Photoplay – October 1959
Interview by Mary Culver
After a year of silence, in her first interview with Photoplay, Deborah Kerr says, “I have learned to live from day to day”.
This is the first interview she has given us in more than a year. The interview took place in her home in California, the same one in which we visited her last time. It was a Friday afternoon at four o’clock. The weather was as beautiful as it had been a year ago at this time.
Then, the house had seemed full of happiness and the voices of children. The morning was hurried—pleasantly so. Upstairs a little girl’s voice shouted. “I can’t find my lunch box,” Melanie called. “I can’t find it anywhere.”
“I have it. It’s in here,” her mother answered back. Then she turned to her other daughter, Frankie, and said, “There—you’re all neat and shining.”
Frankie wriggled down from her mother’s lap, almost tripping over the family dogs, Duffy and Tonton, and ran over to the window. “I thought I saw him,” she said. “The postman’s coming! Do you think he’s brought a letter from Daddy?”
“Maybe,” Deborah said. But Tony hated to write. Instead, he called them several times a week from England. What enormous phone bills they’d been having!
“I bet he’ll never write us again,” Frankie had said. “Not after you forgot to post that letter with all my drawings in it.”
Deborah laughed. “Aren’t I forgiven yet?”
“A week!” the child said. “You forgot for a whole week—that’s a long time.”
Melanie came running into the room then, her blond ponytail bouncing as she reached for the lunch box Deborah held out to her. “Here you are,” said her mother.
Outside, the school bus honked. As Deborah opened the sliding glass doors leading into the garden, the girls hurried out, both dogs yapping right behind them.
“Goodbye, Mommy,” said Frankie, lifting her face to be kissed.
“Goodbye, Mommy,” echoed Melanie. “Have a good day.”
Deborah stood and watched them go, and then she sighed. Everything was peaceful again. Her day was her own till the school bus returned that afternoon and the children tumbled out of it. They would have tea around the huge, marble-topped table, and Frankie would have hers half-milk. Melanie was learning how to be a lady. She curled her little finger and took her tea with lemon.
At tea-time they practiced making “small talk.”
Melanie said that evening, as she did every evening, “And what did you do today, Mommy?”
She wouldn’t stand for her mother saying, “Nothing.” So Deborah had to say, “Well, nothing much. I finished a good book and painted a little. Played with Duffy and scratched Tonton’s stomach. Then I gardened a while. The sun was delicious. It was a lovely day.” She had told them.
It was a lovely day, almost a perfect day; almost a perfect life. Yet, three months later, while Deborah Kerr was in Vienna making a picture, she surprised her friends and fans. She separated from her husband, Tony Bartley, after nearly thirteen years of marriage.
“We are trying to work out our problems,” she said at the time. “I hope we can do it. But we have not been happy for a long time …”
Soon after that, she discovered that Tony had flown the children to England. There, he had put them under the protection of the British court, so she could not take them away with her. After she saw that pleading with her husband did no good, Deborah fought to get her children back. But that did no good, either.
Now, a year has passed. Deborah had received her final decree only a few days before. Even the house looked different. For one thing, it was quiet …
The chimes of the doorbell echoed deep within the house. Then there was a sharp click of high heels on a polished floor and the door was opened. A woman stood in the doorway. She was tall, five feet seven, with red hair falling softly about her face, and the green dress she wore was open at the neckline.
“Come in,” she said softly, “I’ve been expecting you.” She held out her hand almost timidly and then showed the way into the Long Room, where a chair near the large picture window faced the ocean. She picked up a book from the chair. “I was reading while I waited for you,” she said, and we both sat down. “It’s a volume of Garcia Lorca’s poems. I love to read Lorca. He—” She broke off, looking around the well-kept beauty of the room. “Do you like it?” she asked, but she didn’t wait for an answer. “I used to like formal things, classical furnishings. But they’re so cold. I used to like Botticelli, for instance. But now I’ve discovered the impressionists. They’re so warm—so alive …” Her voice trailed off.
“It’s a lovely house.” I said, “but it seems awfully big. Don’t you ever get lonely in it?”
“Lonely?” she asked, tilting her head to one side, considering. “No,” she said, “I don’t think so. At least not when I’m working on a picture as I am now.” She paused then and looked around her. “Well,” she admitted, “it is big, I guess. Too big … now.
“As soon as I finish the picture, I’ll go to England. I made sure there would be time. We’ll spend two weeks together – the children and I.” She did not say anything for a moment. But she smiled as though she were already there, already with them. Then the smile faded. “After that, I have to go to Australia to make a picture. It’s for Fred Zinneman. He directed me in ‘From Here to Eternity.’”
She smiled. “There never seems enough time for all I want to do.
“You know, I have to get up at five-thirty. Or rather,” she said, “that’s the time my alarm clock rings. And that’s the only time I have to myself. I lie there in bed for ten minutes—sometimes fifteen if I’m especially tired—and I try to plan my day so that I can get everything into it that I want to. Of course,” she said, “I never manage to.
“But during breakfast I try. I usually have it at six—a slice of toast and juice and gallons of tea. Tea’s what keeps me going. Oh,” she said, “would you like some tea now?”
She rang for the maid. “Mary, would you bring in some tea, please?”
Turning back to me she said, smiling, “I’ve lost twelve pounds for this role, but it’s certainly worth it.
“The clothes in the picture—” her arms spread out and then hugged in close to her, “—the clothes are simply stunning. Fifty costumes—can you imagine? I get to wear fifty outfits in ‘Beloved Infidel.” I play the columnist, Sheilah Graham, you know.
“Oh, I’m very glamorous!” She laughed.
“And I get to play opposite Greg Peck, an old friend of mine whom I’ve never acted with before for one reason or another.”
Mary brought in the tea service just then, setting it down on the low marble-topped table. “Thank you,” Deborah said. She lifted the silver teapot and began pouring. “One lump or two?” she asked, and, as she turned, I thought she had never looked more handsome, with a maturity that was feminine yet strong.
She passed me a cup of tea with lemon and then sat absently stirring for a moment. Then she let her hands fall into her lap. She sat looking down at them, long slim hands, and for the moment, curiously still.
“It’s a wonderful role,” she said, “but making the picture—making any picture for that matter—is hard work. And I do mean work! You wouldn’t believe what my day is really like,” she said.
I laughed. “Everybody thinks a movie star’s life is a lark.”
“I know,” Deborah said. Then she said back and began ticking off the minutes of her day on her fingers. “I go over my lines while I’m having breakfast,” she said. “Can you believe it?” Then I turn on the radio to get the exact time, and then, reluctantly, I start to do the last minute things: see that I’ve remembered my eyelashes, my lunch—which is usually a hardboiled egg and cottage cheese.
She frowned a little and then brightened. “After that I climb into my car—it’s a white Thunderbird—and drive to the studio, where Peg Shannon, my hair-stylist, already has the kettle boiling in my dressing for some more tea. While she’s setting my hair, I drink tea and listen to soft music on the radio, and after that, Del Armstrong, my make-up man, comes in for some last minute suggestions, and Willie May Neal, my wardrobe girl, gets me into my outfit—and then we’re on. Finally.
“It could all be for just one fast scene of us walking from the administration building onto a set. That’s what it was yesterday. Herb Rudley, who’s playing a movie producer, is escorting me (Sheila Graham) to the set to watch the star whose acting I’ve maligned in my column. We had to walk through a typical outdoor movie scene: they had a couple of camels—I steered as far from them as possible—extras in Indian costumes, East Indian, girls in pink tights and can-can costumes—to make it look as colorful as possible. Fortunately we did it in one take. Then I went back to my dressing room to play a game of solitaire, but I just got the cards laid out, and then it was time for another scene.
“And make-up has to be put on all over again, and costumes and everything to do all over again, and then we’re on again. The next scene I did with Karin Booth, who portrays Janet Pierce. Instead of barring me from her dressing room for having written an unflattering paragraph about her, the producer takes me on to the set to watch a scene she’s doing. He feels this will prove to me how wrong I was, how good an actress Janet Pierce is. After the scene the producer introduces her to me. She is furious that I’m on the set. Looking coldly at me, she says, “Tell me, Miss Graham, how did a girl as pretty as you are get to be the biggest witch in Hollywood?’ And I, though stunned, come back with ‘Not the biggest, Miss Pierce, The second biggest.’
“Myself, I’d die a thousand deaths if anyone spoke to me like that. But as Sheilah Graham, at this point in ‘Beloved Infidel,’ I am fighting for survival as a columnist, and am able to cope with it however hurt I am. Sheilah is fighting, the only way she knows how, to make a name for herself. Anything goes with her, even to starting a feud with an important star.”
She took a deep breath and smiled. “We’re up to lunch now,” she said, laughing out loud at the expression on my face. “While I eat the cottage cheese and an egg I go over my lines again—maybe try to get in a hand of solitaire. I was just laying out a hand when my director, Henry King, came in to talk about the next scene. I put aside the cards and we decided to do the scene just a little differently.
For a while she talked about the movie, and then she said, “After lunch yesterday I got a chance to relax for a few minutes. Herb Rudley and I sat around and talked about our children. His girls went to the same school my daughters did. It’s the same school that Sheila Graham’s daughter, Wendy, went to. And Herb and I laughed a little about sitting there at the school applauding our various children on all the Christmas Carol days, May Days—oh, all the school functions.” She laughed a little now, remembering, and then her face closed.
Tucking her hands into the pockets of her dress, she stood up and walked over to the glass doors. For a moment she looked out at the gardens. Then she moved back to the picture window and stared out at the cliffs and the sea. A ship was passing.
“The girls will probably be going to school in England for this year at the least because I’ll be in Australia in the fall for ‘The Sundowners,’” she said turning. “I may have to sell the house. It’s too big for me.
“The end of a day on movie set isn’t the end of a day for an actress,” she said.
“Even though there were no rushes to see, I still had a lot of things to do. With so many outfits in this film, I didn’t have time for all the fittings necessary, before starting the picture. So the stand-by car rushed me over to Bill Thomas’s fitting rooms and I had a first fitting on two more gowns. Then I went to my main dressing room to have my hair washed so it would be fresh for the next morning’s work.
“I was sitting there late yesterday evening,” she said, “glad the day was nearly over, and while I was under the dryer I dealt out a hand of solitaire. There were two aces to take off right away, and a red queen to put on a black queen, but just as I was going to play, I heard a voice over my shoulder. I turned around to see one of the new hairdressers. ‘Boy,’ she said to me, ‘you’ve sure got the life.’ My mouth opened, but I couldn’t say a word. Then the girl who washed my hair came back and took me out from under the dryer. I never did get to play out the hand. I bet I’d have won, too!”
“What do you do when you come home at night from the studio?”
“Do? I eat my supper, take off my make-up and fall into bed at ten o’clock. After all,” she said, “from five-thirty in the morning to ten at night—that’s a long day.
“When you talk to people all day, no matter how interesting they are, it’s a blessed feeling to be quiet and alone, if only just before you go to sleep.”
She smiled. “My grandmother’s like that too,” she said. “Both my parents are dead, but Grandmother’s ninety-five and she lives in Sussex all by herself. She absolutely refuses to have anyone live with her. Ninety-five! She marveled. “And she’s still peppy and writes the most beautiful letters. I saw her right after New Year’s this year, and though she’s a bit crippled with arthritis now, and has a woman come in to do the cleaning and cooking, she tosses her out as soon as the heavy work is done. She likes living alone,” she said, looking a little surprised as she said it.
“Would you like to see the summer house?” she asked suddenly. Smiling, she said, “You’ve been sitting a long time.”
Along the flagstone walkway, the flowers grew in great abundance. A riot of color—mostly reds—led toward the summer house and contrasted with the gray of the cliffs just beyond. The outline of the freighter was still visible.
Sitting down on one of the benches, she said, “It’s lovely here. It seems a shame, but I suppose I must sell it …”
The sun shone directly on the house now, picking up the green of the ivy climbing its white walls. Just within the glass doors was the piano, closed now. Beyond the piano was the round marble-topped table where Deborah and I had taken our tea. Usually, she takes it there alone now.
The wind from the sea was blowing her hair and tossing about the leaves and blossoms on the Bougainvillea vine. She pushed her hair back, but it did no good.
“Do the children still borrow your clothes and pretend they’re actresses now as they used to?” I asked remembering how they play-acted the last time I saw them.
She stared off to the sea for a moment. The ship had passed below the horizon. Now there was only an unbroken line of blue. She sighed, and then smiled. “Of course they do,” she said. “They have lots of my things in London, especially my old hats, and adore dressing up. They’re crazy about horses now, too, and are busy being horses all day long. You know, pretending to jump fences. Things like that. And they can ride wonderfully. But not me. Thank goodness I don’t have to ride a horse in ‘The Sundowners.’ I just have to drive a wagon.”
Reaching into her pocket, she withdrew a couple of hard peppermints. “Want one?” she asked and, when I shook my head, she popped one into her mouth. “Those are wonderful kids,” she said then. “You know, when I lost the Academy Award to Bergman, Melanie and Frankie made one of their own for me. It was a hand-drawn award, showing a laurel wreath, and the lettering on it was: ‘to the most wonderful and beautiful mother in he world.’ It made me want to cry. The girls had gotten a gold seal and a blue ribbon, and it looked as official as the Lord Privy’s seal of London. I’m having it framed and I’m going to hang it alongside my three Academy Award Nomination certificates.”
Then I asked her what else the future held for her. “I’ll have my holiday in England with the girls,” she said softly. “Then I’ll do my picture in Australia. Beyond that—” She lifted her hands then let them fall into her lap again, “It’s difficult to plan too far ahead. The important thing is what is best for the girls, and I’ll fit in around that.” She gave me a level look then. “You know,” she said, “My children’s and my relationship hasn’t changed at all—any more than it does if one sends one’s children to boarding school all year.”
After a moment of silence, she stood up and smiled. “Besides, it’s not something I have to decide today, this minute, is it?”
The mood of the moment when the sunlight struck through the vines was gone. The sea breeze was stronger now, with a hint of coolness in it. She shivered, and then she smiled. “It was good of you to come,” she said her voice brisk again.
We walked around the front of the big white house together. When we reached my car she gave me her hand. “Goodbye,” she said. “I’ve liked talking to you.”
From the car I watched her walk back up the path. Just at the door she knelt down. Plucking a single flower from one of the plants. For a moment she held the red blossom against her pale face. Then she stood up, pushed open the heavy door, and entered the house.