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.

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.