Obituary: Maria St Just

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The Independent Online
Maria Britneva, actress: born Petrograd 2 July 1921; married 1956 Peter Grenfell, second Lord St Just (died 1984; two daughters); died London 15 February 1994.

SPRING 1948. Tennessee Williams and I are in London, writes Gore Vidal. The first of Williams's plays in England, The Glass Menagerie, is about to go into production. A novel of mine, The City and the Pillar, is about to acquire a dark lustre as the direct cause of the death of that indomitable hostess Sybil Colefax. She had given me a tea; then read the book; then rang Tennessee's producer Binkie Beaumont. 'Perhaps I should not have read it . . .' Voice trailed off. Sybil was gone.

But Binkie was the Tamerlane of the West End. He gave a great party for Tennessee and it was there that we met Maria Britneva, a young actress born in St Petersburg and brought up in London. Maria never knew that she was already famous to Tennessee and me as the actress who had tried to murder Edith Evans on stage in Crime and Punishment, which also starred her beloved friend John Gielgud, who was now acting as director of The Glass Menagerie.

We were enchanted with the would-be murderess. Even more so by the mise-en-scene of her aborted crime. Apparently, one side of the stage was occupied by the anguished Gielgud; the other by Evans and her faithful companion, Maria. Whenever one side of the stage lit up for Gielgud, say, to soliloquise, the other side darkened. Whenever Evans's side darkened, she would begin to cough, at first very softly; then, as Gielgud mesmerised the audience with that silver voice, a series of hacking, sobbing, terminal-as-Keats deep coughs would emerge from the darkness. Finally, Gielgud complained to Maria: 'Can't you do something to stop her?' That night, shortly after the preliminary coughs began, there was a ghastly cry from the darkened half of the stage - a struggle; silence. At the play's end, Gielgud congratulated Maria on Evans's silence. Meanwhile, Binkie was sacking Maria for having nearly smothered the Christian Scientist to non-existent death with a pillow.

Tennessee and Maria and I walking in the Strand. She had found some toffees; insisted we take one; my pivot tooth was pulled out; Maria's inordinate laughter in the Strand. Later that year, Tennessee invited her to New York. The three of us drive to Key West, Maria has not seen so much food since before the war. At every shrimp stand in the Keys, Maria would ask us to stop. Even though we were dieting, she was eating. The third time she asked for key lime pie at one sitting, Tennessee hissed, 'Miss Pig strikes again.' Later when Maria married Peter St Just, I dubbed her Lady Saint Pigge, enhancing the spelling in what I took to be a baronial way.

As described in her memoir, Five O'Clock Angel, she remained close to Tennessee for the rest of what turned out to be not the happiest life on record. In his will, he left her the management of his literary estate and the fact that he is perhaps the most universally performed of the century's playwrights is largely due to her energy - not to mention fierceness - in promoting him and his work. Great stars were putty in her hands as, with beady eye, she menaced them with that symbolic cushion that had so salutary an effect on Edith Evans. I talked to her at Christmas. She was triumphant, aside from crippling arthritis. 'I have less blood than anyone alive. One must have a three. I have a two.' A good Russian Greek Orthodox, she believed in an after-life.

I can hear her, as I write, 'Peter Petrovich, please show me to the Tennessee Williams Theatre.'

(Photograph omitted)