Wednesday 25 March 2009


My obituary of Betsy Blair is in today's Independent (here). Because I knew Betsy, and liked her so much, it was hard to write, wanting both to do justice to the person I knew and cover the details of her life for those who didn't know her, all in a word limit which I overran, with the kind post-facto permission of the editor. It's mostly as I wrote it; a few small changes--no writer is ever satisfied with the subbing--but the best compromise I could manage.

The kinds of things you'd like to say, but leave out, are things like the memory which has now become my primary one of her, despite all the time I knew her before it happened. When my son was born, my wife and I made our first trip to the Royal Free at six in the morning; they sent us away, and we spent the day killing time until they'd let us back in. After a lovely al fresco lunch at Vegia Zena in Primrose Hill, we watched Marty, which Kirsten had never seen, and Betsy's performance amazed her, as it should have. Nate would wait until nearly seven the next morning to finally appear, but I've always thought the film somehow kept him entertained while he, and we, were waiting. We had once bumped into Betsy at the hospital, while we waited for a pre-natal scan, and she was coming out of the oncology ward; it was the first hint we'd had that anything was wrong with her health, she wasn't one to dwell on the negative. Apart from George Bush.

I would've loved to be able to go on further about Betsy's presence sitting around a table, either at her flat or John Lahr's above, the way she seemed to generate and encourage conversation. I wanted to write more about her salons: I think she'd learned so much so quickly in those early days in New York, she wanted to keep that atmosphere alive wherever she lived, and her circles in Hollywood, Paris, and London were wide-ranging.

Re-reading her memoir made me marvel at how well-written it was, the shifts in time and place work perfectly to convey the sense of both a girl thrust into a wonderous world at a very young age and the older woman remembering how it was. There's little bitterness in it, except perhaps in the introduction, where it is deserved.

I loved the way Nate cuddled right into her lap when he was little; I regretted that once we moved from London we saw so little of her. We never got to talk more about Orson Welles and her experience as Desdemona (one of three) in his Othello, which would have made a fine article for a paper. But then I realised her history with the play itself would have made an even better one.

Researching her life I discovered she'd played in two more Othellos. I've never seen All Night Long, Basil Dearden's version set in London's jazz scene, featuring Patrick McGoohan in the Iago role, and Charles Mingus and Dave Brubeck as themselves. Marti Stevens has the Desdemona role. One comment called it 'camp' which would be interesting to see Betsy doing, though I suspect they mean unintentionally camp. Betsy also played Bianca in Tony Richardson's 1955 BBC version with Rosemary Harris as Desdemona. Interestingly, I came across one listed which had Billie Whitelaw in the Bianca role; I wonder if any copy of the original exists. Richardson's version of A Delicate Balance is available on DVD, and Betsy is superb; it reunited her with Joseph Cotten, with whom she played in The Halliday Brand, which is a much undervalued western, not least for her performance. I also would have liked to see her in the 1965 BBC Play of the Month Death Of A Salesman, with Rod Steiger, but these were the sort of asides that had to be lost from the obit. I would have liked to have gone further into the blacklist; how Dore Schary made the difference with Marty (writing Millard Kaufman's obit for the Guardian a few days later, I learned Schary had saved Bad Day At Black Rock by suggesting the character be made one-armed, knowing Spencer Tracy wouldn't be able to resist playing the part disabled, and with Tracy on board, the studio wouldn't cancel the film--it seemed like the kind of story I would have heard from Betsy had I been able to mention to her that I was doing the piece.

A few days after I filed the obit, I was at a BSC preview of Bertrand Tavernier's In The Electric Mist, and when we were talking I mentioned that Betsy had died, and he was distraught. She'd been a guest last summer at their festival in Lyon, and he regaled me with stories about how graceful and knowledgable she'd been; there's nothing he enjoys more than talking the minutiae of film history, and he was completely in his element with her. I said this came as no surprise.

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