Claire Bloom: The human pain

Claire Bloom and her ex-husband Philip Roth attacked each other in print. Now back on stage, the actress tells Charlotte O'Sullivan of the ensuing misery
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"I love giraffes!" Claire Bloom says. " Love them. Do you?" In case you're wondering, we're talking about her new play, Whistling Psyche, in which she stars as Florence Nightingale. "There's a wonderful line in it," she continues. "My character says that she could do no other but reach higher than her fellow creatures. I felt that. Not that I always did reach higher, but I could do no other than try to."

"I love giraffes!" Claire Bloom says. " Love them. Do you?" In case you're wondering, we're talking about her new play, Whistling Psyche, in which she stars as Florence Nightingale. "There's a wonderful line in it," she continues. "My character says that she could do no other but reach higher than her fellow creatures. I felt that. Not that I always did reach higher, but I could do no other than try to."

Bloom looks unassuming - a small woman, bundled up in a black and white checked coat, guzzling her "25th cup" of tea in the Almeida Theatre's bar. But it is true: she has always wanted more. Back in her teens, she earned rave reviews playing lovely, rained-on flowers (Ophelia, at Stratford; Juliet, at the Old Vic); was catapulted to stardom when Charles Chaplin chose her to star as the damaged young dancer in his movie Limelight. It wasn't long, though, before she decided that she'd had enough of "sentimental" waifs, and took on the American stage. In the 1970s, there were the groundbreaking performances in A Doll's House and A Streetcar Named Desire - the former, in particular, causing US feminists to cheer in the aisles.

Having written a rather modest book about her life on the stage, she followed it up with the 1996 memoir Leaving a Doll's House, which laid bare her disastrous marriages to the actor Rod Steiger; the demonic, sex-mad producer Hillard Elkins; and, last but not least, the author Philip Roth. Most actors write books about cosy dinner conversations with their friends. Bloom felt she had to "go out there with the truth", and put her (long) neck on the line.

All these years later, aged 73, she's still recovering from the blows. Even her daughter Anna (the child she had with Steiger, now an opera singer) took issue with the book's tone. "I gave it to my daughter," says Bloom, "before publication, and I said, 'if there is anything you want me to take out, whatever it is, it goes', and she said there was nothing." How lovely, I say, and Bloom rolls her opal-dark eyes. "But afterwards, it turned out there were things." She gives a throaty laugh. "So I don't think she can have read it very carefully!"

What bothered Anna, it seems, were the references to Steiger. "Perhaps there were things I should not have said," concedes Bloom. "I tried to be immensely discreet. And anyway, I loved Rod. And he never said he was unhappy about the book to me."

Joan Bakewell's reaction also shocked her. "I got true vitriol from her. I've never read such a vile review. I admired her, I still do. I don't know what it was that she saw in it that she hated so."

All hostilities pale, though, when set against Roth's response. For starters, he hired solicitors in the US and Britain, who threatened legal action if Bloom continued to give interviews to promote her book. Then, in his 1998 novel I Married a Communist, he created a character, Eve Frame, clearly based on Bloom, but with a few not-so-subtle twists. A self-loathing, anti-Semitic Jewess, she fawns over shallow society figures, endures physical attacks from her overweight and vengeful daughter, sides with fascists by denouncing her husband in print, and ends up a "hopeless drunk". What did Bloom make of that?

She clutches at the collar of her coat and whispers, "No!". Still under her breath, she explains that she hasn't read the book. "I just couldn't." I can hardly believe this, I say, and she gives a timid sort of shrug. "Since Philip and I were separated - in 1993 really, though we were divorced in 1996 - I was terrified to read any of his books, and that one, for sure, I wasn't going to read. Every time I saw a copy, I felt sick or faint."

Her face brightens. "I was in the airport, in a bookshop, and I was standing like this [she leaps up] with my hand on a pile of books. And I looked down and, goddammit, it was Human Pain!" (Roth's book is actually called The Human Stain; as slips go, this one speaks volumes.) "And I thought, 'Buy it! Read it! Stop it!". She laughs, and sits down. "And I've been fine ever since! It was as though it was saying, 'Come on [she bangs on the table for emphasis], get on with it, pass this by, you've got to pass it by!'."

But she couldn't do the same with I Married a Communist? She looks at me, like someone with a fish phobia who has just been asked to stroke Jaws. "No, no, no. I couldn't. I couldn't."

She is still in several minds about the break-up itself, during which Roth was on Lithium for much of the time. It damaged her, she says. "Look, I'm not exactly the person I was before. At a certain point, you've got to come to terms with certain horrors, but it was pretty extreme."

She was manoeuvred out of the two homes they'd once shared. There was also the night when Roth started bombarding her with faxes - one was a bill for the 600 hours he had spent rehearsing scripts with her; another demanded she return her wedding ring. She and Anna were both there, as one missive after another "plopped" on to the floor. Eventually, the two women started laughing. Which suggests, I say, that things could have been worse. At least they had each other, at least they knew it wasn't them going mad.

"Do you think it's true," says Bloom, wonderingly, "that you can't lose it, if someone else is there, sharing it with you? I guess not..." She frowns. "But it put a lot of weight on Anna, that was too much for her to carry at that time." (I am momentarily distracted by the thought of Roth chuckling at this image - his "Anna" is called Sylphid, which gives some indication of just how obsessed he is with her girth.)

"It was pretty damaging for her. I think it made her question men and marriage a great deal, afterwards. I shouldn't have done it," she continues, "but I had nowhere else to turn."

By that point, Bloom's adored mother was dead. A proudly Jewish East End woman (Roth, take note), Alice was a crucial figure in her daughter's life, always offering support, and encouragement. "I wish she was here now," says Bloom, smile back in place. I ask if she ever dreams about her, and she says rarely, but that when she does, they've been good dreams.

As if thinking aloud, she adds: "I must say, when I've had dreams about Philip, I've woken up absolutely terrified. So it depends on how people enter your waking life, I suppose... "

It seems that, for all the thought of him makes her shudder, he's a problem that her mind can't help itself from trying to solve. "He wasn't well, at the time," she says suddenly. "I mean, if we go into this, and I didn't want to go into all this, I think, for himself, he did the right thing."

"Yes," she says, putting the case before me as carefully as a judge, "because he can't live with somebody. He cannot have any - any other relationship, or duty or even desire for anything else when he's writing. Since we've been separated," she says, confidingly, "he has published a book a year. You can't write at that rate if you also have a life. And he has the life he wants, but it's not a life."

But the way that he chose to break up with her, and the fact that, a whole year later, he was still able to write that book... "No, of course I don't say that what he did wasn't despicable. Frankly, it was. But I understand it. And I think I'm right," she says, "that he couldn't do anything else. Perhaps you can only break with somebody you love like that. If you don't love someone, it's quite easy. If you love them, it's not."

I say that I'm getting confused - she's making him sound almost romantic - and she laughs. "I don't understand it myself. It's something I'll be puzzling over on my deathbed."

She says that her advice to a young person looking for love is, "Just don't marry a writer, or an actor!". She herself, though, doesn't intend to form any new relationships. Who does she talk to when something exciting happens in her life? Bloom smiles, and, in the sort of hush people adopt when entering a church, says, "My daughter". More laughter, albeit of an uneasy kind. "Although she's not always easy to get hold of! I think it would be wonderful to be in a couple," she muses, "and I wish that I had someone to travel with, but - I am able to live alone, and there are lots of things about it that I like."

It is the life that her mother had, after all, once Bloom's father effectively took himself off the scene (in 1947, when Claire was 16). She became bound up in Claire, just as Claire has since become bound up in her daughter Anna. I say that Alice sounds like an extraordinary woman, and Bloom says quickly, "Well, she was. [A big, bright smile] And she still is. I mean, I'm answerable to her while I'm alive. Because after all, she created me, and gave me the right vision."

Perhaps the problem is that Bloom's mother laid such stress on living a significant life, that her daughter has been unable to choose "insignificant" men. Opting for larger-than-life characters, she has found herself squished, over and over again. On the plus side, now that she has given up on the dream of perfect love, she does have room for her career. As she says, with a sort of proud shiver: "Age hasn't in any way affected the fact that I'm as ambitious as I ever was. Which seems to me completely mad! There have been the usual crises with this play - everything about it is difficult - but I think that it is going to turn out all right. This woman I'm playing, Nightingale, she was imprisoned by her family, but was demonically possessed by a desire to escape. The stresses and strains and frustrations of living in the 1850s. The women at this time - they must have been so angry... "

How funny that she should use this word. It has suddenly occurred to me that I've never met anyone so eager to please.

The PR pops her head around the door, to say that rehearsals are about to begin. "Right!" says Bloom, gathering herself up. "I've talked about my innermost heart. I didn't mean to." Then, as the PR joins us, "I revealed all! Well," she adds, looking up at me anxiously, "I hope not...".

Bloom - the nakedly ambitious actress - still has something to hide. And, at a guess, it has got something to do with rage. But, given how much hasn't changed in the past 100 years for women, how could it be any other way? If the strip that she performs is a tease, hers is still a formidable, shockingly gutsy show.

'Whistling Psyche', Almeida Theatre, London N1 (020-7359 4404), to 19 June