Great Artists Can Be Cads, But Can They Not Be?
I posted recently about two exceptional women – Hannah Arendt and Amy Wallace – who slept with gurus – Martin Heidegger and Carlos Castaneda – who despised and mistreated them, and yet the women remained in love until the day their gurus died.
But I didn’t note another famous case in that post because it has been so well developed and discussed for such a long time that it requires separate treatment. That is the actress Claire Bloom’s disastrous marriage to novelist Philip Roth.
Arendt and Wallace first became enmeshed with their gurus when they were teenagers. But Bloom was already a distinguished actress – having appeared opposite Chaplin in Limelight, Richard Burton in Look Back in Anger, Olivier inRichard III, and Yul Brynner in The Brothers Karamazov – when she became involved with Roth.
Bloom had affairs with the latter three actors of varying degrees of intimacy and pleasure (Olivier was the worst, Burton the longest, Brynner the most fun), as well as marrying Rod Steiger, and then having an affair with and marrying Steiger’s low-life (he is referred to as “The Unmentionable”) producer friend. In each relationship, Bloom tolerated misbehavior and deception by her lovers and spouses.
Bloom’s iconic movie career was matched by her theatrical triumphs – starting with Juliet at age 21 at the Old Vic, the revival of friend Vivien Leigh’s Blanche Dubois role in A Streetcar Named Desire, and then making A Doll’s House her own vehicle – as well as her star turn on television in Brideshead Revisited. Yet all this success and romantic history failed to make her a sophisticated and self-directed woman and lover even as Bloom began her relationship with Roth in her forties.
The couple were together 18 years although they only got married after 15 years at Bloom’s behest. In her memoir, Leaving a Doll’s House, Bloom describes an extremely self-centered, often abusive man to whom she devoted herself for almost two decades. The most painful part of her story is the way in which the wealthy Roth dangled his love in front of Bloom in order to deprive her of their jointly purchased New York apartment and to give her a pittance by way of a divorce settlement.
But even more amazing is the ending of her book, where Bloom fantasizes that Roth – as he had done throughout the death throes of their relationship – invited her to renew their old, troubled relationship. Like Arendt and Wallace, Bloom could never separate herself from the brilliant man she loved.
The total concentration on himself worked out well for Roth (with time out for open heart surgery, a botched knee operation, and a stint in a mental hospital for depression – all of which Bloom saw him through even as he expressed increasing paranoia towards her). He is now regarded as America’s greatest living novelist. In one shocking vignette, Roth made Bloom kick her daughter out of her London house because the teen disturbed his writing. While Bloom was left with nothing to do when they lived in Roth’s country home, he spent each day chained to his desk writing, each night reading.
In a sense, Bloom sought such a relationship, as Patricia Bosworth described in her review in the Times: “Ms. Bloom and Mr. Roth probably fulfilled each other’s awful expectations in ways that might sound ludicrous were they not so sad. Ms. Bloom depicts Mr. Roth as a self-involved, all-controlling misogynist; but her description is less an indictment than an inchoate articulation of the idea that being controlled may be the most powerful experience in a woman’s life.”
Have men like Roth – and women like Bloom – become fossils? In one of many sad love stories in her book, Chaplin was too old to bed Bloom when they met – and besides, he was already attached to his final love partner, Oona O’Neil. Chaplin married O’Neil when he was 56 and she was 17. When Chaplin died, O’Neil went into a tailspin ended by her death a few short years after. Yet Bloom, like most other people, regarded that devoted marriage as an ideal one.
Does Bloom express something primordial and inextinguishable between men and women, so that intimacy without these roles presents difficulties we can’t extirpate? I suppose we will have to observe 21st century male-female relationships to find out.