Obituary: Maria St Just
Friday 25 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.
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Weather bomb in pictures: Storms cuts power for tens of thousands – and snow is on the way
Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
Russell Brand was rendered speechless on Question Time by this man
Fury at Airbus after it hints the super-jumbo may be mothballed
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Rozanne Duncan: Ukip expels councillor for 'jaw-dropping' comments made in BBC TV interview
Sony hack: Angelina Jolie branded 'seriously out of her mind' in further embarrassing leaked email saga
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food
£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...
£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...