THE MISERY I AM NEVER ABLE TO FORGET
Her reputation precedes her. Interviewers find actress Claire Bloom guarded, private and shy. They talk of her nervous sensitivity and fiercely controlled personality. She rarely reveals anything personal. So it is an honour to find her talking intimately and revealing secrets. Like the fact that this serene, elegant, very English actress used to take drugs: ‘Well, who didn't in the Sixties?' she says. ‘I did pot at parties and loved it. I loved listening to music or looking at paintings.'
She's appearing next week at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, reading The Turn of the Screw. A talented actress and the darling of the gossip columns in the Fifties, she was shot to fame by Charlie Chaplin in Limelight. She has starred in A Streetcar Named Desire; as Lady Marchmaine in Brideshead Revisited; in The Camomile Lawn; and received rave reviews for her part in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanours (‘it's impossible to make any assesment of him. He never talks to you after the interview'). Initially Claire is prickly. I say I feel tentative because she has been known to threaten closing interviews, on one occasion three times. Why? ‘There is no reason to go into that,' she says, with the faintest American twang.
We're talking in The Mark hotel in New York, the city in which she now spends most of her time. ‘It's been a big wrench. I miss my London friends and family.' She's immaculate in ochre jumper, pale lemon skirt, perfect make-up and faultless bone structure. ‘You can't be an actress without magnetism,' she says later, ‘and magnetism has to be sexual. I can't lack it - but it isn't overt.' She is beautiful and looks 20 years younger than her 61 years. Has she had plastic surgery? ‘It's none of your business.' She has always wanted to keep busy. ‘It isn't that the parts don't come in, but I'm very selective.' To this end she has taken her one-woman Shakespeare all over America and taught Ibsen to ethnic minorities. ‘When I'm inactive I'm depressed. I like to have a reason to get up and things to do.'
She has been married three times, always to Americans (‘I've always been with the outsider because I am one'). First to Oscar-winning Rod Steiger; then to Howard Elkins, producer of Oh! Calcutta!; and now to Portnoy's Complaint author Philip Roth.
‘My second marriage was so awful that I don't even... it's...' her voice goes low. ‘I don't even countenance it.' It lasted three and a half years. ‘It was just ghastly' (end of subject tone). ‘It was so unhappy. I don't want to talk about it ever, as long as I live to anyone, including myself. It caused my daughter great hurt, it caused me immense pain.' WAS it bad in terms of mental anguish or physical abuse? ‘No, not physical abuse. I wouldn't have stayed two seconds for that. That's something I won't take from anyone. You walk. I don't believe that any woman has got through life without encountering physical abuse once.' When did she encounter it? ‘I don't want to go into it.' She sounds indignant. ‘I'm sorry, that's very personal.' She sips her coffee.
‘My first marriage was difficult,' she continues. It lasted 10 years. ‘It's very hard for two actors to marry, there is a certain amount of competitiveness - and we were very different people. I'm happy to say that Rod is now very happily married and having a baby' (she sounds aghast) ‘at the age of 67. I'm thrilled for them. She is pretty and nice and my daughter's age.' Claire's daughter, Anna, is by Rod.
‘Am I jealous? God almighty, no! I left Rod 25 years ago. As for the second one (husband), I don't know whether he's dead or alive, and I don't care!' We talk then about her life with Philip. They met once and then bumped into each other again on the corner of Madison and 67th. They've been together ever since - although for 11 years she was based in London six months of the year while he was in the States. ‘This is the first steady relationship I've ever had in my life,' she says. ‘I'm not the easiest person to live with. I've got a lot of things wrong with me. Intolerance, short temper ... but I figure I can't be all bad. Philip has helped me become calmer.'
They wed in 1990, after living together for 15 years. She ‘doesn't know' why they married after so long, having often said marriage was an irrelevance. ‘I was wrong. It's much nicer being married ... I just felt we'd been together so long, gone through so much together and I just wanted a kind of seal on it.
‘He's one of the most intelligent men in America. So you never lack good conversation. We're alone lots in Connecticut. I'm not solitary in the way that he is - he can be alone from one month's end to the next - but I like it too.' Characteristically, she picks her words carefully.
She is intensely proud of her daughter Anna, an opera singer. ‘She has turned out to be a terrific girl. She never had drink and drug problems or any of these dreadful difficulties, so I can't have done everything wrong. The second marriage was dreadfully hurtful to her because it was hurtful to me.
‘Also, there's not a professional woman who doesn't have the same problems I've had of trying to balance one's life. There were times when I was away too much. But I love her immeas- urably.'
CLAIRE'S own family background was problematical. ‘You know that wonderful Gracie Fields song, ‘something, something, it's all through your marrying our father you ruined the family'.' She laughs uproariously, as she does often.
‘I feel sorry to say things about a man I hardly knew and scarcely remember,' she says, suddenly sad. Her father left when Claire was 12 and went to seek his fortune in South Africa, divorcing her mother and remarrying. ‘Before that, it was a very rocky marriage. My mother was wonderful, a single parent - which up to a point I've been... ‘We moved a great deal because my father was always changing jobs, but I don't know what he did. At one point he seemed to run quite a big factory and to have money. At other times we had nothing because of his gambling. ‘We lived all over. I didn't have any education - I can truly say I didn't. I can't count the number of schools I went to - maybe eight or nine.' She left aged 14.
‘It wasn't an unhappy childhood, though it sounds it. I recall I didn't like school and I liked playing ‘let's pretend' and dressing up. I didn't have many friends, and I always had my nose stuck in a book. It was very much my mother and me against the world - with poor John, my younger brother, trailing behind.'
Claire, a charming woman with immense dignity and self-deprecatory humour, remains ‘an optimist'. She does yoga, meditation, aerobics - and therapy, occasionally. ‘I first went to therapy during that bad, bad, bad time. I went for three years. Then when we decided to live in New York it was such a wrench I went to someone again, someone with whom I keep in contact.
‘It's marvellous being able to go to someone professional instead of going to your friends and crying and telling them a whole lot of rubbish they'll tell somebody else.' She pauses. ‘It's very odd - when you read about actresses, so many of them have a disappeared father. Why do they all go into this ‘let's pretend' business?' Cheltenham Literature Festival starts on Monday.