The 60s
Family Life

Please, Don't Let Me Lose my Children

by Joanne Smith

Deborah Kerr and her daughters
Deborah and her daughters

At the crossroads of her life, Deborah Kerr prays:

“Please don’t let me lose my children”

DEBORAH KERR paced nervously up and down the living room of her sumptuous cream-colored suite in the Hotel Imperial in Vienna, her pale pink dressing gown swirling around her. She ran a hand, anguished, through her auburn hair. In her other hand, she held a Paper-a paper which threatened her whole happiness.

Only a half hour earlier she had received a paper from her husband’s attorneys in London. As she read it her face turned pale and she collapsed weakly into a chair. “I can’t let myself go to pieces,” Deborah told herself. “I can’t. . . :”
She forced herself to stand up and began to stride in nervous steps, as though to give herself strength. With unseeing eyes she looked out the tall French windows at the cars and people going about their lives in the busy street below.
The greatest thing in her life, her wonderful relationship with her two daughters, was being threatened.

She wasn’t too surprised or shocked at Tony’s wanting a divorce. . . they had both faced that problem for months. But the shocking thing was that Tony wanted to take the two children away from her, make them wards of an English court, so that they would remain in England with him, and so that he could later get custody of the children.

When she had kissed eleven-year old Melanie and seven-year-old Francesca good-bye in London a month earlier, leaving them with their father, she had done it because she believed it would be better for them to be with him. She would have loved having them with her in Vienna, but she knew that her days would be crowded with work. She had felt that it would be selfish of her to keep them in Vienna, lonely all day, just so that when the day’s shooting on The Journey was over she would have a chance to look at their bright, eager faces across the dinner table from her.

The words on the sheet of legal-sized paper seemed to mock her: Because Peter Viertel has enticed the defendant (Deborah) away from her husband, we are asking….

She knew that there had been gossip about her and the handsome, thirtyseven-year-old writer who was working on the script of The Journey in which she was starring. There had been many late afternoon and evening conferences with the brilliant, sophisticated writer. Peter had been attentive. She had found him charming. But she had tried to be circumspect in her behavior. She had always been shocked at mothers who were so openly loose in their behavior that their actions brought scandal on their family.

Now she thought, her mind whirling with the impact of the news, What will the children think when the newspapers in London headline this kind of story? Tony’s always been popular in England everyone remembers him as a war hero. What will they say about me when this accusation is aired? I wouldn’t care so much what they said about me-if it weren’t for the children, But how can they stand up to such scandal?

Unbidden tears-the first she’d wept in many years-came to her eyes. And her mind flashed back to the time when she was a child in England, when her father had died and her mother had said goodbye to her at the boarding school where she was to be enrolled.

No heavy weather

“Don’t cry,” her mother had told her. “You must have strength and self-control and never cry just because you’re lonely or unhappy. Remember, never make heavy weather of things-“

Since then she had gone through many heartbreaks, many lonely moments. She had suffered as a child at boarding school, feeling bitterly lonely. Many times when she had crawled between the cold sheets at night, she had wanted to sob-but held back her sobs, remembering her mother’s warning: Don’t make heavy weather of things.

When she had borne her two children, she had faced her pains remembering the joys to come. When she and Tony-back in the early years of their marriage when love was strong had been separated by work, she had repressed all tears.

And when she had had to kiss little Melanie good-bye and leave her with her grandmother and her nanny for four months, because you just don’t take a child into the heart of Africa on location-even then she hadn’t cried.

But now, at the thought of her two precious daughters being taken from her, these lovely children for whom she had endured years of married unhappiness… at the thought of the battle she would have to put up to keep them, the gossip they might hear about her-the tears she had never known before came freely now. For several years, Tony Bartley and Deborah Kerr have not been happy together. Years ago Deborah fell out of love with Tony. She sadly admitted only recently, “Ours was not an ideal marriage as people thought. For some time it has been no more than a prosaic one.” That was putting it mildly. For years it has been a highly disturbing marriage to Deborah, an ardently lovely woman who had ceased to feel ardently about her husband. They had been separated many times, too many times perhaps, and the marriage that had begun with such high hopes had become a mockery.

In the meantime, Deborah-who when she married had been reserved, almost prim-had become more beautiful with maturity, more exciting and lovable than ever. But the dreams she had dreamed had died in marriage. A friend said, commenting on the frequent separations of Deborah and Tony, “When a wife and husband are often separated by so many thousands of miles, it’s a miracle that the marriage survives at all.”

Deborah’s marriage has survived for twelve years, though it has been losing its meaning to her for the last few years, because from the day her first daughter was born she decided, “Nothing will ever come between Tony and me now. Our marriage is more important than ever now because we bath adore our little daughter.”

Thirteen years ago, Deborah was a young actress in Europe. To entertain the troops, she joined a company of Gaslight playing opposite Stewart Granger.

It was in Brussels that she first met the great English war ace, Squadron Leader Anthony Bartley, eldest son of Sir Charles and Lady Bartley. From the day she met him, she was attracted by this blond, handsome, brilliant man. How handsome he looked in his uniform!

But this romance turned out to be far more mature than her earlier heart-throbs. She was fascinated not only by Tony’s good looks and his reputation as a great hero, but by his inner qualities as well. And he found her not only one of the most beautiful girls he’d ever known, but a gay, stimulating companion. They saw a lot of each other in London, and later, when he was ordered to the South Pacific their letters to each other carried such a world of meaning that they fell in love.

When Tony realized that he loved Deborah he was worried for fear his conservative parents would object to his marrying an actress. He asked Sir Laurence Olivier, one of his close friends, what he thought. “Marry her,” said the charming Laurence. “She’s a wonderful girl-even though she is unreasonably chaste!”

His doubts dissolved, Tony proposed to Deborah by cable. He was by this time back in England, but he was about to be sent to Australia. WILL YOU MARRY ME? he wired. Confident that this was a love that would last a lifetime, Deborah wired back: YES, WHEN?

And so they were married in Novem-ber 1945, at a very fashionable church in London And all happiness was their.

How madly in love they were in the beginning! Deborah worshipped Tony. She was so quiet in those days-a bit of an introvert-afraid to go to parties. When they’d get an invitation, sheturn her troubled face to Tony. “I’d rather not go,” she said. “I’m afraid of strangers”.  His happy laugh rang out. “Afraid of strangers? With your beauty and charm, darling, you won’t be a stranger to anyone for more than five minutes.”

And Tony proved to be right. With this smiling, handsome man at her side, she was sought out by everyone at every party, and as long as Tony, beaming, was there, she felt sure of herself. It was obvious during these early years that Tony, always wanted to be beside her-that he was not interested in any other girls, not even for the briefest moment. As for Deborah, in those days, she was interested only in Tony.

The magic of happiness continued to hover over their heads. Deborah attracted attention by her fine acting and her beauty and received such a fabulous offer from Hollywood that Tony agreed they had no choice but to accept it.
Their lives were beginning to revolve around Deborah’s career, but Tony and she loved each other so much that they were almost blind to what was happening.

Deborah became an important star almost instantly in Hollywood. But nothing that had happened before was as exciting as the bewitching moment when her baby, Melanie, was placed in the circle of her arms, as she lay in her hospital bed. And when Tony said, a little later, looking with awe at Melanie, “I thought all new-born babies were homely, but darling, she is probably this beautiful only because you are,” Deborah thought her heart would swell until it burst.

A wonderful father

Francesca’s birth four years later seemed to cement her happiness all the more. Afterwards, there were many times when Deborah would awaken in the morning and think, “Things aren’t going as well with Tony and me as they used to. I wonder why” Then she would shut the unwelcome thought out of her mind.

He was wonderful with the children…. Why should she feel a strange little hurt inside? Why should she feel as though some part of her wanted something out of marriage she wasn’t getting?

No woman got everything, and if her heart didn’t feel like bursting at the sight of Tony any more, this was the way it was with good friends and lovers as the years went by. Marriage was a grown-up affair, and she and Tony were real grownups, not just romantic children playing at marriage.

Grown-up problems were beginning to appear, too. While Deborah became one of the busiest stars in Hollywood, Tony had little to do. He became irritated with the realization that though he was a hero in his own country, here he was regarded merely as Deborah Kerr’s husband.

Deborah’s studio, anxious to keep one of their most valuable stars happy, gave Tony a job as a TV producer. It was a fairly good job, but his salary couldn’t begin to compare with hers. If there were times when she wished that she and Tony were not so dependent financially on her earnings, she stifled the treacherous thought. After all, as a sensible girl she realized that stars usually make more money than all but the most successful producers.

Even though she began to realize that her own marriage was beginning to be bogged down by this big problem, she hated the thought of divorce because its consequences on the children.

“I don’t want to criticize anyone,” Deborah once told me as we had tea in the living room of her lovely Pacific Palisades home, with its warm English chintzes and glistening mahogany pieces, “but I’ve been surprised at the number of mothers whose names have made ugly headlines. I don’t see how any mother can ever do anything to bring discredit on her child. All married people have their ups and downs, but I would never leave Tony because he loves Melanie and Francesca as much as I do.”

If she had been as madly in love with Tony as she wanted to believe she was, she wouldn’t have dreamed of making such a statement. But to Deborah there was just one big reason why nothing and no one could ever come between them. Her desire to keep her children happy and secure meant too much to her to take the easy way out of her growing dissatisfaction with her marriage by divorce.

Her own childhood

She could remember her own loneliness as a child, and she decided that even though she had to be away from home on location for months, she would make it up to her children in other ways. She bought her little girls all kinds of gifts and showered them with every visible and invisible symbol of love.

Even so, she used to worry about whether being an actress was interfering with her being a good mother until Melanie said one day, “Mother, it’s always wonderful to know that whenever I really need you, you’re always here.”

Her personal happiness or lack of happiness with Tony became very secondary in Deborah’s life. She lived only for her two little girls and her work. She loved and respected Tony-but it was mostly because he was Melanie’s and Francesca’s father. The old magic was gone.

But a very special magic entered into Debbie’s life as a mother. Francesca was only four years old when she hugged her mother and said, “Mummy, I love you ten times.” Then, not satisfied with that number she said, “I mean twelve times.” Then she corrected herself, “I love you a hundred times.”

Deborah beamed, but Francesca had still another contribution to make. “Mummy, nobody can count how many times I love you. It’s more times than there are numbers.”

Deborah held her little daughter close and said, “And I can’t count the ways I love you, darling.”

Then the stranger within herself said: “Yes, you cannot measure the love you feel for your two little girls. But what is happening between you and Tony? Why is that love becoming so much less important in your life?”

What an adult is

Deborah shut out the disturbing thought, as she had so many times before. This was what being an adult was: finding out that Prince Charming was just a character in a fairy tale. But even so, you kept a marriage alive for the sake of the children. It would be ugly to expose them to the kind of bickering she sometimes saw among husbands and wives who hurled accusations at each other in divorce cases.

Because of his personal popularity in England, and his contacts there, Tony opened offices for Tv production in London; Deborah, as an international star, had to travel all over the world. The many separations forced upon Tony and herself were both a curse and a blessing. It was a relief in a way. They had so little in common these days-would they have had more if there had been fewer separations? “We’re adults, Tony and I,” she’d say. “We have a very good understanding, even though we sometimes have to be separated. Ours was never a roaring passion.”

(Never, Deborah? Never really? Have you really forgotten those early years? Have you fooled yourself that much?)

There was always her wonderful life with the children to compensate for many heartaches. Deborah was a great celebrity now, and when she went to London, the Queen herself wanted to meet her.

Deborah sent word to the Queen’s representative: “I’m greatly honored, but would it be possible to bring my two children to the presentation?”

And Her Majesty said that she would love to meet Deborah’s little girls.

So it wasn’t so bad being an actress. You might not be able to spend quite as much time with your children, but when you were with them, your heart was filled to overflowing, and you were able to give them momentous experiences like meeting a Queen.

Later that night, when Deborah tucked them into bed, Melanie said solemnly: “Dear God, bless Mother and Daddy and Francesca, and mother’s queen.”

Deborah said, “My queen, darling? Why do you call her my queen?”

“Because I can’t have a queen of my own, because I was born in America.” “Well,” laughed Deborah, “let’s all bless America.”

She was proud of her children and their great sense of humor. How she chuckled when Melanie said once, after being scolded for being noisy, “Mother, dear, how can you make such a fuss about a little noise? What would you do if there were a war on?”

Looking back at this now in her suite in Vienna. Deborah’s lips curved in a sad, small smile.

How could Tony, who said he loved the children, subject them to such disgrace? How could he have so little thought for the children as to allege in this legal paper that she had been “enticed by Peter Viertel”?

Even if such an allegation were true, how could he deliver such a damaging blow to her and the children?

Her mind went back into the years, back to the days when she had been living a lonely life in a boarding school. Her father had been dead; her mother absent, she had felt tike a rejected orphan at times.

How much worse for her children if their father made them feel their mother had disgraced herself, had ignored them and their welfare for a lover in Vienna?

Her hand reached for the phone.

She would fight. She would call her lawyer, Isaac Pacht, in California-tell him to enter suit in Los Angeles and a counter suit in Europe.

She would be free of this man who had thrown this charge against her and Peter. Above all, she would fight to get her children back.

She went down on her knees, trembling. “Dear God,” she whispered. “You are my final Judge. Let whatever judge hears our case on earth decide truly and honestly: Is Deborah Kerr a fit mother for her children?

“Only You, God, know the final answer. But, please God, if I have ever done anything wrong, don’t punish these innocent little girls by tearing them away from me. “Dear God, please don’t let me lose my children.”

Deborah is now appearing in United Artist’s SEPARATE TABLES: and she will soon appear in THE Sundowners for Warners; and THE JOURNEY and THE BLESSING, both for MGM.

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