Obituary: Maria St Just

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.

MARIA St JUST never revealed her age. That, together with her expensive clothes, her elegant maquillage, and her fiery indomitability, made her recent death all the more startling. It was only this Christmas, as we were completing a stage adaptation together of her book Five O'Clock Angel (1990), that her arthritis became so crippling that I had to carry her from room to room.

What is certain is that her family fled St Petersburg after the 1917 revolution. Her father, who had been court physician at Tsarskoe Seloe, was murdered in the later Soviet purges. Her mother brought her up in Hammersmith on meagre earnings as a translator of Chekhov for John Gielgud's company of actors.

As a child, Maria learnt ballet under Tamara Karsavina, and danced at Covent Garden. 'The little grasshopper' could jump higher than the rest. But the malnourishment she had endured in Russia, and her tiny build, put paid to an adult career. Instead, Gielgud found her work as an assistant stage manager and understudy. It was at his house that she met Tennessee Williams.

They developed a deep amitie amoureuse. Indeed, Britneva fell in love with the playwright, and for a while denied his homosexuality to herself. Thereafter, she invented a role as his confidante, sister-

substitute, and organiser of his chaotic domestic affairs. She jealously dispatched her rivals in his affections - ridiculing the playwright Carson McCullers, enraging the actress Tallulah Bankhead, and concocting private jokes at the expense of Audrey Wood, Williams's agent.

He in turn responded to her mordantly cruel wit. She was, he said, 'an archetype, a symbol of the rebellious spirit at bay'. He valued her capacity to make him laugh, her loyalty and her honesty. 'Maria', said a friend, 'would give him the truth unedited.'

Always vulnerable to sycophants, he needed that. He swung parts for her in his plays: amongst others, Miss Alma in Summer and Smoke, and Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, which won her critical acclaim. Whether her career would have proceeded much further without him is open to question. Her enduring memorial is his depiction of her unique spirit in the character of Maggie the Cat, in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955).

To quote Maggie: 'You can be young without money, but you can't be old without it.' Maria Britneva married in 1956 the second and last Lord St Just, heir to a banking fortune and to Wilbury Park, a beautiful Palladian mansion in Wiltshire. The Tartar had her estates once more. She ruled both as chatelaine and as mother to her two fiercely loved daughters with terrifying autocracy. Tennessee Williams depicted that too; the Countess, in This Is, is a hilarious portrait of her.

It was while incarcerated there, editing Tennessee's letters to her, that I had the temerity to try to escape. Maria had pulled all the telephone wires out of the wall, and I needed to make an urgent call. In doing so, I gashed my leg, and returned to find gatekeepers and dogs coming up the drive after me, urged on by their mistress. But on seeing that I was badly hurt, Maria howled with laughter, declaring that it was God's punishment. From then on, we became firm friends.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, hearing the story, murmured that she liked the sound of Maria. 'How can you?' somebody remonstrated. 'It's monstrous.' 'Writers feast on people like that,' Ruth answered.

Tennessee Williams astounded the theatrical world by making Maria St Just his literary executrix. She vindicated his trust completely. Too rich to care about money, she was concerned only for the integrity of the performances which she was empowered to authorise. There hasn't been a dud since his death in 1983; and that his reputation is now restored is thanks to her.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Business Partner (Maternity Cover 12 Months)

£30000 - £34000 Per Annum 25 days holiday, Private healthcare: Clearwater Peop...

Project Manager (Procurement & Human Resources)

Unpaid: Cancer Research UK: If you’re a professional in project management, lo...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

HR Assistant / Human Resources Assistant

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: An HR Assistant / Human Resources Ass...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on