outburst she ordered two raw eggs and ate them at the table, dribbling their yolks down her front. As protest? Sure.
I think it’s pretty clear that you could not engage in these – for lack of a better word – “antics” unless you were regularly fueled by a tremendous amount of alcohol. There is an anecdote from Lionel Bart about visiting Rachel, who was performing in a play and wandered onstage very drunk one night. He reported:
“I knocked on her dressing room door, very nervous.’Come in,’ she said – you could hear how pissed she was. I told her I thought her conduct was disgraceful. “Do you think I’m drunk?’ she said. ‘Darling, I’ve tripped over the empties outside,’ I said. I had a huge bundle of money with me, from the box-office, or somewhere. I shoved it at her. ‘If I were you, Rachel, I’d take this and catch the folk while they’re still outside and offer them their money back – for you were fucking awful.’ Well, home I go, very choked, and get into bed, and about 2:00 in the morning the phone rings. It’s Rex. Blazing angry. ‘I hear you’ve been bloody rude to my wife. What did you say to her, you little homosexual runt?’ Well, I got really angry. ‘Here,’ I shouted at him down the phone, ‘who the hell are you calling little?’ ”
I know the 1960’s were somehow supposed to be a gentler time, but, often, when you read stories about events in that era, you feel that you’ve stumbled into a Jackie Susann novel insofar as everyone is drunk and being really mean to one another.
Rex Harrison may have publicly seemed completely on board with Rachel’s shenanigans, but most sources say that, while he could certainly curse out a table full of people with the best of them, he was somewhat private and . . . dignified? I think dignity is the code word for “he wasn’t outrageously drunk in restaurants or when performing.” Yelling “crab murderers!” at people – I think it wore on him after a while.
The couple’s fights escalated until the two eventually separated, at which point Rachel began drinking more, and, bizarrely, calling seemingly everyone she came into contact with a “little Jew.”
By 1979 her diary entries stop being so strange and funny and start being terribly sad. She was introduced to an AA chapter, of which she claimed:
The AA meetings I attended filled me with despair. I found myself jotting down the first names of the people I met, putting them into dramatic order like characters in a stage play or a TV series. Title: The Address Book. OPENING SHOT; Camera CLOSES IN on book with this week’s number. CUT TO close-up of phone. Over the phone is SUPERIMPOSED a number… then a name… then this week’s dilemma. JOY, a frightened alcoholic… JANET, just divorced, two children…JAY, a balding, frightened man…
I can’t help but feel that this was one of Rachel’s problems – that she saw her life only as it might play out onscreen. I don’t know if she ever had the chance to relax and stop performing for people. Despite her insecurities, she could only relate to people whom she thought of as stars. Pamela Mason said:
“Part of the trouble, I suspect, was that Rachel was a very ‘fast’ character, and the AA meetings she’d go to in New York were probably ill chosen ones; the people at them were not of her set, or out of her world, or moving at her pace. She’d have done better to stick to the AA meetings in Hollywood – instead of those New York folk who can be like “the poor, the huddled masses” no stars among them.”
And then there’s a moment in Rachel’s diaries when she says:
I heard someone say ‘She’s a dead ringer for Rita.’ Remember the last time I saw Rita Hayworth in the supermarket, utterly lost, letting her companion do the shopping for her.
That seems so awfully sad. I mean, for her and for Rita Hayworth.
Then the diary entries just get really, really dark, really quickly. I think her life became increasingly difficult as, after her separation from Rex, she had an extremely hard time finding work. For all that bit about how she wanted only to be a wife, she seemed to be most in her element when she was acting. As her depression worsened, she began taking medication, like Lithium, but never seemed able to find the right chemical balance. Anthony Page, towards the end of Rachel’s life (in 1980) said, “Rachel looked terrible . . . she had hardly any contact with things, now. She reminded me of the doomed hero at the end of Evelyn Waugh’s novel, A Handful of Dust, who’s come to an impossible odyssey from the highlights of Mayfair society and the Bright Young Things to be held captive for the term of his natural life in the jungles of darkest Africa where he is condemned to read the cannibal chief from the works of Charles Dickens.”
Well, that sounds like a very good book by Waugh, and one we should definitely read, but no part of that description would have been kind to Rachel.
Later, Albert Finney said that he had the sense that she was being tended to by Sibyl. (I feel rather guilty that I gave a Shelved Dolls to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and buried Sibyl Burton later Chirstopher somewhere in the midst of it, as she often seems to be one of the only truly nice people from this whole period.) He claimed, “It was sad now to see her being assisted, as it were, through life.”
Just as Rachel felt about Rita Hayworth.
She committed suicide shortly thereafter. Her last diary entry, on November 25th, 1980, reads:
“I can’t control it any more and I’ve been trying with all my failing strength. I’m paralyzed. I can’t do anything and there seems to be no help anywhere. What has happened to me. Is it that my dependence over the years on alcohol has so severely debilitated me that now, without it, I just cannot function at all? Or is it that my nervous system from birth has always been so very frail that life for me is too much to cope with? That I was the hopefully dependent little girl who found everything too hard to handle, so that my intelligence and talent have been overcome now that I’m in my fifties and I can’t withstand it? Day after day and night after night, I’m in this shaking fear. What is it I’m so terribly frightened of? Life itself, I think.”
Oh, why do these tales always have to end so awfully sadly? I feel that same way about Zelda Fitzgerald. It seems that whenever a woman is a little outrageous – not really in ways that are destructive to anyone but herself, honestly, and maybe a handful of theatergoers – she ends up dead. Meanwhile, female serial killers seem . . . incredibly on top of things, and apt to outlive a lot of people – looking at you, like always, Elizabeth Bathory. You’d think that you would be able to find a woman who was outrageous and lived a good long life, surrounded by many grandchildren.
Rachel said, “My idea of heaven is to be surrounded by pussycats, a glass of wine in my hand, someone playing a piano and me singing.”
I hope this worked out. And I hope, too, that there were no crab killers there.
Picture via Wikipedia, IMG