A gay actor recalls his 11-year "passionate friendship" with a straight woman 40 years his senior.
“We have not begun to live until we conceive of life as a tragedy,” wrote William Butler Yeats. Simon Callow, the British stage and screen actor (he was Master of the Revels in “Shakespeare in Love”), uses this quotation to begin “Love Is Where It Falls,” the memoir of his relationship with Margaret (Peggy) Ramsay, the world-famous theatrical agent. But it’s a slightly misleading way to preface what is essentially a success story par excellence — a chronicle of two of life’s bigger winners. Ramsay, agent to several of the most important (or at least famous) playwrights of the 20th century (including Beckett, Ionesco, Osborne, Orton, Bond, Churchill and Hare), and Callow, celebrated not only as an actor but also as the author of several books, including a fine biography of Orson Welles, had plenty of aesthetic and material riches to enjoy, as well as the pleasure of each other’s company. Theirs was an enviable 11-year run of gift giving (everything from soup to an apartment), literary collaborations, dinners, concerts and serving as front-and-center witnesses to each other’s fruitful careers (his on the ascent, hers already long established) — in short, about as complete a friendship as a gay man and a straight woman 40 years his senior can have.
The tragic element in this “Account of a Passionate Friendship” (as the book is subtitled) derives from the presence of Aziz Yehia, Callow’s Egyptian-Turkish lover. Although Callow describes the relationship as a “tragic minage ` trois,” it’s clear that Yehia was a supporting player who just happened to be around, and his presence in the book is shadowy at best. While his personal story, as Callow recounts it, is truly sad, its most emblematic aspect is the minor role to which he was relegated in the Simon and Peggy Show.
Callow and Ramsay first met in 1980, when he paid a visit to her office to get a copy of a play script he wanted to perform on the BBC. As he was introducing himself, she startled him by interrupting, apropos of nothing, “Tell me, do you think Ayckbourn will ever write a really GOOD play?” Thus the whirlwind friendship began. Ramsay quickly fell in love with Callow, and Callow fell in love with Ramsay’s charisma, her ilan, her eminently quotable remarks, her subtle and profound wisdom. When they weren’t together, they wrote each other letters full of gossip, humor, recriminations and declarations of love, sometimes at the rate of several a day, until Ramsay’s death in 1991.
Callow is frank about the ups and downs of loving a woman who was hopelessly in love with him. Her jealousy of the various men in his life and the futility of her physical desire for him sometimes wreaked havoc on their great friendship. There was also her uncompromising honesty to contend with. But he never stinted on his devotion to her, and this book is his last, best gift.
Daniel Reitz, a frequent contributor to Salon, is a writer living in New York. His film "Urbania," based on his play, "Urban Folk Tales," will be released in August. More Daniel Reitz.
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