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Family Life,  Interviews

This is my Life

Photoplay Magazine
May 1958
Dear Evelyn,
You asked me to do something I rarely do—to allow a reporter and photographer to come into my home to show Photoplay readers
How I really live. Well, here it is, and it was fun.
Deborah Kerr

For a moment Deborah Kerr—with a young dachshund nipping at her heels and a black Scotty cradled in her arms—stood outside the sliding glass doors that led into the Long Room from the gardens. She was in dressed slacks and a cotton blouse that seemed almost to thin for the warm spring day. Her cheek was smudged with green paint, and her hair still smelled of the rose garden in which she had painted away the afternoon. The Scotty quivered in her arms and then wriggled free. She looked up and listened, straining to hear what the dog had heard.
Then, “So they’re home, Duffy,” she said eagerly and ran out to the front gate to meet them.
Two children tumbled into the Long Room from the hall beyond. Six-year-old Francesca trotted at the heels of her older sister. Long-legged Melanie pranced in perfect imitation of a high-spirited horse. “Getaway, Singe, get away,” she shouted. Dizzy and breathless, Frankie stumbled into her mother’s arms. The game was over for the afternoon. It was only one of a dozen imaginative games with which the two children amuse themselves. Permitted to watch television only on weekends, they are expected to entertain themselves with books and tubes of paint, jigsaw puzzles, Halloween masks, and Deborah’s old clothes to play “dress-up.” They have inherited their mother’s imagination and her wicked talent for mimicry.
“Who were you today?” Deborah asked.
“I was riding my horse, Avalanche, and Frankie was my dog, Singe.”
“Guess what happened today,” Frankie said, her voice muffled against Deborah’s chest.
“All  the chairs fell down at school today.”
“It was nerve splitting,” Melanie added.
“It was,” Frankie said. Then, “I’m hungry.” She spun across the room and sat down at the marble-topped table. It was nearly teatime.
As usual, tea was served at four o’clock in the afternoon. Claude, the butler, carried the pot of steaming Indian tea and the plateful of biscuits to the marble table. Deborah reached for the three fragile china cups. She poured Frankie half a cup of tea, then filled the teacup to the brim with milk. She started to do the same for Melanie.
“Oh, no, Mummy!”
“Sorry, Melanie, I forgot.” She filled the burgundy-colored cup with tea, then added a slice of lemon. Melanie, making her first conscious efforts to be a lady, had been drinking her tea “the grown-up way” all week.  Frankie—lively and uninhibited—was not concerned with being a lady. When she dropped her napkin, she picked it up again with her toes.
“Frankie is about to lose a front tooth,” chided Melanie.
“Let me have a look at that tooth,” said Deborah.
Frankie kept trying to loosen it more.
“She wants to get a gift from the fairy godmother,” tattled Melanie.
Deborah listened to the high-spirited, American voices of her children echoing through the English type Long Room.
Deborah Kerr’s life might be described—like Frankie’s tea—as “half-and-half.” Half-English, half-American, it delicately blends the politeness, polish and quiet elegance of an English country house with the un-English informality of children’s laughter and twilight barbecues, which the hostess sometimes starts by throwing Vodka over the coals.
“Deborah has the ability to make a game of everything she does,” said her husband Tony Bartley once. “Her gloriously wicked sense of humor carries her through even the most distasteful situations; and her philosophy is that if you have to do something, you might as well do it right and find some pleasure in doing it.”
Her home has none of the franticness that touches even the best-run American homes.  “I love to drink things out of glasses not meant for them, like beer from a crystal champagne glass,” she admits. But there is candlelight shining on Wedgwood cups and Spode china gleaming on a damask tablecloth, too.
Those are the graceful things which cost money. But there are other graceful things in her life which cost nothing except a delicacy of taste. “Unless you’re mad about diamond necklaces—and I couldn’t care less about them—you can get everything else without being a movie star or a millionaire. Everyone can have candles; bath oil; big bunches of flowers in the house; a well-laid tray with a single rose on it; a vase in your bedroom with every conceivable kind of flower from your garden in it.” And the comforts that she “wouldn’t like to do without” cost almost nothing. “Hot water. Something to read or something to do with my hands. A comfortable bed. A good hot cup of tea. And sunshine at some time during the year.”
She is teaching these values to her children, too. They have a politeness that is more typically English than American. Sitting at the tea table, Melanie took a last sip of tea, swallowed, and then said enthusiastically, “I saw the most wonderful book on horses in the ….” She stopped abruptly. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re just lucky Nanny isn’t having tea with us today,” Deborah whispered.
“You won’t tell her I forgot?”
Deborah smiled. “No, I won’t tell her.”
Nan Patterson—who has been the children’s governess for seven years—demands this politeness. At the tea table, the word “horse” is forbidden. “Horses are Melanie’s passion,” Deborah explains. “She has a library of twenty-five books about horses, and she was torn between becoming a horsewoman or a writer until she recently solved her difficulty by deciding to write about horses.”
“Nanny says we have to learn to make light conversation,” Melanie says. “Most people talk about the things they’re interested in, and Nanny says I talk too much about horses. So we learn to talk about other things: what happened at school, television programs, whether I ought to telephone one of my friends.”
Melanie did her best to remember Nanny’s rules. She looked at Deborah and tried to make light conversation. “What did you do today?” she asked her mother.
“Nothing,” Deborah said.
She savoured the word.
“Nothing,” she said again.
“I’ve done nothing for almost a week—and it’s been wonderful.”
The week before, she had finished making “Separate Tables” for Hecht-Hill- Lancaster; by the end of the month she would leave for Europe to co-star with Yul Brynner in “The Journey.”
“Next week I must start getting my clothes ready for Europe.” She grimaced at the thought. Perhaps the thing she hated most about traveling was getting the clothes ready.
She loved clothes—especially her chinchilla cape from Tony “for the years 1957 through 1967 inclusive.” But Tony thinks I’m too extravagant, so I always try to economize by taking my old clothes abroad, but by the time I return home I hate them all and have to restrain myself from picking them up in armfuls and chucking them all out.”
“You must have done something today.” Melanie said.
“You must have done something,” Frankie echoed.
“Nothing much,” she answered the children’s question. “I finished a book. And painted. And played with Duffy. And scratched Tonton’s stomach. And slept wonderfully late.”
She had slept long, until 9:15. Then there had been breakfast in bed—tea, toast, and juice. As she drank her tea, she had worked the puns and anagrams puzzle in the Manchester Guardian. The puzzle was a challenge. Most American crossword puzzles didn’t interest her. “They’re so straightforward I get terribly bored.”
After her puzzle, she had thought over the possibilities of the day ahead. “Shall I turn out those drawers? Or shall I read? Or paint? Or work in the garden? Or sort clothes?”
In the end she had done almost nothing at all. She had embroidered for a while with Blessing Bartley, her parakeet, sitting on the edge of the embroidery hoop.
Then she had wandered in the gardens.
Deborah has always found herself pretending—and almost believing—that things like trees and typewriters and roses and dogs could really feel and think the way she did. For instance, she was sure that Blessing Bartley really knew how to sew and was being quite critical of her work when he perched on her shoulder and watched.
“He’s the only temperamental person in the household,” Deborah had analyzed it. “I try to understand his super-sensitivity—except when he bites my hand. I don’t think it’s my Christian duty to consider this fair play.”
And there was Duffy, dear Duffy the Scotty. Deborah was sure “he has an inferiority complex because he’s so black and doesn’t photograph well. You can’t see his shape.”
Tonton the dachshund, another member of the menagerie, dearly loved to have his tummy scratched.  “It’s the way to make him go into a coma,” Deborah was convinced.
Tony laughed at her for these things. Then, thinking of Tony, she sighed. That was the only imperfection that marred the day. Tony was 5,000 miles away in England. As head of the CBS European film division, his job took him to London for anywhere from two to five months a year.
Frankie finished her last bite of tea biscuit. Then she slid from her stool and turned a cartwheel. She looked up at Deborah from the floor and—as though she could read her mother’s thought—she said, “Was there a letter from Daddy today?”
Deborah shook her head. Tony hated to write. He always telephoned several times a week, and their phone bills were simply enormous. “Maybe tomorrow,” she said.
“If he never writes to us again, I won’t be surprised,” Melanie said with a dreary look at her mother.
“Aren’t I forgiven yet” asked Deborah, whose mischievousness was sometimes quite troublesome to Melanie. A few days before, Deborah had written to Tony, using her usual hunt and peck system.  To play a joke on Melanie, she had typed a separate note:
“Dear Sir: You are an idiot and a fool,” and signed her daughter’s name.
Melanie stretched out on the floor beside Frankie. “Mummy, can we do something?”
“What?” Deborah asked.
“Jigsaw puzzle” Frankie asked, trying to help.
“No, silly,” Melanie said. “Something sort of …” She hesitated, not quite knowing what she wanted to say.
“Special?” Deborah asked.
Melanie nodded. “Special.”
“All right,” Deborah said. “We’ll go to the beach.”
“That’s what I meant,” Melanie said. “Special!”
The state beach was only a few minutes’ drive from the house. At five in the afternoon on a tepid pre-spring day, it was nearly deserted. Deborah sat and watched the children squirm along the sand on their stomachs, making “stomach tracks.”    Then they turned over and made “rump tracks” in the white sand.
“They look like they were made by some monster, don’t they, Mummy?” Frankie said.
Deborah nodded. She hated the beach in summer when it was crowded with people and sandwiches and sun tan oil and beach umbrellas. She loved it in winter when it was deserted and so terribly clean.
She looked at her watch. “Oops,” she laughed. “We’ve overstayed our ‘Special!’” Sandy and flushed, they tumbled into the car.
At six o’clock she sat with the children—sipping a glass of wine—while they ate dinner. “Even when Tony isn’t home, I find it impossible to eat with them.” Old habits are hard to break, and twelve years in America haven’t taught her how to enjoy dinner eaten before 7:30 in the evening. She did nibble at a quarter of the apple pie that served—along with cheese—as dessert.
Afterwards, she played dominoes with Melanie and helped both children piece together a jigsaw puzzle. She loves all puzzles and games that are hard enough to be challenging.
“Unfortunately, Tony loathes games, but I’ve got him to play Labrinthspel, a maddening German game in which the object is to juggle a metal ball through a tricky labyrinth of holes.”
Because Tony was not home now, she ate her own dinner in the Long Room at eight while Nanny took the children upstairs to scrub sand out of fingernails and hair.
Then she went upstairs. Frankie was waiting for her.
“You can’t catch me,” she chanted. “Can’t catch me.”
“Oh, yes, I can.”
“Can’t catch me. Can’t catch me.”
Deborah encircled Frankie with her arms. Frankie squirmed free and jumped over the bed. Snatching the pillow from Frankie’s bed, Deborah followed. Frankie fought back—unsuccessfully—with another pillow. Frankie, who is the extrovert in the family, loves roughhousing. She loved the wild chase around the bedroom, the capture, the ultimate defeat of ending in bed with a pillow stuffed over her face fifteen minutes later.
“Good night, Mummy,” she said from beneath the pillow.
Deborah lifted the pillow, kissed her, and then replaced the pillow again. “Good night.”
Melanie had always been more self-sufficient. There was no roughhousing in her room. She preferred to go to bed a quarter-hour early in order to have time to read.
“Just the rest of this chapter,” she begged when her mother came in. “I couldn’t bear to go to sleep without finishing this chapter.” A carbon copy of her mother’s features in all but one respect, she looked up at Deborah with her father’s wide eyes.
As usual, after the children were asleep, Deborah lay across her bed in slacks and furry white bedroom slippers she always wears (“because they’re so wonderful for cold feet”) and studied her new script to the soft background of classical music. An hour later she tossed the script to one side and went downstairs to put the last finishing touches on the picture she had painted that day.
“Maybe,” she thought, “if I finish it and put it in a frame, it won’t look too bad.”
Later, she looked at her watch and—leaving the picture to dry—went back upstairs to try to pick up London on her short wave radio. After ten or fifteen minutes she was successful. Delighted, she stretched out and listened for a few minutes. “It’s a small thrill whenever I manage to get London. And I pick up some of the most extraordinary police messages.”
Then she felt a sudden twinge of loneliness for Tony, who was in London and perhaps listening to the same program on the BBC. She rolled over and reached for her pen and stationery. “Dear Tony ….”
Around midnight she finished the letter and went to bed. Like Melanie, she has to read herself to sleep—even when she is so tired she can only keep her eyes open for three lines. She read for a few moments, but she found it difficult to concentrate. She thought of Tony, gave a fond pat to the letter standing ready to be mailed to England in the morning, then reached up and turned off the light murmuring, “It was a happy day.”


  • petesbabe

    I love this!!! So open, and realistic!! She is such a great mom! I’m struck by how she lets the kids ask her what she did. That kind of question would NOT have been allowed in my house!! My mother would have considered that insolence, but Deborah seems to know that Melanie and Frankie were genuinely interested in how she spent her day, and she respects that. I’ve read other articles, where she seems to question whether or not she was “a reasonably good mother”. Well, if this is any indication, that her children felt safe and comfortable asking her anything, and playing with her, (pillow fight!), and had the freedom to be their own little people, then, yes, Deborah Kerr, you were a wonderful mother!<3. By the way, Frankie cracks me up!!! And it's so interesting that Melanie even then, seems serious and thoughtful, and extremely intelligent. It's no wonder she's a PH.D.

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