Leaving A Doll's House: A Memoir

Katharine Whittamore reviews "Leaving A Doll's House: A Memoir" by Claire Bloom.

By Katharine Whittamore

Published October 22, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Curious going, Claire Bloom's controversial new book. It's neither preening, like most celebrity biographies, nor is it particularly insightful, as a good memoir should be. Nonetheless, the subject matter -- Hollywood, the Old Vic, and particularly the purgatory of her experience with Philip Roth--propel you along. We learn of the actress' childhood during the Blitz, including the time the Luftwaffe dropped a circle of land mines around their shelter. So Bloom, her mother and brother--her father, whom she calls Eddie, was a ne'er-do-well who gambled away most of his paychecks--flee to Fort Lauderdale, to wait out the war with mah-jongg-obsessed relatives. There, little Claire wins a singing contest.

After V-E Day, things happen quickly for her: she enrolls in a British performing arts school, falls for Richard Burton in a Gielgud-directed "The Lady's Not for Burning" ("my first--my greatest--love, the only man to whom I have fervently and completely given all of myself"), loses the role of Ophelia to Jean Simmons in Olivier's filmed "Hamlet," and begins her career on the London stage. Charlie Chaplin hears of the 19-year-old talent, and casts her opposite him in "Limelight." She's so young, he literally acts out her part and, "I, obedient and captivated acolyte, would obey and copy everything he did."

Affairs are promenaded. On Olivier, during the shoot for "Richard III": "It was the fascination of the rabbit to the snake ... I was never remotely in love with him." On Yul Brynner, when she was lonely in Hollywood: "Peering deeply into my eyes, Yul would say to me: 'You are my people.' I didn't have the slightest idea what he meant, but I loved it anyway." On Anthony Quinn, during a botched Tennessee Williams play: he "proceeded then to seduce me, and I complied. My mistake, his power trip."

After Quinn, Bloom finds safe harbor in marriage to Rod Steiger--she got pregnant with their daughter Anna, and he did the honorable thing. From there it's marriage number two to megalomaniacal producer Hilliard Elkins, so disliked by Anna he is nicknamed "The Unmentionable." After that comes Roth, who reads like such a mind-game spinning brute, he fairly blisters the pages. They're certainly a pair--she fears abandonment and he fears smothering. Bloom's pal Gore Vidal proved prescient: "'You have already had Portnoy's complaint,' proclaimed Vidal firmly, referring of course to my marriage to Elkins. 'Do not involve yourself with Portnoy.'"

Of course she does, for 17 years, and a third of the book. Someone with more self-knowledge would have left long before. That someone would also have written a more trenchant, less gauzy book.

Katharine Whittamore

MORE FROM Katharine Whittamore

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Memoirs