Biographer reveals Graham Greene's life with bear necessity: New book tells of the confused sexuality and secret companion of literary legend. David Lister reports
A founder member of The Independent David Lister joined the paper in 1986 as Assistant Home Editor. He became the paper's arts correspondent in 1988 and is now Arts Editor and writes a column each Saturday. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Thursday 28 July 1994
When he was in his sixties he wrote letters to a close friend about brown, bow-tied 'Ted', praising the cuddly soft toy for its endurance in travelling the globe. The picture published exclusively here was taken by Greene in 1963. It is of Ted sitting in a Havana hotel room, accompanied by the caption 'Our Ted In Havana', which Greene wrote in a letter to the friend.
Greene's lifelong affection for Ted is revealed in the new biography, Graham Greene; The Man Within, published today by Heinemann and written by the American academic Michael Shelden. It is part of the detailed picture Shelden builds up of Greene's insecurity and struggles with his sexuality.
The book, which draws on private correspondence as well as previously secret information from MI6, deals at length with Greene's flirtation with homosexuality, always fiercely denied by the novelist, pointing to numerous references in his books and particularly his late plays, which all deal with homosexuality but have been curiously ignored. Shelden, professor of English at Indiana State University - whose biography of Orwell in 1991 was shortlisted for the Pulitzer prize - also interviews people on the island of Capri where Greene had a holiday villa. The biography claims that Greene regularly entertained Italian youths at the villa.
Leaks about the Greene biography have all dwelt on the Roman Catholic writer's affair with Catherine Walston, the American wife of a Labour peer and inspiration for his novel The End Of The Affair, and with claims of daring sexual practices including making love behind high altars in Italy.
But it is Shelden's discoveries about Greene's private struggles with his sexuality which may have as much to say about the author of celebrated novels including Brighton Rock, Our Man In Havana and The Human Factor.
Shelden discovered Greene's obsession with his teddy bear by accident. The name Ted cropped up repeatedly in letters from Greene to his close friend Alexander Frere, the chairman of Heinemann. Frere's widow gave Shelden access to these letters. In one from Israel about the time of the Six- Day War in 1967, Greene tells how shelling broke out and he dived for cover: 'I grabbed Ted, threw him to the ground and hugged him close to me.'
'I thought, 'what is going on?' ' Shelden says now. 'I asked Mrs Frere and she showed me the picture of Ted in Havana, and Ted has got a pretty blue collar around him and he's a teddy bear. So here's this tough Graham Greene, this dashing spy in one of the hotspots of the world, and the whole time no one knows he is carrying round a pretty teddy bear.'
Frere also had a teddy bear and in 1963 when Greene was 60 he wrote this note to Frere, entitled Our Ted In Havana: 'Hope the Teds meet soon. Mine has now been in 7 countries in 8 weeks and feels confused, France, England, Jamaica, Mexico, Cuba, Haiti, San Domingo.' The discovery of the teddy bear unlocks a number of references in Greene's work. In his 1930 story The Bear Fell Free, the hero, Querry, tells a priest that all his prayers are 'for a brown teddy bear'.
Shelden says: 'The teddy bear was one of his deep, dark secrets. He was afraid of being called effeminate. Betjeman of the same Oxford generation flaunted his teddy bear and became a model for Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited. But Greene's image was of a man's man, though this was simply another cover and perhaps his most convincing one.'
Shelden says: 'Homosexuality is pervasive in his work, but it has not been remarked upon. As opposed to his novels, his plays have been very little commented upon. But For Whom The Bell Chimes is a parody of Hemingway-style tough masculinity, even down to the title with its tinkling sound. That play is about a transsexual and a homosexual who are in love. Yes And No is about the seduction of a young man by an older homosexual. Both these plays appeared in the 1980s but were rarely performed. It was Greene's way of coming out of the closet.
'It's in no way a scandalous revelation, but it's interesting that Greene was so strident in his denials of it. I went down to his villa in Capri and I found people who were quite willing to say that Greene had been involved with young men from Italy. The postman in the village recalls that young Italian boys were often there.
'But I think Greene enjoyed talking about homosexuality rather than doing it. He was drawn to it, he was fascinated by it and then denied it.'
Shelden concludes: 'What all this adds up to is a man deeply insecure about his sexuality and childish in his approach to sexuality. For me, the teddy bear is one of the few pieces of solid evidence that reveal how ridiculously insecure he was about his masculinity.'
Graham Greene: The Man Within; Michael Shelden; Heinemann; pounds 20.
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